Posted: July 30, 2015 in Uncategorized




Posted: June 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

青玉案 憶宋亡












[Note: This blogpost was modified from my debate with Skepsikyma : http://www.debate.org/debates/Music-Battle/10/]

Zhuang Zhou, better known by the title of Zhuangzi, was the second greatest philosopher of the Daoist school, after the founder Laozi. Greatly revered by generations of followers of the Daoist tradition, Zhuang Zhou’s philosphy has inspired numerous works of art, including a piece by Song Dynasty guqin master Mao Minzhong, Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream.

The piece itself is a peaceful reverie, which is evident to the listener from the first handful of notes, which set the tone and mood of the piece. The piece picks up after a couple of glissandi, yet remains tranquil in mood throughout. On occasion, one can hear traces of emotional intensity, yet this is always followed by a subsequent, gradual return to peace.

I shall, however, refrain from over-interpreting the piece with my own views, and instead present to the reader only the information necessary to understand it fully. Therefore, I will post here the passage from Zhuangzi on which the piece was based:


Although written in Classical Chinese, the passage is not difficult to understand. Here is my translation:

In the past, Zhuang Zhou dreamt that he was a butterfly, a lively butterfly. He told himself that he was happy, and had not a worry in the world. He knew no Zhuang Zhou. Abruptly he awoke, and suddenly, he was Zhuang Zhou again. Yet was it Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt of being a butterfly, or is it now a butterfly who is dreaming of being Zhuang Zhou? Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly, there must be one thing that separates them: It is transformation.

This paragraph is the last of the second chapter of Zhuangzi, Qiwu Lun, or On the Sameness of Things, which posits that all things are one. It concludes the concept very well. All things are one; what separates one thing from the other is transformation. A rational person might point out that it was Zhuangzi who turned into a butterfly in his dreams, and not vice versa, but how do we know exactly? When Zhuangzi turned into a butterfly in his dreams and knew no Zhuang Zhou, was he also a butterfly?

According to Daoist thought, it is only the most spiritually developed man who can see through the barrier between dream and reality, regard all things as one, and forget what we call ‘self’. In one world, he was a butterfly; in the other world, he was Zhuang Zhou. The butterfly was joyous, without a worry in the world, and belonged to the realm of spirituality; Zhuang Zhou was human, had to deal with worldly affairs, and belonged to the realm of man.

In the words of Moni Tianhong, one of the foremost guqin masters of our times, to master this piece, one must be able to ‘[…] Ride on the winds across the massive void, to transform in the same rhythm as the heavens and the earth, and to be one with all things.’ This is demonstrated in the video, by an anonymous performer whose work we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy through YouTube.


In The Shadows of the Dark Dream, a collection of essays from the Qing Dynasty, writer Zhang Chao wrote that Zhuang Zhou becoming a butterfly was a blessing for Zhuang Zhou, but the butterfly becoming Zhuang Zhou was a curse for the butterfly. This is sadly true. Transforming into a butterfly rid Zhuang Zhou of all his worldly worries, but transforming into Zhuang Zhou robbed the butterfly of its peace and tranquility. So, too, was the butterfly who wrote this piece robbed of his piece and tranquility. After dedicated his life to performing, collecting and composing guqin works, Mao Minzhong went to Beijing for a place in government, the greatest honour for any scholar in Imperial China. He failed, and passed away in Beijing. One can hope that in his eternal rest, he will again transform into a butterfly, and roam the realm of spirituality forever.

  法國作曲名家拉威爾(Maurice Ravel)是愛國者。當年普林西普的子彈射穿斐迪南大公的脖子,歐洲局勢的骨牌一同倒下,燃起了那場「終止一切戰爭的戰爭」的熊熊烽火;峰火燒到法國,拉威爾得知國家大難當前,不理親友極力勸阻,奮不顧身申請參軍。拉威爾雖體無大礙,可畢竟不是戰壕裏抗敵的材料,參軍被拒無可奈何之下,唯有赴戰地醫院義務撫養傷兵,後來改任戰線貨車司機:「然而我是個和平主義者;我素來不是勇不可當的人。可是:我卻對歷險產生了好奇心。」(Et pourtant je suis pacifique; je n’ai jamais été courageux. Mais voilà : j’ai eu la curiosité de l’aventure.) 好奇心終化成對生靈塗炭的憐憫和對轟轟砲火的憤恨:「噫!那些愚昧之輩糊塗的悲觀主義……那狹隘的自我中心主義,那些鼠目寸光的見解……微弱的呼喊使我心靈不安:是可憐小鼠誤墮捕鼠器的聲音。」(Oh le pessimisme stupide de ces imbéciles … cet égoïsme borné, ces opinions de taupes … de petits cris me dérangent : c’est une pauvre souris qui s’est prise au piège du rat.)

  一九一七年,拉威爾因病被免去司機職務,埋首音樂創作。《庫普蘭之墓》(Le tombeau de Couperin)的六個樂章分別獻給一戰中遇難的七位同胞。前奏曲此起彼落,雙手旋律作乘風破浪之狀,抑揚頓挫有方;賦格曲旋律優雅,平靜而幽邃;Forlane舞曲開首的「不和諧音程」為這義大利曲式添上幾分鬼氣,貴冑色彩卻始終不改;Rigaudon舞曲的音符生奔活跳,強勁硬朗的重音與輕巧細膩的跳音如樸素迷離的雙兔,在普羅旺斯的薰衣草花田裏追逐;小步舞曲的古典旋律中鑲有幾點悲情;托卡塔曲的輕音錯落有致,炫技的尾段放射閃耀的光輝卻也不失巴洛克的格律。拉威爾沿襲了祖師庫普蘭(François Couperin)和恩師福雷(Gabriel Fauré,又譯「佛瑞」)那種法式曲風,輕描淡寫,含蓄典雅;簡約曼妙的音符背後卻飽藏一戰苦難的悲愴情調,恍如八仙中的何仙姑:嫻淑的姿態掩不住失去丈夫的斷腸之痛。

  相較之下,德式浪漫主義的激情高漲,豪邁奔放,與法式含蓄恰成天淵之別。德式浪漫的先驅貝多芬曾奉拿破崙為救國英雄,拿破崙稱帝後,貝氏始知人心叵測。一八零九年,法皇率兵攻打維也納,奧帝胞弟魯道夫大公被迫離城逃難,摯友貝多芬含淚譜下西洋音樂史上首屈一指的別離曲:《第二十六號鋼琴奏鳴曲「告別」》(Les adieux)第一樂章。貝多芬三十二首鋼琴奏鳴曲中,只有《告別》和早期巨著《第八號鋼琴奏鳴曲「悲愴」》(Pathétique)屬主題音樂。《悲愴》寫成時貝多芬才二十出頭,第一樂章左手的震音與右手響亮的和弦兩兩營造出激情的憤慨;素來只見於歌劇的感情表達手法,盡數收錄於短短十分鐘的樂章裏;作曲造詣之精深可謂舉世無雙,然而初出茅廬的貝多芬也難逃「少年不識愁滋味」之嫌。反觀《告別》的主體,竟是柔美的旋律和輕快的大調互相穿插織成的天衣。隨著樂章的推進,輕快的大調蛻變成激昂的和弦。血脈僨張的激情稍縱即逝,瞬間又化作柔美的旋律,正合杜詩裏那苦口婆心的忠告:「莫自使眼枯,收汝淚縱橫」!



  宋襄公與楚人戰於涿谷上,宋人既成列矣,楚人未及濟,右司馬購強趨而諫曰:「楚人眾而宋人寡,請使楚人半涉未成列而擊之,必敗。」襄公曰:「寡人聞君子曰:不重傷,不擒二毛,不推人於險,不迫人於阨,不鼓不成列。今楚未濟而擊之,害義。請使楚人畢涉成陣而後鼓士進之。」右司馬曰:「君不愛宋民,腹心不完,特為義耳。」公曰:「不反列,且行法。」右司馬反列,楚人已成列撰陣矣,公乃鼓之,宋人大敗,公傷股,三日而死,此乃慕自親仁義之禍。夫必恃人主之自躬親而後民聽從,是則將令人主耕以為上,服戰鴈行也民乃肯耕戰,則人主不泰危乎?而人臣不泰安乎? --《韓非子.外儲說左上》




  然則騎士思想,在中國人眼裏迂腐可笑,在外國人眼裡卻不然。中國人教條不少,例如守孝三年、長幼有序,這些原則都以道德人倫作基礎。外國人的騎士守則,尋根究底源於「榮譽」(honour)一詞。違反了守則,你就丟了聲名,毀了榮譽;為秉承原則而殉身,你就丟了性命,留了千古美譽。不啻騎士如此,西方社會普遍亦如此。西人幹了什麼殘害生靈的滔天惡行,不是「unbenevolent」(不仁),不是「unrighteous」(不義),而是「dishonorable」或者「a disgrace」,自毀名聲。所以,維繫社會秩序的是個人榮譽,不是仁義道德。


Both of Beethoven’s two piano sonatas, Op. 27, bore the subtitle of ‘Quasi una fantasia‘, or ‘almost a fantasy’. Nevertheless, it is the lesser-known No. 1 that became known by this name, for the popular, misunderstood and rather hackneyed second sonata has taken the title of ‘Moonlight’. It was the music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, in his 1824 novel Theodor, bestowed this name on the first movement of the piece. He was not the first to associate the piece with the night: Czerny, one of Beethoven’s most successful students, called it a ‘night scene’.

There is no evidence that Beethoven had moonlight in mind. In fact, Czerny likely got the nocturnal associations from his friend Field, who invented the nocturne. Czerny, himself a prolific composer of the genre, would not be unfamiliar with its characteristic style – cantabile melody, broken-chord accompaniment – which is heard throughout the first movement of Op. 27 No. 2.

By prescribing the mood of the piece, Czerny and Rellstab have unwittingly stripped the sonata of an important element: That of a fantasia. A fantasia is a piece that breaks free from restrictions, flouts convention and lets ideas flow naturally from the mind and sentiments from the heart. Thanks to Czerny and Rellstab, every time a pianist plays the piece, she thinks of moonlight over a lake, instead of engaging the imagination that is an integral part of a fantasia. Even if the interpreter does not have lunar intentions (or deliberately avoids holding them), the listener cannot but feel there is, for we have been instilled since an early age the notion that the sonata is about the moon.

Music is an art. What is art? Art is a way of expressing ideas that leaves room for interpretation. It is not the artist’s job – lesser still, the job of interpreters – to fill in every detail, capture exact ideas, and tell the audience – reader, listener, theatregoer, admirer of fine arts – what to think. The greatest masters do not weave ‘seamless celestial robes’ (天衣無縫); to use a Cantonese phrase, when you draw a figure, you don’t have to draw in the intestines, too (唔洗畫公仔畫出腸). This poem from Li Qingzhao is an example:


Last night a sprinkling of rain, a violent wind. After a deep sleep, still not recovered from the lingering effect of wine, I inquired of the one rolling up the screen; But the answer came: “The cherry-apple blossoms are still the same.” “Oh, don’t you know, don’t you know? The red must be getting thin, while the green is becoming plump.”

(Translation courtesy of Lucy Chao Ho, Seton Hall University)

Who was the soul who rolled up the screen? Some say her deceased husband; some say a servant girl. Some say he was a figment of the poet’s imagination. We will never know, nor do we need to know. Generations of interpreters can decide for themselves. For the same reason, I prefer listening to Op. 27 No. 1 rather than its celebrated sibling. I cannot escape from Rellstab’s moonlight.











  我認識窗前的「龍園」。那裏曾是灰塵廢氣飛揚的停車場。龍園落成當時是二零零七年暑假,香港回歸十周年,我是九七娃娃,順理成章參加了那個植樹活動,龍園挺拔的樹木間想必也有一株是跟我有關的,只是忘了是哪一株。我認識元朗。外婆去世前,住在元朗一家老人院,爸媽常帶我去元朗探望外婆。外婆離去,我和元朗斷了兩年的緣分,中一卻考進了元朗鄉中。這五年我徜徉於天水圍和元朗市之間,來往兩區的道路,也瞭如指掌。我認識香港的歷史。中二時曾對港史產生濃厚興趣,看過不少港史的書,至今還記得一二。我認識香港的地理。中五地理科教「Dynamic Earth」單元,香港的岩石、地貌和我一見如故,頓成了我的摯友。



The Evils of Wordiness

Posted: December 23, 2013 in Language Talk
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George Orwell is best known for his politically-oriented novel 1984 and the equally polemical Animal Farm. Perhaps unbeknownst to most, he also wrote six simple rules for effective writing. These oft-quoted principles are the tenets of good communication, and should always be held dear:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Granted, it not always wise to abide by these rules in the examination hall. A 5** student must flaunt such phrases as ‘put the cart before the horse’ and ‘beard the lion in his den’ in his or her writing. There is perhaps no geography teacher that will encourage the fifth rule, for ‘strata’ is always superior to ‘layers’, and ‘ecological equilibrium’ to ‘natural balance’. In fact, the fourth rule is not always true: the passive voice, in the right situations, enhance the writing. In the same essay where he introduced the rules, he wrote, ‘you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious’.

Exceptions notwithstanding, these general rules should be held close to our hearts every time we pick up our pens. Blithe disregard of these rules is a crime. This quote from an ICT textbook is a case in point:

On some occasions, using graphics is usually a more effective means of communication than using text only. Common examples of graphics include: photographs, drawings, line art, diagrams and, maps, etc.

Heavens! This excerpt is not only wordy and redundant, but also self-contradictory – the frequency indicators ‘on some occasions’ and ‘usually’ are semantically distinct. Here is my version:

Graphics often communicate more effectively than pure text. Examples of graphics include photographs, line art, diagrams and maps.

A cut of 1/3 of the words may seem inconsequential, but would you rather read a 200-page book or a 300-page one with the same content?

Maybe some will argue that non-fiction authors are not obligated to write like Orwell. That is not true; even scientific literature can be written well. Consider this quote from A Geography of Hong Kong:

Hong Kong, despite its limited area of 1,060 km2, shows marked spatial variations in relief and topography. To some extent this reflects the diversity in its assemblage of landforms and associated features. Within relatively short distances the change of relief is not only frequent but is also quite abrupt. Rugged hills on upland terrains contrast with the level grounds of the valley floors from which the terrains rise steeply. Remnants of the staircase-like erosion surfaces providing breaks of slope survive side by side with plunging slope profiles. Pocket interfluvial basins sandwiched between projecting shoulders of ranges overlook the open, less contracted, low-lying flood plains. Relief features of these contrasting categories thus emphasise the third dimension of the topography.

Crisp, concise, and crystal clear. If all our textbooks were written like this, I doubt Hong Kong’s TOEFL scores would still lag behind Japan and Korea.


Posted: December 23, 2013 in 書海浮沉
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