Category Archives: Language

A New Generation Poem for the Tsangs?

中華曾氏祖根地 (vignette)

中華曾氏祖根地: the Chinese lineage’s ancestral rootland.

In many Chinese and Korean families, you see that the names of the sons of the same generation share a character, a generation name 班次. My ancestor of the Sòng dynasty, for example, Emperor Taìzōng, was named Zhào Kuāngyì 趙匡義; his older brother, Emperor Taìzŭ, was named Zhào Kuāngyìn 趙匡胤. Besides sharing the surname Zhào , they had in common the generation name Kuāng . Now, as Wikipedia explains,

The sequence of generation is typically prescribed and kept in record by a generation poem (bāncì lián 班次聯 or pàizì gē 派字歌 in Chinese) specific to each lineage. While it may have a mnemonic function, these poems can vary in length from around a dozen characters to hundreds of characters. Each successive character becomes the generation name for successive generations.

For the Sòng dynasty House of Zhào, the poem goes, 若夫,元德允克、令德宜崇、師古希孟、時順光宗、良友彥士、登汝必公、不惟世子、與善之從、伯仲叔季、承嗣由同。 The poem’s 42 characters were split into three groups of 14 for the offspring of Sòng Taìzŭ and his two brothers. As Emperor Taìzŭ set forth for the family (with older romanizations from the book quoted),

Together with the Prince of Chin, Kuang-i, and the Prince of Ch’in, Kuang-mei, we will constitute three branches. Each will establish fourteen characters [for generation names] in the Jade Register so as to distinguish the streams and give order to the [spirit] tablets. Although our posterity may be distant in time and in relationship, they will not lose their order.

According to this præscription, my grandfather had the character in his name, as did all of his brothers. So it has been, for my mother’s family, since the 10th century of our Lord Jesus Christ; but my own clan, despite its descent from the Xià king Shàokāng 少康, has not had such a long and constant usage.


This record shows the ancestry of Zhào Kuāngyì 趙匡義.


The ancestry traces back through Zhào Dùn 趙盾.

Of the generation poems used by those of the ancient House of , there are so many (beware: Tripod page with popup adverts!), and of such diversity, that there clearly is nothing like a standard. What was once used by my branch of the family has been interrupted by the convulsions of the 20th century. Though we clearly maintain commonalities between brothers – my father’s generation having the character and mine having , even for my cousin – these generation names have not at all been drawn from the poem formerly used. Instead, my father’s generation received an accent on the nation, and mine on righteousness. In each, of course, is an ethical orientation. Herein I see the makings of a new generation poem that has yet to be written. Since my grandfather was the seniormost Christian in the family (though his conversion was not the first), his name should be the one that heads the poem, and the poem can mark a new beginning by expressly giving glory to Christ the Saviour of the nations.

炳國義, and the rest is unwritten. But even here, with just three characters, we can see some order. My grandfather’s character ‘bright, luminous’ has the radical for fire, ; my father’s character ‘territory, nation’ clearly suggests earth; my character ‘righteousness, justice’ is associated with metal. Thus we have gone from summer to the ripe season to autumn, and the next in the cycle of the five phases of matter and energy (wŭxíng) is winter and water. A cycle of five itself suggests lines of five characters each, whether four lines for 20 syllables or eight lines for 40. Numerologically, 40 can correspond to the days of rain and flooding in the time of Noah, or the years of Israel’s wandering until the faithless generation had died, or the days of Jesus’s fast in the wasteland to suffer the temptations of man; 20, however, is of no significance. But when the cycle of five has gone eight times, which makes an octave of a feast to the Lord, signifying the spiritual Eighth Day of the week, then shall we have the number of trigrams and the number of persons on Noah’s Ark and the number of the Beatitudes. Let the poem, the jìntĭshī 近體詩, be written thus.

炳國△△ 義某 某△○ ●
某某○○ 某某 某△△ ●

某某○○ 某某 某○△ △  parallelism
某某△△ 某某 某△○ ●

某某△△ 某某 某○○ △  parallelism
某某○○ 某某 某△△ ●

某某○○ 某某 某○△ △
某某△△ 某某 某△○ ●


The Beauty of Suzhounese

Is it just me, or is Suzhounese the most beautiful language ever sung by women? I think I have a serious weakness for that dialect.

Read Aristotle’s Poetics

My high school’s instruction in English, when it came to Greek tragœdy such as Sophocles’s Antigone, gestured at Aristotle’s unities of place and time; but these seemed arbitrary things to commit to memory. Not until I had graduated from university, and was taking a class about the history of rhetorical theory, did I actually read Aristotle’s Poetics and understand what he was on about. I wish we had been set to read Aristotle in high school to understand literature and rhetoric. Richard Carroll gives a review of the Poetics at Thermidor Magazine. Unlike Mr Carroll, who recommends the Loeb version, I might instead recommend the translation of Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater, which is bound together with Aristotle’s Rhetoric; which to choose depends on what you need.

If you haven’t read Mr Carroll’s review, do go and allow him to persuade you to read Aristotle’s Poetics. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Bless, O Lord, This Ring?


In PECUSA’s 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the order of solemnization of holy matrimony specifies that the priest may say, before delivering the ring to the man, ‘Bless, O Lord, this Ring, that he who gives it and she who wears it may abide in thy peace, and continue in thy favour, unto their life’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ The North American Anglican has published my short piece on whether to bless a ring or its wearer. Check it out. What do you think?

‘Doubtful Novelties’ in Church Names

Walker Rumble, in a printing history series, tells us about great Episcopalian printer Daniel Berkeley Updike. About names of churches he says,

Berkeley Updike and Harold Brown thought Episcopalians named and dedicated their churches inappropriately and in a slipshod manner. Nomenclature became thoughtless and frivolous, and things got worse with spreading evangelical congregations. According to Updike and Brown, ‘the names of our Lord, and of the Apostles and Saints of the New Testament’ – traditional sources – were ‘quite sufficient’. Names such as ‘Heavenly Rest’ or ‘House of Prayer’ were as ‘meaningless’ as ‘Precious Blood’ or ‘Bread of Life’. These were ‘fanciful names’. If we demand variety, ‘let us have at least no doubtful novelties.’

Looking at you, c4so diocese. With a diocese name like that, how can you avoid frivolous names for parish churches?


But Chinese churches should also take note. Such names as Mr Updike cited are not out of the ordinary for a Chinese church, and their frivolous novelty is no less than it was in 1892, the year that he and Harold Brown published On the Dedications of American Churches. Many evangelical Chinese churches, trying to signal their orthodox evangelical credentials, have chosen novelties to shout their decency, and in so doing have negated their own orthodoxy.

It is far better, as Mr Updike says, to take ‘the names of our Lord, and of the Apostles and Saints of the New Testament’ – among whom, I take it, he includes saints who are not mentioned in the pages of New Testament, but who lived and died in the New Testament. It is no novelty, after all, to name a church after a local martyr or a saint from another place whose influence is felt as far as the church to be named. Thus might a church in Edinburgh be named after St Cuthbert, who lies buried in Durham, or a church in Vancouver’s Chinatown after St Robert Morrison, translator of the Scriptures into Chinese. These are names that concretely draw the Christian’s heart to the life of Christ, or to his life in a particular saint.


The Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist, Hong Kong.

The more our churches seek to differentiate ourselves from the whole work of the Holy Ghost on earth, by taking vain names, the more we separate ourselves from the Church. May the Lord’s blessing rest upon the churches devoted to the glory of his Name.

Russian and Uyghur for the Children

When I was in high school, I had autistic dreams of having my children natively speak an analytic language, an agglutinative language, and a fusional language. As a Chinese American, I thought Chinese would work well for analytic and Latin for fusional; for agglutinative, Finnish. Even at that time, of course, I knew that it would not be practical, as Romantic as it might be, for the son of a Chinaman to speak Mohawk.

I take for granted that, if I marry and God give me children, they should speak Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and (if possible) my grandfather’s mother tongue, Taishanese; Latin also remains eminently good and useful. In addition to these languages of Chinese and Christian heritage, though, I hope they can speak Russian and Uyghur.


For that hope, I have my reasons: (1) Eurasian bloc integration and (2) the Back to Jerusalem movement. The two are related, and of this I shall say more later.


The Iceberg of Latin Literature

My friend has made a great Latin meme. Go bump it if you have Facebook, and #MakeLatinGreatAgain. Syke! Latin’s already great.

Rightly Dividing the Law of God

It is common to hear of the law of God, especially in the Old Testament, divided into moral, cæremonial, and civil law. And Christian students of the Old Testament, hearing of this distinction and eager to take some parts seriously while discarding other parts that they believe to be inapplicable for our time, are often quick to classify particular statutes of God as one or another of the three. But Zacharias Ursinus, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, uses the classic threefold division differently:


Speaking of the Fourth Commandment, which of the ten is the most often cited as a reason that even the Decalogue does not apply to us today, Ursinus does not classify the commandment simply as moral or as cæremonial or as civil. Instead, he tells us that the Fourth Commandment has two parts: a commandment and a reason for it. Further, he discriminates between two parts of the commandment: ‘the one moral and perpetual, as that the Sabbath be kept holy’; and ‘the other ceremonial and temporary, as that the seventh day be kept holy’.

Ursinus shows, usefully, that the common threefold division of the law is not to classify the ordinances of God as one or another of the three, but to distinguish the various aspects of each in order to find a legitimate application. He identifies the commandment’s general æquity, the underlying præcept that, when applied in the circumstances in which the commandment was delivered, yields the commandment in the form given. This is also how we ought to examine the commandments delivered to us, that we may be faithful doers of the word and not hearers only.


Christ Enthroned on the Theotokos

Drawing by Veronica Cruwys.

He whom heaven and earth cannot contain is cradled in his mother’s lap, for me and for you.

Behold the mighty arm of the Lord. Behold the revelation that binds together the fragments by which the majestic God could not but be expressed by the prophets and the pagan sages. Behold the light of God’s face, which Moses could not see and live, which now burns in the hearts of all who believe in his Name. Worship him now; bend the knees of your heart and kiss the light of his countenance, which gives you peace.

Let loving hearts enthrone him.

Richer Images in Church Instruction

Children’s Sunday schools in Protestant churches are typically full of moralistic stories and impoverished figures on felt boards. What I like better are the line drawings offered by John Matusiak, many of which are based on Eastern Orthodox icons:


Since children’s Sunday schools will almost invariably use images, it seems best to me that these images should look serious and not frivolous, their iconography rich and not simplistic, their conception mature and not childish. The images used to teach should be a tool for children to understand other instructive images, that their eyes may be enlightened by faith rather than that their spirits may be seduced by the sensuous.

From young children’s colouring books to devotional books and church walls, images should, besides drawing the attention of the senses, also invite reflection on doctrine and personal piety.

The Last Judgement.


Regarding Gaius Julius Cæsar and his De bello Gallico, the question is not whether to read; for the power of his writing is well known, and the force of his person spellbinding. The question is whether his student should read … Continue reading

The Language Nest of Prayer

Photograph by Pedro Szekely (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Responding to a New Yorker article about efforts to bring back dying languages, in the face of culturally dominant languages in cities and on the Internet, Rod Dreher compares the Christian faith to a language that needs ‘language nests’ where people can study their faith in an incubator setting and put it into use in daily life. I believe Christians can make every church a place to do this. Last week, after a rough start, God gave me the opportunity to walk some of my friends through part of the classic service of Evening Prayer in its Anglican form. I was able to explain something of the service’s background and priestly purpose, as well as to give some commentary on the meaning and the significance for priestly duty of some of the service’s particular parts. A habit of common prayer, I think, is the practical centre of catechesis in the Church, putting straight into practice St Peter’s theology of the Church as the temple and the holy priesthood of God:

Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

Given mercy and called away from evil, we are chosen by God to show forth his praises, to offer up spiritual sacrifices to him which are acceptable in Jesus Christ. To do this well, God also requires that we desire the milk of his holy word, that both in prayer and in other parts of our daily living (in which we pray without ceasing) he may give himself glory. This is the purpose of his word: that it may make us into a people who are ready in our daily living to give glory to God. For the Lord is in his holy temple, and from his voice comes our authority to subdue the earth to the order of his holy Name. For this reason we are to study his word, that it may be translated into the due praise of God in word and in deed – not so that we may feel close to him, but so that he, dwelling in us, may turn the whole world into a city where, as Malachi says, in every place incense shall be offered unto the Lord’s Name. Therefore, as the Psalmist says, Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

If this be the main purpose for which Christians gather – to come together as the holy temple of the Lord – I believe that upon the solid rock of Christ our chief cornerstone we shall not founder, we shall not be wrecked, but we shall like living stones be able to weather the storms that beat upon the temple. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. This is the wisdom of the Lord applied. By this word rightly used the temple shall withstand the onslaught of the pagans and not become the home of the false faith of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which serves the false god Mammon. For the kingdom of Christ is not from this world.

And if Christians strengthen one another across imagined boundaries, meeting for the priestly act with those of ‘other churches’, who in fact belong to the same Church, the holy catholic Church of Jesus Christ, we will have and we will feel the strength of the Holy Ghost who works in all. What keeps us apart is the god Mammon, on whose demands Christians segregate around institutions to which they pay money, fancying that these are churches and congregations; but the Holy Spirit of the Lord expels such fantasies, and he bids us move and feel as one Church, regardless of the institutions of man.

On this earth we shall always need some institutions to handle money, some structure to deal with practical needs; but our orientation must be toward the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not in buildings made by human hands, nor is it in gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. For the honour of God’s blessed and holy Name we are bound to find the Church not in things of man’s devising but in things of God’s revelation: the word of God, the sacraments, and a pure offering. When our sacrifices are to the true God and not to idols, when we direct our selves and our lives not to the demands of earthly corporations but to the Lord in prayer, we will have our faces set not backward, upon Sodom and Gomorrah, but forward, upon the heavenly Jerusalem and the life of the world to come, when earth and heaven will flee and the judgement of the Lord will reign in righteousness.

Let our language nests speak the language of Zion. Let our lives themselves be turned to the death of idols and the resurrection of the dead, that when the Lord comes again he may find faith on earth. Let us begin with the habits of prayer, that our mouths may shew forth the praise of God.

A Dummy Subject Changes Much

The difference of a single it: One word, a dummy subject, turns a subject noun clause into the object of to say. It also potentially changes a vel into an aut.

[Whether this is a case of [life imitating art or art masquerading as history]]SBJ is impossible to say.

[Whether this is a case of [life imitating art] or [art masquerading as history]]OBJ itSBJ.DUMMY is impossible to say.

Sentence source: a New Yorker article about Seneca (HT: Fred Sanders).

Loving Illegal Immigrants for the Righteousness of God

In an interview by Joyce Chang, Jenny Yang, Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, says the Church needs to

become a place of refuge, welcoming these immigrations in our midst. This begins with our language, in choosing not to use words such as ‘alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ to isolate and define this group of people by their actions.

It is not to those who have overstayed their visas that we owe kindness, but rather it is to God that we owe this kindness to them. Nothing they have done puts us in their debt, but everything we have makes it our bounden duty to show forth the righteousness of God, both in the magistrate’s due execution of the law and in individual citizens’ loving treatment of those who have broken the law. The righteousness of God has been revealed in his Son’s vicarious death for our sins and resurrection for our being pronounced just; and it is in mystical union with the Son of God, today, that Christian believers both are counted righteous and become righteous. In Christ, incorporated into his Body, we must all pay reverence to his dying for the whole human race. As men who have broken the law of God and witnessed the awesome majesty of his word, we can uphold the rule of law and still act as a society that knows the grace of God; for it is by this very grace that we even have the rule of law sustained.

This is not a matter of giving up language expressing that these people have broken the law and continue to live in breach of that law. He who has broken the law has made himself a criminal, and he will not be set right by nicer terms. The justice of God demanded not a nice glossing over of our trespasses but the death of God’s only-begotten Son. Likewise, softer terms will do nothing to set things right, even according to human ability. The problem with illegal immigrant is not that it names a lawbreaker a lawbreaker: if the phrase be problematic, the problem is that it may give the impression that certain persons, not certain acts, are illegal. The phrase need not be so interpreted, since a fast runner is someone who runs fast, and a slow thinker is someone who thinks slowly; but the potential for a false impression is where, if anywhere, the problem is. Naming someone by his breach of the law nowhere exceeds the terms even the New Testament uses.

Nor is it a matter of giving up language expressing that these people who have stayed illegally are outsiders.

For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: he doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

To be hospitable to strangers, to welcome guests, one has to know who is a guest and who already belongs. One must, in other words, call them strangers. It is by recognizing a stranger that we recognize the God who knows him, and in no way else can we love this stranger with the love of God. To attempt to love him with another love, a love not of God, is only to give something else under the name of love, falsely attributing to it the fairest name.

No, what I think we should do is call people illegal immigrants and strangers; but we must learn reverently to see illegal immigrants as persons to be loved despite their offences, and strangers as persons to be loved because they are strangers.

What Are We, America?

‘Old Bones’: photograph by Nick Voon.

As the White racial group in the United States loses its majority and becomes one among several, many pundits have proclaimed the end of White America and the emergence of a multiracial, multicultural America. Yet the entrance of a great number of persons of colour does not speak to the question of what place ‘White’ culture should have in these United States. If people are free to choose their nationality, they are also free to choose whether, or to what extent and in what manner, they will assimilate to the dominant culture. Eugene Yi says,

But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being ‘merely’ American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

Well, one thing that should change is the capitalization of Whiteness. Whiteness, capitalized, is not the same as whiteness, lowercase. The latter is a physical colour, the former a cultural marker. A White American with maybe a bit of Cherokee blood may be rather tan in the summer, far from white, and still be White.

Am I White? Maybe. My English is certainly enough. My cultural preferences may not be: I eat the cartilage from chicken drumsticks; I have no trouble kowtowing to the right people; I often like to speak obliquely. With my parents, I speak Chinese at home. So I don’t know if I should be considered to have assimilated to Whiteness.

In any case, I have no problem whatsoever with general American culture being identified with a certain kind of thing called White. It is a fact that political suffrage and the tradition of this nation have been held in the hands of those whom we anachronistically call White. Specifically, these United States are English in origin, with rather English laws and liberties, but have taken in Scots, Huguenots, Dutchmen, Germans, and more. It is no problem to me that Carolina Huguenots became Episcopalians and sometimes Presbyterians. In many ways, they have assimilated to Anglo-Saxon culture, and this is normal. Likewise, especially with two world wars, the Germans in these States – and German descent is statistically more frequent here than English – have chosen to identify more strongly with America, and so they have mostly taken to English rather than German even at home.

Darrin Moore thinks, indeed, that America is united by English. By this, I trust, he means not that everyone who speaks little or no English is not American (or how else would an infant be American?), nor that languages other than English are un-American, but rather that one cannot understand these United States apart from the English language. Indeed, the United States are not a mere idea but a living reality, and it is not by simply pledging loyalty to an abstraction but by partaking of its cultural bonds that we participate in what we call America. For our republic qua republic speaks English, and the political customs of these States as a whole are English. To an extent, insofar as English culture is rooted in Western European Christendom, we are also rooted in Europe and cannot be understood apart from its cultural heritage; but our fundamentally English origins are a fact that no one can negate without tearing at the fabric of what we are. Other cultures there are, but we are not ourselves without this foundation.

There are, of course, old cultures here, the cultures of peoples who lived here before the United States existed. Their languages belong here. Yet Native Americans participate in American life not by speaking Navajo or Cherokee or Choctaw (important as these languages are to their communities) but by speaking English. Though the edges may not be rigidly defined, it is essential that the English language, and the history it conveys, be at the centre of the United States.

And some states, given their heritage from before they even joined the Union, have reason to maintain second-tier official languages. In Louisiana, whose very civil law is based largely on French and Spanish law, this language might be French; in Hawai‘i, once an independent kingdom, and even now retaining Hawai‘ian terms in its property law, this language is clearly Hawai‘ian. For these states, it is more than reasonable to have more than one official language; yet English is indispensable.

But we need not only a common language but a common culture to bind us. In Commonwealth realms, the peoples are united by (among other things) devotion to the Queen, their reigning sovereign; in the United States, we have no such cultural and political institution. Instead, with no personal loyalty, we are bound all the more to a cultural loyalty, a loyalty to the organic state before its bureaucratic institutions. Our fœderal structure also entails patriotic loyalties to both our respective states and the United States. Our states and our local cultures may be as different as England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, but in common we Americans must hold to a uniting force as strong as that by which a British or Canadian man declares himself a loyal subject of the Queen. The politicians and bureaucrats may wish this force to be their own coercive arm, but at the end of the day this cannot be so, for such a state is not a republic. It may be WASPish of me to say this, but we need Anglo-Saxon culture.

This is not to say that other cultures have no place. Native American nations within the United States have treaties with the fœderal government, and no doubt the treaties make sense to them in their own way, within their 0wn traditions. But the way in which the treaties make sense to the United States as a whole is in the American tradition of common law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. This is how other cultures on American soil are to fit with the common American culture: they should remain and enrich American culture, and not simply be washed away as if they were impurities, but they should do this as secondary to the privileged place of the common culture.

To most people, the privileging of the common culture comes intuitively as common sense. Besides submitting to a common law, most Americans, wherever we come from, wear Western clothes. Wearing a tie to a job interview, or at a big event, is simply sensible. Despite my fondness for traditional Han Chinese clothing, I would think men’s hanfu (漢服) outlandish to wear in most contexts that were not specifically Chinese. For women this tendency seems weaker: in the States it is not hard to find an Indian woman wearing a sari or a Chinese woman wearing a cheongsam. The asymmetry between the sexes is perhaps natural, since it has fallen largely to men to tend to public affairs of the state, and women have often not had the same duties. Nevertheless, it is generally true that Americans will generally conform to American dress.

There are many more parts of culture, which I have no space to address. But I hope I have contributed something useful to the understanding of what place a common American culture has in relation to other cultures in the United States. For convenience one might call this White (as opposed to, say, German) culture, though for the sake of unity we might try to find a better name. Much work remains to be done in defining and describing general American culture, and it is necessary for us to identify the wisest course and take it.