Category Archives: Things Chinese

What would we do without umbrellas?

It’s spring and very, very wet. Finally, after days of rain, we have sunshine for a couple of days before more rain. All of this rain makes me think of umbrellas. Obviously, they are a wonderful tool for walking outdoors on rainy days, but when we were in Taiwan many years ago, I also discovered how useful they were for creating a patch of shade in the hot, burning sun.

Umbrellas. According to Joseph Needham,[i] while umbrellas, as sun-shades, were known in Greece and Rome times, the collapsible mechanism we take for granted probably came from the Chinese.

INFO BLOG Chinese making an umbrella May 2017

How far back into Chinese history the umbrella goes varies a lot. Some claim it was first invented somewhere around 3000-3500 BC,[ii] but it certainly was around by the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Early on, umbrellas were made of paper and silk and were sun-shades. Because they were expensive, they were a status symbol of the upper classes and the royal family.

These early umbrellas had four parts: the head, handle, ribs, and shade. The frame was of mulberry bark and bamboo and the silk or paper covering became a canvas for works of art.

In time, the umbrella evolINFO BLOG Chinese paper umbrellas May 2017ved: First, the paper shades were covered with an oil to make them impermeable to rain and expanding their use. But the really remarkable thing about these early Chinese umbrellas was how they evolved from a fixed frame to a collapsible frame. These coINFO BLOG Chinese umbrella May 2017llapsible umbrellas worked by means of sliding levers, pretty much the same as we use today.

 

The first indication that the Chinese umbrella could be collapsed was in 21 AD, during Wang Mang’s reign as the first and only emperor of the Xin Dynasty.[iii] This umbrella was to protect the Emperor as hINFO BLOG Wang Mang's collapsible umbrella 21 AD May 2017e rode in his four-wheel, ceremonial carriage, so it was quite large. The mechanism was so new and innovative that it was a secret. Besides the collapsible frame, the handle had bendable joints, allowing it to be extended or withdrawn.

Needham does go on to say that there is some evidence that the mechanism had been developed as early as the Zhou Dynasty (around 600-500 BC). If so, it was probably invented by a woman named Yun shih, the wife of an artisan.

Truly a remarkable history for our simple, and much-needed, umbrella! The next time you open up your umbrella think of its long past and its country of origin: Ancient China.

Pictures from:

en.people.cn/102774/8017371.htm;

http://www.infoniac.com/offbeat-news/the-most-important-inventions-of-ancient-china.html;

http://www.i-china.org/news.asp?type=15&id=819;

http://www.umbrellahistory.net/umbrella-history/chinese-umbrellas/.

References:

[i] Joseph Needham Science & Civilisation in China, Volume IV:2, pp. 70-71.

[ii] https://sites.google.com/site/ancientchineseinventions/Home/the-invention-of-the-umbrella; http://www.umbrellahistory.net/umbrella-history/chinese-umbrellas/; http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/paper-umbrella.htm.

[iii] Needham, ibid; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/emperor-wang-mang-chinas-first-socialist-2402977/.

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

PIC bamboo closeup 1 Feb 2017Names are more than arbitrary, random words used to identify individuals. The surnames can, and often do, indicate family relationships. The given names, although they can be arbitrary, also often indicate something about the parents’ wishes for and/or perceptions of their child.

In China today, 100 surnames dominate: making up 85% of the country’s total surnames. And remember, China has about 1.4 billion people. Compare this to the US where, according to the 2000 census, 151,00+ surnames make up only 3% of our population’s surnames! Think about how you feel when you meet someone with your same last name. There is a sense of connection. The same is true in China—although the connection may go back hundreds of years.

Traditionally and today, the Chinese put the family name (the surname) first and then the given name (personal name) second. So that, if a person is named Liu Xiao-lung à Liu is the family name and Xiao-lung is his personal name. In the United States, we would refer to this person as Xiao-lung Liu, putting the family name last. One way to figure this out, when you’re not sure, is to remember that in most cases the family name is one word. Often, although not always, the given name is two words—and usually NOT written with a – between the words, the way I have written Xiao-lung in this post.

What’s interesting about Chinese given names is that they often carry the hopes parents have for their children. The names are meaningful. Xiao-lung means Little Dragon and, therefore, symbolizes good fortune and success. Boy’s names are likely to reflect strength, good fortune, and whatever aspirations the parents have for him, for example, in intelligence or business success. For girls’ names, traditional parents may give their child a name which reflects a desire for her to be lovely in appearance or have a sweet, peaceful demeanor. For example, Xiang-lian would mean Fragrant Lotus Flower. This is changing for women today, however. I had a female friend whose given name was Xue-wen, Studies Literature (in the past, this was more of a boy’s name). And, indeed, she did have strong academic interests and abilities.

Therefore, as with names in the West, there are gender preferences. Xiang-lian is not a name a parent would give a boy, nor would Xiao-lung be given to a girl. No more than a typical American would name their girl child Stephen or the boy child Mary.

What about your name? What does it say about you and your family?

CHINESE NEW YEAR 2017, WHAT DO PEOPLE DO BESIDES EAT?

First, before I go into this New Year’s blog. I am so excited because yesterday I found out that Trapped, a Mei-hua Adventure, the thirIMAGE fireworks landscape-1435678244-fireworks-4d novel in the ancient China trilogy, has been nominated for an Agatha Award. The Agatha Award is given to mysteries that hold to the standards of Agatha Christie and her work. I am honored to be among such a wonderful group of other nominees for this award.

Now for this week’s New Year’s blog.

Before New Year arrives, the house is cleaned from top to bottom. By cleaning the house, the family is getting rid of any bad fortune they may have had last year. BUT they do not clean the house during the first couple of days of the New Year because then they could be sweeping away the New Year’s good luck. So: once the New Year comes it’s time to relax and enjoy, their work is done!

Some things people do to celebrate:

WHAT TO DO IMAGE red Chinese envelopes il_fullxfull.193993600

  • Adults give red paper envelopes to children. Inside the envelopes is a New Year gift of money. How much isn’t important, but it’s always in a red envelope.
  • Everyone wears new clothes.
  • People decorate their homes and buildings:
    • At the entrance people hang long red paper strips with good luck sayings written on them. The good luck couplet is also visually balanced by being divided into two strips, one on each side of the door. and the saying is usually visuallyIMAGE red good luck strips in Taipei 95cb871170d1383cf52fc12e9ba0ef8d balanced, too.
    • Red paper-cuts (usually square in shape) with the year’s animal—the rooster this year—or other good luck symbols (wealth) are pasted on the windows and doors. A popular word is fu for good fortune or happiness and it’s hung upside-down to represent the good things flowing into the house.
  • Families go to temple fairs where they can watch puppet shows. These shows can be seen almost every day throughout the New Year period.
  • Setting off firecrackers—much like our 4th of July on steroids. Both public and private fireworks are set off all over. Everyone participates.
  • On the more serious side, is when the family comes together to honor their ancestors. They may clean the tombs, and they may also cluster together before pictures of their deceased relatives to show honor and respect. By participating in these activities as a family they are stressing that they are united by blood and are a cohesive unit.
  • People greet each other by saying gongxi (恭喜), which is a way of saying “Best wishes in the New Year.”

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don’t give anyone:

  • A scissors or a knife because they are sharp and it means you’re cutting off your relationship with them;
  • Anything with the number 4 in it because 4 sounds like death and is, therefore, an extremely unlucky number.
  • While fruit is usually a good thing to give as a gift, you should avoid pears. The word for pears is homophonous with “leaving” or “parting.”
  • Cut flowers because these are generally given at a funeral, so—obviously—not auspicious!
  • White or yellow flowers, which represent death. Just choose a plant in another color.
  • Mirrors are thought to attract malicious ghosts—something no one would want to do. Plus, mirros are easily broken and anything broken is a bad omen.

This is a time of great celebration and joy, just avoid anything that implies death, breaking relationships, or bad luck.

Enjoy!

Other quick resources: http://www.chinahighlights.com/festivals/things-not-give-chinese-new-year.htm; https://www.travelchinaguide.com/essential/holidays/new-year/customs.htm; http://www.chinesenewyears.info/chinese-new-year-traditions.php; http://www.china-family-adventure.com/chinese-new-year-traditions.html; https://www.activityvillage.co.uk/chinese-new-year-games; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_New_Year

Images:

the door in Taipei = interest.com/pin/80361174572834867/; the red envelopes = I couldn’t find the source again; fireworks = pop.h-cdn.co.

CHINESE NEW YEAR 2017, Favorite Holiday Foods

 

Sharing holiday dinners is one of the most important, if not the most important, part of celebrating the New Year, which is not a one-day event. Chinese New Year is celebrated over a couple of weeks. Plenty of time for everyone to have their own large dinner gatherings and attend other dinners! This time spread averts our  own difficult Thanksgiving and Christmas problem: which dinner to attend. We often either end up only going to one and having to miss others, or going to a couple dinners—if they are staggered (ex., early in the afternoon and a second later in the afternoon or evening). Always a difficult decision.

No problem for Chinese New Year. A family can attend different dinners on different days. Thereby assuring their proper enjoyment of all the special foods!

And what are some of those foods?

FISH is an essential dish. The Chinese word for fish, , is a homophone for excess and a surplus,s .

IMAGE Chinese-Steamed-Fish Jan 2017So, overall, the fish is a strong good symbol for wealth and luck. The word fish is used in such optimistic and encouraging proverbs such as:  a fish in water, which means congenial in general and good relations between husband and wife; and a surplus of luck, which refers especially to the luck that comes to virtuous families.

Serving a whole fish is also important because it signifies both the family as a unit and that the prosperity is for the whole family.

LONGEVITY NOODLES are another essential dish because the long noodles represent a long and happy life. Always a good thing, right? The noodles can be cooked in many different ways—boiled, fried and served on a plate or in a bowl—but they must be very long and uncut.

FRUIT, citrus fruits and lychee or longan (translated as dragon eye. See how the seed looks like a dragon’s eye!) in particular, are very popular since they also represent prosperity, family unity, abundance, happiness, and of course, good luck.IMAGE longan fruit Jan 2017

There are other delightful dishes and you can learn more at sites such as for the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/02/10/chinese-new-year-food_n_6641164.html and China Highlights http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/festivals/chinese-new-year-flowers-and-fruits.htm or Googling Chinese New Year Dishes.

A HOLIDAY SPECIAL: In celebration of Chinese New Year, the young adult novel, Hidden, is free through Amazon from Saturday, January 21st through Monday, the 23rd. It’s an adventure/mystery story of survival and the bonds of friendship in ancient China. Go to the “books” tab and the Hidden link to Amazon or to Amazon.

Enjoy!

The fish image is from popsugar.com/food/ and the longan image is from growables.org.

Chinese New Year 2017, The Year of the Rooster

2017 Chinese Rooster Jan 12th

from Pinterest

We’re almost at the beginning of a new Chinese year! Lucky us. We get to celebrate New Year’s twice: once on January 1st and a second time on the first day of the first lunar month—which this year is January 28th.

As many of you already know, every year in the Chinese Zodiac is represented by an animal — each with special, auspicious qualities. This year, 2017, is the Year of the Rooster.

Why the rooster? What does it symbolize?

The rooster is a strong yang symbol, going back many hundreds and hundreds of years.

  • The crown on its head (the rooster’s comb) show that it supports and encourages civil society.
  • When a rooster finds food, it is said to let others know about it. Therefore, roosters are considered benevolent.
  • Because it crows in the morning, marking the break from darkness to a growing sun light, it is important as a symbol for chasing away negative forces and what is evil.
  • And, finally, because a rooster has razor sharp claws to fight against its enemies, it is considered courageous.

All of these positive symbols represent one side of a coin—the other side is the personal side. For those people born in the year of the rooster, this will not be such a good year. That’s because the year of one’s birth is usually considered an unlucky year for the person.

Whatever the year brings, New Years is a time of celebration. In times past, and perhaps today if jobs permit, people celebrate for at least a week with special dinners and visiting family and friends.

A trip back to Ancient China

Hidden takes you back to Ancient China

What was it like to live in 1380 China? What did people do? How did they travel, dress, or eat? Where did they live? Hidden, the first adventure/mystery novel in my Ancient China trilogy, takes you back and plops you down in the middle of this fascinating time.Cover Hidden front cover only March 2015

Hidden is the story of a young, bi-racial heroine who finds her world turned up-side-down when her father, a magistrate, is threatened by enemies who are trying to accuse him of treason. Treason was considered the worst of all crimes because it was an act against the Emperor himself. If found guilty, the punishment included death or—if you were lucky—banishment to the farthest corners of the empire and social ostracism for not only her father but for every member of his own and his extended family.

To protect Mei-hua, her father sends her away to live with a friend in Hangzhou City. On the way there, Mei-hua is captured and sold as an indentured servant to a wealthy family. She must hide her identity in order to avoid the authorities and her father’s enemies. Will she be able to free herself and find her father’s friend and safety?

This is a story of survival and discovering the meaning of family, friendship and loyalty set in the intriguing and dangerous world of Ancient China.

For the history buffs among you, there is an Author’s Note section at the end of Hidden with more information on the culture of Mei-hua’s Ancient China.

You can find Hidden by searching under PA De Voe on Amazon or going to http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=pa+de+voe.

I look forward to your comments.

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Qing Ming 清明 Festival, April 5th

I can hardly believe it’s April already. Tomorrow, April 5th, is Qing Ming, a special day for every family of Chinese descent. While Qing Ming literally means Clear and Bright in English, the day is also known as: All Souls Day, Grave Sweeping Day, Tomb Sweeping Day, and Chinese Memorial Day.

Qing Ming day copy

Honoring family ancestors

 

Qing Ming in San Francisco area 2 copy

Continuing the tradition in San Francisco

Qing Ming day is a special time when families show respect and honor to their ancestors by gathering together to tend their graves. The family takes special foods, tea, and other grave goods (such as spirit money) to offer the dead at their grave. This is done because, traditionally, the departed live in a world where they still have needs. They need money, food, items for comfortable living. Once everything is officially offered up to the ancestors, the family picnics at the grave site. As we know, sharing food is an important way to show solidarity, togetherness. Thus, Qing Ming does double duty by bringing the family together to honor the dead and to strengthen family ties among the living.

Note: Pictures from Pinterest:

Found on p21chong.files.wordpress.com and

Qingming in Colma, outside San Francisco. Found on dailyundertaker.com

Found on p21chong.files.wordpress.com

Qingming in Colma, outside San Francisco

Found on dailyundertaker.com

Pinned from: chinaodysseytours.com

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Rockets and Bombs

Ancient Chinese Bomb

Ancient Chinese Bomb

It may surprise people that, as noted in the previous post,  the Chinese invention of gunpowder (or really protogunpowder) is attributed to a monk. However, as with many inventions, there is an element of serendipity at play here. Monks, Taoist priests, and alchemists in general used the ingredients which make up gunpowder for other purposes, in particular, as medicines and elixirs of immortality. They were not looking for explosives; they were looking for ways of prolonging life. However, when these specialists mixed certain ingredients together, they sometimes got an entirely different result then intended!

The author of a 9th century text warned Taoists looking for an immortality elixir to be careful when mixing sulphur, arsenic sulphide, and saltpetre because it could badly burn them and even burn down their buildings! Needham (p 31) says this is the first reference to protogunpowder.

It does not take a big jump in thinking to move from accidental explosions to controlled explosions. And it makes sense that it would be among the monks, Taoist priests, and alchemists who would do this and not someone from the military.

Originally, these explosions weren’t harmful, just exciting and noisy. They were used to scare off ghosts and evil spirits and in celebrations. However, as so often happens with inventions, the relatively harmless rocket that had explosive materials in it was soon turned into a bomb as well.

 

Chinese fireworks: rockets and firecrackers

Chinese fireworks: rockets and firecrackers

From the 11th and into the 13th century Chinese bombs were like rockets—in that they weren’t really very destructive because the proportion of nitrate was low. As I mentioned above, Needham refers to these early forms as protogunpowder bombs. At most they would explode with a “whoosh,” much like the rockets they were based on—frightening, but not very destructive. However, as the percent of nitrate was increased the bombs became serious weapons which were able to blow up walls and city gates.

By the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, such fragmentation bombs (as that shown at the top of this post) were filled with iron pellets and pieces of broken porcelain. This bomb was used in war and was designed to mutilate enemy soldiers (from Huo-long-jing, a Ming Dynasty text, part 1, chapter 2 from en.wikipedia.org).

What a long journey for these materials–to go from a hopeful immortality elixir to a source of mutilation and destruction!

References: Joseph Needham: Science in Traditional China & Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West; Wikipedia

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Firecrackers 爆竹 bàozhú

illustration from Ming Dyn (1628 to 1643 edition of Jin Ping Mei) copy jpg characers for baozhu  bamboo in jpg 2 copy     bàozhú   firecracker

An illustration of a fireworks display from the 1628–1643 edition of the Ming Dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei

爆竹        bàozhú, baoh-zhru        firecracker [or literally exploding bamboo]

The history of marvelous Chinese inventions is fascinating. The invention of firecrackers is an example.

The word for firecracker in Chinese is bàozhú (exploding bamboo) and is derived from the original firecrackers used in ancient China, perhaps as far back as the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC). At that time, pieces of green bamboo were thrown into a fire and then the bamboo would burst apart with loud bangs. In other words, these original firecrackers were not the same as those developed later, no gunpowder was included.

Li Tian, a monk living near Liu Yang city, Hunan province, is credited with having invented the modern firecracker. According to mythology, Li Tian filled a piece of bamboo with gunpowder to frighten away a persistent ghost that had been bothering the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) emperor Li Shi-ming. The loud bang did the job. The ghost fled and the emperor once again had peace. In honor of this great invention (pyrotechnic fireworks), Chinese traditionally held a festival in Li Tian’s honor on April 18th.

By the end of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD), firecrackers consisted of paper tubes stuffed with gunpowder. The tubes were tied together with rope, forming a long string of firecrackers, which could be set off in succession. This produced quite a display of noise and smoke.

Noise and smoke, both are considered important for protecting a household. Noise chases away ghosts and other evils, such as poisonous insects (see my January 5, 2014 blog on the 5 noxious animals also sometimes called the five evils) and sickness. Smoke cleanses the house and also gets rid of poisonous insects and dampness, which can cause illness. Therefore, for a couple of thousand years firecrackers have been synonymous with health and peace, which leads to a prosperous future for the family.

Sources for fireworks: Joseph Needham Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West 1970 p. 89-90; http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/en/10Kaleidoscope8486.html; www.kracklinkirks.com/fireworks%20history.htm;

Illustration: “Ming Dynasty Jin Ping Mei fireworks” by Unknown – Jin Ping Mei, from Science and Civilisation in China p. 140. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ming_Dynasty_Jin_Ping_Mei_fireworks.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ming_Dynasty_Jin_Ping_Mei_fireworks.jpg.

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