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Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers. One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities. Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices. Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls. By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.
I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast. Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people. When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes). Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs. If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!
As noted in several previous blog posts, the Chinese underworld, Diyu, is simultaneously a place of vicious physical tortures AND a particularly nasty and intractable bureaucracy. King Yama presides over this hellish realm assisted by the merciless judge Qin-Guang-Wang who determines how long damned souls must suffer in order to pay off their karmic debts. Yet, in addition to these big names, there are also many other lesser bailiffs, beadles, demons, ghouls, guards, and torturers who work for the system. Perhaps the most recognizable of these henchmen (or henchbeings) are the animal-headed duo of Horse Face and Ox Head. Known together as the Niútóumǎmiàn, Horse Face and Ox Head are the principle bailiffs at the first room of Diyu–the dreadful Hall of Retribution, where initial judgement is meted out to newly dead souls.
Like Cerberus in Greek mythology, these two immortal demons are the first & worst jailors of the dark realm and act as heavies on behalf of the rulers of the underworld. Their tasks include manhandling intractable souls before Diyu’s bench, throwing combative souls into deeper pits of torment, and pursuing would-be escapees. Horse Face and Ox Head lack human compunctions and mercies, but, crucially, they also lack human guile and can thus be tricked.
In The Journey to the West, the most abstruse and fantastical of the Four Great Classical Epics of Chinese Literature, Horse Face and Ox Head (or legions of Horse Faces and Ox Heads) are outwitted by Sun Wukong, the beloved monkey trickster deity, who then erases his own name and the names of all of his monkey subjects from the annals of death. Having thus ensured immortality for himself and his simian followers, Sun Wukong proceeds onward to wreak chaos elsewhere.
Most of the visitors to Diyu were not so fortunate, strong, and clever as the Monkey King and were easily dealt with by the formidable doormen of Diyu. In Japan the duo are known as Gozu-Mezu. They are also part of the afterworld in various cultures around China like Singapore and Thailand. For all of their popularity in visual art, there is remarkably little information about the lore and backstory of Horse Face and Ox Head. It seems that nobody really pays much attention to bailiffs, even when they are immortal animal-headed demons guarding hell itself!
In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism). Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.
Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal: essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol. To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned. Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings. In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.
To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved. It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably. The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).
My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.
Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space. However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut. Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).
Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair. The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power. When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks. Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame. When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone. Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!
Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”). Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966. In 1970 the International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer. Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.
Happy Tomb Sweeping Day! The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.
As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead. Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.
In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons. People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.
As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here). I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out. If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.
Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs. Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!
Or at least that was true until now. On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago. By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds. Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail. The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.
Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents. The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like. However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).
Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters. Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty. He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.
Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting. Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him. He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.
The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus. Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom. The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains. The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes. Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless. The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.
It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting. On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center. Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute. The tiny people seem excited for spring to come. They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.
The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too. But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident. The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks! This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed). Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year. If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.
The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle. Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).
Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources. In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.
Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish. According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor. The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own. As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.
People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits. Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.
Gung hay fat choy!
A previous Ferrebeekeeper post described the largest living bivalve mollusk–the magnificent giant clam which is indigenous to the South Pacific. However there are other large bivalve mollusks out there which are nearly as remarkable (and possibly even stranger looking). One of these creatures, the geoduck clam (Panopea generosa), causes a unique amount of controversy, pride, consternation, and outright greed along the Northwest coast of North America where it lives
Geoducks are the largest burrowing clams in the world. Specimens weighing up to three pounds (0.5–1.5 kg) are widely known and 15 kilogram monsters are alleged to exist. Although the clams’ shells can grow quite large–sometimes exceeding 20 cm (8 inches) in length–the outstanding features of geoducks are their obscene siphons/necks which regularly reach 1 metre (3.3 ft) long (and can reputedly grow to twice that length). Thanks to these long necks, geoducks can bury themselves deep in the coastal sands while still filtering huge amounts of plankton rich water through their digestive system. . Geoduck (which is apparently pronounced “gooey duck”) is a word from the Lushootseed language, a tongue spoken by the Nisqually tribe. It means “dig deep” although the Chinese name for the clams “xiàngbábàng” (which means “elephant-trunk clams”) seems equally apt.
Geoducks of Wasshington and British Colombia do not have many natural enemies (although apparently in Alaskan waters they are preyed on by sea otters and dogfish). If left undisturbed, the bivalves can live to the fabulous age of a century-and-a-half. Lately however, the geoducks, which dwell in giant cold-water colonies beneath Puget Sound, are being gobbled up en masse by humankind. Although Anglo-Saxon settlers to the Pacific Northwest found the suggestive sight of the clams to be unbearable, the mollusks are hugely popular in China and Asia, where price can exceed US$168/lb (US$370/kg). Chinese diners believe that the geoduck’s…manly shape indicates that the unpreposessing mollusk will act as an aphrodisiac for those who consume its flesh. Price has shot upwards as China’s economy has grown.
In order to cash in on this bonanza, aquaculturists are attempting to stake out larger and larger swaths of coastline as geoduck farms. Such use of the tidelands causes consternation to real estate developers. Not only do developers object to the unaesthetic appearance of PVC pipes used as nurseries for juvenile geoducks, but the interests of both parties are entirely opposite. Coastal land development involves bulkheaded beachfronts, deforested land, and nitrogen waste from gardens and septic systems—all of which are inimical to successful geoduck beds.
As the conflict rages on, some people (figuratively!) embrace the geoduck and its strange appearance for non-financial reasons. The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington has adopted the remarkable burrowing clam as a mascot. Although the school’s official seal features a conifer tree, the unofficial coat of arms features a geoduck rampant d’or on a rondel azure (or however you say that in heraldry speak). Additionally the school’s teams are all named the geoducks and they actually have a guy dressed up like a giant filter feeding clam to root for them.
In the spring of 1974 a group of farmers digging a well in Shaanxi China about one and a half kilometers (1 mile) north of Mount Li stumbled into an amazing find. A life-sized army of terracotta soldiers numbering over 8000 was entombed in the immense necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who lived from 259 BC – 210 BC. However the story of the despotic Qin Shi Huang (one of history’s most remarkable figures) and his extravagant mausoleum will have to wait. This post is not about the cruel emperor or his terracotta army, but is rather about the colors found on the terracotta figures, which were originally lacquered with a rainbow of bright colors– pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac. One of the pigments discovered by archaeologists was Han purple, a manufactured pigment which was in use in China from about 1200 BC to 220 AD. The secret to making Han purple was lost in antiquity and could not be rediscovered until modern spectroscopy helped chemists rediscover the materials used.
Many scholars believe that Han purple was accidentally discovered by Taoist alchemists seeking to create synthetic jade. The compound was a barium copper silicate which was fired for long periods of time at temperatures around 900-1000 °C. The compound was probably produced in kilns north of the city of Xian (which was once known as Chang’an and was the capital city of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties).
Han Blue was a dark bluish purple/indigo. It became more purplish over time as the barium copper silicate deteriorated and red copper oxides were formed. The pigment was used for beads, ceramic vessels, paintings, and for octagonal pigment sticks (which may have had a ceremonial value in their own right).
Han purple had a very similar companion compound–Han blue—which was also a barium copper silicate. Because of certain quirks of chemistry, Han blue was more lightfast than than Han purple and had fungicidal properties to boot. This allowed Han blue to last for the long centuries, whereas Han purple is now known mostly from faded traces. Han purple was not fungicidal and compounds (namely oxalates) produced by certain long-lived lichen caused the pigment to turn into light blue powder.