Chinese Superstition- Physical Oddities and Polycoria

Following on the last post about Chinese number superstition, I decided to do another on a related topic. So ancient Chinese had various fortune telling methods, one of which was looking at people’s facial features. For example, long ears or a long gap between the nose and the upper lip were considered a sign of life longevity. Today, I’m going to talk about one particular physical oddity, the condition known as polycoria which is where someone has two pupils in one eye. Note, however, that in ancient China, sometimes people were mistakenly thought to have polycoria when they have moles inside their pupils. 

So what is the superstition around polycoria? Well, it is thought that polycoria is the sign for lords, Emperors and paragons of virtue and learning. Now, how does that tally up with atual history? It does somewhat. 

For brevity, I will just list the five most prominent historical figures (this is according to me so don’t quote me for precision *wink*) by chronological order of birth:

  1. Yan Hui- the top disciple of Confucius, died at the age of forty, praised for his virtue by his teacher and lauded by later generations
  2. Xiang Yu- commonly known as the Conqueror of the Western Chu, a feudal lord vying against his sworn brother Liu Bang (who later founded the Han dynasty) for control of ancient China after the collapse of the Qin dynasty (the first official dynasty under which the whole of ancient China was united as one land)
  3. Wang Mang- originally a government official of the Han dynasty, he seized control of the throne and founded the Xin dynasty which lasted a scant 14 years 
  4. Li Yu- last sovereign of the Southern Tang dynasty, which occurred during the turbulent period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period where the northern and southern part of ancient China were continuously split, right before the founding of the relatively long and prosperous Song dynasty. He was a famous poet but generally considered an incompetent ruler. 
  5. Zhi Di- third emperor of the Ming dynasty, fourth and surviving eldest son of his father who founded the dynasty. He usurped the throne from his own nephew, who was son of his eldest brother and the Crown Prince (but died before his own father). 

What Moves Me (2): Lost Opportunity to Stand Up for Self

This post is the result of a conversation I had with a long-time Internet friend. I was telling him about my personal reflection spell last July/August and how one of the most potent memories that crept up on me had to do with my high school group and peer pressure. I found out I was still angry at them even after all these years. At first, I thought it was because what they did ran counter to my life philosophy but then what came out during the conversation was that actually it had far more to do with lost opportunities to stand up for myself. 

So I’ve been always quite peace-loving and conflict avoiding, which are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Like a few years after I graduated from Honours (which is at least 10 years ago) there was this incident that two of my colleagues were arguing in the secure data room and I literally hightailed it out of there. Why? I hate scenes, even if it was just me witnessing one. 

I also hate any public scenes aka arguments with complete strangers in public. My default reaction is to not even talk to the person. I thought of it as my dignity but I think most people took it as submission. Like several years ago, one day after work, I arrived at my tram station and I was just walking to the front when out of the blue, a guy just accosted me. I stopped thinking he was a staff from the tram company flagging me over due to some safety concern or something. But then it turned out it was just some racist guy verbally attacking me for no reason. And I stood there dumbfounded (part of the reason is that I have very slow reactions, whether physically or emotionally). 

Mostly I just brush off these incidents but sometimes I do remember them a few days later and concoct a different outcome where I did say something in response, in moments when my mind happened to be idle. 

Having said the above, I still don’t know how I should react next time something like this happens. Perhaps I will go on as before or perhaps I will send them a withering glance. Hmm… food for thought.

Fantasy Pet Peeve

For all that I love fantasy, I have a single pet peeve with it: all wars eventually trace back to Gods. 

First, for the sake of putting things in context, let me recap in rough chronological order my foray into fantasy (back in those days, nobody cared about subgenres as far as I’m concerned and it was probably only a few years that I started specifying subgenres. Before that, I’ve just been telling people that I read fantasy. Full stop.). 

My first ever fantasy series was the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I really liked it and from that point on, fantasy became my main staple for reading. After that came David Eddings, Terry Brookes (I only read the original Shannara series, I think, not all of them. I couldn’t really remember my impression of him. I think I neither loved it nor hated it.), Raymond E. Feist…. And then I found the Hobbit and LOTR (actually I don’t know I read Feist first or Tolkien first but both are among my 5-stars. I prefer Tolkien if I have to strictly choose but that’s personal taste.). Forgotten Realms came a long way after that. 

Regarding my pet peeve, I think half of the books I recounted in the last paragraph have wars that trace back to Gods. To be honest, I don’t think it became my pet peeve until it emerged into the books by Raymond E. Feist (pretty late at that, after the 4th or 5th series, I can’t remember anymore. But my recommendation is really that only Riftwar and Serpentwar Saga are top-notch. And then the standalones Prince of the Blood, the King’s Buccaneer and perhaps Honoured Enemy) that previously had only wars driven by mortals. All of a sudden, I felt like I wanted to roll my eyes. Why couldn’t mortals have their own wars driven by greed and whatever mortal concerns? Why do wars have to be ultimately driven by immortals? Those were my thoughts. 

To be honest, I think why this happened was because why I was drawn to Feist in the first place was his motivation for the Riftwar that differed from the normal good/evil struggle. So to have it emerge later that actually wars ultimately could be traced back to Gods took away that appeal for me. And the other reason could be that his series had also lost a lot of the original appeals for me by the time the ‘new reveal’ happened. As wont to happen for a multi-series based on a single setting, you no longer can read about many of the side characters that you were once very attached to. So all in all, I decided to say farewell to Feist, who still remained as one of my 5-stars with his previous works. 

Now, how about all of you? What are some of your pet peeves with fantasy?

World Building: Resources

Perhaps it is my economics background but I like to think about resources and how that has a range of flow-on effects. To that end, I was a little intrigued by the sci-fi book Dune but one of my friends persuaded me to try something lighter instead so I still haven’t ventured into sci-fi yet. But it’s on my list for Broadening Horizon Reads. 

The Kogish Trees and Flamesilk

Native to the Joreta region, a Kogish tree is a special breed of trees that grows in clusters and erupts in flames whenever the sun reaches its daily zenith, all the way until sunset. Such flames do not char the Kogish trees themselves but rather consume all the plant lives that grow around the Kogish trees. It appears that this is the method that Kogish trees use to propagate themselves as new Kogish trees often take the places occupied previously by other plants within the perimeter of fires erupting off Kogish trees. The flames erupting from Kogish trees cannot be quenched by normal water. Only water from the local Jtatk River will do the trick.

In appearance, a Kogish tree resembles a mahogany tree. However, its bark is bright red, the colour of flames. From afar, a cluster of Kogish trees might look like a bushfire currently ravaging a forest even when the trees are not themselves burning.

A Kogish tree produces a sap that is amber red in colour. This sap oozes out from the sides of a tree trunk, along low-hanging brunches and often collects into a form much akin to a single silk strand that hangs off the end of such brunches. Locals collect such strands and weave them into a material known as Flamesilk around the world.

~ Excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Plants, Animals and Social Customs

History

At first, humans who reside in this region, known as the Yklars, had no use for the Kogish trees. In fact, the original society of Yklars* is one formed from nomadic tribes, who roam the Joreta steppes in continuous flight from the encroachment of the Kogish trees. This changed when they come upon the Jtatk river and found that the the self-combusting flames from the Kogish trees can be put out by water from this river. As a result of this discovery, the tribes settled down along the banks of the Jtatk River and more or less co-existed with the Kogish tree clusters, though they still have to devote substantial resources to control the expansion of these trees.

*These Yklars had no knowledge of crafts and so could not cut down the Kogish trees. They also had little weaving skills and certainly had never come in contact with any kind of fabric material, much less silk.

Then a refugee family fleeing the Dragon Empire came to the Joreta steppes and lived quite close to one of the many Yklar tribes, the Uratus. At first this family lived much in separation with the Uratus even though they did not fear their neighbours too much. It was this family that first made use of the Kogish trees in the form of firewood^and the womenfolk in the family wove the sap strands into the original version of Flamesilk, from which the familys summer clothes are made out of.

^Kogish trees as firewood doesn’t self combust and behaves much like normal firewood

One day, the youngest children, a pair of fraternal twins of different gender, from this family were playing in the kitchen and the boy was too close to the stove and his sleeve went in except it didn’t catch on fire. That’s how the fire resistant properties of the Flamesilk was first discovered. This led to a second use for Flamesilk- the creation of fire dampening cloths that the family kept around the kitchen.

As time goes by, this family started to interact more with their neighbours and got adopted into the Uratu tribe. In this way, knowledge of weaving and crafting tools spread to the Yklars as the Uratu men and women learnt from this family. This started the production of Flamesilk en masse as the nomads started to wear silken gowns in summer in replacement of animal skins, their traditional garment*. This is because the Joreta weather is generally quite warm in all seasons. In this way, the Kogish tress became as much a necessity in the Yklar society as they were once a menace.

*In winter, the Yklars now wear clothes woven from hemp, another innovation brought in by the refugee family from the Dragon Empire.

And yet, there is a further twist to the story. Later, a particular curious-minded Yklar child, by the name of Taruksha, found that if he gently rubbing Flamesilk against each other, he could produce a tiny flame. This flame is in fact quite a pretty sight as it seems to be floating on top of the fabric. Very rapidly, this became a favourite toy of Yklar children, while Yklar adults remained ignorant of this fact (as the children tended to play with flamesilk only when there were no adults around). It wasnt until that an entire hut got burned down as a result of a particular child playing with scraps of Flamesilk in his mothers sewning basket and rubbing them together too hard that this became generally known. Luckily, no casualties resulted from that accident. Nevertheless, the Yklar tribes came together to discuss the implications of this discovery. At the end of the meeting, two new ideas concerning the use of Flamesilk were brought up: one on the weaving of an improved version of the fabric by interspersing each strand of Flamesilk with a hemp strand for use in clothing and the other concerning its use as a torch to light the way at night.

Special Properties

Flamesilk smothers fire, came about due to constant washing in the Jtatk river, whose water is the only form of water able to rouse the fire of the Kogish trees. As a result, the fabric has taken on the property of these waters. For the original version of Flamesilk, however, a flame is also created if flamesilk come into contact with each other. The actual size and strength of the flame created this way depends on the force of contact i.e. a light brush versus intentional rubbing of Flamesilk with vigour. When this property is discovered, however, it led to the creation of a improved version that does not have this dangerous effect.

The Yklars built fences made up of a single bolt of this form of improved Flamesilk around their towns to protect them from the effects of bushfires caused by the presence of the Kogish trees. In addition, all the original Flamesilk cloths that every family kept around in case of fires were replaced with cloths made of the improved Flamesilk. The original version of Flamesilk, however, is still in use as adults utilise what become to be known as a Taruksha flame in the lighting of pathways when travelling at night.

Note: The post is inspired by a section in a Chinese novel written in the Qing era (the one associated with the reign of the Manchurians) titled Flowers in the Mirror, telling briefly of a type of tree that combusts on contact and which bark was weaved into bolts of cloths resembling cotton.

Beliefs about Numbers in Ancient China

I decided to write a post about a Chinese fun fact today and having no ideas, I Goggled it. What caught my eyes was number superstition. So today I am going to trace back the beliefs about numbers (or rather single digits since I want to limit the scope of this post) in ancient China:

One: there is no superstition around this number per se, but it was regarded as the ‘mother of all creatures’ due to the section in the famous Taoist text by the philosopher Lao Zi which gave a theory of how the world was born which said ‘The Way gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to Everything.”

Two: online sources would say this is considered a lucky number in Chinese due to the saying “good things come in twos.” I’ve traced back this idiom back to a modern biography about a late Qing or Manchurian dynasty merchant/government official. Therefore, I conclude that there is no superstition around the number 2 per se. 

Three: as far as I can make out, ancient Chinese seem to use three in an abstract rather than concrete sense such that three is often a synonym for many. 

Four: I think this is more modern superstition as opposed to coming from ancient times and it’s probably more prevalent in Hong Kong (well, I cannot really speak for mainland China, I was born in Shanghai but I only spent my pre-primary school years there and I only started remembering things at the age of 5). In essence, four and death sounds a bit similar in Chinese. 

Five: Except for its relation to the Five Elements or Wu Xing, a geomancy/Feng shui concept from the I Ching or Book of Changes, a text for fortune telling, this number does not have much meaning

Six: There was an ancient text that related the sixth of June on the Chinese calendar to smoothness and so six was considered a lucky number 

Seven: I can’t really track down why this number would be considered lucky. I personally can see why it would considered unlucky, though: July according to the Chinese calendar contains the Ghost Festival and accordingly, July is considered the Ghost Month

Eight: Apparently, why this is considered lucky actually has a root in ancient times. This surprised me- I thought it was like 4, based upon similarity of its sound to a verb in Cantonese which means attaining a fortune. But apparently, its roots comes from Taoism in which eight represents wholeness and completeness given that its founding text, the Book of Changes, is based upon eight trigrams and the eight cardinal directions also represents the whole universe in Taoism spatial conception. 

Nine: This is a number traditionally associated with the Emperor, partly because it is the highest single digit. In particular, ancient China was conceptualised as Nine Provinces (Chiu Chou), the Emperor wears a robe featuring a dragon with nine-toed claws whereas his brother and cousins can only wear robes featuring dragons with claws that have less toes than nine etc. 

The Meaning of Happiness

Happiness has a slightly different meaning for everyone. Recently I had this really resonant one that came to me (or rather it was a rediscovery, I think I re-discover things a lot. I’ve recently thought about my core personality and it hadn’t changed from when I was a teenager) so I thought it worthwhile to record it here. 

So what is my personal definition for happiness? I can basically sum it up in exactly four words: loving what I love. Coincidentally, its Chinese equivalent is also exactly four Chinese characters and the wording would be more or less identical. 

So what does loving what I love entail exactly? For me, it’s the following 3 things:

  1. Loving myself every day
  2. Doing what I love every day
  3. Loving who I love every day

I am a simple person who has simple pleasures and having the above already makes me full. Once in a while, I get a bit more ambitious than usual and my mood goes up and down. But this personal definition of happiness is my anchor and brings me back every time. 

And how does my current life tally? I’m hitting it on all 3 counts. Upon reflection, I tend to hit it on all 3 counts for most of my life so far. And I hope that I will continue to keep this in my sight and continue hitting it on all 3 counts in the future. 

That’s my short share for today. Feel free to let me know in comments if you feel up to sharing your own definition of happiness. 

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- June 2020

Desecration by J.F Penn

I think it’s a solid work, with a clipping pace and it’s a nice plot-driven detective mystery which is always to my preference. The book delves into a very dark theme but that’s okay, I can handle it.

A murder was announced by Christie Agatha

As a Christie Agatha mystery, I think it’s a solid work. That means short chapters, a clipping pace and a classical plot with a twist. And I think that’s enough said. 

Terrier by Tamora Pierce

I read Bloodhound first and liked it and always meant to read the rest of the series and that’s how I came to pick this up- book 1 of the Beka Cooper series. I’m not disappointed with Beka (somehow I only like about half of Pierce’s main characters, Beka happens to be one of them) and the diary structure works fine with the book.

Taken by the Flood by Christie Agatha

I’m a bit dumbfounded as I’m writing this because now my impression of this book is completely taken up by how apt this book is titled- the original quote from which the title is taken is explained in the story (quite naturally) and that’s all I could think of now. But overall I liked the story. 

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu 

I am still reading this right now. This is my second go at it- when I read it last year, the Japanese sounding character names made me jump out of the story and I could not quite get into the main character for the series (my interest lay in the other key characters). I think to sum it up, I felt alienated, as a Chinese who knew about the rough historical details on which this book was based, reading it. 

This time I started by skipping over the first couple chapters that I’ve read before and I think I’m fine. I still get bored for about 1 chapter early on where the events in the novel completely coincided with real history with only a minor spin on it to suit the story. But I think the story grew on me as it unfolds. You will get to hear more about the book in my Sept book discovery.

Moonlake’s writing updates- June 2020

I’ve recently discovered that the story in my WIP is actually larger than it currently is. Furthermore, I feel like my handle on the key structural elements of my story is not yet solid. So what this means is that I’m starting to feel that it might be awhile before I can actually finish this book 1, with lots of back and forth between outlining and drafting. 

Given this and my only working half-days, I’m starting to feel a lack of efficiency or productivity in my writing. So I’ve lately gone back to writing some article in prose for that site I used to frequent (it used to be my writer’s home but I fell out of love with it at the same time as I broke off from the epub; I started working on a submission for it these two weeks). But that isn’t novel writing and I feel it doesn’t hone my novel writing skills. 

So I’m playing with this idea of doing a side project, a story that can be told in episodes that I can post as a serial here on my blog. I only have rough ideas but I thought I might like to write in first person for a female main character. Why? Both my WIP and my tentative next project (that story about grandmother, mother and daughter) have female main characters and yet I’ve always felt female characters come harder to me to write. So I figure it’s good to get plenty of practice. As for first person, somehow third-person comes more naturally to me (I think that’s because I’m an outliner and I always outline in the God-seeing viewpoint) but I’ve been told before that my first person passages are actually powerful. So I thought it would be good to develop something else in my writer’s repertoire. 

And that’s all for today. Let me chew on the serial story some more. I will keep all of you informed.

Random Town People

It’s been a long time since I last shared snippets of my writing on characters and I’m feeling slack today so I’ve dug out portions of my contributions towards an article called Town People which details characters that can be dropped into any medieval town. 

Matron Maranisha Hopsham of St. Margaret’s chapel

Appearance:
Matron Maranisha is a woman in her middle ages who has aged gracefully. Of small slim build, she exudes an air of refinement, intelligence and quiet confidence. She is a figure that can easily melt into the background if she so desires.

Family and Life:
Matron Maranisha was the second of 3 daughters born to Frederick Hopsham and Heather Mayfair, who are both deceased now. Her sisters are Satrina who is married to the local baker Terry and Triasha who runs the apothecary along with her husband Philander. Maranisha also has an elder brother, Winelo Hopsham, who is father to the shrewd Finnea, Ferdinand Lenders’s wife.

From modest beginnings, St. Margaret’s chapel has grown somewhat under the direction of Matron Maranisha and is relatively well-off nowadays. It currently houses 8-9 nuns, several kitchen hands and a resident healer. While Matron Maranisha heads the service every morning, most of her time is spent outside helping the poor and outcasts. In addition, she has the confidence of many townspeople and often mediate in disputes. Most of the administration work at the chapel is now in the hands of the capable Sister Veronica. The two have become steadfast friends over the years. 


Daunton Sedgewick, retired court advisor/mage

Appearance: 

Although once a magician by profession, Daunton is broad shouldered and has a warrior’s physique. Currently in his early 50s, Daunton has blond hair that is just turning to light ash. To most, he might appear grim at first glance, which is partly due to the fact that he is hardly ever seen to ‘smile’. Yet, those who knew him well would notice the slight upturned corner of the mouth that is his signature smile and the glint in his eyes that betrays the warmth hidden behind the stern ‘façade’.


Family and Life: 

Although bearing the title of Court Mage, Daunton showed more capability at military tactics and hence was in effect more akin to an advisor on defence. Tired of court intrigues, Daunton has retired early to lead a quiet and idyllic life. 

Daunton currently lives with 3 apprentices: his niece Yilmina, a free spirited girl on the verge of womanhood; Erik Tinton, a young man with a serious disposition; and a shy boy still in his teens who is only known as Tainu. 

Having come into contact with Sir Midian of Ranulphens during Daunton’s court days, the two have acquired a somewhat uneasy friendship. Daunton now sits on the town council and together with Gavin oversees the defence of the town. Being a capable swordsman, he also closely supervises the training of the local militia and youngsters showing promise at a military career. 

And this is it for May. With June comes my Book Discoveries, a Writing Update and other goodies. So stay tuned. 

What Moves Me (1): Rewinding Time

In general, I don’t tend to display my emotions openly. In fact, it was my wont to suppress tears. But there are some exceptions so I thought it would be a worthwhile pursuit for me to record the sources behind such rare moments. 

I’ve previously blogged about the fast food consumption aspect of my reading. And yet surprisingly, there was an online novel author whose work had brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions when I couldn’t really remember a single published work that had done so (I think this is more of an artifact of the fact that I read more widely for online novels and perhaps the specific life situation I was under when I read them). So in this post, I want to dig a little into what was it about the author that moved me such. 

Let me start by summarising/recapitulating my life situation when I first came upon this author. Basically, this was after I broke off my phD and became unemployed. I became a little lost as to career direction and all that. And to be honest, before that point I was always envisioning life as a linear path and also lived life that way. But then, suddenly my status quo went up in flames and I think at that time I had a deep yearning for having it back for comfort and security. And that’s when I chanced on a body of Chinese online novels where the main characters were given a second chance to live, specifically the opportunity of having their lives rewinded to their youth and basically take another go at it. So due to empathy with the main characters, I had a spell where I was devouring such novels and I think I still maintain a taste for similar themed novels to a certain degree now. 

Now amidst such work, the one that really stuck in my mind was about a main character who had originally died in poverty after her husband who went from a nobody to a best actor award winner ditched her for another woman in his fame. The actual story was about how after finding that she had gone back to her teenage years, she made entirely different choices and eventually became a famous actress who won a best actress award for herself. I think one of the reasons this story really stood out for me was I felt a bit of empathy for the main character with regards to her situation with her mother. The main character was basically estranged from her mother in the previous life when she married that actor but in the second life the estrangement never happened because she avoided that actor like the plague. In reality, I was on the verge of becoming estranged from my Mum after I broke off my phD- well, we had a bit of a Cold War going on. But now it’s all water under the bridge between us and we are much more open about many things, including the large extent that we both love each other.