Many years ago, I read an article in National Geographic by a woman who studied lions in Namibia. She mentioned returning to the field after an absence of some months and recognizing many of the familiar leonine faces she had grown to love and respect. The article included pictures, and I looked at one that showed several female lions and thought, “But they all look exactly alike to me.”
I think we register or interpret sensations according to what seems distinctive to us. And since I have little familiarity with lions, what appeared distinctive to me about the creatures inn that photo is precisely that they were lions. They stood out in the picture from the grass and the ground and the sky. I recognized them as quite a bit different from the zoologist. And so on. My mind took in those lions and filed them under “Lions,” not under “Flattail” and “Spot” and “Simba” and “Sally.” But with more experience, I fully believe that I would begin to discern the distinctive features of the animals so I could tell one from another, just as I’ve learned, for instance, to distinguish twins who looked exactly alike to me at first.
A couple of years ago, a Chinese student in my classes told me about Luo Guanzhong’s classic Chinese novel, Three Kingdoms. “Every boy and man in China has read this book,” she explained. “It’s our Lord of the Rings.” (Oh! that every boy and man in our country would read LOTR!) Naturally, a guy trying to educate himself in classic literature, when he hears a recommendation like that, tells himself that he has to read the book. And a few days ago, I finally got started. A little online research convinced me to bypass the Brewitt-Taylor translation, which did have the enticing virtue of being free, and to order Moss Roberts’s more recent rendition instead. The edition I bought comes in four paperback volumes, each having 500+ pages. So this is a daunting task I’ve taken on.
And then I open to page 1 and see all those Chinese names! A typical page includes at least twenty mentions of names, with few repeats. And when I see Chinese words and names, I have to admit that I react the same way I did when I saw those lions: the main thing that strikes me is their Chinese-ness. I see a lot of QI’s and NG’s and ZH’s, and my mind just tosses them all in the bin marked “Chinese” without worrying too much about the details.
So I knew I was going to have slow down and at least learn how to pronounce these words; that way I’d have a sound to remember as well as a sight. But that itself is no easy task. For one thing, the Chinese language uses several sounds that English doesn’t use, or at least doesn’t use in the same way: fricative CH’s with the tongue placed behind the lower teeth, explosive P’s like the P-H in “up here” except without the opening U, and so on. In addition, the current standard method for transliteration to roman characters bears only slight resemblance to the English pronunciation of the same letters. Chinese has no voiced B sound, so the character B is used for one of the P sounds. Chinese has no Z sound, so Z stands for a TS sound. X represents a hissy H something like the first sound in “huge” (if the first sound in “huge” is hissy). And Q stands for that sound with the tongue behind the lower teeth. It’s all quite confusing, but I went over and over the chart for several days, sorting it out, practicing my Q’s, ignoring the explosions, and trying to come up with something like sound memories for each of the names I saw. And it helps: I can tell you from memory right now who Yuan Shao is and who Yuan Shu is.
The sad thing is that my problem with names doesn’t apply only to Chinese. But with English names, I can’t blame an ignorance of spelling; I know it’s just a problem of not reading carefully enough and not recording accurately what I read. I’ve learned that I can keep a large cast of characters straight more easily if I can associate definite faces to them. When I read about the American Civil War, for instance, I pull out a file of generals’ portraits that I’ve put together. (Of course, I have to work at the portraits, as well, so my mind doesn’t register each as simply “bewhiskered nineteenth-century man.”) But sometimes in fiction, as well, I assign faces to characters as if casting a stage version. And I want to give a character not just a generic mental “pudgy” face or a generic mental “old” face, but a face I know. Sometimes I use faces of friends or students, and sometimes I actually use well-known actors. I’ve even occasionally made up faces and drawn them with characters’ names next to them.
The difficulty in Three Kingdoms is sorting itself out. Just by consciously dealing with these names for a few days, they’re starting to make distinct symbols in my mind. Now there’s just the problem of keeping straight hundreds of distinct names interacting in a series of intrigues and battles between scores of independent powers in ever-shifting alliances. Yikes!