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. 

The Chinese influence in my Writing

Aside from the about page, I don’t think I’ve properly introduced myself so let’s do this here up front. I’m a Chinese who migrated to Australia at the age of 12 after I completed primary school. Because I came from Hong Kong, I lean towards modern values (at least in gender roles and such) but I also lean towards the conservative at the same time (I have all these conceptions about proper behaviour for women like not swearing, not that I judge others on them, just that I don’t do that myself and I prefer women not doing them). I also love ancient Chinese literature: the lyrical prose of Chinese poetry, classics like the Dream of the Red Chamber and just in general the magic of the Chinese language which encompass idioms, folklore etc. 

Now onto the meat of this post: in what forms do the Chinese influence in my writing occur? Well, one obvious answer is in my chosen sub-genre of Chinese fantasy. As a Chinese who loves fantasy, I write in the genre that I love to read and bring my ethnical identity into the genre. So that includes creating an entire world of fictional ancient China with fantasy elements, borrowing heavily from folklore and real history but ‘subverting’ them with my imagination as well as attempting to capture the essence and nuances of living as a Chinese in Chinese society. 

Then, there are less obvious influences. One example, which I detected long after it happened, was during that abandoned attempt at novelling aka the Genghis Khan and wife story. From the get go, each chapter of that story takes the format of being driven by exactly two events when I outline it. The two events might or might not be interrelated but there are always two for each chapter. That wasn’t something I did intentionally, just the way my mind told me to structure it in. Then one day years down the track, like last year when I was outlining my WIP and taking an online writing course on outlining, it suddenly hit me that this 2-event chapters style was actually the influence of Chinese classics: essentially the ones I had read all had chapter headings that were in the couplet format. For those who don’t know, couplets are basically 2 phrases each of 5 or 7 Chinese characters and the words or characters in each part of the couplet are supposed to have correspondence to each other. A well-known example of a couplet is “Distance tests a horse’s strength, time reveals a person’s heart.” where the correspondences are distance to time, tests to reveals etc. I’ve now migrated away from this format but I was quite surprised that my Chinese reading managed to creep into my writing that way. 

My fellow writer followers, how has your self-identify cropped up in your writing? Let me know in comments. For my reader followers, hope that you found this post interesting. 

Moonlake’s writing updates (9)

I felt like short and snappy today so let’s do this in Q&A format. 

Where are you at overall? 

I’ve finished draft 0.6. 

What’s that- draft 0.6?

It’s the second iteration of my decimal drafts, I started with draft 0.5. 

What’s with the decimal drafts?

It’s a thing to get rid of my perfectionism, telling myself that I’m doing a draft that’s not even draft 1 yet. 

What’s coming up?

I’m currently doing a bit of structural work on my story, taking the whole of March for that at least. In the short term, I will focus on draft 0.8 and then draft 1. Not sure if there will be a draft 0.9 in between. 

The time horizon for these drafts? 

Definitely draft 0.8 done by end of this year. And then draft 1 done by end of next year. 

What other longer plans? 

Longer plan is of course is to finish the other books of this series (yes, it’s a series, still not of indeterminate length i.e. unsure how many books. Feeling more like it’s at least a trilogy now but still not 100% sure). And then once I have three books written, I can start looking at debutting. 

And that’s it for today, check back in next week when I talk about the Chinese influence in my writing. 

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

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.

World Building: Constellation

I’ve previously listed constellations under Worldbuilding- Moonlake’s Favourite Elements. Today I want to show two snippets of my writing where constellations feature prominently. 

The New Moon shone pale against the backdrop of black velvet that was the sky. In contrast, various constellations competed intensely in a race to outshine each other. In the centre of the Celestial River, the Two Hares bounded ahead of the stalking Fox whilst continuously throwing furtive glances behind and inevitably faltering a little in their steps. At such times, the eerily lit eyes of the Fox would shine forth somewhat brighter, heralding the great leap it was about to make in order to close in with its preys. But then, the Two Hares would unerringly find their footing again and adeptly swerve to the side such that the Perpetual Chase would begin anew. Behind the Fox strode the Hunter, who spent the Steppe and Blood Moons hunting the Fallow Deer prancing merrily above the Fox while chasing after the Wilful Maiden for the other half of the year. Just now, the Maiden was tossing her hair and laughing, keeping most of her gaze on the Perpetual Chase above her but periodically teasing and enticing the Hunter to follow on her heels. She seemed like a wholly different person from the kneeling figure who spent most of the time with her entire face cupped within her hand and only occasionally looking up to show a tear-streaked face- the Weeping Maiden as she was at such times. Bortai did not care for her in either form. She much preferred her sister, the Silent Maiden who had all of her attention fixed on interacting with the Dying Rack. Although she was not as ethereally beautiful as her sister, the sense of absorption in her own realm that she showed stroke a chord deep within Bortai. 

~ Snippet from The Return of the White Deer [mentioned in Moonlake’s Work pile (3)]

I waited expectantly on the appointed night, the same as I’ve waited for the past three years. There is a voice telling me to look up but I dare not. Niang had drilled into me that it isn’t right for us common people to gaze upon the transformation of the Shapeshifter. It does not like mortal eyes peeking at it while it is turning from a happy carp swimming within the Celestial River back to its true form. And we common people have to obey rather than tempting immortals to throw their wraths at us. An interminable time would pass while I fought with the itch within my heart that grew as Niang kept her stern scrutiny of me to ensure that I would keep my head down. When she gave me her verbal permission to look up again,  I never failed to gasp at the true form of the Shapeshifter. Which was daunting and yet eerily magnificent too. Yet, my heart would scream its dissatisfaction, at being cheated of the chance to watch the entire transformation as it progresses. In that first year, when I settled with the Old Man within the Imperial Palace, he said the words that I had dreamed of Niang saying in the past three years when I lowered my chin instinctively, “Look up, Xun Zhen, watch the splendour of the Transformation as it occurs.” And I did. First, the Carp shed some of the scales on its body as glittering pinpricks of starlight. Then it swished its tail and stretched and transformed itself all at the same time, unbelievably fast. It was every bit as breathtaking as I would imagine it to be and more.

~ Snippet from A Thread of Chance (navigate to Moonlake’s Writing to read it as a complete novella, it’s rough but a complete story nevertheless)