Amy Tan's "Rules for Virgins"

A quick read.

Amy Tan’s Rules for Virgins is a short work of fiction published by the prolific Chinese-American writer. Published as part of the Byliner series, Rules for Virgins—like other books in the series—are works of fiction and nonfiction that are supposed to be read in a single sitting. Other famous writers who contributed to this collection are Jon Krakauer and Ann Patchett.

The novella tells the story of a courtesan in Shanghai in 1912. She is still a virgin, but soon her virginity will be sold to the highest bidder. She is being counseled by an older woman who tells her how to please men while retaining her dignity and status as a valuable courtesan. The entirety of the work consists of the older courtesan giving rules to the younger courtesan, hence the name of the book.

The book’s purpose seemed to be to examine the dichotomous nature of proper Chinese society. Men took wives because that was their duty, but they also turned to courtesans to perform more lascivious acts. The courtesan must pretend that she is of the highest society, but still she is paid for her services. He must perform traditional courting rituals such as buying a courtesan a fine necklace, but then must pay her for her services, of course, as well.

I was certainly surprised by the lewdness of Tan’s work. I’ve read a number of her novels before, including her famous The Joy Luck Club, and she is known for exploring relationships between Chinese mothers living in the United States and their Chinese-American daughters. While a number of her works depict graphically violent episodes or sexually disturbing themes, none of them go into as much sexual detail as did Rules for Virgins. The novel discussed possible apparatuses, positions and kinks to great detail. I certainly hoped that my seatmate on the plane on which I was reading the novel wouldn’t look over!

Additionally, the book is rather difficult to conceptualized because it acts as a long monologue from an aging courtesan to a younger courtesan. Tan has worked in this style before—her book The Kitchen God’s Wife is all a monologue from mother to daughter—but it’s quite unbelievable if you think about it too long.

Certainly, this short novella isn’t the first Amy Tan novel that you should read. It gives some insight into the shifting culture in early-20th century China and is briefly titillating, but Tan’s longer novels are more memorable both in length and in substance.

Are you a fan of Amy Tan’s work? Are you surprised by her publication of Rules for Virgins?


The Methods of Ssu-ma

A Review



 Several weeks ago, Ralph D. Sawyer's and Mei-chün Sawyer's The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China and the text of T'ai Kung's Six Secret Teachings was the selection chosen. This week The Methods of the Ssu-ma is the shorter and strategic text of choice. In the case of strategy, and especially in the case of Chinese strategy, there are times when shorter is better. Shorter texts tend to employ fewer examples and scenarios taking less time to read; however, without these additional helps the text can quickly become enigmatic.

        Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer provide an excellent introduction and notes.  Their knowledge on the subject matter is extensive and any would be enigmas are rapidly broken. As for being merely an "academic" text, this text is associated and plays a part in key moments and movements in Chinese imperial and social history. The Methods original composition date is uncertain though it would appear it was in its basic current form as early as the 4th century B.C.E. "Ssu-ma" means "cavalry/horse master" and is the title long associated with The Methods, and unfortunately the Chinese characters used leave the actual and historical identity of the author unknown.

        Despite the unknown authorship of the text the various methods here once again lend themselves to a wide variety of applications in both society and individual lives.  Some methods that Ssu-ma discusses are familiar ones: counseling orthodox tactics when in possession of an orthodox (large force) army, unorthodox tactics when possessing an unorthodox (or small) force and when to press an advantage in a situation in order to achieve victory and success.

        Introducing and underlying all of these military discussions is a very literary and philosophical theme that finds its echoes in Confucian thought as well as in Taoism.  The presentation of material follows this introduction and salute to the greater ideas of humanity and the relationship of humanity towards those ideas/ideals.  The foundation for success according to The Methods, begins with a proper understanding of ideas and utilizing them in conjunction with the other methods.  A quick read, that repays twice the time invested.





A Review of "Two Zen Classics"

A Translation by Katsuki Sekida
 Zen Buddhism is a particular format of Buddhism that was arrived at by the Chinese and Indian exchange during the centuries prior to the Mongol invasion. Practiced around the world and becoming much more familiar to western civilization through a variety of media formats. For many hundreds of years, scholars, monks, merchants, and ambassadors traveled between the countries expanding learning, providing spiritual insight, increasing trade and entertaining cordial dialogues as well as peaceful relations. In this time period the two texts found in Two Zen Classics  were composed. The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records were translated and annotated by teacher Katsuki Sekida.
       These classics use a series of koans or "cases" presenting issues to students in a variety of different formats. Poetry, short anecdotes, narratives, dialogues--all form a part of the distinct and unique literature of Zen.  These koans illustrate messages, lessons, and ideas that are arrived at by the student themselves. The inherent message is not explicitly stated, but the mental images, tools, situations and dialogues provide the basis for arriving at the message.  Mr. Sekida provides an excellent introduction that makes many of the difficulties of understanding and exploring Zen, easier to overcome.
       The commentary and notes Mr. Sekida wrote are poignant and clear. The text unfolds through his careful introduction of philosophical concepts, everyday activities and the overall presentation of the cultural ideas native to Zen.  The poetry included with many of the koans is effortless and minimal, providing a seamless series of images and ideas in order to arrive at the awareness and presence of mind in Zen.  The overall impression of the book is that it provides valuable material for personal growth as well as a unique view of Chinese civilization and culture within its statements and practices.

A Review of "Gems of Chinese Literature"

A Rich Collection of Chinese Literary Arts



Gems of Chinese Literature was translated, selected and edited by Herbert A. Giles in 1884. These gems are one of the early "literary prospecting" works of the late 19th century in which English speaking audiences were given some of their very first views of the vast literature in the Chinese language. The selections cover a huge swath of Chinese history beginning with their beginning of their "classics" with the great K'ung Fu-tzu (Confucius).

    This particular volume has a nice balance between philosophical/practical essays, historical, didactic, literary stories, and poetic works.  The selections are remarkably short, and easy to read translations that have brief introductions.  The selections are by emotional as well as intellectually calculated and stimulating. The author has also included several small surveys of literary periods and their place within Chinese mainstream history in addition to a short preface.  There is also a "Miscellaneous" section, in addition to the index, where the author has included some household words, proverbs and other fragments.  

    Due in part to China's long-standing literary and scholastic examination process (stretching back thousands of years), it is easy to see a large number of the selections included as possible entries from candidates for degreed credentials and entry into the administrative system used by most Chinese Emperors, the Mongols and other successful nomadic/steppe raiders and conquerors. Amid the many works represented, there runs the strong current of Confucian values and thought system due to the large emphasis placed upon them by the examinations and society.  The individual expressions and modes of expression of the values are interesting as the author included the selections in chronological order and allows the reader to view the changing taste and inherent subtlety of Chinese thought.

    This early volume of translated texts is incredibly accessible to those new to Chinese literature.  It may perhaps open new paths of literary exploration for those already more familiar with Chinese literature.  Gems of Chinese Literature also casts its own glow of fascination with English and Western historical views of China, the continent of Asia, and how people have sought to better understand each other through mutually beneficial cultural studies.




A Review of T'ai Kung's "Six Secret Teachings"

From "The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China" translated By Ralph D. Sawyer


     T'ai Kung's Six Secret Teachings is the first of The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, a collection of texts translated by Ralph D. Sawyer with Mei-chün Sawyer.  According to the author, these seven military classics are widely available in the East, the material forming a plethora of additional translations, and published editions. In addition, according to the translator, many businesses, businesspeople, countries, and individuals around the world use many of the principles presented in the overall Seven Military Classics.

      The introduction to the volume provides a great deal of insight into the history, politics and civilization of the Chinese.  The initial introduction also provides an essential guide to gain better insights into the wide variety of themes, styles of strategy, and ideas presented. In addition to the initial introduction there are also individual introductions tailored to each text.  The volume also provides extensive appendixes for further exploration, copious notes, bibliography, indexes, and glossary with Chinese symbolic terms translated into English. 


        This first text of Sawyer's translations is of T'ai Kung's Six Secret Teachings that was written long after Sun-tzu's Art of War.  In fact, by the mention of various technological methods it is fairly safe to assume that warfare, its methods, and techniques was already quite old by Chinese standards at the time that the manual was written.  The manual of T'ai Kung's strategies is presented in the form of a dialogue between old King Wen and his sage military and civilian counselor, T'ai Kung. 


         The dialogue between King and advisor is a collection of their purported dialogues throughout their respective careers. There is, of course, the emphasis on military instructions however they are discussed in a manner that quickly lends their strategies to be employed in other sectors of life. Taoism figures prominently in this particular strategy manual and so their is discussion also of civilian life and the ordering of the state, the military camp, and also the mind necessary to be a king.  To quickly illustrate one of the possible side applications: the various systems of punishments and rewards for civilians and soldiers appears very useful not just to the military but also to business corporations (and their need to motivate workers and increase their efficiency). Many of international corporations have already applied these concepts and more than likely more companies will continue to do so in the future.  There are a variety of strategies and methods that do not actually involve violence whatsoever.  These particularly nonviolent strategies are best suited for developing plans that individuals and businesses can also use as they pursue the wide variety of their goals.


         What is most remarkable about T'ai Kung's strategies is the extensive use of "unorthodox" methods in order to achieve victory. Orthodox methods being, in some ways the traditional western way of war where frontal assault, masses of troops and weaponry are used on a wide front.  To contrast these traditional western ways, T'ai Kung reveals "unorthodox" methods that involve feigning weakness, when no weakness is present; or retreating in order to draw the opponent onwards and into a trap.  It is in particular the "unorthodox" methods that could be quickly applied to any sort of competitive situation from warfare between countries to the warfare in the boardroom or perhaps even to the warfare of the bedroom.  This is a fascinating read.  

My First Book of Mandarin Chinese Words

My daughter loves to pick out books from the “My First Book of” series. We don’t always learn many words, but she really enjoys reading through the terms—particularly to see how to say common phrases and animal names in the different languages—and hearing how they are pronounced. Her favorite, so far, is the Spanish book, but we just picked up My First Book of Mandarin Chinese Words this weekend, so that may change!

Wood Sprite has already been picking up a tiny bit of Mandarin from the show Ni Hao Kai-Lan, which she used to love. She’s sort of outgrown it now—her favorite show is The Magic School Bus now—but her interest in language continues. Like the other books in the “My First Book of” series, which are also known as bilingual picture dictionaries, Katy R. Kudela’s book lists depicts a real photo of each term introduced, along with the word in Mandarin and a pronunciation for readers to follow. Unlike our Spanish book, however, Mandarin is obviously written in Chinese characters, which my daughter has, so far, found very interesting. She’s even tried to copy a couple of them in her journal.

A quick pronunciation guide is provided at the beginning of the book, which is incredibly helpful since it’s hard for many Westerners to pronounce sounds like “ui,” as “way,” or “zh” as “dge.” Since Spanish was the only other language I learned, I tend to try to use that as a pronunciation guide, and of course that’s wrong!

There is also a helpful table of contents at the beginning of the book, which is great because my daughter always wants to go to the animals or farm section first. You will find bright, full-colored photos of a family, the body, clothing, toys, areas of the home, colors, the garden, and many more things your child is likely to experience in his or her community. In fact, city words, as well as classroom items, are also included, as are numbers and useful phrases.

So far, my biggest challenge with this book is the pronunciation. I would recommend practicing the pronunciation on your own—or even looking up the words together on the computer with a language tool, or even a YouTube video—in order to truly get the sounds right. Then you’ll be able to read through the book together and really enjoy trying out the new words. Who knows, you might even end up using them in your daily conversation!

Li Po (Li Bai), Poet, "One of the Eight Immortals of The Wine Cup"

An Exploration Review

"I call myself the Green Lotus Man;

I am a spirit exiled from the upper blue....."

     This was Li Po (also transliterated as "Li Bai") speaking in verse "On Being Asked Who He Is (poem 41)", and as I first encountered this serene giant of Chinese poetry and culture who lived around thirteen hundred years ago and is ranked, at least among some Chinese, as one of the greatest poets of all time; I thought of the comparisons.  By some historians, he is compared to English poetry greats such as Keats, and to the Chinese we are told he is known as one of the "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup".  A man of diverse careers-at one time poet, Taoist, court poet, hunted outlaw, errant knight of Chinese chivalry, a frequenter of taverns, known to women, wishing to be better known to women, then wanderer, war refugee, exiled, given amnesty and allowed to return and pass away (in a variety of different ways according to legends).

     As I read each translation, I wished my skill with the language itself were greater because here was a poet's verse that was the essence of his subject.  The language itself is the essence of what it comes to represent through the pictographic relationships.  Therefore, it is incredibly difficult to translate without oversimplification.  The particular translation that I read was by Shigeyoshe Obata, first published in 1923 and now a part of the public domain.  Mr. Obata made sure to state in his introduction that he had taken artistic liberties in the English translation due to these difficulties and the result is a magnificent rendering of verse usually unrhymed, and free verse oriented in its poetic explorations. 

    These poems are brief and depending on how they are viewed, several could fit to a page.  Capturing the essence of the moment and the use of evocative imagery are traits given a high premium.   Mr. Obata's translation does an excellent job of depicting for an English oriented audience the opportunity to partake in the spontaneous yet disciplined, control of Li Bai/Li Po's poetic achievements.  Each poem has just the right balance of elements and so maintains itself perfectly even in translation.  I look on Li Bai/Li Po's poems, as others look on gems, gold, or credit cards. 

Tao Teh Ching as Translated by John C.H. Wu

A Brief Historical Impact



        Here in the Tao Teh Ching is an essential text for any student of China's rich cultural or philosophical milieu over any part of its history including contemporary China.  It is a text that has a wide and enduring influence beginning with its origination around the 6th century B.C.E.  It influenced the rise of Confucianism; it has at times been a full-fledged religion or religious movement.  It figures prominently in the Imperial Chinese period and becomes a player of sorts influencing political maneuvers influencing China, the Tibetans, the Koreans, the Xi Xi, and other tribal groups (Jurkans or Turks and the Huns who have significant historical impact on European civilization), hovering on the Mongolian border and towards the steppes surrounding China. 

        In China proper, historical veneration of Taoist shrines continues and new emperors and dynasties are sometimes classified on their stance towards the scholar-test system established based on Confucian standards of literary excellence and influenced by the philosophical thoughts of the time that were influenced by translations of Buddhist texts and the native texts associated with Taoism.  In a more contemporary light, one of the initial identifications of Mao's movement was its stance towards "traditional" Chinese thought and learning methods.  Taoism was one of these thought systems somewhat at variance with the official political and philosophical platform of China in the 20th century.

        The precepts contained in this text are central to these conflicts and have actually resulted in bloodshed on a wide scale on a number of occasions (especially in Imperial history).  The precepts are incredibly significant in that they serve as a set of maxims for leadership, understanding, and as a paradigm through which to view the world and everything that makes up the world.  The significance of these words that are short (in this edition it is 115 pages), and available in over 250 translations in virtually every language of humanity remains for both its practical and spiritual benefits.  

Amy Tan and "The Joy Luck Club"

I watched The Joy Luck Club the other night and I was pleasantly surprised to find a movie nearly as good as the book original. I suppose that I might be partial to short vignettes with a more general coming together point and this movie does it very skillfully. The movie centers around four mothers—all who immigrated to America from China—who play mahjong together in San Francisco, and their grown daughters who face unique challenges as Asian-Americans.

Amy Tan is arguably one of America’s most famous Chinese-American writers. A lot of her writing focuses on the relationship between traditional Chinese mothers living in the United States and their Americanized daughters. She draws inspiration from her own life and that of her own mother—Tan’s mother left an abusive husband and three daughters behind in Shanghai when she moved to the United States.

Tan’s mother’s story seems to serve as baseline for the film The Joy Luck Club, which follows the book accurately (Tan served as the screenwriter for the film, as well). The four mothers each have heartbreaking stories about leaving China—one leaves her twin baby girls under a tree during the World War II, another’s own mother kills herself after being raped and forced to marry a rich man, the third has to escape a strange marriage to a twelve-year-old boy and the last mother is married to an abusive man who has open extramarital affairs. The Chinese stories are beautifully shot and beautifully costumed, and, while I don’t know China, more transporting than most movies I can name.

The movie focuses on Jing-Mei “June” Woo (Ming-Na Wen) whose mother has just died. June never thought that she lived up to her mother’s standards because she couldn’t play the piano well as a child and didn’t pursue an extraordinary career as an adult. Her mother’s friends, some of whom June wouldn’t call friends, have similar communication issues with their mother. June’s nemesis, Waverly, was a chess champion as a child and now is about to marry her boyfriend. Her friend, Lena, is her husband’s secretary, but also trapped in a marriage that demands full financial equality. The last daughter, Rose, marries a white man, but then tries to please him to an extent that she loses herself.

Although the movie received positive reviews, some were disappointed with the movie’s portrayal of Asian men. There aren’t very many sympathetic male characters in the movie at all—white or Asian—besides perhaps June’s father. Like in Tan’s other stories, most of the men in the movie are abusive, adulterers or neglectful. Even the positive male characters aren't fleshed out fully. While this wouldn’t necessarily be problematic in a movie solely portraying white men, there aren’t many Asian representations in popular culture to counteract these stereotypes.

Duras' The Lover

The French writer Maguerite Duras used a lot of autobiographical materials in her fictional work.  And why wouldn’t she?  Born in French Indochina, the land that is now Vietnam, Duras’ father died when she was very young.  Her mother decided to stay in Indochina with her three children and, after a series of bad investments, lost most of her money.  At the age of 15, Duras began an affair with a rich Chinese businessman, a man 17 years her senior.

This affair is the basis for her most famous work, L’Amant or The Lover.  Set in Vietnam, the 15-year old narrative meets a Chinese business mogul on a ferry.  The man offers her a ride home in his limousine, beginning their affair.  The book is significant because of Duras’ autobiographical details as well as her portrayal of Asians.