Remarkable Women in Ancient China (4)- Huang Yue Ying (C)

Who is she:

  • Daughter (only child) of Huang Chen Yin, an influential scholar in Jingzhou which was a big region encapsulating what are now the Hubei and Hunan provinces as well as surrounding areas (it was a rich and flourishing region where scholars thrive which was quite rare in ancient China). The Huang family was well-connected in the political circles.   
  • Wife to Zhuge Liang, a famous military strategist in the Three Kingdoms period spanning the decline of the Han dynasty and the rise of the Jin dynasty 
  • Known for being ugly, with yellow hair and dark skin. In ancient China, white skin was a sign of beauty (actually, this is also true nowadays in general) and yellow hair was a sign of unhealthiness of the kidney which people believed meant the woman has difficulty conceiving. 

Notable life events:

  • Actually, she is a pretty obscure figure in actual history (they are not even sure of her actual name, this is one of the names they often attribute to her, there are several other variants) so not much is known of her besides what was written above. However, what is certain is that her match to Zhuge Liang was very much to his favour. Basically, her connections helped him to gain in depth knowledge of what was going on in the rest of China (not an easy feat given how large ancient China was and the cost of transportation etc.). Hence, Zhuge Liang could formulate his key military stratagem which helped Liu Bei, the founder of one of the Three Kingdoms, to rise to that position. 
  • Folklore, however, has two stories about her (and Zhuge Liang)
    • Zhuge Liang was reputedly the inventor of the Mu Niu Liu Ma (Wooden Cow Moving Horse), a set of carts for transporting grains during military expeditions in mountainous regions. The story went that Zhuge Liang created the first one upon the request of Huang Yue Ying, who was herself a talented craftsman of mechanical wooden puppets. Specifically, it was said that Zhuge Liang was very much interested in these puppets that his would-be wife made and tried to memorise them. Huang Yue Ying, in her turn, wanted to test whether Zhuge Liang’s memory was really extraordinary and therefore told him that she has three “Nos”: on the day of their marriage, she will not ride, nor ride in a carriage, nor ride in a boat. Now, this is quite a problem since it would be undignified for the bride to walk on the day of the marriage. But eventually Zhuge Liang came up with Mu Niu Liu Ma as the solution which was said to be basically a shelf or rack mounted atop a mill. And so the two of them got married with Huang Yue Ying riding the first Mu Niu Liu Ma. 
    • Modern depiction of Zhuge Liang always have him carry a feather fan in his hands and it was said that his wife gave it to him as a gift. There are two versions about why she gave such a gift to him: A) she had observed that Zhuge Liang had a tendency to display his emotions clearly through his facial expressions and she thought this would make him too easy to see through by others. Therefore, she gave him a feather fan so that he could hide his expressions behind it. B) it was said that rather than being ugly, Huang Yue Ying was actually very pretty as well as being learned not only in literature but also martial prowess. In particular, it was said that her martial instructor was renowned and gifted her a feather fan upon her graduation. The feather fan apparently had two characters written on it: Ming and Liang, both of which meant bright. Within these two characters were hidden many military strategies as well as strategies of how to administer a country. Furthermore, her instructor told her that the one whose name contained both the characters of Ming and Liang would be her ideal husband. And so it came to pass that Huang Yue Ying became married to Zhuge Liang whose courtesy name was Kong Ming. It was said that the feather fan was what Huang Yue Ying gave to Zhuge Liang as a wedding present.  

Why is she remarkable:

  • Not much beyond what was said already: to the everyday Chinese, she’s probably more of a synonym/archetype for ‘a ugly but good wife who really helps you’. There are other historical women who fit that mould but she is one of the more famous ones 
  • Again, I think I’ve covered why she’s important historically- through her marriage to Zhuge Liang and how that facilitates him and indirectly contribute to the events of the Three Kingdoms period

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

Again I don’t have much of an opinion on her. If I go by the actual history, it seems nothing can be deduced about her personality at all. If we believe the folklore stories, then all I can say is  that I think she’s a learned woman with initiative. 

Chinese Lore- A selection of Mythical Flora (2)

I usually run my Remarkable Women in ancient China (RWAC) series this month but I didn’t want a break in between the Mythical Flora series so I decided to move back the RWAC post to next month.

Face Tree

Physical Description:

A tree with branches that sprout peach-like fruits with human faces

 Lore:

Another lifeform classified as Yao (see Lore section for Shadow Wood)


Leaning Mulberry

Physical Description:

Made up of two large mulberry trees that lean towards and support each other.

Lore:

The place where Xi He’s chariot containing one of Three Legged Crows rose to the sky from (see Three Legged Crow entry in [7438|Good Omen Chinese Mythical Lifeforms])


Construction Wood

Physical Description:

A tree without any off-shoots, with interweaving branches and roots at the top and bottom respectively. Its leaves are like nets and of an indigo colour. Its branches are violet and much like old-fashioned TV antennas found on rooftops*. Its flowers are black, its fruits yellow and olive-shaped. The whole tree has a shape akin to a cow. Its barks peel off easily.

*The actual text makes the comparison to a certain type of tree but I can’t find the English translation for this specific type of tree so I just substitute it with what the tree reminds me of upon finding out what the tree mentioned actually looks like

Lore:

It was said that these trees grow on the shore of what is now known as the Black River that flows past the Gan Su province and Inner Mongolia. According to legends, Construction Wood was used by Huang Ti to construct a ladder that connects Heaven to the mortal realm that deities use to ascend to Heaven.


Yan Wood

Physical Description:

A tree that bears apple-like fruits that are edible once its skin turns red. 


Zhu Yu

Physical Description:

A lump of grass with similar shape to Chinese leek or Chinse chives that sprouts a few flowers of indigo colour

 Special Properties:

It will fill the stomach but only when pulled freshly from the soil.

Tales of Inspiration (2)

Today I’m going to talk about the inspiration behind my novella A Thread of A Chance and how the external impetus+internal processing framework discussed in the first post of this series works in giving birth to this particular story. 

The external impetus actually comes in two parts: the first is the anthology series I was part of and now closed the door on which had set themes for each issue. The theme for the very first issue was shapeshifters and that’s the keyword that partially gave birth to A Thread of A Chance. The second part of the external impetus was a single term from this Hong Kong kungfu TV drama I had watched: The One that Escaped. That’s it: those 2 terms combined gave birth to A Thread of A Chance. 

Now the internal processing part. Actually, I think I’ve mentioned this before but I don’t have a thing for the shapeshifter term at all. Like I actually thought it was lame even though I was the one who came up with the term (ironic, right? Basically, I came up with the term cos that was the term that seemed to be the common thing between all of the stories going into that issue 1 of the anthology. I’m a practical person so that was the practical term that I came up with). So how does my mind deal with this? Well, it thought outside the box and ta ta, I came up with a constellation that is a shapeshifter and named such. What about that term from the kungfu drama? Somehow my mind tagged it to the end of the ancient Chinese phrase that says “Fifty great paths, The Heaven creates Forty Nine” which meant there was always an element of change (I think, I came to Australia when I was 12 so while I have a strong interest in ancient literature, I’m not 100% confident that my understanding is always correct when it came to such archaic terms). Then my mind took it further and combined it yet again with this idea I had of geomancers (people who practice feng shui, that Chinese practice of placing objects in certain spots around your home/work space to enhance luck) as mages and gave it the new phrase with the tag-on term a new meaning: that it was about “a thread of a chance”, the whole term being a direct translation out of Chinese. 

And that’s it for today. If you feel like this story of the inspiration source behind A Thread of A Chance is interesting, let me know in the comments. 

Chinese Lore- A selection of Mythical Flora (1)

Shadow Wood

Physical Description:

A tree distinguishable because in the day-time, each of its leaves has one hundred of the Chinese character that means “shadow” on it while at night its flowers will shine like stars. This tree will only bear fruit every 10 000 years. Its fruits are as large as a melon, with a green skin and black seeds.

Special Properties:

Consuming the fruit of this tree will cause the body to become lighter (could also be interpreted as a bonus to speed and jumping abilities)

Lore:

Reputedly one of the fauna or flora that have taken on sentience (or at least become different in some way) from being ancient and/or having absorbed (or possibly developed on their own) a certain amount of “essence” of nature. In Chinese, such life forms are referred to as “Yao Jing” where Yao refers to anything and everything out of the common and Jing can be translated to “essence”.

Translation Quirk:

At first, I thought each leave of the Shadow Wood has 100 shadows rather than having 100 Chinese characters of the word “shadow” on it. In Chinese, usually a word is composed of at least 2 characters. For the term “shadow”, it is far more common for it to be represented by 2 Chinese characters, the first already meaning “shadow” on its own and the second one meaning “son” on its own but when used in combination with other characters is really more of a “space filler”. In addition, the character that means “son” and the character that means “word” in Chinese are quite similar in form. 

Golden Ivy Moss (aka Nightglow Moss)

Physical Description:

An egg-shaped moss of a golden colour

Special Properties:

It will glow when put in water.

Lore:

A gift from a foreign country to China during the Jin Dynasty (the Dynasty straight after the Period of the Three Kingdoms)

Ivy Bloom

Physical Description:

A spinach-like plant, whose flowers can take on five different colour depending on the time of the day. In particular, its flowers are purple in the morning, green at noon, yellow in the afternoons, indigo near sunset and red at night.

Tales of Inspiration (1)

“Where do you get your inspiration from?” That seems to be a FAQ for writers. So I thought I would answer it here by describing how each of my story ideas came to me. It would also be a good way for me and my future readers to acquaint ourselves so they get a glimpse of what they will be getting into.

But first of all, let me briefly recap my personal answer to where do I get inspiration from. Actually, it’s not actually my personal answer, more like an answer I read that I felt personally clicked with me. Essentially, it has 2 components: 1) external impetus: information and ideas you gather from books, TV, personal experience etc.; 2) the internal processing of your mind where you modify and/or combine the ideas you gather from outside sources

I think I’ve mentioned this before but my first recent attempt at novelling was actually this mock fan-fic based on an online novel that was abandoned half way and therefore I never got to see its ending. The writing wasn’t great (in fact it was quite amateurish) but I was quite into the story – it was novel in how it introduced an ‘ethnically Chinese’ protagonist into a fantasy setting based on Islam society in a desert. Also, I can see some deep themes and was rather overcome by emotion in certain bits of the story. So when I first decided to dip my toes into novel writing, I thought why not start with this story because then I could save a fair amount of time with the planning by keeping everything the same as the online novel. Now that plan quickly unravelled as I started to want to fix plot inconsistencies etc.

And yet, all was not wasted since I later came up with a prequel that was quite distinct from the original- it has completely different characters because it’s set generations back and the overall society also had a large difference. However, I became and am still uncertain over the ethical and legal considerations over actually publishing the prequel since I was still borrowing elements of the world from the original work and plus I was also rather stuck when I wrote up the outline for it so I decided to not to pursue the project. Still, I think it’s a good illustration of how inspiration works under the external impetus+internal processing system. In this case, the external impetus was clearly that abandoned online novel that I read while my internal processing came up with another related but totally different story idea.

That’s it for today. Let me know if you have thoughts on what I’ve shared before. I’m not sure what to blog about for next week yet but I’m trying to keep the content of my blog balanced so the next post of this series would be sometime next month.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (3)- Ban Zhao

Who is she:

  • The first female historian in Chinese history, a renowned politician and poet
  • Author of the influential text “Lessons for Women” that is inextricably linked to female suppression

Notable life events:

  • Born into the prestigious Ban family (which was reputedly the descendants of a famous philosopher in the Warring State Period) as the daughter of Ban Biao, one of the most influential scholar of his time. She had two elder brothers: the eldest Ban Gu who was also a historian and the renowned Ban Zhao who turned from a scholar into a general and was instrumental in securing China’s western border. Note that the Zhaos in the two siblings’ names were actually different Chinese characters- the Zhao in her brother’s name meant surpass whereas hers meant bright
  • Married at the age of 14 to Cao Shi Shou from the same province, widowed early and chose to remain widowed throughout her life
  • Instrumental in getting permission from the Emperor to allow Ban Zhao to retire from his post at the western border and return to their homeland. Unfortunately, he died soon after arrival such that the two of them never got to see each other again
  • Invited by the Emperor to finish the historical text that her father started and her eldest brother Ban Gu left unfinished due to his untimely demise due to politics
  • Viewed as an instructor by the Empress and concubines of the Emperor and coming to be known as Cao Da Gu (roughly meaning Big Aunt Cao). In particular, only elderly women of high prestige and virtue at that time would be referred to as Da Gu
  • Authored the text “Lessons for Women” in her old age so that her female descendants would know how to properly behave when they were married

Why is she remarkable:

  • There were many renowned female poets and politicians throughout Chinese history. In comparison, female historians were much rarer. In fact, I couldn’t find any other mention of other female historians (that might be just the limit of Google but I also think even if there are others, female historians would still be less numerous compared to poets and politicians)
  • While she herself was a highly influential female figure outside the home, her “Lessons for Women” became one of the texts that later propagated the main tenets of female repression and led to a more subdued role of women in society

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I found it hard to conceptualise her as a person and so I can’t really hold an opinion about her. I’ve previously discussed a little my attitude on gender roles but in the case of Ban Zhao, I don’t think you can really fault her for the outcome that her book led to greater repression. Sure, it basically espoused the view that women should be obedient and weak but I think we need to put it into the context that she was happily married (note that she chose to remain widowed) in a society where marriages were predominantly arranged by parents and sometimes without any consultation with the one who was about to get married! So of course she could afford to be obedient and weak if her husband was treating her well and given that she wrote the book for her direct descendants, I think she probably assumed that all women could be happily married if they behaved like her.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (2)- Empress Dou

Who is she:

  • Wife to Emperor Wen, mother to Emperor Jing and grandmother to Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)
  • A woman who has risen from a root of poverty to have influence across three different reigns

Notable life events:

  • Born into a poor family in the province of Qinghe in the year just before the founding of the Han dynasty. Her name was commonly thought of as being Yi Fong but might be just Yi or unknown
  • Recruited to the Imperial Court as a lady in waiting for Dowager Empress Lu at about the age of 13
  • Gifted as lady in waiting to her future husband at the age of 15 by mistake (she asked to be put on the list going to her home province but the one in charge of allocating ladies in waiting to different Lords forgot and put her on the wrong list)
  • Made Empress at the age of 18 on the basis of having birthed Emperor Jing’s eldest son (later Emperor Jing)
  • Transferred her belief in the Taoist philosophy to the Emperor across the three consecutive reigns that she personally experienced; her death marked the ushering in an era where Confucianism held supreme over all other schools of thought in Imperial China (at least as far as the Imperial Court is concerned).

Why is she remarkable:

  • She had heavy political influence across three different reigns and her reign marked the end of a ruling regime that was generous towards the populace as pertaining to the  ‘action without intention’ and other principles of Taoism
  • Clearly, hers is a rags-to-riches story on an epic scale

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I don’t really like her or dislike her but I think she is a dynamic character and her actions create unconventional consequences For example, on the one hand, she meddled heavily in politics and was known for elevating those from her birth family which normally leads to corruption. Yet, the Taosim regime that she was instrumental in creating or at least encouraging was seen as inseparable from the prosperity of her husband and son’s reigns.

Remarkable Females in Ancient China (1)- Dugu Qieluo

If you are curious why I’m doing this series because you missed last week’s post, check it out here
qieluo

Who is she:

  • Wife to Yang Jian, founder of the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) which was built on the demise of the Northern Zhou dynasty when Yang Jian made its last Emperor yield the throne to him
  • formally known as Empress Dugu in life or Empress Wenxian after death
  • The seventh daughter born to her parents- a general of Xianbei (a major nomadic group residing in what’s now eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Northeast China) ethnicity and a Chinese lady of noble birth

Notable life events:

  • Named Qieluo for tagara in Sanskrit which has a host of Buddhist connotations, most notably Valerian which is a herb used for incenses
  • Married Yang Jian at the age of 14
  • Dissuaded the Emperor Xuan of the Northern Zhou dynasty, husband to her eldest daughter, from making her commit suicide through “intensive begging and pleading, kowtowing and bleeding” (now that’s the perseverance of a mother!) 
  • Persuaded her husband to ascend to the throne when he was indecisive on whether to continue making the last Emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty his puppet or ascending the throne himself
  • Instrumental in the deposing of her eldest son from the office of Crown Prince to be replaced by her second eldest, who became the second and last Emperor of the Sui Dynasty
  • Known for being jealous
    • Abolished all of the high ranking positions for royal concubines and drastically cut back on their numbers (She was the first Empress who was allowed to make decisions regarding the system regarding royal concubines, ahead of the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty aka the only female Emperor of ancient China)
    • When they were both middle aged, she killed a palace slave of noble descent that her husband had bedded once, prompting him to ride away from the Imperial Palace in anger

Why is she remarkable:

  • It was well recorded that she was loved by her husband, which is far from the norm for most royal couples of ancient China. Furthermore, she
    • was the first Empress to give birth to all of his children (10 of them in total, 5 princes and princesses)
    • and her husband was the first and one of the two royal couples in ancient China ever recorded to live together daily as opposed to apart in separate palaces
    • was mourned intensely by her husband who later expressed a wish to be reunited with her after death when he became very sick just prior to his own death
  • She was the only Empress considered to be equal to her husband in status during his reign by court officials and maintained her influence on him throughout her life. This was opposed to many Empresses who gained power after the demise of their husbands and exerted or even usurped power from their own sons.

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I’m not normally drawn to Court women (Empresses and Dowager Empresses and the like)- those few I know are too ambitious and power-hungry for my taste (this could be the way they are portrayed but then again I have a general aversion in taste against anything related to Court intrigue and politics). But I think I admire Dugu Qieluo and in particular, I admire her known jealousy. Well, not for the sake of her jealousy per se, but to the extent that I feel that she’s authentic to her womanhood in that respect. Ancient China was a monogamistic society and I’ve grown up with the impression that women of that time mostly accept that as their due. I understand that- most people conform to societal norms, but on a deep-seated level, I think I am repulsed due to my feminist streak. Going back to Dugu Qieluo, it might be a trait gifted to her via her Xianbei lineage (apparently the Xianbei society had some matriarchal traits).

The other thing that made her stand out for me was that she didn’t have to seize power by force or trick at all (as I said above, I have no admiration for ambitious individuals in general, I don’t care what great deeds they have done), it just came about naturally for her.

*Note: I mainly used Chinese sources but there is an English Wiki on her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugu_Qieluo

Also, I’m going on holiday in November so there will be no blog posts during that time. But I will come back in December.

Remarkable Females in Ancient China- coming to you soon!

ancientChinesewomen

Yes, I’m creating yet another lot of quarterly serial posts both so I can more or less stick to it and it might dovetail into other related posts (still chewing over possibilities).

So essentially, this lot of new posts will feature remarkable female figures from ancient China that I compiled mostly from Chinese Wiki and other Web sources. And now you wonder what I mean by remarkable and why I’m doing this lot of new posts, don’t you?

Firstly, I can’t say I have a tight definition on remarkable- I’m mostly just looking up specific names that I came across that piqued my interest. However, I think it’s fair to say that if a female name has passed down through such a long time in history then that is remarkable in itself.

As to why I’m undertaking such a project, well, I’ve been noticing for a while that I have greater difficulty writing female characters compared to male characters despite my gender. In terms of my genre of Chinese fantasy, I found that I’m often boxed in by this idea that Chinese women in ancient times didn’t have much agency. And that obviously presents a major problem for fiction- a story of a protagonist without agency is going to be very dull to readers. So my solution is to do more research into this topic and dig out examples where women do have agency. Plus, I’ve found that I don’t much like researching for novels so this is my perfect excuse to do it on a consistent basis.

Stay tuned next week for the first episode of this brand new series!

Chinese Lore- Legendary Chinese String Instruments (Guqin) (3)

Now, the last of this series:

  1. Pillar Circler

Appearance & Characteristics:

Its name came from a story published in a famous ancient text: a renowned female singer from the Han region in the Zhou dynasty who was travelling to the Qi kingdom but ran out of money half way and so had to resort to singing on the street to beg for money. Her melancholy sword circled in the air like the call of a swallow. Moreover, it was said that her voice still circled and reverberated among the pillars within houses three days after she had left. Thus, this instrument had a strong echo.

Lore:

When this instrument was actually constructed is unknown. However, legend says that it was brought to the Lord of the Chu kingdom (known as Chu Zhuang Wang, that’s not his actual name but a title, Wang is the Chinese character for a feudal lord) as a tribute by a person named Hua Yuan. It was said that Chu Zhuang Wang received the Pillar Circler, he was totally immersed in the beautiful music it produced. There was once when he didn’t go to court for seven consecutive days and forgot all about the affairs of the kingdom. His wife got really worried and said to him, “Lord, you are too immersed in music! In the past, Lord Xia Jie loved to hear Mei Xi playing the Se (another string instrument that have 50, 25 or 23 strings). Similarly, Lord Zhou lost the kingdom to decadent music. Now, Lord you are so immersed in the music produced by the Pillar Circler so as to not go to court for seven days. Do you also want to forfeit your kingdom and your life?” That made Chu Zhuang Wang think. In the end, he decide to heed his wife’s advice. So he ordered the Pillar Circler to be broken up by iron hammers and this highly sought after instrument became history.

  1. Horn-bell

Appearance & Characteristics:

The timbre from this instrument is very grand, like the long note from a horn or the ringing of a temple bell (that is usually as tall and wide as one man), such that music produced from it would vibrate strongly in audiences’ ears.

Lore:

Made in the Zhou dynasty, *Bo Ya (a skilled player of the guqin who was renowned because the story about him and his friend created the Chinese term for a friend who has a keen appreciation for one’s talents zhi yin which literally means “know music/sound”) had once owned it. It subsequently fell into the hands of Qi Yuan Gong, the virtuous Lord of the Qi Kingdom during the period of the Spring and Autumn Warring States. He was a man who had great musical talents and had quite a collection of high quality guqins. Among these, he especially treasured Horn-bell. He had once asked his retainers to knock on the horns of oxen and sing accompaniments while he used the Horn-bell to perform. It was said that the effect was very poignant and the servants who were serving on the side all ended up in tears.