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.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (5)- Fu Hao

Who is she:

  • A woman whose surname or first name was Hao (Fu is some kind of prestigious title) who was one of the sixty-odd wives to Wu Ding, the Emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC)
  • The first known female military commander in Chinese history, also a politician and overseer of rites/fortune telling ceremonies (a very important aspect of the Shang era, all big decisions were made in consultation with fortune telling)
  • Has one son and one daughter surviving her 

Notable Life Events:

  • Commanded the first recorded ambush in Chinese history
  • Was married to three of her husbands’ ancestors in death to fulfill his wish for her to be taken care well in the nether realms
  • Cause of death unknown: might have been due to the difficult birth of her daughter or during battle or due to a battle wound

Why is she remarkable:

  • Other than being the first female military commander, Fu Hao is potentially the one with most power amongst all well-known ancient Chinese female generals. To my not-quite-extensive knowledge, she was the only one with her own claims to territory. That was partly her era, when power was not yet centralised in the hands of the Emperor, when it was common that nobles or feudal lords were granted separate territory that they largely ran autonomically. 
  • Amongst the well-known Court women passed down in Chinese history (i.e wives and concubines to emperors), I believe she is the only one with a claim for military prowess. My sources seem to indicate that is not true of her particular era though since one of the other wives to her husband apparently also led armies but seemed to be less capable or not completed as key victories as Fu Hao. 

Moonlake’s thoughts on her: 

With the scant information on her (which is understandable given the era she came from), I’m not getting much of a sense on her personality. All I can say is that she certainly seemed to have a lot of initiative both from the particular era she came from and her own capabilities. She also seemed to have a harmonious relation with her husband given the importance of the roles she was given when she was alive and how she was treated after her death. Overall, she seems like a good protagonist to drop into a historical fiction/fantasy story. 

Chinese Punctuation

In general, I think of myself as pretty familiar with Chinese culture. But it was not until I read a Chinese online novel in the last few years that I learnt the following (you never know what you would learn randomly with novels!): in ancient days, there was no such thing as punctuation in Chinese! I’m not sure when did punctuation first come into use in China- I Googled it but the closest information seemed to indicate that in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), punctuation marks were still not a standard in Chinese. That is, only occasionally there would be marks printed to indicate breaks in the text and different marks were used between two different texts (but I wonder if the two examples cited were in fact spaced quite far apart from each other in time). 

Anyway, what does this mean in practice? That ancient texts have to be read with ‘interpretations from others’, leading to controversy over the meaning of the sometimes the exact same sentence within the exact same text.  

A famous example (and also the one described in the online novel I read) was over a ten character sentence said by Conficius recorded in the Analects, essentially a compilation of speeches by Conficius and his disciples.  For ease, I’m just going to put down the Mandarin pinyin for this controversial sentence over how to deal with the populace/civilians: 

Min ke shi yong zhi bu ke shi zhi zhi

According to the Chinese Wikipedia, there are 5 variants of how you can break up this sentence with punctuation, now creating slightly different meanings!

Variant 1: Min ke shi yong zhi, bu ke shi zhi zhi

Meaning: Sometimes it’s necessary to only let the populace/civilians follow directions without letting them know about the rationale behind the directives

Variant 2: Min ke, shi yong zhi, bu ke, shi zhi zhi 

Meaning: If the populace have a good grasp, then leave them be. If the populace do not have a proper handle, then educate them.

Variant 3: Min ke shi, yong zhi, bu ke shi, zhi zhi

Meaning: If the populace can be utilised, then let them follow orders. If the populace cannot be utilised, then let them be understanding/rational.

Variant 4: Min ke shi, yong zhi bu ke, shi zhi zhi

Meaning: If the populace can be utilised, then you cannot just leave them be, you have to educate them.

Variant 5: Min ke shi yong zhi? bu. ke shi zhi zhi

Meaning: Can you leave the populace be? No. They need to be educated.

That is my little share for today. In May, I personally look forward to getting back in track with my writing and then in general, a continual improvement in the Coronavirus situation. 

Reflection on Moonlake as a Writer- April 2020

I’m going to do another Q&A today with myself. It’s been a while since I last did a reflection on myself as a writer so it’s time for a revisit. 

At what level do you assess yourself to be as a writer now?

Intermediate. 

Weren’t you calling yourself a beginning writer a few years ago? When did that change? 

Yes, well, I forgot exactly when that changed but within the last 2-3 years, I would say. 

What contributed to this change? 

A combination of self-confidence and knowledge. Self-confidence is hard to say anything about but knowledge… I’ve done the usual learning through doing but I’ve also gotten into online writing courses. I highly recommend UBC’s How to Write a Novel set of courses offered through the edX platform. I’ve just finished the last of this set of 3 courses in Feb. 

What are the 3 main lessons about writing you’ve learnt? 

  1. Every writing project is different. I used to believe that I can take a standard novel planning method across all projects but I’ve found that’s not even true. Take my WIP. Yes, I’ve kinda settled down on the default method or methods for outlining but it’s just different in so many other ways from other novels or short stories I’ve written or attempted to write. For example, I’ve had to move between outlining and drafting as opposed to having a clear divider between the two stages. For example, I’ve had to take detours and side tracks in order to get into scenes etc. 
  2. Find multiple points of entry to your work. This is what I learnt through one of UBC courses and I’ve never needed to do that so much as for my current novel. And it really helps. I used to think writing myself into a dead corner was a major problem for me but with this insight/advice, I can start to self-devise ways to tackle my WIP from a different angle. Some of the ways might not be the most efficient but I’ve still gained insights into the WIP from it and writing a novel is really a long game. You want to accumulate as many insights into your characters, your world etc. as possible and you never know which ones might blow your story right open later down the track. 
  3. The interplay between the external journey (the events in the story and its structure) and the internal journey (character growth and all that). This is important knowledge that I learnt through the UBC courses that I’ve never known before and couldn’t have picked up through learning by doing. Not only that, I’ve also picked up a whole set of tools to get these two elements right. 

And that’s all for today.