Category Archives: Things Chinese

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

More Chinese festivals: Jing zhe驚蟄 /Shangsi jie上巳 節

We’ve just celebrated 2 rather high profile Chinese holidays: New Years and the Lantern Festival.  Most people know something about these holidays.  They are fun, colorful, and celebrated by Chinese and non-Chinese around the world.  This picture was taken at the St Louis Missouri Botanical Gardens in 2013.

Lantern Festival at MO Botanical Gardens 2013 Jing Zhe Insects Awaken March festival

(my photo)

But there are many other less known festival days that are tied to traditional Chinese culture.  Some of these are tied to China’s solar calendar, some the lunar calendar, and some have become intermixed.  One such holiday may be 驚蟄 Jing zhe, Insects Awaken. Jing Zhe Insects Awaken March festivalThe holiday comes in the 3rd month (note  People’s Daily Online).  I believe this festival is also called the Shangsi Festival [上巳 節 shàngsì jié, shanghsih jier], which today officially lands on the 3rd day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar*. Traditionally this began the farming season in most of China.

It is said that the thunder of spring rains awaken the insects who have been hibernating all winter.  There are a range of activities to mark this day, such as a sacrificial ceremony held near water where people could clean themselves and rid themselves not only of dirt but also of last year’s bad luck. Driving out evil and bad luck is a critical part of this festival. Wormwood was hung in homes to drive out insects, rats and snakes.

Celebrants also called back the spirits of relatives and awaken their own spirits. And, as often happens, people would go outside and enjoy picnics and hikes.  After all, winter was over, the spring rains had started and there was new life everywhere.

Another custom the People’s Daily mentioned was that in some areas the white tiger was honored.  This was done to avoid disputes during the coming year. If someone angered or displeased the tiger, that person would have conflicts with others during the year. I especially like this story because it exemplified how important maintaining peaceful coexistence with your neighbors and family was.

Chinese and Vietnamese Americans

Veitnamese  and Chinese New Year celebrations remind us of the many Asian Americans we have in the U.S.

The Vietnamese Americans are the fourth largest Asian group in the US (Chinese, Asian Indian, and Filipino are the top three).  Their mass migration started after 1975 at the end of the Vietnamese War.  At that time, people were fleeing Vietnam as refugees and came to the US with little material resources, although a strong ethic and desire for education and for their family to succeed.  They left their homeland under duress.  If they had stayed, they or their loved ones (father, mother, brother, sister) would have become a political prisoner, perhaps tortured and killed.  They had little choice.  Once here, however, they have embraced the US as their new homeland, with the intent to stay.  They have assimilated politically, economically, even culturally.

Vietnamese Americans

Vietnamese Americans
from: http://images.chron.com/photos/2008/06/25/11826402/600xPopupGallery.jpg

 
Vietnamese prisoner in Vietnam

Vietnamese prisoner in Vietnam
from: http://www.inminds.co.uk/vietnam-tiger-cage.jpg
http://beirut.indymedia.org/ar/2006/03/3861.shtml.

At the same time, remembering their roots and valuing their own ethnic traditions are an important underpinning of their communities and families.  While the first generation is not as wealthy on average as the first generation economically motivated Chinese immigrants (remember, most refugees come with little to no resources—no matter what their social and economic status was at home), they have poured their commitment into their children and their children’s success.  Today, many second generation Vietnamese have completed college, become professionals, and can be considered successful in the US society.

 

Connie Chung, Chinese-American

Connie Chung, Chinese-American
From: http://assets.makers.com/maker/Connie%20Chung%20Portrait.jpg.
http://www.makers.com/moments/chinese-americans

The Chinese Americans are the largest, and certainly among the oldest Asian ethnic groups we have. [Note: I am using Asian as the US Census does: people with origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.]  San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was established in the 1840s, is the oldest Chinatown in the US and has the highest density of Chinese-American residents.  Most of these are, or were originally, from Guangdong province and Hong Kong and, therefore, are Cantonese speakers—Remember when I greeted you last week with Gong Hei Fat Choi! for Happy New Year?  The reason is because historically most of our Chinese immigrants came from these southern areas; areas that have a long tradition of migrating out of their country for jobs and other economic opportunities.  (Note: this includes other Chinese languages, but I’m using Cantonese as a catch-all for the Yue language branch of Chinese.) In the past, mostly men came and stayed in their new host country in order to make a living and send money home.  Some of these men returned to their home areas periodically to take a wife, who may have remained in his home village living with his parents, or (once our immigration laws changed) brought them to the US to live.

In the last 10 to 20 years or so, more and more of our Chinese immigrants from mainland China are Mandarin speakers.  This is bringing a change within the Chinese-American communities in terms of language use.  Mandarin apparently is taking over as the lingua franca of the American Chinese diaspora.  However, I must say that when I overhear a group of Chinese at a University or in a large, mixed group setting speaking with each other, they use English.  Perhaps English is considered a “neutral” third language for them—one which doesn’t privilege any one of the various Chinese languages over another.  Not to mention the fact that it is also the common language of the US and they all are adept at its use.

In terms of modern immigration, more and more mainland Chinese are emigrating to the US through the EB-5 Investment Visa, which allows powerful, wealthy Chinese access to US citizenship.  Under the EB-5 Visa, established in 1990 (under the first President Bush), a green card is given with the right to permanent US residency in certain US states.  This type of Visa is given to those who invest at least US$500,000 in projects listed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Servies (USCIS) (http://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/permanent-workers/employment-based-immigration-fifth-preference-eb-5/eb-5-immigrant-investor).

Population Change among Chinese Americans:

Year                population                               increase over

                        According to Census              past 10 years

1980                   806,040                                + 85.5 %

1990                1,645,472                                + 104  %

2000                2,432,585                                + 47.8 %

2010                3,347,229                                + 37.6 %

 

Naturally, the Chinese and Vietnamese Americans will be found at all levels of the U.S. socio-economic ladder but, overall, both of these immigrant groups have contributed quite a bit to our country.  Personally, I am happy with the diversity they’ve added to our cultural understanding, yes, but (I’m being VERY selfish here) they’ve each (as with other Asian cultures) brought wonderful variety to our food cuisine!   I love American comfort foods, but who can resist the flavors and textures of these “new” dishes?!  If you’re interested in learning more, go on the Internet and type in foods from whatever country intrigues you—you will have a bountiful harvest!

Enjoy!

Final Note:

To check on how many people are in each ethnic group in the US go to: http://www.census.gov/.  You can get 2013 data as well—in some areas.

A site where delicious recipes are generously shared is: http://rasamalaysia.com/.

A good paper on Vietnamese in the US today is at: http://www.bpsos.org/mainsite/images/DelawareValley/community_profile/us.census.2010.the%20vietnamese%20population_july%202.2011.pdf.

For a quick overview of Chinese in the US see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_American#Statistics_of_the_Chinese_population_in_the_United_States_.281840.E2.80.93present.29.

Happy New Year! Gong Hei Fat Choi!

 This greeting is in Cantonese, not Mandarin, because that’s what you’re most likely to hear in the US.

picture by Lyndon Barnett

picture by Lyndon Barnett

Can you believe we are already one week into the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year?  Traditionally, New Year celebrations went on for a couple of weeks, although today that time has often been limited to as little as one week.

While the Chinese and Vietnamese have many differences in their cultures, they both share a lot of similarities for this major holiday, which the Vietnamese call Tet.

Vietnamese Tet

Vietnamese Tet .   Image from wikipedia

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What are Joss sticks?

Joss sticks are long, narrow sticks of incense, which are either held in two hands while praying or placed in a sand filled container and burned in various personal, family, and public religious rituals.

First, just to clarify, the word joss isn’t Chinese.  It comes from the Portuguese word for god, deus.  Nevertheless, joss is now the standard term used and if you wanted to buy some in a local Chinese grocery, for example, it’s what you’d look for.

The Chinese have been using incense to assist in communicating with the supernatural as far back as 2,000 BC!  Apparently, early Chinese used aromatic herbs and other plants, such as sandalwood, to burn.  However, although these are called incense, today it is common today to use a non-fragrant material in the joss sticks which are used for prayer purposes.  It’s not the fragrance that’s important in the ritual so much as the smoke given off by the joss sticks as they burn.  The smoke rises upwards, carrying the prayers to the gods or ancestors.  There are fragrant incense sticks and these can also be used for praying.

Joss Sticks (1) in China on July 22 2009Joss Sticks

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