What I lost in translation at both ends of the Great Divide.

And what I found for making that attempt to bridge the chasm.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chinese Myth – Nuwa Created Human.女娲造人


In every culture there is one Goddess that stands out among all else and in the Chinese culture it is Nuwa 女娲 Nǚwā . The Earth created by Pangu 盘古 Pángǔ (see post: Pangu Created the Universe. ) was a lonely and uninhabited place. Nuwa came down to live in it but was lonely as she was the only goddess on earth.

One day, she came across a crystal clear pond. When she saw her own reflection in the water, it occurred to her to make a figure of herself from the clay by the pond. When it was placed on the ground, she was delighted when it came to life and jumped around her. Whereupon, she continued to make many more figures and they all danced round her and called her “mother”. They then dispersed to populate the land.

But the earth is vast and boundless, and she tires of sculpting them by hand. So she grabbed a vine, dipped it into the mud and flicked drops of mud into the ground. These too came to life and became human. This way, she was able to make countless human who scattered to all parts of the earth and she was no longer lonely. As human is mortal, she taught them matrimonial relationship so they could bear children and continued the propagation of the human race. This is the reason why the Chinese will tell you that it is Nuwa who created human 女娲造人 Nǚwā zàorén . And why in the second month of every lunar year, thousands of Chinese will pray to her for love and fertility.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Cruelty of the Nine-Tailed Fox Daji - 妲己


In an earlier post (千字文 – Line 13), it was mentioned that it was the beautiful concubine Daji 妲己 who caused the downfall of the Shang dynasty. King Zhou conquered the state of Yousu 有蘇 yǒusū and took Daji as his prize (be careful of what you win). He became extremely besotted with her beauty and lost all interest in state affairs but instead caters to her every whims and extreme cruelty to amuse her.
She is said to derive great joy at hearing people cry in physical torment. She ordered a farmer’s feet to be cut off so she can study why he can withstand crossing icy water. And a pregnant women’s belly to be cut open to see if her guess of the sex of the baby is correct. To verify an ancient saying that "a good man's heart has seven apertures", she even had the heart of the minister Bi Gan (King Zhou's uncle) dug out.
She is claimed to have invented many instruments of torture, the most famous of which is the bronze toaster or Paoluo 炮烙 páoluò. The poor victim is tied to this twenty feed tall charcoal heated cylinder and fried alive. Another of her invention is the snake pit where victims are thrown into a pit of venomous snakes and spiders. His own people disgusted with these acts of cruelty, revolted against King Zhou’s tyranny and supported King Wu of Zhou when he attacked. Daji was executed on the order of King Wu on the advice of Jiang Ziya (see last post).
In the novel Fengshen Yanyi 封神演义 fēngshényǎnyì translated as “The Investiture of the Gods” or “The Creation of the Gods”, Daji was a nine-tailed fox spirit Huli jing 狐狸精 . In it, King Zhou visited an ancient temple of the Goddess Nuwa 女娲; nǚwā, he insulted the Goddess when he expressed his lust for her. Nuwa sent Daji, the ten thousand year vixen, a nine-headed pheasant spirit and jade pipa spirit to bewitch the king and hasten his downfall. There were many other interesting tales in this novel. In the end, Daji was condemned by Nuwa herself because of her extreme cruelty. This is the most famous Chinese classic tale of how a beauty caused the downfall of an empire and you can have either the historical or fairy tale version.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fishing Without Hook. 太公钓鱼


In the last post we mentioned the capable Zhou minister Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 Jiāng Zǐyá who is more popularly known as Tai Gong Wang 太公望 Tàigōng Wàng because of the proverb 太公钓鱼 Tàigōng diàoyú , 愿者上钩 yuànzhě shànggōu。It means: "When Taigong fishes, the fish willingly take the bait."

Tai Gong once served the King of Shang but came to hate him for his tyrannical ways. He hoped that one day, someone would call upon his service to overthrow the king. Meanwhile, he waited patiently until he was 80 years old fishing in a tributary of the Wei River with a line but no hook and the line above the water. He waited until King Wen of Zhou came to seek his service and appointed him as the prime minister. He gave him the title of Jiang Taigongwang or “The Gread Duke’s Hope”. His faith was rewarded when Taigong helped his son to defeat the Shang emperor (see last post).

He was also created with writing the first military strategy book - The Six Secret Strategic Teachings (六韬 liùtāo ). It is considered as one of ancient China's Seven Military Classics.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Console The People By Punishing The Wicked. Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 13.


吊民伐罪, 周发殷汤。
Diàomín fázuì, zhōufā yīntāng。

(console) (people) (attack) (crime)

Oops, I did it again. This is the correct line 13 while the last post was actually line 14. Sorry ya. This phrase means consoling the people by punishing the wicked. Evelyn Lip said this is recorded in the Book of Mencius (BC 372-289) 孟子 Mèngzǐ . Mencius was a philosopher and Confucian scholar. Mencius felt that the Emperor should relieved the people’s hardship by eliminating corrupt and oppressive officials.

(circumference) (emit) (rich) (soup)

Although I have put the individual meanings for the 4 characters above, they actually referred to names of supposedly good rulers who overthrew tyrants. King Wu of Zhou (1046-1043 BC) 周武王 zhōu wŭ wáng also known as 周发 Zhōufā defeated the last Shang king Di Xin 帝辛 in the “Battle of Wild Herds” 牧野之戰 mùyězhīzhàn where the tyrant’s own soldiers and slaves changed sides to fought against him. King Wu was assisted by his able prime minister and strategist Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 Jiāng Zǐyá.

It was said that King Di Xin was a good king until he became besotted with his cruel and evil concubine Daji 妲己 Dájǐ. This became the most famous Chinese tale of how a beauty caused the downfall of an empire. I will write more about this bewitching beauty in the near future.

Yin Tang (1675 BC-1646 BC) 殷汤 yīntāng refers to King Cheng Tang of Shang dynasty who became the first emperor of the Shang dynasty when he defeated King Jie Jié, the last ruler of the Xia dynasty 夏朝 Xià Cháo. According to one story, King Jie was corrupted by his infatuation with his concubine Mo Xi (妺喜; mòxǐ), another cruel beauty. She got the king to make a lake of wine and commanded 3,000 men to drink it dry and laughed when they all drowned. Both kingdoms brought down by a beautiful woman and it is ironic that the Shang dynasty rose and fell because of a beautiful woman.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Way of the Emperor. Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 13.

坐朝问道, 垂拱平章。
zuò cháo wèn dào, chuí gǒng píng zhāng。

(sit) (imperial court) (ask) (way),

This phrase implied the emperor sitting down, presiding over the imperial court and asked his ministers for feedback on the governing of the country. Evelyn Lip suggest that this may refer to the administrative style of King Wen of Zhou Dynasty who based his rule on the feedback of his feudal lords but there is no concrete evidence to support that.

(droop) (clasping hands) (just) (regulations)。

The country thus run will be ruled in peace due to the just rules that took into consideration the benefits of the people. The drooping clothes of ancient Chinese ministers and the clasping hands is a symbolism for peace and thus signifies easy reign for the emperor.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chinese Myth - Pangu Created the Universe. 盘古开天辟地


The proverb 开天辟地 kāitiān-pìdì means the creation of the world. It also means “since the beginning of time”. Chinese legend told a tale of how the universe was created. In the beginning, the universe was a formless chaos which coalesced into a cosmic egg. Pangu 盘古 Pángǔ , (see post: Dragon Master, Fire King, Bird Officials & The Yellow Emperor) the ancestor of mankind was conceived inside this “egg” for 18,000 years.

One day, he woke up and was enraged that he could see nothing in the darkness. He created a giant axe from his breathe and broke the egg. Thereupon, all light and clear things floated up to form the sky while heavy and turbid things sank and coagulated into the earth. Afraid that the sky and earth may joined back, he stood up and propped them apart. Each day, the sky rose by a “zhang” 一丈 yīzhàng (3 1/3m) while the earth grew thicker by 一丈.

“After another 18,000 years, Pangu has grown to a height of 90,000 li (45,000 km). With the structure of the universe now consolidated, Pangu toppled down and died. Just before his death, Pangu turned the air that he breathed out into wind and cloud. His voice, lfet eye and right eye were changed into lightning, the sun and the moon respectively. The twinkling stars in the sky were originally Pangu’s hair and beard. “

“Pangu’s 4 limbs and gigantic body became the earth’s Four Poles and Five Mountains. His blood was transformed into rivers and his muscles, farmland. Even the fine hair on his body also became grass and wood, giving the earth a green covering”. Thus, this was how Earth was born.

(Extracted from – A General History of China published by Canfonian Pte Ltd)


Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Stolen Beast Heads of the Haiyangtang Zodiac Fountain. 圆明园十二生肖兽首.


The Haiyantang 海晏堂 hǎiyàntáng was a water clock fountain that have 12 figures of the 12 animals that corresponds to the Twelve Terrestrial Branches and is commonly known as the Chinese Zodiac signs or 十二生肖 shí'èr shēngxiào in Chinese. The main bodies were carved of stone and the heads cast from bronze. The animals spouted water to tell the time in a fountain created for the Qianlong emperor 乾隆帝 Qiánlóngdì and was situated in the Garden of Eternal Spring 长春园 Chángchūn Yuán. The design of the figures is attributed to the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione.

The animal heads were stolen during the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace 圆明园 (see last post) by removing it from its stone bodies and sent out of China. To date only 5 of the 12 heads are back in China. The Poly Museum managed to secure the tiger, monkey and ox heads in 2000. Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho purchased the pig head in 2003 and the horse head in 2007 for USD8.9 millions. He donated both of these back to China. The rabbit and rat heads were auctioned by Christie in 2009 despite China’s attempt to block it. A Chinese collector Cai Mingchao who won the bid USD40 millions refused to pay to pay for it out of protests.

China signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Then, why are these not returned to China? These are the words of Jean Couteau – “ Because the Hague Conventions, this “civilizing” of war, were never meant to be retroactive. Since it was implemented, in 1910, it may indeed have compelled, upon Germany and Russia in particular, the restitution of artworks seized during the Second World War, but it does not compel any restitution of the works seized during Western colonial expansion. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Hague Conventions and other similar later ones, viewed by the West as progress toward a true international law and genuine “universalism”, are perceived by the Chinese and other formerly colonized people as yet another one-sided imperialistic diktat. “

The bronze animal heads have come to represent the returning of stolen national treasures to China and in a larger perspective its relationship with the world. Will the so-called civilized nations adopt one standard for themselves and another for the rest of the world?


Friday, September 10, 2010

The Destruction of the Summer Palace – Yuan Ming Yuan. 圆明园的焚毁.


This morning I was watching a documentary on the sacking of China’s Old Summer Palace known as the Gardens of Perfect Brightness 圆明园 Yuánmíng Yuán and was upset at the wanton destruction by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium war 鸦片战争 Yāpiàn Zhànzhēng. Yuang Ming Yuan 圆明园 was built in the 18th and early 19th century and was known for its extensive collection of gardens and building architectures and other works of Arts.

The gardens covered an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres) and were almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City, and 8 times the size of the Vatican City. Thousands of masterpieces of Chinese art and antiquities were stored in the halls, making the Imperial Gardens one of the largest collections in the world and this includes unique copies of literary work and compilations. Most of these were destroyed or stolen during the looting and subsequent deliberate torching of the entire gardens that burned for 3 days. It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze.

On October 18, 1860, the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin, ordered the destruction of the palace in retaliation for the torture and execution of about 20 European and Indian prisoners. More than 300 eunuchs, maids, and workers in the palace were unable to escape and were burned to death. And yet, once the Summer Palace was reduced to ruins a sign was raised with an inscription in Chinese stating "This is the reward for perfidy and cruelty". This coming from the ‘civilized’ nations who subjected millions to untold miseries, and took a country to war because they were banned from trading their poison (opium) freely. Is it any wonder that the destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan is still a sensitive issue in China even today?

Victor Hugo, the then contemporary author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in his "Expédition de Chine" described thus - "'Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tang Yao and Yu Shun Abdicating in Favor of Others. Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 12.


推位让国, 有虞陶唐。
(tuī wèi ràng guó), (yǒu yú táo táng)。

(deciline) (position) (let) (country),

Declining position for the sake of the country. There are many noble and unselfish men who declined or abdicated their positions in favour of others who can better lead the country. Sadly, this is a rare virtue indeed.

(there is) (Yu) (Tao) (Tang)。

There is Tang Yao 唐堯 Táng Yáo also known as Taotang 陶唐 Táotáng who is said to have invented the game of 围棋 wéiqí or “Go”. He is often extolled as the morally perfect sage-king whose benevolence and diligence served as a model to future Chinese monarchs and emperors. He passed his throne to Yu Shun 虞舜 Yú Shùn to whome he gave his two daughters in marriage instead of his slow-witted son Danzhu 丹朱 Dān Zhū.

Yu Shun 虞舜 was reputed to be a very noble character who treated his stepmother and stepbrother well even though they badly mistreated him to the extent of trying to murder him. He is also remembered for being the orignator of the the music called Dashao 大韶 dàsháo which is composed of a symphony of nine Chinese music instruments. He relinquished his power to Yu the Great 大禹 Dà-Yǔ, the founder of the Xia Dynasty. His ministers however favored passing the throne to Yu's son, Qi thereby instituting the beginning of hereditary monarchy.

The Bamboo Annals 竹書紀年; Zhúshū Jìnián, a chronicle of ancient China however painted a less romantic picture. It recorded that Yu Shun rebelled and imprisoned Tang Yao leaving him to die in prison. Yao’s son Danzhu was exilled and later defeated by Shun. Yu the Great also rebelled and banished Shun.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cangjie Invented the Chinese Characters and Leizu, Silk. Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 11.


始制文字, 乃服衣裳。
shǐ zhì wén zì, nǎi fú yī shāng。

(begin) (create) 文字 (Chinese characters),

The first part means the beginning of Chinese characters which led to a written language. Legend has it that it was Cangjie 仓颉 cāngjié, the official historian of the Yellow Emperor who invented the Chinese characters. It is said that deities and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet on the day he invented the characters.

Instructed by the Yellow Emperor, Cangjie settled by a river bank but could not create anything. One day, a phoenix flying overhead dropped an object from its beak and where it dropped Canjie saw an impression of a hoof-print. He asked a local hunter who said that it is without doubt that of a PiXiu 貔貅 (a mystical winged lion). Drawing inspiration from this, he realized that he can create a character by capturing the unique characteristics of all things. From that day, he paid close attention to all things to try to capture their essence and meaning in a character and thus the Chinese characters were born.

(then) (wear) 衣裳 (clothing)

Then, man begins to wear clothes. Legend has it that it was the Leizu 嫘祖 Léi Zǔ, wife of the Yellow Emperor who discovered silkworms in 3000BC and invented the silk reel and the silk loom. It was said that one day she found silkworms eating the mulberry leaves. She collected some cocoons and accidentally dropped one of them into her hot cup of tea. She found a fine thread started to separate from the cocoon and that she could unwind this soft thread around her finger. She invented the silk reel which joins the filaments into a thread strong enough for weaving.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dragon Master, Fire King, Bird Officials and The Yellow Emperor. Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 10.


龙师火帝, 鸟官人皇。
lóngshī huǒdì, niǎoguān rénhuáng。

(dragon) (teacher) (fire) (king),

龙师 lóngshī 火帝 huǒdì 鸟官 niǎoguān 人皇 rénhuáng are four titles of China’s earliest rulers and ministers and the legends varies according to different sources. 伏羲; fúxī mid 2800s BCE, was the first of the Three Sovereigns (三皇 sānhuáng) of ancient China. He is reputed to be the inventor of writing, fishing and trapping.

In Chinese mythology, FuXi the “Dragon Master” is often depicted with a snake body and human face and is the brother and also husband of Nuwa 女娲; nǚwā a goddess best known for creating mankind and repairing the wall of heaven. Fu Xi is considered as the originator of “I Ching” and said to found the arrangement of the trigrams (八卦 bāgùa) of the I Ching on the back of a mythical giant turtle.

火帝 huǒdì is better known as 神农; Shénnóng literally translated as "Divine Farmer". He is also known as the Emperor of the Five Grains (五谷先帝 Wǔgǔ xiāndì) and is considered as the father of Chinese agriculture, Shennong taught his people how to cultivate grain as food.

(birds) (officials) (man) (emperor)

Shaohao (少昊), was a Chinese emperor in 2600 BC. According to some traditions (for example the Classic of History), he was one of the Five Emperors. From Wikipedia – “The myth says that Shaohao created a kingdom in the five mountains of the Eastern Paradise that was inhabited by different types of birds. As the ruler of this bureaucratic land, he captured the identity of a vulture. Other birds worked below him, such as a phoenix as his Lord Chancellor, a hawk that delegated the law, and a pigeon that was in charge of education. He chose the four seasons of the year to watch over the remaining birds.”

Human Sovereign (人皇, Rénhuáng) was the third Chinese legendary king after Pangu's 盘古: Pángǔ, the creator of the universe) era. Before him was the Heavenly Sovereign (天皇), and Earthly Sovereign (地皇). The early Chinese history is very confusing steeped in different legends from many different sources. According to some sources, the third sovereign is Huang-di 黃帝 or the Yellow Emperor who is regarded as the founder of the Chinese civilization.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Fishes in the Sea and the Birds in the Sky: Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 9.


海咸河淡, 鳞潜羽翔。
hǎi xián hé dàn, lín qián yǔ xiáng

(sea) (salty) (river) (fresh),

The sea water is salty while the river is fresh. dàn by itself also means dilute, weak or thin and in this case refers to the fresh water.

(fish scale) (submerge) (feather) (soar)

The fish swim in the sea and birds fly in the sky. qián also means latent, to hide. Nathan considered this to be the end of the first chapter which begins with the heavens and earth and conclude with common knowledge about nature. However, other researchers separate the 125 lines of 千字文 by other forms.

(I'll be going to the Bridge over River Kwai early tomorrow for a week, see you when I get back).


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Plums & Crab Apples, Mustard Greens & Gingers: Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 8.


果珍李柰, 菜重芥姜。
guǒ zhēn lǐ nài, cài zhòng jiè jiāng

(fruit) (precious) (plum) (crab- apple),

The most precious of the fruits are the plums or peaches and apples. I do not know why crab apples are so important to the Chinese except they can be used as sour condiment, can anyone enlighten me?

(vegetables) (important) (mustard) (ginger)

The most valuable of the vegetables are the mustard greens and gingers. They are not only valued as food but also for their medicinal values. The mustard is believed to be good for the eyes and the ginger reduces the gas in the body system.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

老张和小黄 Of Communist Chang & Pregnant Yellow – Part II


At about the same time I made the boo boo on the color yellow (see earlier post by same title), I made another one regarding my own name! That was during my first trip to China many years ago. During that period it was fashionable to address someone by lǎo or xiǎo for e.g. 小黄 or 老张 according to whether she is younger or older than you. It is also fashionable to call someone by their profession such as General Manager (总经理 zǒngjīnglǐ) Wang or 王总 wángzǒng. But it sure sounds odd to me when an engineer (工程师 gōngchéngshī) I knew with a surname of zhū is addressed as 朱工 zhūgōng. For it sounds exactly like 猪公 zhūgōng which means male pig.

This was what threw me off. I was often asked "how should I address you?" when they are asking for my surname. And I of course reply "我姓张" or my name is Zhang or Chang as it was written prior to 拼音 pīnyīn. Their response at that time puzzled me for they would say what sounds to me like 共产张 gòngchǎnzhāng or Communist Chang! I was wondering why the hell would they call me Communist Chang when I'm a 华侨 Huáqiáo or overseas Chinese but I never questioned them. It was later when my mandarin was better before I realized that they were actually refering to the components of my surname . For you see, is made up of (gōng) 'bow' and (cháng) 'long'. But to my untrained ears then, it sounded like 共产 which I recognized. No wonder they said a little knowledge is dangerous!


Sunday, August 15, 2010

“Legendary Sword & Luminous Pearl”. - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 7.


剑号巨阙, 珠称夜光。
jiànhào jù què, zhū chēng yè guāng.

(sword) (named) 巨阙 (JuQue),

Of all the swords, the most famous was named 巨阙 jùquè ( is huge 阙 no meaning as a single syllable word). It was one of 5 swords that King Goujian of Yue 越王勾踐 yuè wáng Gōu Jiàn (reigned 496 BC - 465 BC) presented to the King of Wu after his defeat but he was insulted and humiliated during his imprisonment. Later after his release, he used this sword 巨阙 jùquè to defeat the King of Wu and exacted his revenge. This happened during the end of the Spring and Autumn Period 春秋时代 hūnqiū shídài. I will be telling this tale in greater details in a later post.

This sword was buried for more than 2000 years and when it was found there was no rust at all! It is a delicately made bronze sword measuring 55.6 cm in total length (slightly less than 2 feet). There are eight Chinese characters on the sword “越王鸠潜,自乍用剑" (yuè wáng jiū qián, zìzhà yòng jiàn), which means that this sword is belong to King Goujian of Yue.

(pearl) (called) 夜光 (YeQuang)。

The most famous pearls are known as 夜光 yè guāng or “Gleam of the Night”. ( is night is bright). Nathan Sturman wrote that the “Gleam of the Night” was a legendary pearl which was once the eye of a whale and also referred to as 明月珠 míngyuèzhū “Bright Moon-Pearl”.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Gold in River Li, Jade in Kunlun Hill" - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 6


金生丽水, 玉出崑冈。
jīn shēng lì shuǐ, yù chū kūn gāng

(Gold) (exist) 丽水 (River Li),

Gold was found in 丽水 lì shuǐ, the ancient name for Lijiang 丽江 lìjiāng prefecture in Yunnan province, China. It more specifically refer to Jingsha River 金沙江 jīnshājiāng or River of Golden Sand. The existence of gold was important as it was used as a basic commodity for trading in ancient China.


(jade) (appear) (Kunlun) (ridge)。

Jade was found in the Kunlun mountain 昆仑山 Kūnlún Shān which is on the southern border of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Kunlun mountain was famous for their high quality jade. Jade is considered to be even more valuable that gold as an ancient Chinese proverb said "You can put a price on gold, but jade is priceless.".

According to legend, jade is said to be created during a storm hence it is also called "Stone of Heaven". Jade symbolize virtue and Confucius was reputed to have said "Men of olden days regarded it as a symbol of the virtues. Its gentle, smooth, glossy appearance suggests charity of heart; its fine close texture and hardness suggests wisdom; it is firm and yet does not wound, suggesting duty to one's neighbor; it hangs down as though sinking, suggesting ceremony; struck, it gives a clear note, long drawn out, dying gradually away and suggesting music; its flaws do not hide its excellences, nor do its excellences hide its flaws, suggesting loyalty; it gains our confidence, suggesting truth; its spirituality is like the bright rainbow, suggesting the heavens above; its energy is manifested in hill and stream, suggesting the earth below; as articles of regalia it suggests the exemplification of that than which there is nothing in the world of equal value, and thereby is Tao itself."


Saturday, August 7, 2010

老张和小黄 Of Communist Chang & Pregnant Yellow – Part I


In March this year, I was one of the guests of honor in a company annual dinner. After we were seated as is the Chinese dining culture, the toasting begun. I had a headache after lecturing the whole day and was trying to politely fend off all the toasts when an elegant lady came to make me one I could not refuse.

“Do you remember me?” she asked. I did not, cursing my poor recognition of faces.

“You once asked me what was my name and when I told you it was huáng ...”

This brought back memories of one of my most embarrassing mistake in learning the language. It was a terrible faux pas on my part. For when she told me her name was huáng, I innocently added “Oh, is it 黄色 huángsè 的黄?” She shyly corrected me “Oh, you should not say that! It is 大肚 dàdù (meaning big stomach or pregnant woman) .” {The shape of the character has a big center looking like a big stomach. As the same pronunciation can stand for different Chinese characters, the Chinese devised creative ways to describe characters to clarify which they meant}.

This of course left me all confused as I did not know then why it was wrong to describe with黄色. What is wrong with yellow color? It was only later that I found out that 黄色 also means decadent, obscene and pornographic. It is the oriental equivalent of blue as in “blue film”. It is interesting to note that the Chinese word 色情 sèqíng for pornography is made up of the characters [] meaning color and [qíng] meaning feeling or emotion. Specifically yellow or was the color chosen to represent the decadent. So I found out the hard way that a gentleman never uses yellow to describe a lady.

(Check out Part II for another similar mistake involving my own surname )


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"From Clouds to Rain, from Dew to Frost" - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 5


云腾致雨, 露结为霜。
yún téng zhì yǔ, lù jié wèi shuāng。

(clouds) (rise) (cause) (rain),

When clouds rise and meet the colder atmosphere, condensation will take place and this will result in rain. This is a succinct and very clear explanation of how rain is formed considering this is written in only the 5th century.

(dew) (form) (become) (frost)。

Dew drops crystallize to become frost. Evelyn Lip added that ‘When water crystallizes in an area and appears as frost in the late autumn morning, it is called 早霜 zǎoshuāng (early frost). But if it appears in spring, it is called 晚霜 wǎnshuāng (late frost).'

Friday, July 30, 2010

"From Hot to Cold, From Harvest to Store" - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 3

(oops. I mix up the lines - line 4 is in the earlier post)
寒来暑往, 秋收冬藏。
hánlái-shǔwǎng, qiūshōu dōng cáng。

(cold) (come) (heat) (go)
This refers to the four seasons of the year (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter - 春夏秋冬 chūnxiàqiūdōng). The cold refers to the cold of winter and the word shǔ refers specifically to the heat of summer. This refers to the cyclical state of the season with one season following another. 寒来暑往 hánlái-shǔwǎng is also a phrase meaning “as time passes”.

(autumn) (harvest) (winter) (store)

This phrase further emphasizes the seasonal and climatic changes. Autumn follows winter. It also suggests that what is harvested in autumn should be stored for winter consumption. The seasons have a much greater influence on the lives of early dwellers whose farming activities revolve round the seasons. Thus, it is no surprise that the lunar calendar they used to time their activities is also called 农历 (nónglì) or farmers’ calendar.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"The Rhythm of the Bamboo Pipe adjusts the Years" - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 4

闰余成岁, 律吕调阳。
rùn yú chéng suì, lǜ Lǚ tiáo yáng。

(intercalary) (extra) (turn into) (year)

Intercalary means inserting days or months into a calendar to make it correspond with a solar year. Ancient writings such as the 史记 Shǐ Jì (“Historical Records”) by 司马迁 Sīmǎ Qiān (c. 163-85 B.C.) have records showing how the lunar calendar was formed based on the cycle of the moon which consists of 355 ¼ days. This was shorter than the 365 ¼ days of the solar calendar. Thus intercalary days and months were introduced to adjust the lunar calendar to correspond with that of the solar calendar. The Chinese usually add an intercalary month to one out of three years to balance. This is what is meant by the above phrase.

律吕 (bamboo pitch-pipe) (adjust) (Yang)

律吕 lǜlǚ is a musical instrument made from bamboo that has 12 pitch pipes of different lengths. Peng Fasheng in his notes state that “Ranging from low to high, the odd pitch pipes are called and believed to represent Yang force, the even ones called and believed to reflect Yin energy. They correspond to the twelve months of the year.” Thus, the phrase means the bamboo pitch-pipe is used to adjust or harmonize Yin and Yang. Evelyn Lip suggest that “all principles be they laws of justice or the laws of nature, are regulated in both negative and positive rhythms to achieve harmony, just like musical notes and rhythms.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"The Wax & Wane of Stars" - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 2

日月盈昃, 辰宿列张。
rìyuè yíng zè, chén xiù liè zhāng。

(sun) (moon) (wax) (set)

This refers to the cycle of the universe as in the waxing and waning of the moon, and the rising and setting of the sun. 日月 itself also means life and livelihood and thus this also refers to the cycle of Life itself.

(stars) 宿 (constellations) (arrange) (spread)

means celestial bodies and also time, period. It is the fifth of the 12 Earthly branches which represents a 2 hours period. 宿 is commonly pronounced as in modern Chinese but in this context it is xiù as used in ancient time. It is the character for the Chinese constellations, 28 of them in ancient Chinese astronomy. This implies that time and the universe is constantly changing.

(To elaborate on the Chinese marking of the hours of the day, I quoted the following from Wikipedia – “Under the traditional system of hour-marking, each day is divided into 12 units (時辰). Each of these units is equivalent to two hours of international time. Each is named after one of the twelve Earthly Branches. The first unit, Hour of Zi (子時), begins at 11 p.m. of the previous day and ends at 1 a.m. Traditionally, executions of condemned prisoners occur at the midpoint of Hour of Wu (正午時), i.e., noon.”)

(For the meaning of Earthly Branches, I quoted another section from Wikipedia - The Earthly Branches (Chinese: 地支; pinyin: dìzhī; or Chinese: 十二支; pinyin: shíèrzhī; literally "twelve branches") provide one Chinese system for reckoning time.

This system was built from observations of the orbit of Jupiter. Chinese astronomers divided the celestial circle into 12 sections to follow the orbit of 歳星 Suìxīng (Jupiter, the Year Star). Astronomers rounded the orbit of Suixing to 12 years (from 11.86). Suixing was associated with 攝提 Shètí (ɳ Boötes) and sometimes called Sheti.

In correlative thinking, the twelve years of the Jupiter cycle also identify the twelve months of the year, twelve animals (mnemonics for the system), directions, seasons, months, and Chinese hour in the form of double-hours. When a Branch is used for a double hour, the listed periods are meant. When used for an exact time of a day, it is the center of the period. For instance, 午 (the Horse) means noon or a period from 11am to 1pm


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"The Sky is black, the Earth is Yellow & the Universe is Vast" - Thousand Character Classic 千字文 – Line 1


天地玄黄, 宇宙洪荒。
tiāndì xuánhuáng, yǔzhòu hónghuāng。

(sky) (earth) (black) (yellow)

This has been interpreted as the sky is black and the earth yellow. It is interesting to note that 天地 also means heaven and earth and that 玄黄 can also mean the same thing. 玄黄 can also mean dark yellow. 天地玄黄 was changed to 天地远黄 in the Qing dynasty when was changed to yuǎn out of respect to the Qing emperor 玄桦 Xuánhuà.

宇宙 (universe) (vast) (desolate)

Evelyn Lip said that in ancient writings such as the Huai Nan zi 淮南子, “ refers to everything around, above and below while represents both the past and present. In other words, the universe encompasses everything, ever-changing and fluctuating”. 洪荒 together also means primordial time. Thus, in the beginning the universe was created out of a vast, chaotic state.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

1000 Character Classic 千字文 – Introduction.

The Thousand Character Classic (千字文) was composed by 周兴嗣 Zhōu Xìngsì in the Liang Dynasty (梁朝; Liáng cháo) (502-557). He was ordered by Emperor Liang Wu 梁武帝 Liáng Wǔdì to copy a thousand unique characters* from the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi 王羲之, (303–361) who is referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy 书圣 shūshèng for the purpose of educating his son.

Zhou shuffled 1000 characters from Wang’s work into 4 characters rhymed text composing 8 characters in a line. The character used are never repeated in this poem or essay. It is said that Zhou did the exacting task in only one night and the supreme effort turned his hair white the next morning. Thus, it became China’s earliest and most widely used basic literary text.

In accordance my effort to study Mandarin, I’ll be analyzing the Thousand Character Classic (千字文) by going through these 1000 characters according to their 8 x 125 lines. In this, I will draw from these sources –

Essay of One Thousand Characters (book) – translation by Peng Fasheng.
1000 Character Classic (book) – translation by Evelyn Lip.
The Thousand Character Essay (online article) – translation by Nathan Sturman.
Information from Wikipedia.

Different researches break down the 1000 characters into different sections. Peng Fasheng for example breaks them down into 4 parts. Part I (line 1 – 18) “outlines cosmological process and cultural revolution”. Part II (line 19-51) “dwells upon personal upbringing and moral virtues”. Part III (line 52 – 82) “surveys the administrative affairs of the noble classes and the vast territory of the empire.” Part IV (line 83 – 99)” narrates the pastoral life of tcommon people and technical prowess of craftsmen.” He singled out the last line as without substantial meaning. Nathan on the other hand just breaks them down into 7 separate chapters without an explanation. He just mentioned that – “The seven chapters deals with aspects of the world, nature, history, geography, society, and individual conduct while presenting, for practice, a basic set of characters at the core of the moral and intellectual world view of traditional China.”

It is generally quoted that one needs to memorize 3000 characters to have a reasonable grasp of Mandarin. As I always like to make my learning an experience and journey instead of a just mechanical act of repetition, I choose to learn 1000 of these characters through the Thousand Character Classic (千字文). As they said, the start of a long journey begins with the first character but it doesn’t have to start with ().

(*In classic Chinese, the characters were not repeated. However, in conversion to simplified Chinese a few characters were duplicated but the meanings are different.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Art and Wit of Ding Cong. 丁聪和他的漫画.


I was reading a book “Wit and Humour from Ancient China” 古趣集 gǔqù jí depicting 100 cartons of the famous Chinese artist Ding Cong 丁聪 Dīng Cōng who signed his works as 小丁 Xiǎo Dīng. In fifty years of his career, Mr. Ding had drawn and illustrated a very wide range of subjects including illustrating for many famous writers such as Lu Xun (especially for his brilliant illustrations of Lu Xun’s masterpiece “The True Story of Ah Q”) and many other modern Chinese writers.

Story 42 is titled “A Difference of Words” and we will see what a small difference can make. On assuming a new office, a self-proclaimed honest official put up a notice in his hall. It consisted of three “don’t wants”- 三不要 sānbùyào. It said he –

不要钱 bùyào qiánDon’t want money.
不要官 bùyào guānDon’t want post.
不要命 bùyào mìngDon’t want Life (meaning not afraid to die).

A few days later, someone made a few small additions at the bottom of the words.

不要钱 嫌少 bùyào qián xiánshǎoDon’t want money, if it is too little.
不要官 嫌小 bùyào guān xiánxiǎoDon’t want post, if it is lower.
不要命 嫌老 bùyào mìng xiánlǎoDon’t want Life, if it is too short.

So beware of the person who said he “don’t want” when he means “too little”. A common trait of the corrupt, something 丁聪 understood.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ode To Red Cliff 念奴嬌 赤壁懷古


In that car journey from Dongguan (see last post), my friend narrated his last meeting with his friend who questioned the life he had been living. What has it all being for? For money? Security? Status? The good things in Life? Are they worth the sacrifices? Isn’t it in the end, no matter what one achieved; they are just like 浪淘沙 (làngtáoshā), sands that are washed away by the relentless tides of time.

Or is Life just an illusion as suggested by 苏轼 Sū Shì’s Ode to Red Cliff 念奴娇 - 赤壁怀古 (niàn nú jiāo - Chìbì huáigǔ). Even if one is as kingly as Li Yu 李煜 lǐyù or as heroic as Zhou Yu 周瑜 Zhōu Yú, in the end we will still be swept away by the Great River to the East. Maybe he sensed his end was near. He was not feeling well and intended to visit the hospital for a thorough check-up. He did not do so immediately because he was busy and needed to go for another outstation trip. He never made it back.

Ode to Red Cliff was the second poem he quoted in this reminiscence just before his demise. I did not know this friend of his but I was sad when I heard his story.

念奴娇 - 赤壁怀古 niàn nú jiāo - Chìbì huáigǔ

苏轼 Sū Shì

大江东去, 浪淘尽、千古风流人物。
故垒西边, 人道是、三国周郎赤壁。
乱石崩云, 惊涛裂岸, 卷起千堆雪。
江山如画, 一时多少豪杰!

遥想公瑾当年, 小乔初嫁了, 雄姿英发。
羽扇纶巾, 谈笑间、樯橹灰飞烟灭。
故国神游, 多情应笑我, 早生华发。
人生如梦, 一樽还酹江月。

dàjiāng dōngqù, làngtáojìn, qiāngǔ fēngliú rénwù.
gùlěi xībian, réndào shì, Sānguó Zhōuláng Chìbì.
luànshí bēngyún, jīngtāo liè àn, juǎnqǐ qiān duīxuě,
jiāngshān-rúhuà, yīshí duōshao háojié!

yáoxiǎng gōngjǐn dāngnián, xiǎoqiáo chūjià le, xióngzī yīngfā.
yǔshàn-guānjīn, tánxiào jiān, qiánglǔ huīfēi yānmiè.
gùguó shényóu, duōqíng yīngxiào wǒ, zǎoshēng huáfà.
rénshēng rúmèng, yīzūn huánlèi jiāngyuè.

Nian Nu Jiao (Graceful Nian Nu) - Ode To Red Cliff

The Great River flows east, its waves sweeping away, all distinguished figures.
The fortress in the west of Red Cliff, it is said, stood Zhou Yu of the Three Kingdoms.
Scraggy rocks piercing clouds, sudden waves smashing the shores, into a thousand snow flakes.
The scene is like a painting, for a while, full of heroes!

Recalled Zhou Yu in his prime, Xiao Qiao by his side, in full majestic splendour.
The composed master strategist; talked and laughed, while the enemy's ships went up in flames.
A romantic journey to the past, I laughed at the sentimental me, prematurely turning gray.
Life is like a passing dream, a toast to the moon's reflection.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Waves Washing Sand 浪淘沙


We were cruising along the highway from Dongguan to Shenzhen, China to attend an Annual Dinner. I have not met this friend of mine for many years and have much to talk about. We first met eighteen years ago when Shekou, 蛇口 Shékǒu (the port servicing Shenzhen 深圳 Shēnzhèn) was still a sleepy fishing village. Then, paddy fields and duck farms flanked the road throughout the one hour journey from Shekou to Shenzhen. Today, it is high rise buildings all the way.

Like old friends, we talked about the past and the individual path we each took. We talked about choices and wondered if we made the correct one. We talked about responsibility and ambition. We talked about the purpose and meaning of Life. Along the way, our conversation led us to 浪淘沙 làngtáoshā for we wondered if our lives are like the waves washing the sand, erasing all our footsteps.

This poem was by Li Yu 李煜 lǐyù, who was the last ruler of the Southern Tang Kingdom 南唐 Nán Táng from 961 to 975 during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. The kingdom fell to the Song Dynasty 宋朝 Sòng Cháo in 975 and Li Yu and his family were held captives in the Song capital at present-day Kaifeng 开封 Kāifēng. His best poems were written during this period as he lamented the lost of his kingdom and the pleasures it brought him. He was poisoned by the Song emperor after he wrote a poem lamenting his lost.

Once he was a king, now he is a prisoner. Time washes us all, over…

浪淘沙 làngtáoshā

春意阑珊。 chūnyì lánshān.
罗衾不耐五更寒。 luóqīnbùnài wǔgènghán.
梦里不知身是客, mènglǐ bùzhī shēn shìkè,
yīshǎng tān huān.

独自莫凭栏, dúzì mò pínglán,
wúxiàn jiāngshān
别时容易见时难。 biéshí róngyì jiàn shínán.
流水落花春去也, liúshuǐ luòhuā chūn qùyě,
天上人间。 tiānshàng-rénjiān.

Outside the curtain, the rain murmurs,
Spring draws to an end.
The quilt cannot resist the fifth watch cold.
I did not realize I was a guest in my dream,
Coveting pleasure.

I should not be alone leaning on these railings,
While spread before me the limitless country,
It is easy to part but difficult to again meet.
Like fallen flowers on flowing water, spring is gone,
So is my paradise.

My friend told me that this was one of the two poems a closed friend of his quoted recently just before his sudden death questioning whether all we strived for were in vain…

(The other poem is 念奴娇 or Ode to Red Cliff which I'll translate for the next post)