Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Thai Epic

This year Santa brought me a gift card for a bookstore (always a good thing). My list, as usual, is long, and
includes several jazz CDs by Lage Lund and Rez Abbasi, and director Chatrichalerm Yukol's epic Thai movie Kingdom of War, but I will almost certianly use it to buy the Baker/Phongpaichit translation of The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen. It's been described as 'a love story, set against a background of war, and ending in high tragedy' filled with 'comedy, tragedy, love, sex, war, magic, honor, infamy, gallantry, and treachery', 'a dozen Shakespeare plays rolled into one, with a rich vein of Arthurian romance to boot'. Just what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Judge Bao

I first became aware of Judge Bao, the Song dynasty magistrate, in the 90s. I was one of the musicians in a Beijing Opera Judge Bao performance, part of an intensive months-long training program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I was able to work firsthand with professional teachers from China. It was a great experience, but to be honest, what struck me at the time was just how incredibly loud Chinese percussion instruments are. As a plucked-string player, I had to sit right in front of them. I’d been exposed to loud before, but this was one of the loudest, perhaps (along with Kathakali and Stevie Ray Vaughn) one of the top three loudest things I’ve ever experienced.

Recently, however, I’ve experienced good nostalgia. I’ve come across several Judge Bao stories, and what’s striking is the various ways these stories are presented. For those who want to stick to the more novel-oriented experience, there’s ‘Tales of Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants’. This is a translation of an 1879 Chinese novel derived from the oral narrative attributed to the Qing storyteller Shi Yukum. Similarly, ‘The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants’ is another novel about Judge Bao and his men who solve crimes, rescue maidens and pretty much seek justice anywhere and everywhere.

Closer to the source (and therefor of much more interest, at least to me) is ‘Judge Bao and the Rule of Law’, a series of eight ballad-stories on Judge Bao, dating from the period 1250-1450. These ballad-stories, the oral narratives on which later novels were based, are more straightforward, the experience more distinct, like reading Robin Hood ballads as opposed to movie tie-ins. There’s also an early Chinese play ‘Rescriptor-in-Waiting Bao Thrice Investigates the Butterfly Dream’ in the collection ‘Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals’.

Another way to experience Judge Bao is ‘Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix’, a graphic novel of his adventures. It’s important to keep your standards high when choosing a graphic novel to read, and this one looks to be quality work.

Finally, in the movie/TV section, there’s ‘Judge Bao’ and ‘The Return of Judge Bao.’ There are many more, no doubt. My guess is that watching these would be roughly analogous to watching Chinese versions of ‘Bonanza’, but I could be wrong. I hope to find a subtitled jingju (Beijing Opera) video, but if there are any out there, I haven’t come across them yet.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Water Margin

I'm only eleven episodes into the 2010 Chinese TV serialization of the epic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and already I'm contemplating the next epic series, "Water Margin". Also refered to as 'Outlaws of the Marsh' or 'All Men Are Brothers', WM is a much different experience than RoTK. RoTK is an incredibly tangled web of intrigue and overlapping strategies, with many battles and sieges. WM, meanwhile, is more of a series of short stories, Robin Hood-like kung fu stories. A very different read. From the clips I've seen, the TV series, like RoTK, has very high standards in production, acting and, of course, fighting choreography.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Afghanistan: Tamim Ansary’s “Games without Rules"

Next on my list of audiobook listenings is Tamim Ansary’s “Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan”. I recently met several men and women from Afghanistan, and wonder about their history. Most of my knowledge of the region comes from Kipling, to be honest. It will be interesting to hear another side of the area’s history.

My interest in the ‘other side’ goes way back. My love of original sources brought me to Islamic chronicles of the Crusades (Arabic historians saw things differently, of course, and were often surprisingly fair in their assessments). I then started reading Turkish chronicles to get the Ottoman version of things. The Mongols, Japanese oral histories of World War II… All interesting, even enlightening.

I enjoyed very much Ansary’s “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes”. Ansary’s writing is very clear and even-handed, straightforward and thought-provoking. I may even search out “The Widow's Husband”, his historical novel set in 19th century Afghanistan. Ansary tells a good story, and it would be interesting to read the story of the British occupation from the Afghan side.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' TV Series

I begin most days these days by watching a fifteen-minute segment of the 2010 Chinese TV drama 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' on Youtube. This is an epic undertaking. There are close to a hundred episodes, a little short of one hour each. At fifteen minutes a day that amounts to...well, you do the math. Many, many days.

I'm not suffering, of course. It's a great story, and the acting, production values, etc, are all top notch. This version is different from the 1994 TV series in that it focuses much more on Cao Cao (the antagonist? Anti-hero?). It's still early going, so the perspective may change before long.

Generally speaking, I prefer reading to watching, but about an eighth of the way through RoTK I get lost in the blur of names (most of the many characters have two names, which doesn't help). The 2010 series follows very closely the original text, and is a big help in making sense of this awesome and complex classic.