Excerpts from “Mandarin Primer”


The Radicals


Placed at the hub of language, they draw sap from ground and ancestors to nourish the phrases placed on sheets of paper, matching matter to manner. Complete unto itself, its soul vibrating to one single sound, China turned its back on the world during the 15th century. Alas for the vertigo of encounter, alas for our variants of causality, for we too are in this world if under blankets of heavy snow. There are 214 roots in the Chinese language as against 240 species of the theaceae family, of which only the bushy and rangy types make the best tea. See camellia sinensis. The radicals form part of every character. They are arranged according to the number of strokes and speed of thought.




Adversative Conjunctions


Such is the force of the word “but” that the conclusion we would naturally draw does not follow. It is “turned upside down.” Distinguishing between the contingent and the necessary, China banned opium in 1729. The British nevertheless exported 60 tons there from India in 1776 and five times that quantity in 1790. Ask how it got there, and all the world’s a vessel. Hence the verb hsiao-teh, “to know,” is heard more in the South than in the North. But “to beget” is the equivalent of “gentleman,” used as a title of respect and stored in a cool, dry place.

Rosmarie Waldrop is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator, with over twenty books to her name. Her new poetry collection, The Nick of Time, is out September 2021 from New Directions.

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