古柏行 – On the Ancient Cypress


In Chinese, many characters have the ‘wood’ (木) radical on its side. Aside from common words used for things made out of wood – chair (椅), bed (床), shelve (柜) for example – many of them are words for different sorts of trees, such as the pine (松), plum (梅), oak (橡 or 栎), and of course the subject for today, the cypress (柏). 

A long lived tree relatively common in Sichuan, this conifer must have been quite a familiar sight to Du Fu 杜甫 when he lived in Chengdu as a refugee from the chaos in the north caused by the An-Shi Rebellion. (You can read more about this here.)

Before managing to escape, he was in truly hot water in Chang’an, former capital of the Tang Dynasty which had fallen to the rebels. This is because, as a previous minister in the Tang Court, he had submitted advice against An Lushan, warning against giving him enormous military authority over all Tang forces in the northeast. The advice was not heeded; the authority backfired horribly, and Du Fu nearly died for it. 

In comparison to those days, living in peaceful Sichuan must have been a considerable relief. But Du Fu remained outside the mainstream of politics despite his ambitions, and instead became a poor, wandering poet. We are, of course, much the better for it. 


A beautiful rendition of the poem, in the cursive calligraphic style. (Reads from up to down, right to left)

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8 Ways to get stuck into the Chinese New Year (part 1)


A bit of pedantry here: some also call it the Lunar New Year, but the Chinese calendar isn’t exactly lunar. It’s lunisolar, which is why the months roughly line up with the Western (solar) months. A fully lunar calendar, like the Muslim one, will have its holidays wandering all over the place on a Western calendar because it goes by its own rhythms.

… what were we talking about again? OH YES. So it’s the day just before the Chinese New Year now, and how remiss it would be of me if I neglected to write something about the biggest day in the Chinese calendar. Here goes!

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An Explanation of ‘Lyrics to the form of _______’, along with three translations of 忆江南 ‘Remembering the South’


So far it seems I’ve been straying quite a bit into Song Dynasty territory, which is quite an intriguing place compared to that of the preceding Tang Dynasty. It’s a dangerous land – where the poems have no titles, the lines are not the same length, and the rules for matching character to character have become even more fiendish.

Several of the blog posts so far (here, here, here and here) have been about these irregular poems, which in Chinese are called 宋词 – literally ‘lyrics of the Song’. (Yes, yes, I see that too.) So here I will say something about this sort of poetry itself – why it is, what sorts of ‘forms’ there are, and what are some of the rules.
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Translation Thursday: 无题 – Untitled, by Lu Xun

(Argh! Just a little late.)


We’ve had poems from the heyday of Imperial China, and we’ve had poems from the crises of Imperial China. But today, I’d like to do an example of ancient poetry from right after the end of Imperial China, from one of the greatest Chinese writers of the 20th century.

Chinese was once a highly diglossic language. Diglossia refers to a situation where the written form of the language – which is pretty much all I’ve been translating so far, in the poems – is different, often dramatically, from the way the language actually is spoken.

Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), born Zhou Shuren, was one of the pioneering figures in forcing the two to come together, and in promoting the use of Vernacular rather than Classical Chinese as the written standard (which it is today). One of the first short stories written fully in the vernacular was his 1918 Diary of a Madman. He was also an ardent liberal and nationalist, which shows through most of his works, including the below.

We’ve been living in an interesting time of revolutions, to put it mildly – and this poem comes to mind every time I read about another uprising or round of protests. It was also what came to the mind of a lot of the protestors in a certain city square in June, 1989; the final line was a common refrain in the post-Tiananmen crackdown.

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On Surnames, Part 2

Right, about time I finally got around to this.

Previously, we talked about the Hundred Family Surnames, and the character for ‘surname’ itself. In this post, what we will discuss are the different appellations and terms which are traditionally attached to surnames – such things as prominent prefectures (郡望) and hall names (堂號). Also, we’ll look at my own surname, Zhou 周 as an example of all these lovely things, because my surname is all very illustrious and grand and awesome!



The Chinese have this saying to illustrate a tough, upright man:


‘Travels without changing name, sits without changing surname’

Of course, this isn’t strictly true – surnames do change, and new surnames do pop up all the time (while old surnames fade into extinction). Whereas the Hundred Family Surnames recorded 600 or so, it is estimated that there are about 3,000 or so surnames in use these days. Considering there are about a billion Chinese, that’s really not very many, and yet people still manage to identify each other not just as being of the same surname, but also of the same clan.

How is that done? That’s where traditional tools like clan prefectures come in.

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By (one) Popular Demand: On Surnames, Part 1

For a society as family- and clan-oriented as the Chinese, it’s not much surprise that surnames carry considerable significance to us. Sure, some surnames are funnier than others – Hu is the president of China, eh – but still! Srs Bznss!

As the interview with Mo Yan’s brother (part 1 and part 2) shows, the cultural DNA he was talking about not only includes literature, but also familial legacies – the clan claims a statesman from 2,700 years ago as an ancestor. Trustworthy? I don’t know, though the two are from the same part of China. But there you are.

The character

The word for ‘surname’ in Chinese is 姓 Xing4; the left component is the ‘female’ radical, 女, while the right, phonetic component is for ‘life’, ‘birth’ or ‘growth’, 生. (Which makes sense, of course). The female component needs a little explanation, though; it is there because the current word is actually one of two words for surname, the other being 氏 Shi4

These days, either 姓 or 姓氏 would mean the same thing, since people only have one surname inherited from the paternal line. Three and a half thousand years ago, though, Chinese society was actually matrilineal, so surnames came down the maternal line. Later, when both lines of descent were considered, 姓 referred to the  surname taken from mom, while 氏 referred to the surname from dad. This is also why some of the most ancient Chinese surnames, including those of legendary historical figures, tended to have the female radical – 姚 Yao2, 妫 Gui1, 姜 Jiang1 (the female radical is at the bottom), 姬 Ji1 and 姒 Si4 for instance. All these surnames still exist, in fact; Yao and Jiang are relatively common, while the other two are rare.

The Hundred Family Surnames

So, as can be seen, Chinese surnames hang around a long time, and as with any society there are common and less common surnames. Some of the most common were compiled into a rhyming, mnemonic text – itself a literary tradition in classical Chinese – which we know these days as the Hundred Family Surnames, 百家姓 Bai3 Jia1 Xing4.

The text was compiled during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), the same dynasty that produced Su Shi and many, many other writers, and groups the surnames into lines of four, beginning with the one-word, and then the two-word surnames. All in all, a mere 504 surnames were collected, 444 of which have one word and 60 have two. This accounted for – and, to be honest, still accounts for – the vast majority of the Chinese population.

Interesting fact: the first four surnames in that little collection are all royal or imperial surnames, reflecting the political conditions of the time. The first, 赵 Zhao4, is the imperial surname of the Song Dynasty; the second, 钱 Qian2 (which means money, and isn’t anywhere near being a common surname) is the royal surname of the Kingdom of Wuyue – a small state in the southeast of China which was lauded for surrendering peacefully to the Song to avoid a bloody war.

Uninteresting fact: besides recording the surnames in an easy to remember format – and to be honest it’s not even that easy to remember – the Hundred Family Surnames tells us practically nothing about the surnames. I intend to do exactly that, though, in the next post – where we will talk about things like Hall Names, Origins, and the like.

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.