The First Emperor of China on His Deathbed

Tin Hau Temple_Tung Ping Chau

I sensed death watching me that day.

My mind was a microcosm of the new order:
confidence in human powers,
When a storm of wind
delayed my imperial progress across a mountain,
my displeasure found expression
in all too mortal fury:
I ordered 3000 convicts,
slaves to my every edict,
to denude the hill of all its trees
and to paint it red (red: the colour
it pleased me to dress
the criminal and the condemned in).

Dying two years later, in delirium,
I was tortured by recurring visions
of tender spring green,
of precisely the immortality
I had tried to put to the axe that day.

I felt death touch me.


Photograph: Tin Hau Temple, Tung Ping Chau, Hong Kong

Cantonese through News Stories: Hong Kong’s Latest Number One Scholars

Capture_Outstanding Students_10 JUL 2019

In the book Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong, Edward Stokes writes “Old rural virtues — self-reliance, hardiness, and an abiding respect for learning . . . — characterized the countryside” and these same virtues continue to inspire the extensive media coverage given on a regular basis to the results of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination, as well as those 狀元 johng6 yùhn4 or “Number One Scholars” who manage to achieve outstanding results. This report by TVB’s 陳逸思 Chàhn4 Yaht6 Sī1 is also interesting for its frequent use of the modal verb 會 wúih5, in addition to the solid array of educational terms. I find it intriguing that Hong Kong’s most intelligent students are all keen to become doctors: perhaps these are the people who might be able to provide a solution to Hong Kong’s current difficulties . . .


12 new words:

文憑試 màhn4 pàhng4 si3 = 香港中學文憑考試 or Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE)
放榜 fong3 bóng2 = publish the results; publish a list of successful candidates/applicants
佳績 gāai1 jīk1 = good result; success
修讀 sāu1 duhk6 = to study (at university level); to do further study
養育 yéuhng5 yuhk6 = to bring up (a child)
摘星嘅決心 jaahk6 sīng1 ge3 kyut3 sām1 = the determination to reach for the stars
狀元 johng6 yùhn4 = Number One Scholar
屬意 suhk6 yi3 = to fix one’s mind on; to have one’s heart set on
立志 lahp6 ji3 = to resolve; to be determined
劍橋大學 gim3 kìuh4 daaih6 hohk6 = Cambridge University
固有 gu3 yáuh5 = usu. intrinsic; inherent; innate; in this context = “fixed” (?)
熱誠 yiht6 sìhng4 = sincere; sincerity



The results of the HKDSE have been published.

Twelve people, from nine [different] schools, obtained [a grade of] Level 5** in at least seven subjects.

Of these, a student from the Kwun Tong Maryknoll College and a student from St Mark’s School obtained this excellent result for the first time ever.

The majority of them will study [修讀] medicine.
Note: Here, 會 wúih5 is a modal indicating high likelihood: the students will definitely do this.

(Main story)

  • Student 杜焯賢 Douh6 Cheuk3 Yìhn4 speaks:

I grew up in a public housing estate.

And, well, my mother worked very hard to bring me up.

Experiencing the death [離世 lèih4 sai3] of his elder brother when small and [having] a single-parent background [are two things that] have not deterred Dou Cheuk-yin from reaching for the stars.
Note: The reporter uses the phrase 摘星嘅決心 not only to mean “the determination to reach for the stars” but also “the determination to get a Level 5** result”, since asterisks are treated like stars in Cantonese and pronounced sīng1.

He obtained the result of Level 5** in seven subjects, and is the first “Number One Scholar” in the school’s history.

  • 杜焯賢 Douh6 Cheuk3 Yìhn4 speaks again:

Attitude, and putting in a lot of effort oneself — these, I feel, are more important.

Now, resources can perhaps make a difference [係一個分別], but they cannot limit your result.
Note: The verb 局限 guhk6 haahn6 here means “to limit the movement of sb. or something; to confine; to restrict”.

St Mark’s School also “registered a first” (?).
Note: The expression 零的突破 lìhng4 dīk1 daht6 po3 is sometimes translated as “a zero breakthrough”, but this is not something I have ever heard anyone say.

  • Student 陳韋諾 Chàhn4 Wàih4/Wáih5 Nohk6 speaks:

Well, I feel very grateful because at this school I have come across many different good teachers and good classmates.

At La Salle College there were three people who obtained Level 5** in seven subjects, and all of them have set their hearts on [屬意 suhk6 yi3] studying medicine at CUHK.

Wong Tsz-fung also got a Level 5** in the Extended Part for Mathematics, making him [係 haih6] a “Super Number One Scholar”.

  • Student 黃子峯 Wòhng4 Jí2 Fūng1 speaks:

The main reason is because the professors at CUHK are relatively friendly.

They’re not up themselves, no way.
Note: Here, the modal verb 會 wúih5 is used again to indicate high likelihood. Negated, it suggests the low likelihood of the professors behaving badly.

  • Student 許友灝 Héui2 Yáuh5 Houh6 speaks:

My feeling is that the atmosphere at CUHK is extremely friendly; also, there are a lot of other students from this school [師兄] studying medicine there.
Note: The noun 師兄 sī1 hīng1 is an unusual one. It usually means “senior fellow apprentice; the son of one’s master (older than oneself); father’s apprentice (older than oneself)”. In this context, it refers to students from La Salle College who are already studying at CUHK.

Kam Chun-kei from St Paul’s Co-educational College, (a student) who once had leukaemia [白血病 baahk6 hyut3 behng6], also got a Level 5 in eight subjects. He is determined to practice medicine.

  • Student 甘浚祺 Gām1 Jeun3 Kèih4 speaks:

I really hoped to be a doctor when I grew up, and to give sick children in hospital the same hope [I once received], so that they know that once they get better, they can still go on living a beautiful life.
Note: The doubling of 俾 béi2 in the second part of the sentence is curious. 俾翻希望病童 would mean “to give sick children hope”, but perhaps because of all the extra modification (相同嘅;喺醫院嘅), a sort of back-up 俾 is added to reinforce the meaning.

Diocesan Girls’ School [拔萃女書院 baht6 seuih6 néuih5 syū1 yún6*2] have their own “Super Number One Scholar”; she will go to Cambridge University to study economics.
Note: Future action is often expressed by the combination 將會 jēung1 wúih5, in which 將 jēung1 indicates future aspect, while 會 wúih5 (as we have already seen) is a modal indicating high likelihood.

[She] also said that she didn’t approve [of the view that] Liberal Studies was a failure.

  • Student 蔡欣平 Choi3 Yān1 Pìhng4 speaks:

Here in [this] school we don’t force students to think about issues from [within] some kind of fixed [固有嘅 gu3 yáuh5 ge3] frame.
Note: Again, negated 會 wúih5 suggests the low likelihood of students being treated like mere bricks in the wall.

Intellectual space is left for students, that’s all.

[I can] really appreciate the sincerity of the Hong Kong people, well, and their perseverance in demonstrating.

Nevertheless, I hope Hongkongers don’t resort to violence.

Both Diocesan Girls’ School and Pui Ching Middle School had students that got a Level 5** in seven subjects, while students from Queen’s College, Diocesan Boys School and St Paul’s Co-educational College obtained a Level 5** in eight subjects.

Report by TVB News reporter Chàhn4 Yaht6 Sī1


What She Wielded . .

Fan Leng Temple Image with Bell

It had its own special niche in the tool shed.

She kept a ribbon
tied to its shaft and, sometimes,
together we changed that ribbon for freshness.
It was regularly sharpened
in a shower of orange sparks I was allowed to watch
through one unsmashed eye
of a pair of old sunglasses.
She showed me the gleam of the razorish blade,
but I was forbidden
to go near it: we all bear scars,
whether outside or in, our
common ground.
It had no special name of its own,
but with me — and only with me —
fondly she called it
her Great Great-axe of Kindness.

Cantonese through News Stories: Demonstrators Break Into Legislative Council Complex

Capture_Wire-mesh Trolley_1 JUL 2019

Here is one version of events that led to the so-called “storming” of the Legislative Council Complex. I recently came across the quote “There are years that ask questions and years that answer” (Zora Neale Hurston). Perhaps this is just such a question-asking year for Hong Kong. In several parts of this report, it is impossible to hear what people are actually saying. I have provided a translation based on the subtitles, but these are in Standard Written Chinese rather than Cantonese. Watch out for the use of the verb 撞 johng6 = “to strike” and its use in various compounds: 撞爛, 撞擊, 撞裂 and 撞破.


12 new words:

露面 louh6 mihn6 = to make an appearance
汲取教訓 kāp1 chéui2 gaau3 fan3 = to learn a lesson; to assimilate; to imbibe
民情民意 màhn chìhng màhn yi3 = public feeling & the will of the people
平息 pìhng4 sīk1 = to calm down; to blow over
鐵籠車 tit3 lùhng4 chē1 = wire-mesh trolley (?)
勸阻 hyun3 jó2 = to dissuade sb. from; to advise sb. not to
防毒面罩 fòhng4 duhk6 mihn6 jaau3 = gas mask
石灰粉 sehk6 fūi1 fán2 = powdered lime (?)
調停 tìuh4 tìhng4 = to mediate; to intervene
角力 gok3 lihk6 = to have a trial of strength; to wrestle
上彈 seuhng6 dáan6*2 = to load (a gun with bullets)
對峙 deui3 sih6/chíh5 = to stand facing each other; to confront



[On the occasion of] the twenty-second anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam made her first public appearance in two weeks.

She said that she had learned from what had happened, and that from now on the management of government affairs would adhere more closely [貼近 tip3 gahn6] to public feeling and the will of the people.

However, the protests of the demonstrators have not yet stopped [平息 pìhng4 sīk1].

Continue reading “Cantonese through News Stories: Demonstrators Break Into Legislative Council Complex”


2018-11-26 Sai Kung Sha Kok Mei Yellow Flower TWO

香港西貢沙角尾:黃葵 Musk mallow flower in Sha Kok Mei, Sai Kung, Hong Kong

Here I am, breathing life back into myself
directly out of thin air.  Do you know how it’s done?
Until I do, I don’t ever take any of it for granted:
my chest heaves to the tune of monotonous oxygen;
the bars of my rib cage separate out so sweetly;
where I was stale and empty now stands vital and reconvened.
Thank Heavens, I say, for nostrils,
those rills or blow-holes through the nose,
unlikely allies of the heart
that keep it punctually loyal to the pulse.
The body ingests atmosphere of its own accord
since most of the time we’re off doing something completely different
with ourselves — but slap bang in the middle
off a suddenly heated argument
or in that jagged instant danger’s menace cuts close up right to the bone
that old miracle — part of our second nature —
never forgets
stubbornly simply to inhale.

Edward Thomas / “That Girl’s Clear Eyes”

Mademoiselle Riviere TWO


“That Girl’s Clear Eyes (Handel Street)”

That girl’s clear eyes utterly concealed all
Except that there was something to reveal.
And what did mine say in the interval?
No more: no less. They are but as a seal
Not to be broken till after I am dead;
And then vainly. Every one of us
This morning at our tasks left nothing said,
In spite of many words. We were sealed thus,
Like tombs. Nor until now could I admit
That all I cared for was the pleasure and pain
I tasted in the stony square sunlit,
Or the dark cloisters, or shade of airy plane,
While music blazed and children, line after line,
Marched past, hiding the ‘Seventeen Thirty-nine’.


We are all puzzled by ourselves to some degree. The more you can identify with the general order of things, the less troubled you may be — seeing your interests, aspirations and values reflected all around you must be a great reassurance. But there are people who have trouble identifying with the status quo: they just don’t get it. As a result, they often feel deeply alienated. Such people are often deeply engaged with an individual world, something they find largely within themselves, in the absence of any confirmation from the outside.

This condition is often called “introversion”, an immersion in inwardness. I found a beautiful description of this in F. D. Ommanney’s book on Hong Kong, Fragrant Harbour:

He was a round-faced, bullet-headed little chap who always sat in the middle of the driving-seat of the car, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, gazing intently at the road ahead and singing an endless little crooning song to himself. He was far away in the private world that little boys inhabit and when you spoke to him you had to recall him from a great way off. I remembered, too, those jolts backward from my distant kingdom into the real world. Directly he had answered your question his little spirit fled and was off again on its wings.

Perhaps Edward Thomas was like this too as a child. Whatever the case, he kept his connection to a distant kingdom into his adult life, and possibly turned to poetry to help him manage the jolts his condition caused him. When he writes

. . . Every one of us
This morning at our tasks left nothing said,
In spite of many words. We were sealed thus,
Like tombs.

he is, I think, trying to convey something of this secret life in a kind of corresponding image. The references to graves must strike us as morbid, but can be attributed in part to the fact that his sense of himself seemed so at odds with his surroundings. In fact, I think Thomas also tended to think of tombs as places of fabulous discovery. In another poem called “Swedes” we find the lines:

. . . It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh’s tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.

Edward Thomas Image_29 JUN 2019

Edward Thomas

In other words, it is a place where treasure is hoarded. Perhaps poetry too can serve as a “tomb” of this kind. Thomas can never directly communicate his self-nature to others (language is too generalized a medium for the task), but he can craft a certain approximate shape for it in poetry. We as readers can certainly find something of the poet’s “unwordable” (Emily Carr) puzzle preserved in his language.

Interestingly, the poem finds space to make a confession: Thomas uses it to announce his preferences for solitary pleasures (“all I cared for was the pleasure and pain / I tasted in the stony square sunlit, / Or the dark cloisters, or shade of airy plane”). I was reminded of these lines when I read the following in Jay Griffiths’s Tristimania:

My psyche was on a dangerous journey, but a further reach of the human mind comes within one’s grasp in these extra octaves, something exquisite and oddly impersonal. It is accented by one’s individual nature, yes, but still seems to touch something beyond, a cry for the divine.

This is Thomas’s rather unusual kind of mysticism, which seems to push at the supposed boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world (does such a boundary really exist?). Our social being, he seems to be saying, his only a small part of our make-up. As Rilke puts it in one of his letters to a young poet, “if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it becomes clear that most people get to know only one corner of their room, a window seat, a strip of floor which they pace up and down”. In other words, there is much more to us than we imagine, but how often are we encouraged to act on this fact?

I think this may shed light on the engimatic final two lines of the poem. The marching children and the rather ancient date of 1739 suggest endless ranks of human beings coming into the world, confronting the mysteries of their existence, and then passing out of it again, not necessarily any wiser for what they have experience. It is a sad note to end on, but also a cry from the heart: it is time to wake up to the bigger picture, the extra octaves concealed in all of us.