Posts written by Bill M. Mak

Confucian learning a qin piece 孔子學琴

This story about Confucius insisting on practicing the same piece of qin music instead of moving on to something new as told by his teacher is both inspiring and thought-provoking, thanks to Mei 楊嵋 for pointing this out.

So many of us, students or researchers, rush to the next thing before truly mastering one thing. Confucius in this story did not stop after he “learned” 習 something, but he continued to master the techniques 數, to understand its spirit and intention 志, and to ultimately know its creator in the most profound sense 得其為人. Such empathy and humility lead to a kind of insight that is little appreciated today. This contrasts sharply to our utilitarian approach to knowledge and learning.

In this sense, the study of art and music is particularly important to scholars. Learning with insight makes us human. The arts have a way to force us to look inward and one cannot fake one’s way through. I realize that it is a humanist bias from my side — I always feel that scholars who have no musical or artistic talent and training have a high chance of being fakes. And this is becoming more so since “hard knowledge” is becoming all available digitally.



Unmasking the prejudice against masks

I have a bad feeling about all the “experts” in the Western media telling citizens not to wear masks. It’s incredible how people just blindly follow advices without any lateral thinking and common sense. The YouTube comment section is filled with skeptics who surprisingly ask all the right questions and point out all the poor logic and blatant contradictions of those who argue against mask-wearing. Every other sentence of this “health editor” is either plainly wrong or contradictory. This is not just a question of health and hygiene, but one of authority, belief, and cultural prejudice. Masks are not effective because they are difficult to wear correctly? Then learn to wear it properly! They make people think that they are safe when in fact they aren’t? Tell them they aren’t! The most obvious fail: If the mask is dangerous because one may touch the virus collected on it? That means the mask is doing the job by blocking it! I would give this lady a big red FAIL if I have to give her speech a mark.

Sadly it is useless to explain to my Western friends. Some are fixated about the ineffectiveness of the masks. Just because 80% of virus can pass through around or even through the mask, it still stops 20% plus the droplets. But masks work for more than just one “scientific” reason. If it is known that the virus is contracted through exposure on the respiratory membrane, then covering your mouth and nose is just plain common sense, whether it stops droplets from landing on them or you touching your face with your potentially virus-laden hands. Surprisingly the most useful aspect of asking everyone to wear mask is not just because it blocks airborne virus, but that it creates a culture where those who should wear masks would be encouraged to do so. Otherwise you will keep seeing ridiculous scenes where people keep coughing and sneezing at each other while manically sanitizing their hands. Yes, they should not be out and about. But the fact remains that they are. And that’s why a mask-wearing culture prevents a massive outbreak.

But this is not about following advices. The saddest truth is that this reluctance is largely driven by a kind of prejudice one does not see or want to admit. Many Westerners simply see masking-wearing as some kind of Asian joke, unscientific and imbecile crowd mentality. In North America people may say that in front of your face. Here in the UK, people are too polite. But it doesn’t stop people from thinking the same.

This is a very high price for prejudice. Now is not the time for an ego game. Intelligent people are especially in danger because they tend to justify whatever they want to believe. I am still surrounded by local colleagues who are esteemed scholars in their fields, but would give me a million reasons not to wear masks instead of considering one reason to, that is, simply to save life.

Slowly the messages change, however. Now some say that masks are effective for stopping virus from spreading after all. Of course they are. A few stubborn ones would refuse to ever be wrong. A few would continue to complain how things are poorly explained to them without realizing that they themselves didn’t make enough effort to understand and to sort out the right from the wrong. Once the mortality rate spikes, however, everyone will forget about these ridiculously harmful advices and put on their masks readily just like what the Italians did, albeit too late.

Lecture seminar at NRI: The (Non-)Transmission of the Jiuzhi li in China

14th February 2020


Needham Research Institute, 8 Sylvester Road, Cambridge CB3 9AF


Lecture seminar at NRI: The (Non-)Transmission of the Jiuzhi li in China


The Jiuzhi li 九執曆, composed in Chinese by Qutan Xida (*Gautamasiddhārtha) 瞿曇悉達 in 718 C.E., is to date the most advanced treatise extant on classical Indian mathematical astronomy. Commissioned by Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗, the text was known to Yixing 一行 and other court astronomers, as well as some Chinese Buddhists during the Tang Period. Despite its advanced mathematical (such as trigonometry) and astronomical content (such as nodal precession), the work was poorly received among the Chinese contemporaries and was eventually lost until it was rediscovered in the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese historian of science Chen Jiujin 陳久金 thus lamented how the Indian work was unfairly treated and its contribution to Chinese astronomy unrecognized, and as a result its non-transmission was a missed opportunity for what could have been a major advance in Chinese science. The annotated translation of Yabuuti Kiyosi is considered to date the most comprehensive study of this text, though many riddles connected to its content remain unsolved. A short passage from the beginning of the Jiuzhi li on Indian calendrical calculation will be read in this session. Philological issues related to the provenance, technical vocabulary, and translation style of the text will also be examined.