Monday, 7 February 2011

Well I'll Be......

......blowed. One can dream :-). But seriously, this post is a random collection of facts with one unifying theme, they completely overthrew any pre-conceptions I had on the subject at the time. It's instructive, yet humbling to plumb the depths of ones ignorance.

First off, 

1) Russian Dolls
Everyone knows of the famous Matryoshka dolls with their unique nested design, an apparently quintessential example of Russian folk art of presumably time-shrouded origin. Right? Wrong on both counts. The dolls are neither originally Russian, and are a rather recent development. The first "Russian dolls" were created in 1890(!) by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin on a commission from a wealthy industrialist Savva Mamontov. The design was inspired by a set of Japanese religious figures of the Seven Lucky Gods (a Korean acquaintance tells me that they are in fact originally Korean, in particular the defining feature of nestedness). Mamontov's wife later exhibited the dolls at the 1900 Paris World Exposition where they won a Bronze Medal sparking off interest and demand for the dolls that over time became associated as typically Russian. Winston Churchill almost certainly had them in mind when he describe the Soviet Union as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" in a speech in 1939, showing how quickly the meme of the dolls' Russian-ness had burrowed itself into the popular consciousness.

The original 1890 Zvyozdochkin/Malyutin set

2) Are Israel and the US allies?
The surprising answer is no, but let me qualify that. They are not formal allies, never having concluded a treaty to that effect. They are instead de facto allies, enjoying a close (some would say too close) alliance that puts Britain's much-touted "special relationship" in the shade. As someone generally well-disposed to Britain, it pains me to see how Britain allows itself to be treated so dismissively by the yanks. I just hope the current leadership (sic) would grow a pair and remember the words of Lord Palmerston "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow". But back to US-Israeli relations, the reasons why no formal alliance has been inked have been hotly discussed/disputed on the web. It could be reluctance on the part of the US which doesn't want its hands tied in order to play a role as an honest broker in Middle-Eastern diplomacy (the Arabs would need to be really dumb to fall for that. Oh, wait...). Or it could be the Israelis wanting to keep their options open. Israel leads a precarious existence and has thrived thus far mainly through uncritical American support and largesse, often even to the detriment of US interests. This may not always be the case and perhaps Israel prefers to be unencumbered to seek another superpower patron (China, Russia?) should the need arise. Another reason is that Israel prefers to have its borders undeclared for some unknown reason (tin-hats on!). This precludes any formal alliance as allies are compelled to come to each others aid in the event of an assault on their territorial integrity (fortunately Georgia's application for NATO membership was turned down, otherwise its deserved bitchslapping from Russia could have escalated into WWIII). So why are Israel's borders undeclared? To facilitate future land-grabs? To have more chips on the table for a future land-for-peace deal? I'm not getting into this one!

3) Mandarin is an Indian word
Yes, you read that right.  The first substantial European contact with China in modern times was in the south-eastern coastal regions of Canton and Fujian. While ordinary people spoke the respective local dialects, the officials spoke the, err...."official" standard Chinese which was based on that of Beijing, the seat of imperial power (the written language is of course dialect-neutral). This is one positive feature of Chinese civilization, the system of Imperial examinations to select the brightest candidates, (regardless of background), for a lifelong appointment as a career bureaucrat. In a culture otherwise reeking of nepotism (under the guise of Confucian fidelity), the meritocracy of the civil service allowed the efficient management of a vast sprawling empire despite the lack of modern communications. This system spawned a class of scholar-bureaucrats that reached into every corner of the empire to perform the necessary  task of administration. As an institution, over the centuries it developed its own sub-culture with the adoption of the Beijing dialect as its internal lingua franca (Guanhua, "speech of officials") and communicating in a hifalutin style laden with literary allusions (well, one just can't let all those years spent mugging up on the Confucian classics go to waste after all). Back to etymology, when the first Portuguese landed in China, they referred to the officials as "mandarim", a word that can be traced back to Sanskrit (mantrin, for minister or counsellor). The Portuguese may have encountered the word from the Malay menteri, for minister. The Malay language contains a lot of Sanskrit loan-words and even today, the word for a minister (i.e. head of a government department and not a professional God-botherer) in modern Malay is menteri, which the Portuguese may well have picked up after their conquest of Malacca in 1511. Of course the Portuguese couldn't fail but notice that the mandarins communicated amongst themselves in a different dialect to that of the locals leading to a transference of the term to include the spoken language as well. And in the fullness of time, the word worked its way into the English language to denote a high-grade civil servant (e.g. Whitehall mandarins) and their particular brand of bureaucratic obfuscation.

Sir Humphrey could have been speaking in Mandarin for all the good it did the committee

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