Chinese Lore- A Selection of Mythical Fauna (1)

South Sea Butterfly (aka Hundred Illusions Butterfly)

Physical Description:

A huge butterfly that still weighs about 80g after its massive wingspans are cut off

Lore:

It is said that sailors of South Sea had once encountered something as massive as a sail that fluttered by and hit the sails on their ship. They hit this thing with a heavy object and it fell down in a scattered form. The sailors took a take at it and found that it was a massive butterfly. They cut its wings and weighed it and found that it was about 80g. They consumed its meat and found it to be delicious.

Alternatively, it was said that it was a species of butterflies native to the Sea Market (as in half of the term for ‘ mirage’ in Chinese) and its shape was ever changing. Hence its other name- the Hundred Illusions Butterfly.


Wang Yu Fish (Wang Yu means Lord’s leftover) aka Wu’s Leftover

Physical Description:

A fish that has only half of its body intact from head to tail.

Lore:

According to legends, the Lord of the Wu region (around the Jiang Nan province in modern days) had only eaten half of a fish dish and discarded the leftovers into the waters, which then turned into the species of Wang Yu Fish.

There are stories of how when there is a leak in a pond, a Wang Yu Fish could not go with the flow of water and lay dying. Someone shone a mirror in front of it and seeing its own reflection in the mirror, the fish thought it was whole again (or there were two of them) and it was able to go along with the reflection.


Lu Shu

Physical Description:

A horse-like creature whose head is white, with tiger-like stripes on its body and a red tail.

Special Properties:

Its call is like folklore music. Wearing its skin improves fertility.


Qu

Physical Description:

A fish shaped like a cow, has a snake-like tail and wings growing under the ribs.

Special Properties:

Its call is that of yaks. Its meat is a preventative measure against boils.

Chinese Lore- A selection of Mythical Flora (3)

Li Tree

Physical Description:
A tree with square leaves and yellow flowers that sprouts tiny floss on their petals.


Special Properties:
The fruits it bears are fist-sized. Consuming them will greatly improve one’s memory, might even make someone attain photographic memory.


Zhi Chu

Physical Description:
A plant that looks like okra except that it has red flowers.


Special Properties:
The fruits it bears are like Chinese honey locust with a hard husk outside. Consuming them has a similar effect to drinking Red Bull or other strong energy drinks.


Du Heng

Physical Description:
A plant that looks like spinach and has a stink.


Special Properties:
Putting this grass onto a horse can make it run faster. Consuming it can also heal abnormal growths in the neck area.


Yao Grass

Physical Description:
A plant with vibrant growth of leaves, yellow leaves and fruits resembling the dodder plant.


Special Properties:
The fruits it bears would make you more attractive or likeable.


Lore:
Yan Di (a legendary figure in the prehistoric age who invented farming and herbal medicine, reputedly a minotaur) has a beautiful daughter who passed away before she was married (i.e. young). Her spirit arrived at the Gu Yao Mountain and became the Yao Grass.


Wang shu he

Physical Description:
A large lotus-like plant that is about 1.3m tall and has up to four flowers growing up of each stem.


Special Properties:
Its leaves are curled up in days and only uncurl at nights. Specifically, they only uncurl at the appearance of the moon.


Lore:
Reputedly, they are the tribute paid by a kingdom to the south of ancient China.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (7)- Fu Shan Xiang

Who is she:

  • The first and only female Zhuang yuan (the one with the highest score who sat the examination for scholars to become government officials) in ancient China

Notable Life Events:

  • Born in 1833 in Nanjing to a scholarly family, which quickly fell into poverty after both of her parents died when she was aged 8 
  • Married at the age of 13 to her fiance engaged from before her birth but widowed at the age of 18 when her husband passed away from measles 
  • Joined the rebel army of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom after it took over the city of Nanjing as it capital (which was renamed Tianjing or the Heavenly Capital) in 1851 because her mother-in-law wanted to sell her for money after her husband’s funeral 
  • Sat the first scholar examination for women run by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in 1853 and won the title of Zhuang yuan
  • Became Chancelloress in the court of Yang Xiuqing, the East King (Dong Wang), where she dealt with correspondence and official papers. 
  • Responsible for many gender equality and heritage protection policies under the rule of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom
  • Personal fate unknown after the Tianjing incident, when Yang Xiuqing was killed and his whole court exterminated: apparently there are four different versions over her possible fate, only one of which is positive.  

Why is she remarkable:

  • Although she was part of the rebel army, she was still the only female Zhuang yuan record in Chinese history 
  • Despite her political achievements, it was said that she later became mistress to Yang Xiuqing (whether she was forced or not could not be ascertained) which might be a pity 

Moonlake’s thoughts on her: 

I get the sense that this is a woman who has a logical brain and can always pick the relatively best outcome for herself given the constraints and specific circumstances. 

English reference on her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fu_Shanxiang#CITEREFMao1998

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)

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). 

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. 

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.