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. 

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.