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Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part I

The first meeting. Venue – Beijing, August 2002. We met up with Vladimir Voevodsky and Laurent Lafforgue at the International Congress of Mathematicians – the pre-eminent event in the world of mathematics. The Congress is nothing less than a hybrid between the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes. What it has in common with the former is its quadrennial occurrence, and to present at it is as much an honour as it is for a sportsman to win a medal at the Olympics. And like the Nobel it confers an award, the Fields Medal, which is possibly the greatest prize in mathematics.
We may never learn what occasioned Alfred Nobel so much dislike: mathematics as a discipline, or mathematicians as a community. One thing is for sure, though: he did not declare any share of the prize to mathematicians that might enhance either their prestige or their financial status. Nobel laureates quickly become stars on TV and radio, their bank accounts bulging to the tune of several trailing zeroes; for the rest of their lives, they enjoy the fruit of their labour. Fields medallists, though, are known chiefly to their colleagues, and the prize money itself is so modest that they scarcely have enough to purchase a middling automobile. In addition, there is a severe restriction: the prize can be won only by a mathematician not older than 40 years of age.

But none of this diminishes any of the scientific work that is nominated for it. And so the professionals in their thousands descend upon the Congress from all parts of the world, reminiscent of warriors who congregated to measure themselves against each other in ancient times. In 2002, the Congress held in Beijing was unusual in two ways. It was the first time since the inception of the Fields Medal in 1932 that it was being held in China. Secondly, it was the first time that the prize was being awarded only to two mathematicians, not four as was the usual practice. [My note: this is not true. The first five ICMs had only two prizewinners each, as did the one in 1974.] The quality of achievement of these two men was considered so high that it had been impossible to find another pair equally eminent. In Beijing, the event had assumed a national importance. I suppose this was no different from the way we conducted the International Festival of Youth in Moscow in 1957.
On all TV and radio stations, they transmitted live broadcasts of the events unfolding at the mathematical institute where the Congress was hosted. All manner of strangers, in the markets, on the streets, in the shops, came up and welcomed us when they noticed the badge we wore with the ICM logo. And the prizes themselves were awarded in the great hall of the Chinese parliament by the President, Jiang Zemin. At the centre of all the attention, of course, were two young light-haired Europeans, who looked so alike to the President that he mixed up the medals, and didn’t at once realise with whom he should standing to be photographed.
[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]
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Haraprasad Ray’s Sino-Asian Trade – A Review

[Haraprasad Ray, a Sinologist of considerable expertise, wrote several monographs on Sino-Indian relations, history, trade routes and so on. His 1993 book, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations: Study of Bengal During the 15th Century, was reviewed by Denys Lombard1. I translate that review loosely here.]

Although the title does not explicitly state so, this is essentially a rereading by one of the few Indian Sinologists (a lecturer at the Jawaharlal Nehru University) of the Chinese sources of the four missions to Bengal during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (between 1412-1414, 1415-1416, 1420-1421, and 1422-1423). As Pelliot has already assumed, it seems clear that Zheng He did not participate in any of these visits but left the responsibility to three of his associates: Yang Min, Hou Xian and Zhou Ding.

Mr Haraprasad Ray’s work is based mainly on the text Xiyang Chaogong Dianlu, “A Report on the Tributes sent to the Court from the Countries of the Western Seas” by Huang Shengceng, a native of Suzhou (1490-1540), and recently published by Xie Fang, based on seven different versions (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1982). He tells us of having also ‘discovered’ by himself an unpublished manuscript in the City Library of Shanghai, which, unfortunately, he hasn’t used in this work. Huang’s text, certainly inspired by the Xingcha shenglan and the Yingyai shenglan, includes as well other unpublished sources, whence its interest.

The observations of Mr Haraprasad Ray, who is himself of Bengali origin, are invaluable. He establishes that the Chinese went well past Pandua (itself about 30 miles north of Gaur, a site not mentioned in the Yingyai edited by J.V.G. Mills) to Gaya, Delhi and up to Jaunpur. It is not without interest to see that the Chinese emissaries stopped at Jaunpur, that ‘enigmatic’ kingdom, where, under Ibrahim Shah Sharqi (1402-1440) an amazing cultural development inspired by Persia was flourishing at precisely that same time, Jaunpur being known then as the ‘Shiraz of India.’ Further, Mr Ray identifies certain Bengali fabrics that previous translations from the Chinese had hitherto omitted: manzheti, which appears to correspond to panchadi, a sort of calico; xinbailedali, corresponding to jhamartali, a sort of muslin; chaotaer corresponding to chautar, a thin cotton material; moheimoluo corresponding to mahmal, a velveteen fabric, and so on.

The glossary of Chinese terms (listing unnecessary characters like those of Zheng He and Yongle, but omitting those of Pand-du-wa and Zhao-na-pu-er) remains incomplete, and it is regrettable that the author was not better acquainted with the fine work of G. Bouchon (although a 1973 article by her on the Muslims of Kerala is cited) and L.F. Thomaz2, or R. Ptak3. Nevertheless, we eagerly await his forthcoming observations concerning Calicut, Quilon, Cochin and the Maldives (probably deriving from the same Xiyang chaogong dianlu).

We must in particular highlight the appendix (pp 147-160) in which Mr Haraprasad Ray returns to the question of the reasons for the termination of the famous voyages after 1433: “Cessation of the Voyages : A New Look into its Causes.”

Far from inferring a “Chinese decline” from the reduction in naval expeditions, the author suggests rather that state enterprises began to be taken over by private firms. This view (admittedly not entirely new, found as it is in the works of Wu Han and Lo Jungpang) is certainly a fine one, and we risk little more if we make a quick comparison between the Chinese trade, now almost free of any interference from the state, and future European commerce, which would have to endure more than two centuries of the yoke of the Estado da India. If we agree with Mr Ray, and there are, in our view, compelling reasons to do so, we must conclude that the Chinese interlopers had won the game long before the Europeans began to play it.

1. Denys Lombard. Haraprasad Ray : Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations. A Study of Bengal during the Fifteenth Century, Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994, vol. 81, n° 1, pp. 388-389.

2. Regarding Bengal, we would have expected at least a mention of the fine edition of the first Portuguese evidence on the region: G. Bouchon, L.F. Thomaz, Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l’Irraouaddy, 1521, Paris, Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, 1988.

3. When, for instance, Mr Ray addresses the issue of the trade in horses (p. 120), it is unfortunate he does not mention the little monograph by R. Ptak, Pferde auf see, Chinas Pferdeimporte von den Riukiu-Inseln und den Ländern Südostasiens und des Indischen Ozeans (1368-1435), Bamberg, 1991.

Machine Translation

The Russian news-site Korrespondent.net investigated recently why Google’s Translate tool translates the word ‘Yushenko’ (in Russian) into ‘Yanukovich’ in Chinese. To convince yourselves that this really happens, go to Translate and choose the conversion from Russian into Chinese (Traditional).

(Yushenko and Yanukovich, of course, are the big political rivals in the Ukraine.)

Then type into the source window the following text: "Голосуй за Януковича! Он ведёт Украину в светлое будущее". (Which means, loosely, ‘Vote for Yanukovic. He leads the Ukraine into a bright future.’)

The word Yanukovich is rendered as 尤先科 in Chinese, which is read as Iou-sen-khe, that is, Yushenko.

Also, the translation changes the object of the ‘bright future’ from the Ukraine to the politician.

Why would this be? There is no ideological intent, we hasten to clarify. Machine translation does a statistical analysis of texts publicly available on the Internet, texts in multiple languages, texts such as documents, news articles, essays, and so on. The translator does not know, for example, that the words ‘Obama’ and ‘Обама’ mean the same thing; instead, a pattern match suggests to it that these happen to coincide in parallel texts to high frequency. Especially where proper nouns are concerned, it is difficult for the translator to distinguish between them when they occur together. Thus it was that the sentence ‘Bush meets Putin’ used to be translated from English to Russian as (‘Путин встречает Буша’ (‘Putin meets Bush’). The problem with the translation into Chinese is that Yanukovich appears in online sources far more frequently than Yushenko, and so the translator decided, based on the statistical match of the rest of the sentence, that it pertained to Yanukovich, rather than Yushenko.

Such mistakes are usually corrected either by increasing the available corpus for the translator to chew over, or by providing human input as a moderator. (Google allows a user, for example, to suggest a better translation.)

(Or, of course, it could be, as a commenter at the Ответы@Mail.Ru info-service said, ‘For the Chinese, Yushenko or Yanukovich are the same. To them, those Western barbarians are indistinguishable.’)