[p] Feng Zikai's Avoiding Rain in the Mountains

     In a Chinese course, some years ago, I wrote an essay about the minutiae of a long walk I took in Taipei. After reading my error-riddled but honest essay, my close friend and "Taiwanese brother," the artist Luo Jr-Shin, thoughtfully sent me a Chinese essay by Feng Zikai. It took me a long time to read the essay, but very little time to understand once I finally reached the end. The gentle but significant thud of recognition I had with the author felt akin to those extra-ordinary moments when you unexpectedly run into a friend at a train station, thousands of miles from home. I dreamt of translating the work and anticipated a day when my Chinese would be learned enough to make the attempt.

      A number of years passed--and much Chinese study--when I decided I would take on the translation of this humble essay. Translations come in all different forms and qualities, but they do share one thing in common: they are only representations of the original.  Since I read the work, I have had the strong urge to share the story, but more than that, to share Zikai's honest and bare tenderness. An honest and tender heart is one of the most unifying and normal features of the human, yet I find these features to be mostly absent in literature and letters (not to mention in public life, in general).  While the tone may be lost in translation, I hope I maintained the significance of the work. 

     I do feel the need to share more about Feng Zikai, but I will save that for another day. For now I will just humbly present to you, after many years of Chinese study, my first personal translation. A big thank you to my editor for this work, Jacqueline Ruei Ji.


*please find the original Chinese version below the translation


Avoiding Rain in the Mountains

豐子愷 (Feng ZiKai)    1935


     The other day I went sightseeing with two young ladies to the mountains of the Western Lake when, all of a sudden, it started to rain. As we rushed to find shelter, we saw a small temple and, next to its gate, three houses forming a small village. One of these houses had a small tea shop that also sold joss sticks. We quickly ran inside the tea house, and, although it was small, they still asked one dime for a pot of tea. At a time like this, even if they asked for two dimes for a single pot, we would not have bemoaned the price.

     Steeping more, the tea grew lighter; the rain grew harder the longer it fell. While I initially felt a sense of disappointment upon encountering rain on our mountain walk, there was something in the emptiness and depth of the rain’s patter in the mountains; this hindering rain’s atmosphere was more intriguing than a sunny mountain scene. “The power of the mountain’s hazy mist*”; I now knew the meaning of these words. The girls did not feel the same way—there they sat inside the little tea hut, looking dejected and busy blaming the heavens. I had no way to communicate and share my experiences to lift their mood—besides, I was unwilling to be the kind of adult who attempts to make the young see through a grown-up’s eyes.

     The tea master was sitting at the door, drawing his bow on a huqin. Besides the sound of the rain outside, his playing was all we could hear. The song he was playing was “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms” and although he wasn’t wholly in tune, there was a fluency to his rhythm. As he sat there near the tea house’s entry, it seemed he played in place of the radio to attract customers. It was a pity he only played for a short time before stopping. With the absence of the music, we only heard the clamoring of the unending rain. In an effort to console the two girls, I got up and approached the tea master with the intention of borrowing his huqin. “Excuse me, would you mind if I fiddle around with your huqin?” He graciously handed his instrument over to me.

     The two girls were delighted when I returned to the house with huqin in hand. “You can play . . . you can play!?” I sat down and I played for them. While my technique was unpracticed, I did play the right notes.

"Three Variations on Plum Blossoms." The recordings of Chinese guqin master Wu Jinglüe (1907-1987)

     When I was a child, there lived a certain firewood vendor by the name of Zhai in a house near ours. I asked him to teach me the song “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms.” Besides this neighbor, whom we knew as Ah Qing, I asked the big burly tailor Da Han, another neighbor across the alley, to teach me the Chinese scales on the huqin. Ah Qing’s teaching style was quite special—he’d only play “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms” for you to hear; there would be no lessons on the song’s score. While he didn’t know the scales, he truly knew the instrument. When he played, it was if I could only “gaze to the sea and sigh”; I was never able to play as he did.

     When I later learned that Da Han could read music, I asked him to teach me. He wrote down the major and minor scales on a sheet of paper, and with him and with those scales, I would learn the rudiments of the huqin. Half of my ability to play comes from my brief experiences with learning the violin. Yet, the other half is based off of those lessons with the burly Da Han.

     In the mountain tea house, near the window, I calmly played the huqin because, “haste brings mistakes.” Drawing the bow, I played all types of western pop songs as the two girls sang along. How similar we were to the street musicians of West Lake! Our performance attracted the attention of the villagers, who came to watch us play.

The title track to the 1934 Chinese film, "Song of the Fisherman."

     One of the girls sang “Song of the Fisherman” and demanded I accompany her. And so I played along. As I played, the village youngsters who had joined us started to sing in unison. For a brief moment in time, this barren hill, enveloped in a never-ending and noisy rain, became extremely warm. I was once a music teacher for seven to eight years, I’ve accompanied a four-part choral group on piano, I’ve played Beethoven’s Sonatas. Yet, in my whole life, I have never experienced the joy that I felt in music on this day.

     Two empty rickshaws pulled by and I signaled them for me and my guests. I paid for the tea, returned the huqin, bid my farewells to the village youngsters, and stepped into the car. In front of me, the cart’s oil-cloth cover blocked my view of the rain-possessed mountain. With the taste of those fleeting moments still lingering in my mind, I thought of the significance of this compelling instrument.

     The heaviness of the piano is like a coffin. The cost of the violin can be thousands of dollars. As refined as the violin is, how many people in the world are able to enjoy it? With the huqin, one needs just two or three dimes for an instrument. While it is true that the huqin’s range is not as wide as the violin’s, nor might its sound be as graceful, as long as it’s well built, it’s plenty to play folk songs. This instrument is extremely popular among the people: the barber shops have one, the tailors have one, the boats on the river even have one . . . one is here, too, at the three-house village. If we were able to create enough meaningful and simple music such as the “Song of the Fisherman,” then I dare say its influence in artistic education would be greater than the music classes in school.

     When I left the three-house village, the youngsters, reluctant to see me go, came to send me off. This reluctance I too felt. Trying to soften my leaving, I told them, “See you again next week!” even though in reality I was already afraid I’d never again in this life visit this three-house village, never sit at that tea house, never again draw my bow on that huqin. If there wasn’t that opportunity with the huqin, then how would the youngsters of the village look at this passing stranger? Would they have been reluctant to let me go? Would I feel this bittersweet sadness on leaving these people I met by chance?

     There’s an old saying, “music teaches harmony.” In my seven or eight years of teaching music, I had no substantial proof for this saying. Yet, unexpectedly, on this day, in a nearly empty little hamlet, I found my proof.


*A line from the poetry of Su Dong Po











                                                                                             豐子愷, 1935


[m] Book shopping in Taiwan



I’ve spent a good amount of time at book stores in the English speaking world. At times, it feels excessive, to the point where I question if the time perusing the books would have been better spent reading them. Reading is the point of books, I believe (this may sound obvious, but it's not and worth mentioning). And yet, books have a meaning of their own outside of the words inside them. They are the covers, the typography, the images, the material...in short, what truly defines a book is the materiality, the design and content combined. Literature may be best visualized now by an e-book...the words reign supreme while it has an almost negligible materiality. The differences of the ‘digital book’ may help us think about the book.

While at the University of Wisconsin, I had the pleasure of working in the Special Collections and Rare Books Department. I was able to see, firsthand, some of the finer specimens of the book. Publications from the Kelmscott Press, Audubon's Elephant Folio, Newton’s manuscripts, alchemy manuscripts, etc... A first edition, first printing can sometimes bring people to spend thousands of dollars for a piece of publishing history. An inscribed copy, especially from a reclusive author, can add additional value to the book...but these things don’t necessarily add additional value to the literature - the substance inside. What about the other elements, though? The paper selection? The weight or smell of the book? The size of the margins? Taken separately, their impact is unnoticed by most people and yet, together, the elements that make these books objects have a major effect on the reader.

Upon my arrival in Taiwan four years ago, the differentiation was real. There was truly only the physical book since the content (I will say the literature) was all in Chinese. This made the written content as good as non-existent for me. What I saw was the book craft, and the surface imagery of these characters. I bought nothing and I looked rarely. Certainly there were intriguing books and covers, but with the substance lacking, so too did my interest in much perusing or consuming.

Fast forward to three years later when my Chinese attained a level of understanding that allowed me to grasp the meaning of the title and sometimes even read a large portion of the contents inside. With this change, these beautiful objects transformed into the more substantial book. There is an extreme beauty and effect in the philosophy of the e-book - the writer's words stand on their own in a nearly level playing field. And yet, the materiality of the book and the things that lay outside of literature tend to enrich our experience in a way these new devices do not. Reading is not just about our sense of sight just as listening is not just about our sense of hearing. The other senses, defined or not, are always influencing us. The book - its typography, images, paper, size, literature - is a wonderful sum of its parts.

I wanted this little brief introduction to work as an introduction to these few books I’m sharing with you as well as how my experience with Chinese books helped me think differently about the book. The books that follow are of many different sorts - some I chose for the superficial and direct reason that I found them arresting and attractive. Some I bought for their literary content. As I packed up to move, these few books were among my most valued, so I share them with you. Don't pay too much attention to the section heads - there's lots of overlap and its just my way of making this random selection a little more digestible.



Relatable and Translatable  


The dramatic differences between Chinese and English present an extreme challenge to translators, especially with written translation. Roughly speaking, Chinese characters represent words or ideas and have little in common with the strictly phonetic latin alphabet (although many chinese characters do actually have phonetic elements but the rules vary greatly, to the point where many modern Chinese readers rarely think about them).

So how do you translate an English title into Chinese?  Chinese takes a few different routes, the two most common are:

1.) Use the sounds of a character to mimic the sounds of the english word (Sometimes, the characters have a clever meaning along with their similar sound...sometimes there is no meaning at all, as below)


 e.g. 湯姆索亞 TangMu SuoYa is Tom Sawyer (This has no usable meaning - if forced to translate, it would be something like ‘soup female tutor search asia’)

2.) Use characters with a similar meaning to represent the title (with no attempt for phonetic similarity


e.g.  聖經 Sheng Jing (‘holy scripture’) is The Bible

With that little intro, here are the titles for the first set of books pictured above:

  1. The Portable Emerson: The translator's transliteration of Emerson's name is informed and phonetically similar: '愛默森' (the pronunciation  is 'ai' 'mo' 'sen' - say those fast and you will understand why). The characters mean 'love,' 'silent', and 'forest.'

  2. Walden by Henry David Thoreau: Walden is translated as Essays from the Lakeside with no phonetic similarities. And Thoreau? 亨利·大衛·梭羅 (Hēnglì·dà wèi·suō luó) - a purely phonetic representation.

  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain translated as The Wayward Wanderings of a Mischevious Child

  4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is Catcher in the Wheat Field  (here's a newer and less subtle variation on the cover that I saw at the bookstore)

  5. A Dictionary of American Slang by various authors

  6. The Drink Book by various authors




  1. Practical Picture Dictionary

  2. Paintings on the Preservation of Life (Vol. II) by Feng Zikai (I will write more about him, one of my favorite 20th Century Chinese writers/artists, at a later date.)

  3. Collection of Landscape Paintings

  4. Manuscripts of Classic and Modern Artists

  5. Original Color Picture Catalog of Plants

The Strange and Fun

  1. The Art of Shadow Puppetry

  2. On the Nile River

  3. Anatomy for Artistic Purposes

  4. Delightful Folk Stories of Taiwan

  5. Excerpts from various children’s books

  6. Kaiming Second English Book (This primer was written by one of the most important literary figures in the Chinese speaking world at the time, the Harvard graduate Lin Yutang. Curiously, it was also illustrated by Feng Zikai, who has another selection above)

  7. Ji RueiTong



For the Kids

  1. The Case of Shi Gong

  2. The Selfish Giant

  3. Master Zhu’s Family Doctrines

  4. Three Character Classic (Most likely written in the 13th century, this is one of the most important educational texts in Chinese, widely used in Taiwan up till the 1960's. It's an amazing feat of writing, each line consisting of only three characters and using a wide variety of characters and grammatical patterns to make it a useful tool for children learning the written and spoken language. In addition to its use in language education, the text also neatly sums up the entire world-view of Chinese Confucian thought, helping to indoctrinate numerous generations of Chinese children. The very famous opening lines illustrate a line of thought seen as elemental to later Confucian orthodoxy, as explicitly stated by Mencius. The lines are:

人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth,

性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).

性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,

習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other).

[g] Keroncong, with special guest


The above is one of my favorite professional recordings of the Indonesian music known as Kroncong (also: Krontjong, Keroncong. For a truly worthwhile read, please follow this pdf link and read about the music's long and diverse history, a fascinating angle that I don't much address in this entry). It was also one of the first songs that exposed me to this music that has always felt both similar and foreign. While I now have other relations to the music, at first, it was simply Kroncong’s melodies and rhythms - its musical style - that drew me in.


I had long been familiar with Gamelan ("traditional" Indonesian ensemble music), and when I first heard the music known as Kroncong, I felt some of their pleasing similarities. While one style seemed to more closely resemble the saccharine and familiar melodies of western popular music (see 'Bengawan Solo' below, the most famous of all Kroncong songs), the audible likeness to Gamelan music seemed more pronounced in the Kroncong style known as Langgam or Langgam Jawa. In this form, the bass and kroncong (an instrument similar to the ukulele) seemed to mimic, in a more portable way, the sounds and rhythms of the massive gongs and percussion instruments in the huge Gamelan ensembles. Check 'Putri Gunung' above and 'Wuyung' below to listen to a few Langgam favorites from Andjar Any, Toeti HP and their Orkes Kroncong Bintang Nusantara.


While many hundreds of variations exist of 'Bengawan Solo,' a song originally written by Gesang, there was something about this recording and the singer's glances and voice that made this version stand out. The video also includes a variation of 'Jali Jali'.  Below is another favorite, 'Wuyung.'


Both forms of Kroncong (there are others, as well) could indicate “somewhere else; somewhere new,” in a geographical way, but the “somewhere else” was, for me, almost entirely musical. The krongcong's use as a percussion instrument, the female singer’s emotional and fluid voice, the freely improvisational introductions of the violinist, the ample use of rubato - their forms felt different and hit me directly.  

An old and rather beautiful shot of one variation of instrument combinations for a Kroncong band. For another well-researched essay on the history of Kroncong, please click  here . While it can be difficult to follow, it's also oftentimes fascinating.

An old and rather beautiful shot of one variation of instrument combinations for a Kroncong band. For another well-researched essay on the history of Kroncong, please click here. While it can be difficult to follow, it's also oftentimes fascinating.


Some music challenges us and multiplies the wrinkles in our brain, changing the way we hear and listen. Other music has a certain, mostly undefinable, power to resonate with our heart's own strings. Kroncong did and does both to me. The style has not loosened its affect on me, an influence that I trust is as deep in its impression as it is colorful.

Admittedly, the music also has a referential power, as it brings me back to the time I spent in Java, Indonesia, when I first met Timbil. As it would turn out, he would bring me even closer to the music. So let me, in an abbreviated fashion, extend that privilege to you.



I met Timbil Budiarto in Indonesia in 2014. Gintani Swastika, a curator and member of the Ace House Collective, introduced me to him at LifePatch, both of these organizations important and unique cooperative groups in Jogja, located centrally in the island of Java. At the time, we had an amiable conversation, enough to remember his face. Then, about two months ago, at an art performance in the hills of south Taipei, I was pleasantly shocked when I randomly recognized his face in a crowd. We reconnected for a bit and, over the remaining month that he was in Taipei, had the opportunity to spend time together and have a few substantial conversations.

In one of those conversations, when I mentioned my near-obsession with the Indonesian style of music known as Keroncong, he quickly replied, "My mom's a Keroncong singer." Hearing this, my heart jumped. Even better, he said he had brought recordings of her performing with her friends.

When he saw the extreme excitement on my face, I think he felt it was necessary to add, "She's not a professional singer." Certainly this was no problem, and in some ways it was more encouraging. The non-professional (or, more accurately, when players "play for fun" as opposed to aspiring professionals who have not yet reached the professional stage) seems to be very much in touch with what I think of as music and its foundation: a way to sonically celebrate and enjoy life, and create harmonies with other things and people. The professional and their output is ever-well documented, transmitted and available for purchase. The non-professionals, I fear, dwindle in number. So, too, do their ensembles, sing-alongs, and choirs as more and more of us only consume music, instead of take part in it. The professional trades their time for someone else's money. The non-professional trades their time for time. Certainly there's something to this, and I believe it can be felt when playing "for fun." Although, when Timbil mentioned his disclaimer, my response was an abridged, "not a problem at all, I want to hear the recordings!"

A week or so passed before I invited him over to my home with a number of other friends. After casually drinking, snacking and lounging around, he told me that he had brought his hard drive that included some of his mother, Sumini Soerapto, and her friends' Kroncong performances. Eagerly and without hesitation, I brought Ruei and Timbil into my studio. After copying the folder containing the media onto my computer, I loaded one video.

As we watched the home video, it was hard for me not to get emotional. It was difficult not only because of the intervals, scales and the melodic rhythms of the musical style that, before, had already had an extremely inebriating effect on me; it was also hard because I was considering and feeling the strange intersections of that moment. Watching the same video together at the same time, Ruei, Timbil and I were certainly affected in entirely different ways. Physically and musically together, we were also consciously isolated. Timbil, of course, was affected in a very personal and direct way; as he watched, he pointed out his mother and his father. Also, when certain musicians' faces came into focus, he would softly add, "he's now gone," "so is he," amplifying the enigmatic power of documentation - something gone is still, in a lesser form, here.

It was a privilege to share what seemed so personal. The different sounds and images produced many different intersections in the short time we watched together. There were dissonances and harmonies, the krong krong of the kroncong instrument (this is where Krongcong gets its name from), and leisurely breaks between songs. Sometimes they were performing under a small roof outside during the day, breathing the fresh air as they performed with their feet to the ground, having removed their shoes when they stepped onto their stage. There they laughed together, played, stopped, started and, at times, looked directly into the camera. And we, the viewers, looked back.  


These videos will have different affects on you as they had on me.

Or Ruei.

Or of course, Timbil

(much less his mother),

but I feel very happy to be able to share this with you and I have to thank Timbil Budiarto and his mother, Sumini Soeprapto, for allowing me to do so.


His mother shared her voice with her fellow musicians;

They recorded it and shared it with her son;

her son shared it with his new friend,

and his new friend now shares it with you.




While the music doesn't start until around 0:40, I highly recommend you watch from the beginning to get a sense of the surroundings. Along with any of these videos, if you'd like to see them larger, just click on the link on the top edge of the video and watch it full-size at youtube.


I took the liberty to post a snippet of the first take of this song. The singer's focus and the movement of her eyes and hands seem to synchronize so comfortably with the music. Her reaction to missing her queue towards the end is fun to see in a "I know exactly how that feels" kind of way. Her recovery into the perfect take 2 is in its complete form below.


This is Timbil's mother, Sumini Soeprapto, and my favorite recording of these performances. Her voice is incredibly affecting for me and the rhythms of her ensemble mates at 2:48 that lead into the changes at 3:50 are so comfortably driving. It's the intervals like those of this song, (as well as 'Putri Gunung,' and 'Wuyung' above) that are the most gripping and moving I've encountered in Kroncong. Watch this video to the end.




for those who still want more:


[p] Philodendron

Philodendron’s can be found most everywhere and are incredibly easy to grow. In Taiwan, they are often placed in the public bathrooms, with only florescent light to aid their growth. 

In 2012, I took a philodendron I’ve had since I moved here and cut off each leaf, taking a picture so I could see the leaves as individuals of a whole.

The images of each leaf are below.

I used the final leaf (that you see in the last picture) and let it regrow in a new pot. After it grew back to the same size, it was again cut down to a single leaf. This leaf is now is in water in a small ounce-sized jar on my desk. 



[m] Harumi Miyako's アンコ椿は戀の花

My first trip to Asia was in 2006. It was also my first 10+ hour flight, and as the plane was approaching Narita, I thought I would play the music channel in the “Welcome to Japan” selection, as specially selected by JAL. So it was in a rather “youthful irony” that I started listening to this mix, for the novelty of it all. Looking out the window, seeing all new things, exhausted, the music played.


I can’t remember anything else from that moment except for when a playfully articulated orchestral song started to play. The fidelity of the recording suggested its substantial age. As soon as Harumi Miyako’s voice (I would only, much later, discover her name) hit its first guttural rise, I instantaneously and uncontrollably began to sob. It had nothing to do with happiness or sadness, and I didn’t seem to have any conscious reason for the tears, but there I was, tears falling and feeling a deep tension in my chest.


If I described the music beyond her sometimes-tender-sometimes-fearless voice/growl, I would be going beyond my abilities to describe, not to mention beyond description’s usefulness. Which, expanding on this thought, is one of the greatest aspects of music - the uselessness of words or any sort of description. At those moments, it’s only real-time sympathetic movements and reactions that are relevant (in this song’s case, tears...in others’, dancing, sleeping...).


Maybe you hear this song and are unmoved or unsure about my description. This is another of the greatest and most frustrating aspects of music (and other expressive art forms) - a composition’s ability to move one to tears while, at the same time, leaving another unaffected. It’s an aspect I initially felt betrayed by, only to later accept the beauty of true isolation. Whether it’s some sort of sympathetic vibration at work, or if it’s my subconsciousness playing a leading role in this song’s ability to hit my chords, I’m not sure. But, there’s that.

Watch her sing it live in 1966 to a captive audience.