Aiya, the spam!

This is (almost) completely unrelated to Chung Kuo, but I wanted to mention the spam issue on the site and forums. Not too long after this site went live back in early February, it started seeing the occasional spam comment, which would usually be something to the effect of “Wow your site is so great lol I never thought about it you make a good point click here” and I’d have to go in and manually clear all that out.

Then, after The Forums opened, the nonsense really started to fly. Every day, I had to go remove spam posts, oftentimes in other languages and in attempts to sell totally random crap like automobile parts. I tried banning the IPs that these spammers were coming from. No help. Then, I tried several types of captchas during (the squiggly letters that supposedly aren’t machine readable) during the registration process. That didn’t work either.

BUT… it’s now been a few weeks since there’s been any spam anywhere on the site. This is what finally did the trick:

  • On the blog (WordPress): Akismet. Akismet catches the spam comments before they post and relegates them to a reviewable spam folder in the WordPress admin panel. It works perfectly. The downside is, for a small non-personal blog (like this one), it’s $5 a month. One one hand, that adds up a little over the course of the year, but on the other hand, I just spent more than that at Taco Bell. It’s worth the money.
  • One the boards (phpBB): Q&A. Any newly registering user has to answer a simple query (of my choosing) that can’t be machine-answered and isn’t easily parsed from Google search results. The answer to the question will easily be known to anyone who’s ever picked up a Chung Kuo book, new or old. It’s so much simpler than graphic captchas, but somehow so much more effective. Since this has gone live, not a single fake registration (or spam post) has shown up.

So, in the event that you’re starting your own blog or forum, I highly recommend that you check these out. On the flipside, if you’re having issues here (comments on blog posts not showing up or unable to register for the boards), hit me up at ofgiftsandstones <[at]> so that I can figure it out.

Zaijian for now!

My Collection

Despite what conclusions you might draw from the picture above, I’m actually not obsessed (that is, going by the clinical definition of the word), but I do find myself compelled to buy any copies of Chung Kuo novels I see when visiting any used bookstores. That’s led to the modest collection you see here. It’s not a creepy stalker fixation — it started with just wanting the ability to lend the book freely to friends and family without worry of getting it back (no one ever returns borrowed books; that’s a universal truth) and it just sort of grew from there. All eight books of the original series are represented here, at least once. There was a time when Marriage of the Living Dark could go used for roughly $150 on the used market, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with it. MotLD runs around $45 or so on AbeBooks these days.

Happily, I now have one more book to add to the collection… the limited edition Son of Heaven, numbered and signed, imported from England, still in shrinkwrap… how it will remain for the foreseeable future.

Anyone else have a Chung Kuo shelf collection?

PS – Yes, those are the Myst books on the left side. Where else would I put those?

You say potato, I say Zhong Guo.

As you can clearly see, I’m a big fan of Chung Kuo: the complex world-building, the conflicts of cultures and personalities, the political intrigue, the action, the intricacies of plot. But there’s one  thing, pervasive through though the entire series (both the new and old sequences), that annoys me, confuses me, frustrates me — the one thing that I disagree with to my very core and I wish I could go back and change: Wade-Giles.

You see, Chinese is an interesting language, elegantly simple in some ways (no conjugation!) and strangely difficult in others (a tremendous number of regional dialects, tones, learning all those characters…). I’m sure the Chinese feel the same about Western languages. The standard dialect of Chinese is Mandarin, which is based on the northern dialect of Beijing, the capital. Natively, it’s called Putonghua, or common language. Mandarin, as you might guess, has major differences between English and other Western languages. For example, there are a finite number of syllables in the language, each with four tones, meaning that the pitch changes within the syllable change the meaning (and generally the written character) of the syllable.

Throughout the ages, several systems of romanization have existed which try to represent these Mandarin syllables using Roman alphabet letters. Wade-Giles is one of these forms, and it is the one Mr. Wingrove uses for all Chinese terms in the Chung Kuo series (including “Chung Kuo” itself). This system was put into its final revision in 1912 and was the mostly widely used through the 1970s. In the 1950s, as part of the Communist government’s program to increase literacy across the country, they commissioned the creation of pinyin, which is, in my view (and the view of many others) superior and simpler to Wade-Giles. Pinyin’s now used in all maps made, scholarly literature, the news articles, computers… pretty much everything ever published or created these days… with Chung Kuo being the only exception I know of.

Why did Wingrove stick with the old-school Wade-Giles? His author’s note in the original series indicates that he found it to retain the poetic character of Mandarin. Obviously, I respectfully disagree.

In college I took a two-semester sequence of Elementary Mandarin (it would not be an error to assume that the Chung Kuo novels influenced this decision). To me, pinyin makes far more sense, and after an initial learning curve, is easily internalized. I’m sure Wade-Giles is the same in that last respect, but wouldn’t it make more sense to endure the learning curve for the system in use in the rest of the world? Every single time a Chinese name comes up in Chung Kuo, it takes me an extra beat – just a microsecond – to decode it in my mind and translate how it should sound.

Yes, this would mean that the title of the series would be Zhong Guo. And the spelling of many of the major characters names would be different (for example, Kao Chen would be Gao Zhen). Chinese place names would also look more like what we’re used to — reading “P’ei Ching” in Son of Heaven made shudder, knowing it should really have been Beijing.

I had so hoped that Mr. Wingrove would have switched to pinyin for the re-release. But… if this one little thing is my biggest complaint of the series (yes, bigger than Marriage of the Living Dark, which is most people’s biggest complaint), then I should consider myself lucky. And to those who have zero background in the Chinese language, it probably doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference either way.

At least it’s not Gwoyeu Romatzyh… that would have simply been a nightmare. Aiya!

Go here for a list of Wade-Giles syllables and their modern Pinyin counterparts.

The Crumbling Tower

The crumbling building featured on the cover of Son of Heaven is the International Finance Centre building (more specifically one of the two similarly designed IFC towers) in Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” on the southeastern cost of China. It’s a magnificent building (it was also featured in The Dark Knight), and was just recently topped as the tallest structure in the territory by the International Commerce Centre (there seems to a redundancy problem with whoever’s naming these buildings…).

Several summers ago, I spent three weeks in Hong Kong. It’s an amazing place — full of beautiful and peculiar sights and sounds and smells. It’s very reminiscent of the Chung Kuo novels – a tremendous gap between the rich and poor, teeming with culture and characters at all levels. It also exemplifies the East vs. West struggle present in the novels, although perhaps reversed – Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony for over 150 years. The Western influence continues to influence the territory, although it’s quickly disappearing as the mainland asserts increasing authority and the culture of Hong Kong comes into its own after, what some might argue, a long period of domination.

I’m thinking the choice of the image of IFC for the cover of the new novel was purposeful, if subtle.