水調歌頭 – Lyrics to ‘Melody of Water’

This is just for the occasion, but also because this is probably Su Shi’s most famous work – partly due to it being covered by Faye Wong and Teresa Teng. An ode to the moon written during the Mid-Autumn Festival of 1076 AD, when Su Shi had been exiled to the south, its charm perhaps lies in its ambiguity – is it about frustration at a career thwarted, family distanced, a life astray? Or perhaps Su Shi, ever energetic, was simply making a statement of his own irrepressibility?

Either way. Here we go. Again, since this is a lyric and not a poem, the ‘title’ is not in fact its title; this poem is often known by its first line.

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The Mid-Autumn Festival (and a little bit on Calendars)

I know this is very Western-centric, but I like how, back in Singapore – where there were technically two public holidays catering for each religious/ethnic group – each community’s festival reflected how time itself flowed and was notarised differently for each of us.

The Western festivals, Good Friday and Christmas (and National Day, things like that) stood firmly in one spot in every list, rooted like trees. But there were other grounds, other completely different bases to count the days. For the Muslims, from a land without seasons, the purely lunar festivals wandered endlessly around the solar months, following their very own compass.

Chinese festivals, based on a lunisolar calendar, were a little different; the days wandered within fences in an alien system, but were not nomadic. Everyone knew roughly when the festival was going to be – Chinese New Year was not that far off from the ‘real’ one, and it was the same with the Mid-Autumn Festival – it would be somewhere in September. Ish. Only my grandma, flipping through her arcane almanac (I loved those texts and miss them), would ever know exactly which day it was.

It’s a bit easier now; there are ways to just check the date online, which is how I knew it was tomorrow. (The fact that a massive, gibbous moon has peeked over my neighbour’s roof also helps; as does experience, watching the tide, things like that.) But mystique is always a terrible thing to lose, I think, and as with many other things age and technology has taken some of the mystique out of this (ostensibly) arcane calculation. Well, can’t stop progress…


There is a story about mooncakes.

The Mid-Autumn Festival was a day for family union, and so in settlements all around China on that year – probably 1358 or 1359 AD – people gathered to enjoy the confections, not to mention the moon itself.

Packed with lotus seed paste, laboriously cooked and then laboriously baked, the cakes travelled through a China devastated by Mongol misrule – a small pleasure magnified by bad times. They were precious, so everyone got merely a small slice; and it would have to be someone overeager to get his share of sweetness, perhaps even before the moon was visible, to cut into a mooncake bought from somewhere and see the little note curled inside.

On the 15th day of the 8th month, take up arms and fight the Tartars…’

It would be ten years to the end, but here under the full moon (so the legend goes) was the beginning.

And now for a Dynasty that’s Completely Different: 定風波 – Lyrics to ‘Calming the Wind and Waves’

Right, I’ve had it for now with the rain in London. It is just, not, stopping. Of course that’s more a feature than a bug where London is concerned; but I thought I’d exploit this little heaven-sent inspiration and translate something with some rain in it.

Sushi is a Japanese staple, but Su Shi 蘇軾 su1 shi4 (1037 – 1101), or Su Dongpo 蘇東坡 su1 dong1 po1 (literally meaning Su East-slope, as mentioned in the post on names) – was a Renaissance man long before there was the Renaissance. (So not unlike sushi in terms of quality and variety, then.) As a poet he was good at writing beautiful lines; but he was excellent at writing rhythmic sentences too, in the form of prose-poems called ‘Odes’ (賦, fu4). He was a master of writing the words themselves beautifully, as an exemplary calligrapher.

And because this is China and everyone has to have a proper job, his was as an important official within the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127) government – a job that itself provided plenty of inspiration, if partly by forcing him to travel huge distances. As a participant in court struggles, he was banished twice to the south of China, which was a good thing for the south – while at the great city of Hangzhou (杭州, hang2 zhou1) on his first demotion to a regional post, he built a causeway across the scenic West Lake, which to this day is called the ‘Su causeway’ (蘇堤, su1 di1).

Did such talent run in the family? Arguably, yeah – his father Su Xun 蘇洵 su1 xun2, and his younger brother Su Zhe 蘇轍 su1 zhe2 were both scholars and officials in their own right, and the three of them are called the ‘Three Su’s’. And here you can note a generational quirk in their names – while both Su Shi and Su Zhe have one-character given names, their names both contain the ‘carriage’ radical 車, which suffices to show they are of the same generation. And while 轍 means ‘rut’, 軾 means ‘handrail’ – their father was trying hard to find good words with that radical, okay?! You try to name your kids with car related words. Wheel… Fuel Injector…

While the Tang Dynasty was the pinnacle of the ‘Poem’, or 詩 shi1, the Song Dynasty saw the domination of a slightly looser form of poetry, the ‘Lyrics’, or 詞 ci2. Lyrics, as a rule, do not often have unique titles; instead they have what is called a 詞牌, ci2 pai2, which translates loosely to ‘lyrical arrangement’ – a certain arrangement of lines with different lengths, so that all lyrics of the same arrangement can be sung to the same tune. They must have an interesting remix/cover/sampling industry in those days.

And so, ‘Calming the Wind and Waves’, ft. Su East-Slope. This poem, written during his first exile to Huangzhou 黃州 huang2 zhou1 (in modern day Hubei, China), says something about the man’s stoicism and the literary spirit that sustained him through adversity.



On the seventh day of the third month, we ran into a rainstorm on the Shahu way. None of us had umbrellas, and everyone felt pathetic, except for me. At length the storm lifted, and so I wrote these lyrics.



Listen not to the raindrops’ tap on leaves throughout the woods;


Instead let’s sing and holler while sojourning leisurely.


Bamboo staff and straw shoes make much lighter way than hooves. Who should fear?


With a straw hat and coat, I could stand rain-battered all my life.


The spring breeze in its crispness lifts the liquor from my mind. This slight chilliness!


Yet at the peak I’m welcomed by the slanting light of dawn.


Looking back at where the storm had howled and blown and raged, I walk back there-


And now there’s neither wind, nor rain, nor warmth, nor sunny day.

News Sunday: An interview on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute

(Disclaimer: this is a personal translation, for discussion purposes only.)

Ooh, see, nomenclature is already a nagging pain in the posterior here.

The Chinese probably know them as the Diaoyu islands (釣魚島), while the Japanese know them as the Senkaku islands (尖閣島). Alternatively they could be called the Pinnacle Islands; I’m choosing to call them by the Chinese name in the translation below because, in history, that was the name for the islands shared by both claimants.

Whatever one calls them, they’ve been yet another thorn in the side of a pretty rocky relationship between China and Japan. The nationalisation of the islands by the Japanese government have been yet another incident causing riots and protests in China, and here I’d like to break from history a little and translate an interview by FT China on September 20, with a Japanese journalist and news shot host stationed in China, Moriyasu Ken. (The interview, in Chinese, is here.)

FT China: Have you been to the scene of the anti-Japanese demonstrations?

Moriyasu Ken: I went to the Japanese embassy on Monday and saw a large gathering of people, hurling glass bottles, eggs and garbage at the building. It’s a new building, the Japanese government waited for six months before the Chinese government approved its use as the embassy last October. Despite being so new, it has already become a symbol of hatred. On Tuesday 6 glass panes had been smashed, which is very saddening.

FT: Have you talked to the Chinese protestors?

Moriyasu: Not to the protestors themselves; but I have talked to a lot of onlookers, and there is a wide variety of views. Many of the youth, while feeling that violence is not very acceptable, also feel that the Japanese have a ‘bad attitude’, and thus China needs to adopt a harder stance to force the Japanese to ‘come to their senses’. Another view is that only 5% of people are in the demonstration, while 95% are working away in the offices, and therefore the situation is not as intensely hostile as portrayed by the media. The problem with the media, of course, is that we are naturally inclined to report the more extreme phenomena.

FT: Since you were in Japan the previous weekend, tell us about how the protests are seen by the Japanese public and media.

Moriyasu: I think a huge misunderstanding lies between China and Japan right now. Some Chinese think that the protests cow the Japanese and thus make them retreat. But in conversations with my friends last weekend in Japan, I was surprised by how different their views were from the Chinese, regarding the protests. Many Japanese actually want the riots to be even more violent, even more irrational; that way the world can see what kind of country China is. The more the demonstrators smash windows, set fires and loot shops, the worse will be the damage to China’s image abroad. This is how the Japanese see the riots, which is dramatically different from the protestors’ views.

In Japan most people don’t understand why the Chinese are so angry. They regard this current tension in Sino-Japanese relations as being caused by the Chinese, due to the 2010 incursion by a Chinese fishing boat. Meanwhile in China the prevailing view is that the Japanese attitude towards the Diaoyu islands has somehow changed. Within diplomatic circles, Chinese officials also have their own interpretation. Traditionally, when Chinese fishing vessels head for the Diaoyu islands, the Japanese would first arrest and then release them. But in 2010, the newly formed government did not follow this script; they held and indicted the captain and held him for two weeks before releasing him. The Chinese viewed this incident as a change in the status quo on Japan’s part. Thus the very question of how this latest dispute came about is an issue where the two sides share little common ground.

The stand of the Japanese government is that the nationalisation of the islands is in fact an attempt at moderating the situation. A possible alternative is that the right-wing Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, would purchase the islands, and proceed to build lighthouses and other facilities on them. The intended message of the nationalisation, therefore, is that the islands will be purchased, but nothing would be done to them.

The problem with this signalling is that it’s not trusted by the Chinese authorities, since the two governments have not built any strong rapport. Besides, the government of Japan might not last long; Noda Yoshihiko is unlikely to remain the Prime Minister by the end of the year, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would most likely return to power. A strong candidate in the current internal elections of the LDP is Ishihara Nobuteru, Shintaro’s son. If he should gain leadership of the LDP, then Japan would not only have a right-wing Governor of Tokyo, but his son would also be the likely future PM. Thus the Chinese distrust of Japanese governmental promises is understandable.

FT: What are the Japanese media’s views on possible future developments?

Moriyasu: China says it has dispatched a thousand fishing boats to the waters around Diaoyu Island, and will even escort them with patrol craft. If these fishing craft approach the islands, the Japanese authorities will attempt to intercept the fishing boats. This could lead to conflict, including collisions and even casualties. This might in turn draw in the Japanese Marine Self-Defence Forces on one hand, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy on the other, leading to military conflict. The Japanese Ministry of Defence is already drawing up a war plan on the assumption that the Japanese will not be supported by the US, since such support is not guaranteed on this issue.

The Japanese believe that Japanese forces have a submarine reconnaissance and interception element, where China currently lags. Therefore it is believed the Japanese can sink any Chinese ships within Diaoyu Island waters. Japanese aerial capability, however, does not inspire such confidence.

FT: Is there any discussion in the Japanese media on a peaceful resolution of this dispute?

Moriyasu: I have a suggestion of my own. So long as the impasse continues, this dispute will be a zero-sum game. Even if the Japanese can ‘win’ this time round, China will eventually have the necessary strength to retake the islands. Therefore a ’51-49′ solution, rather than a ‘100-0’ solution, is needed.

My suggestion is to have an international resolution which includes not just China and Japan, but also other countries with territorial disputes such as Korea and Russia. The territories under dispute between all these countries can be handed over to the administration of the United Nations while negotiations are ongoing between the interested parties, emulating the Israel-Palestine negotiations.

This needs political leaders in Asia who embrace the interests of all Asia, instead of short term interests – be they economic, nationalistic or electoral. Some Japanese think that this incident shows the weakness of the Japanese government. But the real strength of a government lies in whether it can convince both its neighbours, and its citizens, that a better resolution is possible.

If Asian countries can put aside their differences and unite, the 21st century will be an Asian one. But war will prevent Asia from reforming itself, much like Europe did. If hostility continues, with each country arming and planning for military contingencies, the risks of disputes will increase even as the chances of successful resolutions decreases.

FT: How about presenting the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ)?

Moriyasu: The Japanese paid very close attention to how the ICJ resolved the island dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. The most recent verdict was that a few of the islands were given to Singapore, while a few more were given to Malaysia. An intriguing detail is that the ICJ, in its decision, completely ignored ‘historical factors’, namely historical claims of each part; rather they only considered ‘effective control’, namely which country has administered the territory and on what basis. The Chinese should pay attention to this new trend, since historical maps and claims, while they sound convincing, do not have much weight in the court. The Chinese leadership probably understands this point, which is why they are so sensitive about the ‘nationalisation’ of the Diaoyu islands, since this will greatly aid the Japanese case.

FT: What are the Japanese public’s views on the closure of Japanese factories and restaurants in China?

Moriyasu: This protest will indeed affect the China strategy of many Japanese enterprises. Just two weeks ago, Canon celebrated the 15th anniversary of its entry into the Chinese market. Over these years, Canon’s sales in China have increased 14-fold; and with the penetration of second- and third-tier cities over the next five years, sales are predicted to increase another 4-fold. But just two weeks later, now, Canon has closed three of its four Chinese factories. After this incident Japanese enterprises will understand that China is a land not just of opportunity but also of risk. They will therefore not integrate themselves completely into the Chinese market, but will always have one foot outside the door.

Another angle the Japanese media has taken is that many of the attacked companies are actually quite friendly to China, such as Panasonic. When Deng Xiaoping visited Japan in 1978, he told Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of Panasonic, that he was the ‘God of Management’, and that Deng hoped he could help develop Chinese companies. That was why Panasonic opened its first factory in China, in the 1980s, and that factory was the one which was torched and destroyed on Saturday. Such actions hurt the feelings of many China-friendly Japanese.

FT: What are the other foci of Japanese reporting on the protests?

Moriyasu: One focus has been debating whether the protests were spontaneous, or whether the government had a part to play. Initially many Japanese thought that the Chinese were not that angry, but over the past three days they have come to understand that the Chinese are truly enraged. This has come as a great shock to the Japanese public.

The Japanese media has also paid attention to the reaction of the Chinese government. While the government apparently did not intervene in the protests last weekend, they have since changed their attitudes, and the media has been calling for reason and calm. We are still watching the governmental reaction closely.

FT: Li Kaifu (http://renwu.hexun.com/figure_718.shtml), who has a large following on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), said: ‘The Japanese should be the gladdest, because they have seen tens of thousands of Chinese people go on the streets, wreck their compatriots’ cars and loot their shops.’ Are the Japanese really ‘glad’?

Moriyasu: Not glad, but shocked. The Japanese JUSCO supermarket in Qingdao lost some US$25 million when protestors wrecked its lifts and looted all its jewellery. This is quite shocking and revolting to the Japanese. The Japanese media has also been calling for calm amongst Japanese people in China, to show that they are different from the looters in Qingdao.

FT: The Chinese internet, in fact, also has many cooler heads calling for calm. Has the Japanese media reported these calls?

Moriyasu: Not yet, apparently. But we will pay more attention to this.

FT: There are concerns in China that Japan will use these protests as an excuse to expand its military. Is this a prevalent thought in Japan?

Moriyasu: I don’t think expanding the military is on the Japanese public’s agenda. This is another misunderstanding I often hear in Korea and China, which is that the Japanese wish to return to the militarist era. But that is not the case. The Japanese do not want to obtain nuclear weapons, nor to expand their military, because they know that in an arms race between China and Japan, Japan cannot win. China is both too large, and its economic power too strong. The better way is to wholly avoid this race.

FT: You have mentioned that the resources around the Diaoyu islands are not rich, so what exactly is the value of these islands to Japan?

Moriyasu: The Japanese are worried that if the Chinese take the islands, their next target might be Okinawa; and Okinawa is in fact a territory the Japanese are highly concerned about. Thus the value of the Diaoyu islands lie less in their mediocre resource value, but rather in psychological terms, as a buffer against the Chinese laying claim to more Japanese territory.

自宣城赴官上京 – Heading from Xuancheng to the Capital for an Official Appointment

Du Mu 杜牧, courtesy name Muzhi 牧之 (803 – 852) was probably both lucky and unlucky to be born when he was. On the plus side, he certainly had no shortage of idols and previous poets to learn from – indeed, among the poets of the Tang he is known as ‘lesser Du’ or ‘minor Du’, to differentiate him from the ‘greater Du’, Du Fu (712 – 770). (They are not closely related, though both of them are from the same Du clan – it was a pretty powerful clan during that era.)

As for the negatives, Du Mu grew up and entered government at a time when the Tang government was pretty knackered, between civil wars, half the country being quasi-independent, and eunuchs running the show in the palace while the long-running political episode called the Niu-Li Factional struggle – think modern two-party politics, but with losing parties executed or sent to Siberia – continued its long, long run. Still, having passed his Imperial Examinations, Du Mu got a lucky break, having been assigned to Xuancheng 宣城 (in modern day Anhui Province) as a member of the local administration. It’s hard to overstate how lucky a break this is for a poet; to this day, the city of Xuancheng gives its name to the lovely, strong and absorbent paper, known as Xuanzhi 宣紙 (lit. ‘Xuanzhou paper’) which is used in Chinese ink-wash paintings.

Naturally, he took to it like a poet in those days (in any days, really) took to alcohol, pretty girls and the ‘scene’; and this is the poem he wrote when eventually he had to be transferred to the capital.


Unbridled in Xuancheng’s environs, I have passed ten autumns;


And not one day has passed me without poetry and wine.


I’ve started awake beside the stream that flows round Lord Xie’s city [1];


The willows before Su Xiao’s gate [2] have oft caressed my head.


In a thousand li of clouds and peaks, is there any pleasant place?


How few can live so free of care, before their lives’ ends face.


Oh, to hang my headdress [3] and govern just my idleness,


And return here, to mock time spent on official business.

[1] Lord Xie’s city: Xie Tiao 謝脁 (464 – 499) was a famous poet of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479 – 502), who served as the Governor of Xuancheng in 495. Because of that he was known as ‘Xie of Xuancheng’ – an association cleverly reversed in this poem.

Also, he started awake because he got smashed. You know, like every other poet of his age.

[2] Su Xiao’s gate: Su Xiaoxiao was a famous entertainer who had absolutely nothing to do with Xuancheng; she was, however, apparently so beautiful and lovely and good at singing that her name became a general term for all singing girls. (It’s maybe for the best these things don’t happen these days. Oh, what lovely Gagas…) Anyway, she was famous for planting willows in front of her probably frequented doors, and willows or no, Du Mu certainly frequented many songstresses’ doors.

[3] Since the headdress is a sign of office, hanging it up naturally means resigning one’s commission.

A No-Longer-So-Little note on Chinese names – Part 2, courtesy names, pseudonyms, and names you’ll never use

The previous names we talked about – surname and given name – are, sadly, pretty much the only names that Chinese people have these days. You can say it’s not sad in that it’s simplified, but look at the examples of terrible names in the earlier post.

Of course, just as someone whose parents named him Havelock might just choose to go by, say, Avy (Locky?), and someone whose parents named him Socrates might hold symposia and get some deep thinking done (or drink hemlock, and yes I know a Socrates, and he’s ethnically Chinese), there are – well, were – ways of getting around such nominative messes in historical China. These are the courtesy names, and the pseudonyms.

Also, if one has gone far enough up the mortal coil before being eased off it, they would also be given names, or more accurately, posthumous titles. Which is, of course, a nice gesture – most of the time, anyway. People recognise that, if you’re highly-ranked enough, your non-existence is no reason for people to not gossip about you.

Courtesy names (, zi4)

Courtesy names exist because, according to the 2,700-year-old Classics of Rites, it is impolite to call people by their given names. The name people get at birth are for the ones who gave or suggested it – the parents, their aunt who thought it might be nice to call them Erectile Dysfunction or Shaking All-About, those people.

This is naturally a drag once you are old enough to have plenty of friends, so traditionally most literate Chinese would, on maturity, give themselves a courtesy name. And this is why, in many texts like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, keeping track of names often becomes a nightmare by Chapter 10 – on top of figuring who’s been hacked and who’s not, many people have two or even three names by which they are addressed. Some examples from that period (184 – 280):

曹操 Cao2 Cao1, courtesy name 孟德 Meng4 De2

劉備 Liu2 Bei4, courtesy name 玄德 Xuan2 De2

諸葛亮 Zhu1 Ge3 Liang4, courtesy name 孔明 Kong3 Ming2

孫權 Sun1 Quan2, courtesy name 仲謀 Zhong4 Mou2

The name is self-given, and so you are free to call yourself what you want. General rules do tend to apply, however. For one, there is the question of birth order; quite often one of the two words would be used to denote the birth order of the person, from oldest to youngest: 伯 bo2, 仲 zhong4, 叔 shu1, 季 ji4, and sometimes 幼 you4. Indeed, even now, 伯 is used to address one’s father’s older brothers (older uncles), while 叔 is for paternal younger uncles. Another option for the oldest chlid is 孟 meng4, though I’m not sure what the derivation for that is.

So, for instance, Sun Quan’s courtesy name is 仲謀 Zhong4 Mou2, and that’s because he’s the second son in the family – his older brother Sun Ce 孫策’s courtesy name is 伯符, Bo2 Fu2.

Another general rule is that the courtesy name tends to reflect, in some way, the actual given name, often by using a related word. Cao Cao’s given name, 操 cao1, roughly translates to ‘virtue, purity’ (yeah, the irony is not lost on me); and so his courtesy name, 孟德 meng4 de2, refers both to him being the first son of his father, and to 德 or virtue.

None of these are absolute rules, of course. There are some literati who much prefer to have their names oppose rather than support each other. The great essayist and poet of the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu 韓愈 (768 – 824), has a given name 愈 yu4 which means ‘to advance‘; his courtesy name, however, is 退之 tui4 zhi1, which means ‘retreating’. I bet he was a great wit. (Judging by the essays, he wasn’t. Sorry to spoil. I might translate some later and you decide.)

Pseudonyms (, hao4)

So the courtesy name is there for friends, and not unlike the given name there is also some element of aspiration in it – except, perhaps, from a more adult, mature perspective. But aspiration is so mainstream, so what you want if you actually want a unique name that really says who you are, you get a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms tend, in Chinese culture, to be the preserve of poets and writers, and are often associated with geographical features, or some of their particularly witty sayings and beliefs. Many of the geographical feature pseudonyms are in turn derived from the places where they live – at least, where they live when they were poor and lived in interesting places, or got exiled from court into interesting places. You wouldn’t call yourself the Resident Scholar of Canary Wharf, and nor do the Chinese.

Indeed, there are some historical writers who are more commonly referred to by their pseudonyms; one example is the great Song Dynasty (961 – 1279) poet, painter, statesman etc. Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037 – 1101), pseudonym 東坡居士 dong1 po1, literally Resident Scholar of the East Slope, who in Chinese is often called Su Dongpo 蘇東坡, East Slope Su.

Some examples of pseudonyms are below:

諸葛亮 Zhu1 gee Liang4 (again), pseudonym 臥龍 Wo4 Long2 ‘Reclining Dragon’, named after Reclining Dragon Ridge where he lived

李白 Li3 Bai2, pseudonym 青蓮居士 Qing1 lian2 ju1 shi4, literally ‘Resident Scholar of the Blue-green Lotus’

Posthumous Names (謚號, shi4 hao4)

We Chinese people are seriously into history (it’s not just me, I swear!), and also quite bitchy (also not just me), and so we have this ancient tradition of posthumous names. We’re never going to hear our own, so that’s not much to worry about, but of the different sorts of names, this is perhaps the most formalised one, with the most rules. If given and courtesy names are aspirational, and pseudonyms are so hipster and ‘just the way I am’, then the posthumous name is a committee sitting over your coffin evaluating your life performance.

Nice image, eh?

Posthumous names are reserved for emperors and officials, and especially for emperors they are the main form of address – the emperor’s personal name is far too sacrosanct to be mentioned, and that is why we have titles like Emperor Wu of Han (156 BC – 87 BC, r. 141 BC – 87 BC), Emperor Wen of Wei (187 – 226, r. 220 – 226) and so on. In their cases, 武 Wu3 means ‘martial’, and 文 Wen2 means ‘civil’; some other common and complimentary posthumous titles include 明 Ming2 ‘bright, discerning’, 景 Jing3 ‘decisive, admirable’ and 穆 Mu4 ‘amicable, harmonious’.

There are derogatory posthumous names, though these are much rarer; Emperor Ling of Han (156 – 189, r. 168 – 189) has the title 靈 Ling2, which means ‘inattentive, lazy’.

For officials, posthumous titles are often given by the imperial court on their death, in order to commemorate their public service. This, in turn, means it is often possible to tell which writers and scholars have been high-ranking officials, and which ones either never joined imperial service (not very common) or got exiled due to political struggles at court (very common).

The writers who do manage to get posthumous names tend to have their collected writings published under that posthumous name – another literary tradition in China. Partly because of this tradition, there are also writers who are often known by their posthumous names; perhaps the most famous is the Song Dynasty minister and scholar Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989 – 1052), whose posthumous title was Wenzheng 文正 ‘civil and righteous’; he is often known as Fan Wenzheng Gong 范文正公, ‘Lord Fan, civil and righteous’.

So that’s about it (for now) for names. I’m not going to go into too many examples, partly because I will be going into a lot of those writers – in fact, writing this is making me recall all these other writers I need to post about! Well, no end of material for the blog then…

A little note on Chinese names – Part 1, Surnames and Generations

Chinese names are funny. Inherently so.

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, when I say I’m not particularly offended at people slagging off Chinese names; but I simply am not. The point is, given the multiplicity of Chinese words with exactly or almost the same pronunciation, differing only by tone, it is far easier to come up with a name that sounds funny – in Chinese – than an English name that sounds funny in English.

(NB: the numbers after each pinyin word refers to their tone – of which there are four in Mandarin.)

My cousin, for example, had a classmate in her primary school whose surname was 馬, ma3 ‘Horse’ – which already has some comedic potential right there. Clearly not very well versed in Mandarin (or probably any dialect), his parents named him 壮強, zhuang4 qiang2 ‘Strong’ – except that zhuang4 qiang2 could also be written 撞牆, or ‘running headfirst into a wall’. Horse Running Headfirst into Wall – brill!

Some other badly-conceived (ah, haha, hahaha) names are rather more unfortunate, like 揚偉 yang2 wei3 ‘displaying greatness’, which sounds exactly the same as 陽痿 – or the nemesis of many a man, erectile dysfunction. And yes, it’s a guy’s name.


Aaaanyway. What I actually wanted to do here was to give a tiny little primer on the mysterious subject of Chinese names – what they’re all about, and how they work. In modern times, names have gotten a lot simpler (which if you ask me is a sad thing); but since there’s going to be plenty of history in this blog, I figure there ought to be a bit more depth.

Chinese names always come surname first. As for the surnames themselves, they can have all sorts of origins, which actually should sound familiar to Western audiences. Many surnames are derived from ancient place names and fiefdoms in China; some probably come from occupations, and yet others might derive from the periodic invaders, mostly from the northern steppes, who often took up Chinese surnames once they started settling in China proper.

I could write another article about surnames themselves, and probably will at some time; but that’s for a brief introduction. The second component of a Chinese name, and the only part which has survived into modern times, is simply the given name. This name, naturally, is given at birth by the parents, and so aspirational names are very common; but in many families, especially more traditional ones – like mine – there is a system of generational words.

These generational words are characters within the given name which indicate which generation in the family tree a given person belongs to; some families have separate words for male and female offspring while others have the same word. This is a handy feature for a culture as family-oriented as the Chinese, where one might be expected to deal with distant relatives every now and then – a quick glance at the name would suffice to know if someone is an uncle, a cousin or a nephew (or aunt/niece), allowing one to adjust behaviour accordingly.

Even more lovely, many seriously traditional families – this is pretty much a preserve of the literati – have actually got their generational words linked up into poems. For a very very noble example, this is the generational word poem for the families of the Prince of Qin, a branch of the imperial family of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644):


High in aspiration, bearing public trust,


Preserving and keeping respect and amity in mind,


Aiding honesty and continuing righteousness,


A support of the age, ever trustworthy and humble.

So the first generation would be named ‘尚-something’ (the ‘high/pure generation’), followed by ‘志-something’ (the ‘aspiring generation’), and so on. Nice sentiments, of course – and also quite unduly optimistic, given it would take 20 generations to finish the poem. As it happens the Ming Dynasty never made it past 12 generations in the emperor’s line. Such is life – and history…

(Part 2 is right here.)