All posts by Pam

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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Shén 神 Another choice for mysterious or mystery?

temple roofline in China 2009 July

 

 

 

 

Shén    Shen mysterious 2 in jpg

Last week I talked about the character mysterious / mystery that I am going to use in my Ming Dynasty trilogy covers. There are other characters with the definition of mystery or mysterious. Another one is shén. However, when the character shén is used it implies mystery in the sense of spiritual. One way for a non-native Chinese speaker to discover which character is best is to look up what other words use that particular character. This gives a good idea of the underlying connotation versus the character’s denotation.   For shén [using the on-line dictionary http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/] we do find the word mysterious/mystery with both   shén mì and it is defined asmysterious / mystery.” However, there are many other words which use shén and refer to the divine, to Daoism, mythology, mystical, gods, and the miraculous.

What does this imply? Well, if you are writing a mystery which centers on the supernatural and paranormal, perhaps you would want to use the character shén versus because it implies a particular kind of mystery or mysterious event. It subtly alters your readers to another layer of meaning and insight.

Xuán     Xuan mystery 2 in jpg

Another character which can mean mystery is xuán. When xuán is used as a part of a word, we find a predominance of words referring to philosophical and spiritual schools of thought—Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism. Xuán is also used in word combinations that refer to something being abstruse, simply difficult to understand. So, again, we find that although xuán can be used to mean mystery, it has a different underlying connotation from both shén and .

When choosing a Chinese word we have so many choices because each character used in creating that particular word brings with it a strong intellectual and emotional component. So, while my Mei-hua trilogy has religious and folk traditions included, they are a part of the cultural background of the period, not the central component of the stories, therefore, the character I chose was .

秘 mì = secret, mysterious

 

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

I am working on getting out my first Mei-hua story. The novel is part of a YA historical/adventure trilogy set in 1380 China. Mei-hua, the biracial daughter of a magistrate, finds her world turned upside down when her father is targeted by a political enemy. I have had a lot of fun researching and writing this trilogy.

This year I will begin publishing the Mei-hua series as an indie author and one part of the indie project is creating covers. To tie the three books together, I wanted the covers to have a similar feel. Kelly Cochran, who is designing them, came up with a splendid idea: use a ribbon with a seal on it and place the ribbon on each front cover. Since the trilogy is also a mystery, the character for secret or mysterious [mì, mih ] is stamped on the seal.

In checking out this character (remember that the actual character used for Chinese words infuse the word itself with another layer of meaning), I noticed that mì, mih is a part of the word for secretary  秘書 mì shū, mih shu. The second character for secretary [shū, shu] means book.

This combination [mì+ shū] struck me as a wonderful description of the role of secretaries—keeping in mind that this word was apparently used historically for an official secretary, such as one who works in the government, which is often a powerful position.

What does this combination of characters mean when referring to the secretary’s role? I think it means that the secretary must be discrete and not spread information about what he does and learns in his job, because a secretary is privy to extremely sensitive information.

Of course, 秘書 mì shū, mih shu could also refer to written materials, such as ledgers and documents that the secretary writes and keeps track of. .

In either case, the Chinese character’s original meaning imparts a special meaning to the new word, secretary, with a connotation beyond the noun’s simple denotation. It suggests secrecy, confidentiality, and concealment. How much fun is that!

Monkey King, Sūn Wù-kōng, Sun Wuh-kong 孫悟空

It’s spring and I’m beginning my gardening in earnest. We have a fairly large flower/native plant area, which—hopefully—both the wild life and we can enjoy together.   In looking at a picture our brother-in-law took of my husband and me in the garden, I realized that I was wearing a distinctive t-shirt our daughter gave me.  Emblazoned on the front is an image of Monkey King, Sūn Wù-kōng, Sun Wuh-kong  .

Monkey King, Sun Wu-kong

Monkey King, Sun Wu-kong

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Qingming Festival 清明節 Qīngmíng Jié, Ching-mirng Jier

Tomorrow, April 5th 2014, Chinese everywhere celebrate Qingming Festival 清明節 Qīngmíng Jié, Ching-mirng Jier.   On this day families go out to the cemeteries and clean the tombs of their ancestors. By honoring the dead, people also recognize the blood tie which binds their family together. It’s a day of family unity. Continue reading

The homophone hú: fox 狐 hú, hur and non-Han people 胡 hú, hur

The homophone hú:  fox   hú, hur  and non-Han people hú, hur

I’ve been reading about traditional folk beliefs in pre-modern China and recently acquired Leo Tak-hung Chang’s wonderful and informative book The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts, Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling.  In it he gives an interesting example of how homophones offered people an opportunity to express their aggravation with the government, while appearing to speak of something else. Continue reading

Lán Cǎi-hé, Larn Caai-her 藍采和 of the Eight Immortals

Lán Cǎi-hé, Larn Caai-her Lan Cai-he

 
 
Lan Cai-he

Lan Cai-he

Lán Cǎi-hé (also written as Lán Ts’ǎi-hó) 藍采和 exemplifies one of the 8 Immortals.  Lán Cǎi-hé is thought to have been a real person, but one whose behavior and life-style was outside the ordinary.  Lan can be portrayed as a woman or a man; Eberhard refers to her/him as an hermaphrodite.

Not much is known about Lán Cǎi-hé’s 藍采和 origin, although she may have lived during the Five Dynasties period (907-960) (Wong p. 32).  She dressed in colorful rags, was often shown wearing only one shoe with the other foot bare. In the summer her garments were quilted or stuffed with cotton and wool; in the winter she had only a thin gown.  Around her waist she wore a 3 inch wide sash made up of pieces of wood. She carried a basket of peaches or flowers and often wore flowers in her hair. She begged in the markets by clapping 3 foot long castanets.  Sometimes she was seen with a flute.

As a holy fool, she wandered around as a street musician, chronically drunk, singing and joking with people in the markets.  She gave what little money she had (after drinking her fill) to the poor.  Lai in his small, but charming book The Eight Immortals, noted that Lán Cǎi-hé was a humorist who “could make people laugh till they rolled on the ground” (p. 5).  Her songs, although often largely unintelligible, were about the vanity of life, and about immortality and life in the immortal lands; they also foretold the future.

She became a part of the 8 Immortals group when she met Lü Tung-pin and Chung-li Ch’uan (both a part of the 8 Immortals group) while traveling through the land of the immortals. Lü and Ch’uan were captivated by her carefree manner and beautiful voice and invited her to join them (Wong p. 32).  The Land of the Dragon, Chinese Myth gives another version: she passed out drunk in a tavern in Anhui and was taken to the land of the Immortals.  The only things left behind were her one shoe, robe, belt and musical instruments (p. 111).  This latter version just proves that goodness and spirituality don’t have to equate to perfection or rigid social norms!

Lán Cǎi-hé 藍采和 is the patron of minstrels.

The 8 Immortals

The 8 Immortals

References: Eberhard; Bartholomew; Eva Wong; Land of the Dragon, Chinese Myth; T.C. Lai The Eight Immortals.

 

Iron-Crutch Lǐ Tǐe-guaǐ, Lii Tiie-guaii, 李鐵拐

As a part of the traditional Chinese spiritual world there is a group called Immortals.  No matter whether they are male or female, young or old, the immortals are usually worshiped as gods of longevity.

Iron Crutch Li Yuan

Iron Crutch Li Yuan

Iron-Crutch Li Tie-guai, Lii Tiie-guaii  李鐵拐 (AKA Li Yuan) is one of my favorite among this group.  Continue reading