賣柑者言 – Discourse with the Mandarin Vendor

The wordplay in the translation works only in English, sadly

Mmm, mandarins. Wonder what they’re like inside.

Honestly, I’ve been feeling rather down lately. Weltschmerz, perhaps – though fortunate indeed is the person who is comfortable enough to be worrying about the world, also!

Anyway, while being mopey and idiotic, I came across this essay which I studied a decade ago and have not read since, until today. Liu Ji 劉基, better known by his courtesy name as Liu Bowen 劉伯溫 (1311 – 1375), was a strategist, scholar, geomancer and one of the key founding members of the Ming Dynasty which would rule China for nearly three centuries. Well, if I’m going to start translating prose pieces, this is as good a place as any.

Born in the late Yuan Dynasty as a southern Chinese, which was the lowest social rank under Mongolian rule due to their protracted resistance to conquest, it is perhaps no surprise that Liu Bowen would rouse himself to write this essay; besides being biased against the likes of him, Yuan rule by the time of his adulthood was already a shambles in general. Sometimes it’s scary how many parallels there are with our time.

We may be centuries ahead in so many things, but the ugly albatross around our neck that is idiocy – whether governmental, corporate, or personal – never gets dropped.

Okay, enough moping. Essay!

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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.

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.)