Self-Learning Side Project

Lately I’ve been thinking up time use again and about side projects and self learning. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that my writer self  is whimsical by nature. So all of what I’ve been thinking about combined themselves and now I have got a new side project (to replace the one I last talked about). It will still be written in first person POV and still starring a female protagonist. But as departing from my norm for novels, I will be writing a story with no planning. Instead, the story will come from my weekly gaming sessions on roll20, of the dice-rolling roleplaying type, not PC gaming (I play 2 three-hour sessions on each of my weekends). 

So I will be posting the story up on this blog in serial form. The genre is not quite fantasy, it’s more sci-fi except that everyone is born with a special ability. The story will be written from the perspective of Sam On (which is the character I am playing). It will be about the adventures of Sam and the crew onboard the spaceship Chen Xing (which means the Morning Star), or the Xing to the crew. Sam is an impulsive “archer” who uses a bow-gun that shoots out energy projectiles. The starting crew onboard the Xing are Sam (the gunner), Aurora (mechanic assistant), Estella (the pilot) and resident mechanic Hubert (or H squared to Sam, Hue to the others). The story starts off in the Frontier, which is a place abound with opportunities for the lawful and lawless alike. 

And that’s it in terms of the sneak peek. I will put up the first serial post of the story in October. 

Ancient Chinese naming practice

Today I want to discuss ancient Chinese naming practice since I have a personal fascination with names both in terms of their meaning and how they sound to the ears. This tends to apply to a lesser degree to English than my native language of Chinese but I still tend to grope for the right names to go with non-Chinese characters. 

So the key point about naming practice in ancient China is that it varies by social class (which is closely tied to one’s occupations). In general, there are four classes within the rank of ‘good citizenry’. Ranked according to prestige  (even though the one to which the term was attributed to never meant for the four classes to be compared and ranked), they were:

  • “Shi” (originally referring to generals and soldiers but later misinterpreted as/become a term referring to scholars and particularly government officials with administration duties as the Chinese society favours learning over martial prowess)
  • “Nong” (farmers)
  • “Gong” (craftsmen) 
  • “Shang” (merchants): in some dynasties, merchants were frowned upon and listed outside the ranks of ‘good citizens’.  

Above the ‘good citizenry’ are government officials (“Guan”) and royalty. 

There were also four (five) “cheap occupations” that are not allowed to marry those of “good citizenry” and become officials. These occupations had a high chance of becoming ‘hereditary’ but were not a certainty. Also, individuals born to poor farmers might be forced to take up one of these ‘cheap occupations’ sometimes. They include: 

  • “Chang” (prostitutes)
  • “You” (actors of Chinese opera and all its various local variations, all male in ancient times)
  • “Li” (underlings to the Mayor of a small Town that encompass those that have policemen duties as well as others with administrative duties. Either way, they do not have official titles like the Mayor)
  •  “Zu” (prison guards) 
  •  “Bin” (undertakers)- it’s mainly the fact that people think of undertakers as ill-luck. I think it varies by dynasty whether they are listed under the ‘cheap occupations’. 

Then below these ‘cheap occupations’, there are slaves (“Nu”) and certain classes of criminals who are considered part of the “cheap citizenry” whose brand actually carries over to later generations. 

So how exactly are ancient Chinese names different from modern ones? Well, the key difference is in the Chinese characters used and not used in names across different periods. For example, you would not see the Chinese character for Ruler, Jun, included in the names of respectable people in ancient times since it was thought disrespectful to the Emperor to do so. Same goes for the character for Pride, Ao. In fact, unlike its English equivalent, pride was always used in a derogatory sense in ancient Chinese text as opposed to neutral. 

Furthermore, it is common for individuals to have a little name in addition to their official names. What a little name is is that it is known only to family (parents, siblings, wife and other relatives of same generation or older generation than the person) and meant as a stand-in name while parents ponder over the official name or meant as an affectionate term. Nowadays, this practice is common in some localities such as Shanghai (where every child has one) whereas in other places such as Hong Kong this would be like a nickname that only some parents chose to give to their children. For the upper class, they even have three names. In addition to a little name and an official name, they have a ‘social name’ called “biao zhi or zhi’ (biao can mean praise, model or example while zhi means word in Chinese) for friends and acquaintances to call him by once they reach adulthood whereas his official name is then called only by elders and when the person refers to him/herself. It was considered discourteous to refer to an acquaintance of the same generation as you by their official names. Others of lower classes such as prostitutes, actors and slaves might sometimes have ‘zhi’ also (if they were originally of high birth since occasionally individuals born to the upper class did fall down into these three positions due to political strife, change of rulers etc. that occurred in ancient China). But on the whole, it is common for prostitutes and actors to adopt assumed names and for slaves to be renamed by their owners. Hence, they might also be said to have a form of ‘social name’ in the same vein of the upper class. 

For respectable females, usually their names are not known to outsiders but are rather referred to by their birth surnames or the surnames of their husbands.  In practice, this might vary depending on dynasty since it appeared that it was after the Tang dynasty when the Chinese society became more discriminated against women. However, it is hard to say given that not many respectable women’s full names were recorded in history, at least according to my knowledge. 

Below, I offer a run-down of the different names that could exist for males and females in ancient Chinese times depending on their social classes. 

Males 

Surname: Meng
Origin of Surname: taken from ranking within one’s own family. Meng was a
term used to denote the eldest son within a family
Little Name: Er Gou
Meaning of Little Name: Er is Two while Gou is Dog. Because child
mortality rates used to be high in ancient times, many parents gave their
children a ‘cheap name’ involving animals at birth in the hopes that
the child would be more resilient in terms of survival. It might also
have the connotation that the child was “born through [the Will of]
Heaven and raised up by Heaven”. Also, the child was second in birth order.
Official Name: Ze Lin
Meaning of Official Name: Ze has the meaning of a water source or more
generally moist. Lin is heavy rainfall. It is likely a name not given
by the parents but by some educated person (maybe a village Elder or
teacher). The name could convey wish for good rainfall that is
important to farmers and could also additionally be the result of a
Chinese fortune teller divining that the child’s life lacks the element of
Water and the name was a compensation for this.
Social Name: None
Social Class: Nong (farmer)/Li (Mayor underling)/Zhu (prison guard)

Surname: Wu
Origin of Surname: taken from the name of a State, usually meaning that
ancestor was of peasantry and adopted the name of his own state for
convenience or as a sign of patriotism. One of the ten most common
Chinese surnames Little Name: Chang Sheng
Meaning of Little Name: Chang means long while Sheng means birth or
living. Conveys wish for the child to have a long life.
Official Name: Lin
Meaning of Official Name: Lin is the female of the sacred beast Qi Lin in
Chinese myth. In particular, the term Lin Er is a term of praise
equivalent to saying ‘an outstanding son’.
Social Name: Feng Xian
Meaning of Social Name: Feng means revering or attending to while Xian
refers to ancestors. Clearly a name advocating filial values.
Social Class: Guan (official)/ Shi (scholar)/ Shang (merchant)

Females

Surname: Yao
Origin of Surname: a surviving surname from the time when ancient China
was a matriarchal society
Little Name: Yu Jia Er
Meaning of Little Name: Yu means jade, Jia means older sister, Er refers
to a son or more generally child. Jia Er acts as a gender-specific
suffix roughly translating as “little sis” while being named Yu
conveys that her birth family is wealthy or influential.
Official Name: Jing Shi
Meaning of Official Name: Jing means quiet while Shi means to contemplate,
conveying the wish for the child to have an introverted and
thoughtful nature. Again, this is a signal that her birth family was
well off.
Social Name: Shi Shi (*a double name with both characters being the same)
Meaning of Social Name: Shi means teacher, but might have too much meaning
since it’s an assumed name. However, it could be that she wanted to
maintain a little of her official name although the Shi character in
her official name is different from the Shi characters in her social name
Social Class: Chang (prostitute)

Surname: Ou Yang
Origin of Surname: taken from the name of the fiefdom of Ou Yang Ting to
which ancestor was Lord of
Little Name: Da Ya
Meaning of Little Name: Da means big while Ya can refer to a little girl
or a maid. She was the eldest daughter of her parents.
Official Name: Chun Hua
Meaning of Official Name: Chun is Spring while Hua means flower,
possibly the girl was born in Spring
Social Name: None
Social Class: Nong (farmer’s daughter)/ Gong (craftsman’s daughter)/ Shang
(daughter of a merchant family that is not well off in wealth/status)

Moonlake’s writing updates- August 2020

I’m now officially into draft 0.8 as I planned but well… things again weren’t proceeding quite as I expected. I am still more in the outlining realm compared to drafting. There’s simply too much gray area for me to fill in for a scene to actually really settle down to real drafting. Having said that, I am still working towards getting a rough draft of 2 chapters done this month. I’ve finished one chapter already and am working towards another as I am writing now. I feel like I need to exert some kind of self discipline else no matter how many decimal drafts I go through, they will always be less than a full rough draft with complete scenes. 

An Internet writer acquaintance recommended me to Rober McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting to me. I’m now reading half to one chapter of it on a daily basis. I feel like it’s giving me useful insights. 

On the side project, that never really went ahead besides basic planning. Instead, I’ve now gone back to doing articles in prose for which I could put in roughly 100 words per day so that I can feel like I’m keeping my writing muscles exercised. 

Overall plan for the WIP for this year remains unchanged: to get draft 0.8 done by end of this year and accept that it will still be less than a rough draft with full scenes but will be a hotch potch of full scenes, partial scenes and outlines of scenes. 

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (6)- Liu Ru Shi

Who is she:

  • One of the Eight Beauties of Qin Huai, essentially eight prominent prostitutes of the late Ming era (Qin Huai is the name of a river in Nanjing, it was a red light district back then with brothels operating on boats) famed for poetry, painting and beauty 
  • A highly patriotic woman 

Notable Life Events:

  • Born as Yang Ai in 1618 and adopted by a renowned prostitute at the age of 10 
  • Married to Qian Qian Yi, a government official who was chief of a prominent political faction in late Ming, and continually influenced/forced him towards patriotic acts in the Ming-Qing dynasty swap-over
  • Urged her husband to commit suicide by drowing with her after the Ming government was completely run over and refused to leave Nanjing with her husband when he agreed to become a government official in the Qing dynasty. Consequently, he resigned his position after half a year
  • Encouraged her husband to get into contact with remaining Ming rebels as well as financially sponsoring these rebels
  • Died at the age of 46, straight after her husband’s death, when his relatives and neighbours wanted to rob them. By hanging herself, she successfully drove off the robbers 

Why is she remarkable:

  • Historically, it was her patriotic acts that softened the impression towards her husband Qian Qian Yi who otherwise had a mixed reputation (due to his ‘defection’ to the Qing dynasty)
  • Perhaps it was her identity as a prostitute, but I think she was the only woman in this series so far for whom there is concrete evidence that actually decided who she was going to marry, at least in adulthood (she was the concubine to another government official before she married Qian Qian Yi, when she was 14). For example, there were records of how she dressed in men’s clothing in order to meet Qian Qian Yi before their marriage. 

Moonlake’s thoughts on her: 

I think of all the women I’ve blogged in this series so far, she is the one for which I have the most complete sense of. She has clear ideals and other than selected periods of her life, she is very much in control of her own life. 

Tales of Inspiration (3)

Today I’m going to talk about the inspiration underlying my current WIP. 

I’ve alluded to this before: for many years, I was an active member at a website where you can submit what I call articles in prose on world meta: all the different aspects that make up a world. It was there that I first came up with my fantasy ancient China setting. I had a whole folder of ideas on the setting: some fairly well-formed, others bare snippets. 

It was some time back in 2016; I wanted to start a novel project but was totally out of ideas. Nothing jumped out at me from my idea journal so I flicked through that folder for my setting. And ah ha, straight away I was excited by a document titled cave nomads and that became the setting for my WIP. 

As for the plot, to be honest, for the life of me, I could not remember how they came to me in any details. It felt like they dropped down on me from the sky. But as far as I could make out reading over my early notes, I think they must have been a by-product of me thinking about the history of the cave nomad society and their Chinese roots.

So far, this is all about internal processing. Where’s the external impetus part of this formula that I’ve going on in this serial post? Well, I arrived at the cave nomad concept because I was just randomly thinking about nomads and different terrain types one day. I believe I had a short spell of fascination with nomads as a result of some of my previous attempts at novels and short stories that featured nomads. 

And that’s all for today. Check back in next week for a brand new post under my Remarkable Women in ancient China series. 

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). 

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. 

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.

Evolution of Moonlake’s Writing Pile

This post is prompted by my whimsical exploration of the statistics to do with this blog. Specifically, I was looking at which of my posts had been shared and one of the top ones was Moonlake’s Work Pile (3) back in 2015.  

So in that post I had talked of 4 different writing projects and the top 3 are pretty much all in the back pile aka rubbish heap/RIP territory now. Why? The top one was this Genghis Khan story that I’ve talked of multiple times and I just don’t feel like it, the Mongolian research is getting too much and the basic idea… it’s a bit unique but it’s also a bit out of the left field for me. At various times, I’ve thought of or attempted resurrecting the project but I really don’t think so, at least not in the short term. The other two all came of an abandoned online novel I read and a mock fan-fiction project I started to dip my toes into novel writing. And I don’t know, I’ve never quite gotten comfortable with the idea of ‘stealing’ someone else’s setting for my own project if I want to commericalise it. 

Under such circumstances, the fourth rose up to be my WIP and it was the one series that I had always wanted to do, based on my fictional ancient China setting that I’ve been calling the Dragon Empire setting. I’ve blogged about it before so I won’t repeat myself here. 

I’ve also blogged about the tentative next project after that, a story about three generations of women from the same direct lineage. And now have a tentative third lined up. But don’t worry, I’m not doing any queue jumping of writing projects anymore so I won’t even talk about the third project. And with that, I better draw this post to a close.