Batten Down the Hatches: The Thesis Saga

The date has been set. The time has come. After all of the preparation and all of the hours at work, I’m ready.

I’m actually going to start writing my thesis.

Well, at least I will on Tuesday. First, I’m going to go to Shanghai for a “Battle of the Bards” poetry competition and a translation master class, and then I’m going to figure out how to publish a booklet of poetry for the HZ Writer’s Association, and then I’m going to veg all day because it’ll be my birthday on Monday…and then I’ll start. So, I’ll get there eventually, right?


“Eventually” has taken a long time up until now, though. Just last year, I was doing my thesis proposal, quickly realizing that since I hadn’t been able to read all of the materials in time, I was in no shape to spit out a paper. Since I’m on a 3-year scholarship, though, I didn’t have to just yet, and so for the past YEAR I have been re-collecting and actually reading the materials in greater detail.

And then, right when I was at the brink of insanity (actually laughing out loud at how some scholars can take a simple idea and make it pedantic beyond comprehension…seriously, I’m reading a science fiction book IN CHINESE and can understand it better than some English scholarly articles and their muscle-flexing thesaurus skills) I thought “enough of this” and made a comprehensive outline, slapping my sources into categories and said “I’m coming for you.”

On Tuesday, that is.

You want to know what my thesis is about? No you don’t. It’s complex. It involves translating E. E. Cummings’ visual poetry. I’ve read about oracle bone Chinese script. I’ve discovered that celebrated poet Ezra Pound sometimes signed letters as “Ez’ Po”. I’ve discovered some genuinely hilarious scholars low-key sassing each other in their “he said this but I disagree” sections, and I found a scholar who called Cummings’ letter-writing skills “linguistic jabberwocky.”

All you really need to know is that I’ve got my thesis cornered now, and am ready to batten down the hatches for the next round. What is that, you (maybe didn’t) ask?

Actually writing it in Chinese.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.


A Thousand Ways to Write Longevity

As we visited the Qiao Family Courtyard in Shanxi, our guide stopped us in front of a wall of the oldest-style of Chinese characters, all written in gilded metal. They all curved differently, and formed a solid rectangle of what I thought would be a poem or a short essay from imperial times.

In fact, all of the characters were the same: 寿, (shou) which means longevity.


You can see that some of them curve as if heavy, some arch back as if in a dance, and some stretch outward as if, like the word they represent, they seek to live on beyond their ink. But no matter the shape, the meaning is the same.

It fits well with Qiao’s Family Courtyard, which is one of many historical places to see in Shanxi. Built by a powerful merchant family in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (and made famous by the Zhang Yimou movie “Raise the Red Lantern”), it certainly goes back a long ways. Empress Cixi escaped behind its walls during the Opium Wars. There are metal statues of foreigners trading with Chinese merchants along a newly-paved sidewalk, and inside, the winding courtyards where generations of mistresses lived for the Qiao family. The entire complex is shaped like 喜喜,which is a traditional sign for ‘happiness,’ and yet there are carvings of trains in the beams from when a son studied abroad and saw what he considered the future of industry.

Qiao’s Family Courtyard is a classic, and yet it has found its way into the modern world. Here, I can’t help but think back to that wall of Chinese characters, and the permutations of that one word, over and over again, until forever and again.

In Shanxi, so much of old China is embedded into the dirt and the stone that it’s just like that wall: no matter how many generations or versions of a single character, the tradition lives on. There are a thousand ways to write longevity, and each one as exciting as the next.