My students wrote my pet phrases into this thank-you card
Thesis writing is a compulsory subject in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, and a professor usually supervises six to seven students. Upon completion of the course it’s not unusual to receive a thank-you card from my students, but this group is special in that they noted down what I must have kept repeating during our meetings, such as ‘God created the world in seven days, so you must be capable of finishing a chapter in seven days’, by which I meant one can get a lot done in a week if they stop using ‘not enough time’ as an excuse. Here’s another one: ‘You are firing your gun violently but none of your bullets hit your target.’ It was a disapproval of those who simply put together whatever materials they found instead of forming their own thoughts. I forgot I had come down so hard on them, and was surprised they kept it all in mind. The card is conspicuously displayed in my office as a reminder that what has been said cannot be unsaid.
The Great Compendium of Chinese Characters is kept handy behind my telephone set
When I was a PhD student, the Television Broadcast Limited collaborated with our Department to air a series of programmes that explained the origins of Chinese characters. I appeared in some of the episodes, and have since been in the public eye. Some journalists would call me up when they have doubts about the usage of certain words, and this dictionary came in handy. I am a big fan of dictionaries of different languages, and will look for them when I am travelling abroad. I think words are sacred vessels of culture, memory, and thinking patterns of our ancestors. Dictionaries are also pacifying, as they allow fast and reliable check for lexical contentions.
The Sherlock Holmes door sign implies doing research is akin to playing detective
Renowned sinologist and translator of ancient Chinese classics Prof. D.C. Lau once said that studying the Chinese language is analogous to criminal investigation. A literary work is strewn with codes and clues, and it takes reasoning to comprehend its profundities, to identify the real author, or to distinguish an original edition. I love detective fiction, and imagine myself working in Holmes’ apartment in Baker Street, where I hunt for clues hidden in plain sight and uncover the truth using the power of reason. That’s the most rewarding thing about being a researcher.
As told to christinenip@cuhkcontents
Photos by gloriang@cuhkimages & adalam@cuhkimages