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Happy Lunar New Year! In the Chinese calendar it is already year 4718, the Year of the Metal Ox. Gosh, where does the time go? Weirdly, one of New York City’s symbols is, I guess, technically a metal, ox so I put him up there for visual interest. In both the Chinese and Western culture, the metal ox is symbolic of wealth, prosperity, and success. Let us hope that 2021…er, I mean 4718…brings such things to all of us (particularly to you, dear reader).

Humankind’s association with cattle and oxen goes way back to 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East around 10,500 years ago (genetic analysis tools really have a way of clearing up some of paleohistory’s cobwebs!) Since those days, selective breeding has allowed humankind to tailor-make cattle of all sorts of shapes, colors, and characteristics, to such a degree that it is hard to believe they all descend directly from that 80 original herd of four score. Next week I promise a very special kine post to show you what I mean! Here is a little teaser picture so that you will come back for that post (and by “little”, I mean this is a little pre-taste of cattle-themed excitement: obviously there is nothing little about that bull who is pictured with a normal-sized adult human)

But this is Chinese New Year, and we are straying a bit from Chinese oxen, so let us go straight to an undiluted Chinese masterpiece which celebrates the strength, beauty, and personality of oxen in the Middle Kingdom. Here is “Five Oxen” 五牛图 arguably one of the most famous paintings in Chinese history.

Five Bulls (Han Huang, mid 8th century CE) ink on silk scroll

The work was painted sometime in the middle of the 8th century AD by Han Huang, AKA Duke Zhongsu of Jin. Han Huang is now renowned as perhaps the greatest cow painter in Chinese history, but in his life he was relegated the less glamorous task of running the Chinese empire as the chancellor/prime minister for Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty. The painting was lost in 1900 after European troops put down the Boxer rebellion and occupied Beijing, but it was rediscovered in Hong Kong during the 1950s and now graces the Palace museum in Beijing. Click on that painting fast, before WordPress changes something and you are unable to look at a high-def picture of the picture. It rewards close attention with its matchless bovine beauty!

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a statesman, Han Huang was a master of building form with calligraphic linework. In this grand scroll, he has utilized that skill to perfection to capture the overwhelming physical heft of five very different oxen. Yet the painting’s true strength does not come only from the oxen’s strength. Somehow Huang has not just captured their imposing bulk and might, he has captured the gentle curiosity and almost childlike diffidence of the great animals (except maybe for that first ox on the left, who has a very stolid cast to him).

Of course this juxtaposition is the very essence of oxen (to our human perspective anyway). They are the size of houses with the strength of small armies, and yet they are biddable and gentle…or at least they can be! In the west, bulls are known for being un-gentle! I have deliberately blurred the lines between bulls, oxen, steer cattle, kine, and cows in this post because I didn’t even want to talk about gender and number, and I certainly don’t want to talk about buffalo (the Chinese word can mean “ox” or “bovine creature” so arguably I could be parsing out the differences between water buffalo, yaks, bison, and cattle). We will talk about what all of that means later (if at all), but for the purpose of this post it means that cattle stand high enough in importance to humans (or at least to cattlemen) to demand incredibly specific and complicated terminology (I get the feeling that the Duke of Jin would understand.

In the Chinese zodiac, the steadfast ox was meant to be first sign, except it was tricked by the cunning rat. This was not just because oxen are tireless and strong, it is because they are first in importance to people and have been for a long time.

We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.

Although spring is the season associated with kite flying, the winds of autumn have always struck me as more suited to the activity. Speaking of which, here is a gallery of lovely bat kites from around the web. I am sure I had that black triangle one with crazy eyes when I was a kid! I am sorry for the visual post, but an old friend called and we talked too long. I didn’t want to leave you without any Halloween bats though! Enjoy the struts and ears and almond eyes and we will get back to talking about bats tomorrow!

Qianlong marked blue white peach bat flower vase (ca. late 18th century)

The Chinese word for bat, “fu” (蝠) is the same as the Chinese word “fu” (福) for good fortune. Because the words are homonyms (indeed the characters are rather similar as well), Chinese art is absolutely filled with bats which nearly always represent best wishes for good fortune (although Zhang Guo Lao, the oldest and most eccentric of the 8 immortals, was said to have begun his existence as a primordial white bat of chaos).

At any rate, once you know what to look for, you start seeing bats everywhere in Chinese art and ornament. A particularly common motif is the wu fu, which features five bats representative of the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Various famous rebuses pair the wu fu with other geometric good luck symbols, and so we have the rebus of “Wu Fu Peng Shou” (five bats surrounding the symbol for longevity) or the Rebus of Wu Fu He He, which involves yet another complicated homonym (“he” means little round box, but “He He” was a goddess/fairy of nuptial felicity). When you see five bats surrounding a round geometric device (and now that you are looking for it, you WILL see it) you have chanced upon a rebus of Wu Fu He He.

Dear reader, I hope all of these fu symbols heap blessings upon you. May you know vigor, prosperity, old age, the love of virtue, and abundant benisons of all sorts! But I also hope that some of this fu transfers over to real bats. They are close cousins to us grasping, cunning primates, but the world we are making is bringing the chiroptera all sorts of problems! We will talk about that more in subsequent posts, but to finish this post, here is a peach fu vase of surpassing summery loveliness.

Qing Dynasty Porcelain Doucai Vase.

Yuan Jie (ca. 720 AD to 772 AD) was a poet, scholar, and politician of the Tang Dynasty. His intellectual and literary gifts allowed him to score high marks on the imperial exam which, in turn, allowed him to rise to high office. He helped finally suppress the An Lushan Rebellion (a dark era of insurrection and strife which left society in tatters). Although he rose to the rank of governor, Yuan Jie disliked his office and felt uneasy with his rank (and with the shallow fragile nature of society). As soon as his mother died, he resigned his rank. According to the sinologist Arthur Waley (who translated the following poem by Yuan Jie) the Chinese scholarly opinion of Yuan Jie at the end of the Ching dynasty was that “His subjects were always original, but his poems are seldom worth quoting.” Here is one of his poems (as translated to English by Waley) so that you may judge for yourself:

Stone Fish Lake

I loved you dearly, Stone Fish Lake,

With your rock-island shaped like a swimming fish!

On the fish’s back is the Wine-cup Hollow

And round the fish,—the flowing waters of the Lake.

The boys on the shore sent little wooden ships,

Each made to carry a single cup of wine.

The island-drinkers emptied the liquor-boats

And set their sails and sent them back for more.

On the shores of the Lake were jutting slabs of rock

And under the rocks there flowed an icy stream.

Heated with wine, to rinse our mouths and hands

In those cold waters was a joy beyond compare!


Of gold and jewels I have not any need;

For Caps and Coaches I do not care at all.

But I wish I could sit on the rocky banks of the Lake

For ever and ever staring at the Stone Fish.

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In ancient times, the most important district of China was the landlocked region which is today the province of Shaanxi.  Xi’an, the oldest of China’s historical capital cities was/is located in Shaanxi at the eastern terminus of the silk road.  Xi’an was the capital of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (or “kingdom” if you are a stickler about the Western Zhou).  Today Xi’an only barely makes the top ten list of Chinese cities by population (it is tenth, with a mere 12 million inhabitants), yet its ancient cultural history is unrivaled.  The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (aka the the tomb of the Terra Cotta soldiers) is located in Xi’an as is the great Ming-era Drum Tower of Xi’an, yet the real symbol of the city is one of the most distinctive buildings of the ancient world, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an.

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Built in 652 AD during the reign of the third Tang emperor (Gaozong of Tang, the son of the astonishing Emperor Taizong), the pagoda was literally a monument to the great 7th century flowering of Buddhism in China.  Originally the temple was 5 stories tall (but five big stories for an original height of 60 meters).  Although Gaozong built the edifice to honor his mother, it was also designed to house the holy sutras and Buddhist figurines which were brought to China by the traveling Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the real life Golden Cicada monk of “Journey to the West” (although I am still pretty sure that most of that book was fictional/allegorical).  The pagoda was constructed of rammed earth with a stone exterior.

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Fifty years after it was built, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (an alternate translation might be the Large Swan Goose Pagoda) partially collapsed.  It was rebuilt in 704 AD by Empress Wu Zetian, one of China’s most remarkable and divisive rulers (which is really, really saying something).  Wu Zetian ordered an extra 5 stories added to the pagoda, and her version stood until a massive earthquake in 1556 reduced the pagoda to near ruins.  The civil engineers of the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the pagoda (this time as a 7 story 64 meter building). It is this Ming dynasty version which stands today,  although it now has a pronounced list of several degrees to the west (even after the Communists repaired it in 1964.

The Large Wild Goose Pagoda’s history mirrors that of China (and intersects several of the biggest names and stories of Chinese history) however it also has a notable “ship of Theseus” quality since it was redesigned and rebuilt so many times.  There is no definitive story about the name (the swan goose is a magnificent migratory bird of central China), however there is an evocative myth.  A group of fasting monks saw a flock of swan geese flying across the autumn sky.  One of the younger brothers said “I wish I could taste one of those geese!”, whereupon the lead goose broke a wing and fell from the sky.  The monks were horrified and saw the accident as a chastisement from Buddha for their weakness.  They rushed to the spot where the bird fell and swore a vow of eternal vegetarianism.  That spot was where this tower was built and has stood for 1300 years as a reminder to be gentle to nature and to be careful what you wish for.

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StadiumToday we are taking a peek at the future where new things are being built.  Unfortunately, the United States has decided never to make (or even fix) anything ever again, so we have to look abroad for exciting (or just outlandish) new edifices.  All of which is a way of introducing this incredible new stadium which is being built in China.  Behold the concept drawings for the Guangzhou Evergrande Football stadium.

When I say “football” in this context, I don’t mean the American game of proxy warfare, but instead the accepted international name for soccer, a dull game which is sort of like slow hockey on a big grassy field.  But who cares if the game is not worth watching?  The stadium itself should prove to be so interesting that it will distract from the bland sporting spectacle.

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An hour and a half of this

The Guangzhou Evergrande is designed in the shape of a sacred lotus,  Nelumbo nucifera (a plant which we need to write about more). With seating capacity in excess of 100,000, it will take the crown of world’s largest soccer stadium from the Camp Nou Stadium in soccer-crazed Spain.  If you are wondering what the grandiloquent name “Evergrande” means, it is the name of the real estate consortium building this giant concrete flower.  I wish I could tell you more about the actual building of one of the mega stadiums (because I have a feeling that even the most general parameters are breathtaking), but alas, all I have is this picture of heavy lorries preparing for groundbreaking last week.

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The stadium should be finished in 2022.  Only time will tell if it turns into a beautiful world-famous landmark or if it is just another CAD torus with some fripperies on it.  The lovable Chinese practice of building whimsical buildings which look like things makes me hope for the former, but the interchangeable tax-payer subsidized sports stadiums of the United States make me skeptical.  We also need to know more about the lights which will be installed on it, because the 2008 Olympics revealed that the Chinese have a true flare for such things.   Above all else, it is just a pleasure to see somebody actually working on something ambitious (even if it is a soul-devouring Chinese real estate consortium).  Do you think we could learn to like soccer by 2022?  I guess we will have to appreciate it as uhhh…novelty floral sculpture.

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This picture certainly makes it look like it would be delicious if you ordered it at TGIFridays

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Happy Year of the Metal Rat!  The Chinese new year 4717 really started on January 25th, 2020, however, since the celebration is ongoing (as is the year!), let’s talk about what we can expect from a rat year.  In the twelve year Chinese zodiac cycle, the rat comes first (which means we are starting a whole new cycle).  The folklore reason that the rat is the first year is humorous and instructive: the Jade Emperor hosted a party for the astrological animals and he decided that the order of years would be set by when they arrived at the party.  The rat rode to the party on the stalwart ox’s back but then when he saw the party food (or maybe the supreme monarch of heaven), he distracted the ox and leaped across the threshold first!

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As pictured in this stirring artwork…

In the non-zodiac world, there are quite a few people who have a negative opinion of (real) rats, but Chinese astrology in no way shares this outlook concerning the versatile rodent.  Rats are regarded as clever, successful, optimistic, and likable. Because of their ability to survive and reproduce even in harsh or inimical circumstances, rats are seen as symbolic of resourcefulness and fertility (it seems like Chinese culture-makers were actually paying attention to how rats came by their worldwide success).  People born in rat years are regarded as problem solvers who are good with money and have the ability to turn unexpected problems into opportunities (tigers, like me, are instead gifted with the ability to turn unexpected problems into histrionic emotional events…but fortunately we also have the ability to make everything about ourselves).

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How did this beautiful and stirring tiger get in here?

Metal rats are most famed for…uh having a predictable and stable life (sigh). So I guess children born into this year can expect to live a life utterly unlike this year.  Also, apparently rats’ lucky flower is the African violet and their unlucky color is brownish yellow.  It is extraordinary what can be learned during 4717 years!

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Actual rats are one of the most interesting and successful creatures in existence.  Their strategy…and their fate has mirrored humankind’s own strange journey, and our two species are rarely far apart.  Thus we will celebrate the year of the metal rat by talking more about actual rats during the course of the week.  So steel yourself, real rats are even more intelligent and likable than the fictional ones, but they are more relentless and disturbing as well.

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Before we get to that though, maybe enjoy some hot pot and dumplings while you can!  Humans and rats alike both know to take advantage of any opportunity for food and fun!

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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