The King’s Woman 秦时丽人明月心

Image result for the king's womanThere was an ancient king who was merciless yet philanthropic, a despot and a visionary, and who shed oceans of blood to bring peace to the world. He was the King of Qin, originally the prince Ying Zheng, and he sought to unite the “entire world” by force.

That is the paradoxical story of unparalleled historical significance that Chinese videos have told me again and again.

Hero and The Emperor and the Assassin are examples of great Chinese films that gravitate around the same historical drama, which led to the rise of the ancient Chinese nation through the bloody unification of six kingdoms. The king of one of those realms, Qin, is the indispensable personality—sometimes a villain and sometimes a hero—often both simultaneously.

The King of Qin is not usually the main character, but he is always a powerful and conflicting figure without whom the rest of the story would make little sense.

Currently I’m watching a drama, a 2017 TV series that resembles the abovementioned films, but drawn out into 48 episodes of 40 minutes each. Thus, instead of the typical two hours of viewing with a film, I will have about 32 hours. I’ve watched 21 episodes thus far[i], most of the time with English subtitles. It is the first TV drama in Mandarin that I’m actually enjoying on its own merits and would recommend to others. It’s not as good as the films, but in some ways it comes close.

Image result for the king's womanThe main character and hero of the drama is a woman, Gongsun Li, a sword-yielding wushu warrior who is held captive by the King of Qin because of her beauty and an infatuation that stems from childhood interactions. However, her grandfather warrior master was killed by Qin fighters and she is in love with her brother-in-training, Jing Ke, with whom she has pledged to avenge her grandfather’s death. Complicating matters further, when the King of Qin first forces her to remain at his palace, she is—unknown to any—newly pregnant with Jing Ke’s son. The baby is born and is said to be the legitimate son of the King. Gongsun Li, who originally accepted captivity in order to save Jing Ke, now remains in the palace to protect her son’s interests and his very life.

By episode 21, Gongsun Li, while still theoretically in love with her brother-in-training Jing Ke, has gone from royal concubine to wife and queen, has saved the King of Qin’s life, gone out to battle with him and, what’s worse, is apparently falling for him. It’s not surprising that she is falling in love with the King. He is the most powerful man in the world, a young, handsome emperor, and, though domineering and tyrannical, is absolutely devoted to Li and patiently determined to seduce her and win her heart.

There is a third man who is secretly in love with Li, the eldest brother-in-training, Han Shen. He has managed to become a palace guard and, defying torture and death at the King’s hands, ended up gaining his complete trust. He has resigned himself to a platonic, but absolutely dedicated, love for Li and has become her bodyguard. Ironically, though he is also committed to avenging Li’s grandfather and is the King of Qin’s natural enemy, he has, at least temporarily, also become his loyal guard and protects Li on the King’s behalf.

Image result for the king's woman jing keJing Ke, meanwhile, is an insecure, yet energetic figure, an ambitious martial artist, searching inwardly for his heroic self and outwardly for a mythical sword manual that would bestow untold wushu powers on him or whoever finds and understands it. He is accompanied by a fawning and beautiful Ge Lan, the daughter of a renowned swordsman and herself a wushu disciple. Ge Lan is completely dedicated to Jing Ke, but he hardly seems to notice her.

What I most enjoy about this drama is the historical backdrop. The costumes and visuals are meticulously prepared and convincing, and while watching you find yourself immersed in 3rd-century-BC China. Inasmuch as the depictions are accurate, it was an amazingly advanced society, with a significant degree of material comfort—especially if you were royalty living in the Qin palace. Far from a strange, remote, or barbaric society, it comes across as livable, authentic, sophisticated, and highly relatable. I don’t know realistic the portrayal is, but the drama certainly succeeds in showing a civilization and human social organization as complex and engaging as any other, with interconnected people living out their personal dramas.

It helps that I have watched enough Chinese films, including historical ones, that the culture is somewhat familiar to me. One fascinating facet is that while the society is organized in a rigid, hierarchical fashion, with the king as the supreme pinnacle, there is a parallel society with its own values, traditions, and ethos—that of the wushu fighters, small bands of students and their masters who spend their days training martial arts and especially swordsmanship. While inevitably they end up interacting in complex ways with the rest of society, for extended periods they remain outside of it, and the unwritten laws they adhere to are their own. The freedom and heroism of the virtuoso martial artists are in stark contrast to the sometimes servile and backbiting ambitions of those that live and breathe within palace rules and their pyramidical hierarchy. Undoubtedly, this parallel society of wushu fighters is romanticized and exaggerated—if not entirely made up—but it does exist and hold tremendous importance in the collective Chinese psyche.

The collision between these two worlds—the palace life that dominates the rest of mainstream society and the wushu fighting class at its margins—and Gongsun Li’s ambivalent life with a foot in each world, will undoubtedly play an important role in the denouement of The King’s Woman. I’m currently close to halfway through, and I’ll write again about the drama by the time I’ve finished. Until then, I invite you, if you’re interested and haven’t done so already, to begin watching The King’s Woman yourself and enjoy the adventures of Gongsun Li, Jing Ke, Han Shen, and Ying Zheng. Better to become familiar with a fascinating new and historically important world than watch yet another Netflix series that depicts Anglo-American society. And you might even pick up a little Mandarin on the way…



[i] I drafted this post around Nov. 10, 2018.

The Russian Experiment??


After eleven years of countless international trips, negotiations, and grand strategies, I’m expecting to leave the international relations department in January, which I currently head at the Brazilian Court of Accounts. And I plan to make a most peculiar choice: to work in the Court’s IT department as a novice programmer, something I’ve never studied or worked with seriously before. It’s even more unusual because it means turning down another post, which would pay much better, provide more flexibility, be less demanding, and carry greater prestige. Read on, and you will understand why this change, and my decision, are quite relevant to this post, to my future studies of foreign languages, and—if I may be so bold—why they might impact the future of language acquisition itself.

My last international business trip—at least for the foreseeable future—is coming up in about ten days. I will be going to an INTOSAI Governing Board meeting in a fascinating destination: Moscow!

Naturally, my mind turned to the exciting prospect of contact with a foreign language. Most of my work trips have been to Latin American countries, and I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities to hone my mastery of the Spanish language, which, in turn, paid ample dividends in my ability to effectively pursue the Court’s interests. I brushed up on French during a recent trip to Cameroon, and the remaining missions have almost all been to countries where most people communicate well in English.

Russia, however, is like Brazil: a gigantic country whose sheer size makes it inward looking. As a result, as I understand it, the average Russian speaks little to no English. What a thrilling challenge it would be, then, to try to communicate a bit with the locals. And just two hours ago, I didn’t know a single word in Russian!

Of course, I have a slim chance of learning enough of such a difficult language (because it’s so unrelated to any that I speak) in the next 11 busy days before I arrive in Moscow—or in the 4 days or so that I spend there at work meetings in English and Portuguese—to engage in any real communication in Russian. And although I’ve slacked lately on my Mandarin, I plan to put in at least 30 minutes a day during this same period.

So, what’s my crazy plan with Russian?

I’m going to undertake a two-week “Russian Experiment”, completely antithetical to my Mandarin Experiment. No, I won’t be watching Russian cartoons or classic Russian movies—with or without subtitles—nor will I be listening to children’s music, and then making silly videos of myself dancing to them. No, no, I’ll leave all that to my Mandarin Experiment.

Instead, I will use technology to memorize the 100 most frequently used words in Russian and 20 common expressions. I will do so with one hour of studying per day and I would wager a bet that I’ll be able make real use of it while in Moscow. At the least, I will be able to break the ice with my Russian hosts! If I can put more time in, I will learn even more words and expressions. Further, if I find the whole experience sufficiently motivating, I will continue with Russian when I return to Brazil.

The technology I’m using is simple: virtual flashcards that use a spaced repetition system to recognize the spelling (using the Cyrillic alphabet), pronunciation, and meaning of words. What’s significant and wonderful is that these virtual flashcards were made for me to order by The Natural Language Institute by one of our programmers.

I founded “Natural” over 15 years ago, but in March of this year, I got more deeply involved again, this time with a focus on technology, and, in particular, the development of custom-made applications to power our highly effective approach to language acquisition. We’ve already developed and implemented the “Lessons App,” which saves time for teachers and structures custom data related to students’ learning. We are now finalizing the “Homework App,” which will allow our own teachers—and potentially teachers worldwide—to share and then search custom-made homework assignments based on authentic materials that meet students’ exact interests and needs.

We will develop many other apps and IT solutions to make language acquisition more efficient and enjoyable. Sometime next year, we will begin offering online classes in a unique package that combines personalized one-on-one language coaching with a data-driven, customized student learning center.

While our method will continue to focus on reading and listening to authentic materials, writing essays, and speaking with native teachers, when you’re just getting started with a brand-new language, you need a different approach. One way we currently tackle this beginners’ challenge with English and French is to teach students the 500 most commonly used words in the language, which allows them to then quickly get started on reading and listening to authentic materials. (This is probably what’s most lacking in my Mandarin Experiment, but, alas, one must bear great sacrifices for [quasi-]science.)

Technology can give this first step a real boost, such as with the use of virtual flashcards in a spaced repetition system (SRS) approach—precisely what I started doing this evening with Russian.

And technology will also make the second step—being able to understand the words strung together in sentences—a lot more effective and enjoyable. As in the Mandarin Experiment, we will use authentic video that is of real interest to the learners (such as the great Chinese movies I have watched, again and again). However, we will parse the videos and use virtual flashcards and SRS to help students transition smoothly from comprehension of isolated words to full sentences and rapid dialogue in authentic videos without subtitles.

So now, perhaps, you better understand why I want to deeply explore IT and programming, alongside my forays into seemingly inscrutable foreign languages. I intend to change language acquisition for myself and hopefully for thousands of other students, making it as fun, stimulating, and efficient as possible.