Duan Wu 2021 Feature- Qu Yuan’s Flowers

1. A Sea of Orchids

Some two millennia and three centuries ago, on the grassy plains of the Kingdom of Chu, a field of orchids and melilotus blossomed in full glory. 

A solitary figure approaches. His attire is rather peculiar, consisting of an upper garment woven from water chestnut and lotus leaves, and a lower garment was sewn from lotus petals. 

He picks up a hoe and begins to till the land. Carefully, he places seedlings of sweet lichens and cart-halting flowers on the ridges, and fills the spaces with asarums and angelica.

He rubs the soil from his fingers and says, smiling, “When the time is right, I will return for a fine harvest!” 

“But what if they languish in obscurity?”

He shrugs, 
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, even if that happens.” 

His face darkens as a thought crosses his mind, 
“That said, I shall grieve should they be choked by weeds and wither away”

This scene is more literary than it is historical. It shouldn’t take much imagination to see Qu Yuan’s actual meaning. The plants he cultivates are not plants, really, but students. 

It Is his greatest wish that this students may serve the king of Chu when they have completed their training. 

And he’d rather see their talents waste away in obscurity, than to have them discard their conscience and join the ranks of the immoral. 

2. A Flowery Imagery

No ideas are born in a vacuum.

Similarly, Qu Yuan’s allegorical use of plants is rooted in the climate and culture of the Chu nation.

Flowers and herbs were used extensively in the shamanistic rituals of Chu. The deities in Qu Yuan’s “The Nine Songs” were depicted with colourful personalities and wore beautiful flowers to match. They were greeted by Shamans purified by flower-water baths, and treated to orchid-infused offerings laid out on melilotus petals.

The “Songs of Chu” also reflects the Chu practice of self-adornment with flowers and fragrance sachets. Qu Yuan’s adds to this realism an allegorical touch, in which this practice is a manifestation of his ideals and personal qualities.

Prehistoric tribes associated flowers and plants with love and fertility. Qu Yuan’s poems attributes the plants with new associations.

In his telling, the pepper (prickly ash) is a slanderous and prideful creature; while the fraudulent dogwood finds its way into a sachet and passes itself off as a herb. The plants were more than mere metaphorical devices; personified such, they were able to participate in, and even drive the narrative.

At the same time, Qu Yuan used romantic love as an allegory to describe the complex relationship between himself, his king as a peer. Here, flowers are exchanged as gifts between lovers, re-evoking the prehistoric association of plants with romantic love.

3. An Everlasting Fragrance

This is but a brief look into the complex imagery of plants in Qu Yuan’s writings. It was but the beginning of a long tradition in Chinese poetry. [2]

From then on, poets and writers no longer saw plants as merely plants. They were personified, attributed with human qualities, and were used directly as symbols to express certain ideals.

For example, the Song dynasty thinker Zhou Dunyu’s famous piece “On the Love of the Lotus” praises the lotus for being unsullied by the mud it rises from. His gushing praise of the lotus, and his apathy for the peony, is simply an expression of his lofty ideals and his unwillingness to go with the flow.

Similar themes are common in Chinese literature. By understanding Qu Yuan, we gain a new insight into the works of later poets. We can better understand the message they were trying to put across by writing about wilted flowers and lonely women.

Qu Yuan’s flowers may have wilted. However, his “Li Sao”, as well as his personal qualities, have influenced later writers greatly and is an unsurmountable achievement in the course of Chinese literature.

Modern society encourages us to speak our thoughts directly. We no longer use flowers as a metaphor for ideas too personal, or too subversive to express in words.

Until Valentine’s Day comes around, and lovers exchange roses as declarations of love. Only then we realise—that perhaps nothing much has changed, in the gulf of time that separates Qu Yuan and ourselves.

[1]: In the original poem, Qu Yuan’s cultivation of orchids and melilotus comes before his wearing of lotus and water chestnut leaves. Strictly speaking, these events should belong to different time frames, but I have chosen to merge them in this artwork.

The names of these flowers are taken from David Hawke’s “The Songs of the South, An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets”. However, it is worthwhile to note that the name ‘orchid’ may not be a good translation of ‘lan’, which may refer to either Eupatorium fortunei, Lycopus asper  or any other herb common to the Chu region in Qu Yuan’s time. Similarly, it is unclear what plant the ‘cart-halting flower’ is in modern terms.

[2]: Of course, as a literary work, this can be interpreted differently. In an article about the role of time in “Li Sao”, Chen ShiXiang interprets these lines as a cultivation of personal morality. At this point, Qu Yuan is still subject to the laws of time, and can only ‘wait’ for its harvest. However, the view that these lines refer to the cultivation of young talents appear to be more widespread.

[3]: The metaphorical use of plants in poetry is not Qu Yuan’s invention. The “Classic of Poetry”, which predates the “Songs of Chu”, employs this literary technique. However, there are subtle differences between the metaphorical techniques in the “Classic of Poetry” and “Songs of Chu”. Details can be found in ‘references’ (text in Chinese)

Reference: 江林昌.从原始“意象”到人文“兴象”、“寄象”—中国文学史中的文学书写[J].文艺研究,2017,9:53-62

古人真会玩系列之四 – 唐代人最爱的三朵花:有钱花,尽量花,牡丹花 Ancient Chinese Pastimes: Tang dynasty’s ‘Peonymania’


Thank you for tuning in to our program “Ancient Chinese Pastimes”.


You may have heard of the ‘tulipmania’ in 16th-century Netherlands, when tulips became an expensive and highly-sought after luxury item. It is said that the price of a single bulb could cost as much as the yearly income of a skilled artisan.


But, did you know that a similar craze for peonies happened in the Tang dynasty?


Today, we have invited three distinguished speakers to our panel. They will reveal just how willingly the Tang dynasty folks splurged on a premium sprig of peonies.


First, let us invite our very first speaker, Lady Yang, de facto first lady of Tang Xuanzong’s regime. Let us give her a big round of applause!




Moderator: “I have heard so much about you, and it is such an honour to meet you in person.

My lady, in Li Bai’s poem “A Tune of Peaceful Joy: A Spring Morning in the Palace”, you engaged in a contest of “a hundred grasses” in exchange for a bet of costly jewels. Can you explain to us what “the contest of a hundred grasses” means?”


Lady Yang: “The “Contest of a Hundred Grasses” is a game popular among our people. Participants are required to gather as many plants as they can. The person who collects the largest variety is declared the winner. This game can be made even more challenging by requiring the participants to correctly name their collection.”


Moderator: “If that is the case, you have to be knowledgeable in natural history to win.”

杨贵妃:“嗯呢。还有一种形式,叫“武斗”。 比赛前,参赛者们收集韧性高的草茎,将草茎交叉成“十”型,再用力拉扯,不断者为胜。”

Lady Yang, “Indeed. There is another variant of the game.  Participants intertwine the stem of their plants, and try to pull them apart. The one whose stem doesn’t break is declared the winner. Naturally, the toughness of the stems is an important consideration while selecting your plants.”


Moderator, “What other leisure activities do you carry out with flowers other than these contests?”


Lady Yang, “We Tang dynasty folks love to admire flowers. Some take great pains to enhance the experience. For example, my cousin, Yang Guozhong, went to the extent of constructing a costly pavilion with agarwood for the sole purpose of admiring flowers. He even smeared the walls with frankincense and musk. You can imagine just how lovely it smelled with mingled with the fragrance of peonies in full bloom. Then, he would invite important guests to admire the peonies when they bloomed.”


Moderator, “If that’s so, flower admiration must be a costly activity exclusive to the ultra-rich like your cousin.”


Lady Yang, “Of course, there are less costly ways to go about it. For example, the ladies of Chang’an would organise excursions to the countryside. If they were to chance upon a beautiful flower, they’d host picnics on the spot, using their skirts as a screen. Another option is to admire flowers planted in official gardens or temples on days when they are open to the public.”

主持人:“非常感谢杨贵妃的精彩分享。唐朝人的花卉文化,背后少不了花农们的默默耕耘。 下一位嘉宾就是种花达人郭先生,郭先生种的牡丹花闻名长安,他种的树木哪怕是从外地移植过来,几乎没有不存活的,可谓是花农第一人。掌声欢迎!”

Moderator, “Thank you, Lady Yang, for your delightful snippets of information. Now, we must not forget the flower farmers who made this culture of flower admiration and contests possible. Let us welcome our next speaker, Mr. Guo. He is renowned in Chang’an for his ability to cultivate beautiful peonies. Let’s give him a big hand!”


“Mr. Guo, your peonies are prized by the citizens of Chang’an. Do you mind sharing the tricks you use to cultivate peonies successfully?”


Mr. Guo, “Peonies are delicate by nature and cannot be exposed to harsh weather. It is advisable to grow them in enclosures. During the early stages of cultivation, you have to be careful with them — as if you were raising little children. After that, you must let them be and allow them to grow as nature dictates. Do not try to hasten results. Some farmers intervene too much with their plants; they’d scrape and shake the stems just to ensure their plants are alive and have well-formed roots. How can you expect your plants to flourish if you disturb them in that manner? It’s just like raising children… (several passages omitted)


Moderator, “You tend to your flowers with such love and care. Are you able to get a good price for them?”


Mr. Guo, “Of course. Cultivating the plants is a challenge of its own; but you also have to ensure that the flowers are not damaged when transported from the farms to the flower markets of Chang’an. As before, you have to construct enclosures, water them constantly, and pack their roots with soil. Then the flowers can be sold for a good price.”


Moderator, “How much do you usually sell them for?”


Mr. Guo, “(Grins sheepishly) I prefer to not disclose. All I can say is, a good spray of flowers is worth as much as the yearly taxes of ten middle-income family.”

Before the moderator could speak, the third panelist could no longer contain himself.




Moderator, “Please remain seated, Mr. Sima. There’s opportunity for you to speak later.”


Sima Za, “(Ignores the moderator) You turn your backs on crop cultivation and convert farms into flower gardens. If you do not plant crops, what are the people supposed to eat? Peonies are no substitute for sorghum and wheat!”


Mr. Guo, “Supply comes with demand. It is no fault of ours — you should criticise the aristocrats who use peonies as a means to flaunt their status.”

(Lady Yang looks uneasy)

主持人:“司马先生,您写出《卖花者》一诗,批判花农为了牟利,不种粮食种植花卉的现象。您能否和观众们大概叙述下,大唐的 “牡丹热”达到什么程度?”

Moderator, “Mr. Sima, you are known for your poem “The Flower Sellers”. In it, you criticise the flower farmers for planting flowers instead of crops for profit. Can you briefly describe just how obsessed your people were with peonies?”


Sima Za, “As mentioned, peonies were sold at inflated prices. Apart from that, the entire capital would be jam-packed with horses and carts during peony season. There’d be a huge crowd at monasteries with peonies — very much like how your influencers flock to instagrammable spots. And of course, there are those who’d build costly structures just for the sake of admiring peonies.” (Glances at Lady Yang)


Moderator, “Thank you for your time. Before we end our session, is there anything else you’d like to add?”


Sima Za, “Spend in moderation and do not follow trends blindly!”


Moderator, “That is all for today. A big thank you to all three panelists. Our “Ancient Chinese Pastimes” series has come to an end for now. Next, we will celebrate two traditional festivals. Our programme will be updated accordingly. Thank you for your support!”


Comments: Lady Yang and Sima Za were actual historical figures. However, I invented the character of Mr. Guo as a stand-in for the flower farmers of the Tang dynasty. His image is loosely based on an essay by Liu Zongyuan, “Guo Tuotuo the Farmer”. The essay mentions that Guo Tuotuo is an excellent farmer but does not mention peonies exclusively. The bits about “scraping and shaking the stems” are inspired by the essay.

The prices of the peonies are taken from BaiJuyi’s poem, “Buying Flowers”. In it, he also provides another reference for the prices of the peonies — 25 rolls of fabric. According to estimates, this is roughly equivalent to 50,000 RMB in today’s value.









古人真会玩系列之三:东晋流觞曲水 Ancient Chinese Pastimes 3: Eastern Jin Dynasty – Wine, Poetry and Philosophy

又名: #酒会上的人生终极问题


Having sampled tea prepared meticulously by our Song Dynasty masters, now it’s time to go back further in time and attend a wine-drinking session with the nobility of the East Jin dynasty in the third century A.D.However, let’s not drink it all in one gulp. The East Jin nobles knew just how to create the right kind of atmosphere for their wine-drinking sessions.

把你的高脚杯和芝士拼盘收起来吧。我们今天要去的不是个西式高档party, 而是中国东晋的时期名流们的聚会。这场聚会历史上非常有名,但我先不剧透,待会儿你就自己知晓了。

And it has nothing to do with wine glasses or cheese platters. Today, we will attend an outdoor party that will go down in history as one of the most famous gatherings in Chinese history. That is all I will say — you will find out soon enough.


Now, let us key in the following details into the control panel of our time machine.

Year: 353 A.D, Third Day of the Third Month

Place: Kuaiji, Shanying, Orchid Pavilion

“又是三月三?” 你问。 “上次和唐代小姐姐们出去野餐,也是三月三日。”


“The Third Day of the Third Month again?” You ask. “We had a picnic with some Tang Dynasty ladies on the Third Day of the Third Month too!”

Well, remember what I mentioned last time? This date marked a very important festival in Ancient China. A very long time ago, people would perform ceremonial baths, in hopes of warding off evil and bringing good fortune. (Any excuse just to get a breath of fresh air after holing up at home the entire winter — as anyone who is enduring a Covid lockdown would know)


By the time of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, communal bathing was no longer the norm. Instead, people kept this tradition going by organising excursions and picnics near water sources.

“叮!” 时光机到了。来,戴好你的巾,整理下衣袖,我们出发咯!

今天的天气特别好,四周群山环绕,熙和的暖风迎面吹来,穿过一片茂盛的竹林,前方传来潺潺流水声。只见前头有一条小溪,溪边坐满了四十来人。他们身上穿着都是当代的时尚精品 – 头上裹着窄小的头巾,身上穿着的是宽袍大袖。

So here we are. Put on your head wrap and adjust your sleeves. Now let’s disembark!The weather is simply perfect. Tall mountains surround the area, and a warm breeze blows invitingly. Let us cross this bamboo thicket — do you see the stream ahead? The party has assembled. And look at just how they are fashionably dressed — in loose, flowing robes and tight hair wraps.



Let us exchange greetings our fellow guests — this is Xie An, this is Sun Zhuo, and this is Wang Xizhi…hold your horses. You will get a chance to admire his calligraphy later, I promise.

Now, take a seat and let me explain the rules of the party. You see, we won’t be served wine directly by the servants. See how they are placing cups of wine into the stream? The cups will float downstream. When a cup pauses before you, pick it up and compose a poem. Then drink it up.



But what if poetry isn’t my thing? You see, the Ancient Chinese elites had to know a thing or two about poetry in order to mingle in high society. However, since we are time-travellers with limited knowledge of Classical Chinese, they wouldn’t expect us to compose at their level —let’s just drink a bit more to make up for it.

Uhm, and even if we aren’t writing any poems, I don’t think it is a good idea to waste paper, an expensive commodity, by making paper boats…

这时,谢安转身对王羲之说,“大家都做了那么多诗,你就来给他们的诗写个序吧!” 王羲之礼貌性地推辞不果,便缓缓提起笔,思索片刻,洋洋洒洒地写下这几个字,

Just then, Xie An turned to Wang Xizhi and said, “We have composed a good number of poems today. It’s only fitting that you should write a preface for the poems composed today.” Wang Xizhi picked up his brush, pondered for a moment, and began to write with deft strokes,


“In the ninth year of Yonghe, at the beginning of late Spring…”



“The weather is fine today, and the breezes are pleasant. I look up and admire the expanse of the universe, and cast my gaze downwards at the variety of things in the world…”


放任目光四处游览,感觉心胸开阔不少。 视觉上的,听觉上的娱乐都满足了,真让人快乐呀!

“Our gaze drifts and our minds wander. We take pleasure in the sights and sounds, it is a joy indeed!”


At this point, his thoughts wander off on a philosophical trajectory. Life is short and conditioned to suffering. We enjoy each others’ company — but who knows what the morrow will bring? The philosopher Zhuangzi claimed that death and life is but two aspects of the same phenomena. But how true were his claims?


Wang Xizhi thought of the essays he read. The writers were long gone — yet, the issues that concerned them troubled him too. Times change, but the concerns of mankind were ever the same…

这好好的饮酒作乐,怎么就突然说起生死大事了呢?这还需要说起东晋的时代背景。简单八个字 — 政权更迭,内忧外患。西晋政权因为八王之乱崩塌,游牧民族建立的政权造成极大的威胁,西晋皇室和士族们往江南一带迁移。贵族们尚能觅得一刻安宁,百姓们却无处可躲,只能在烽火中苟且偷生罢了。

Hey, I thought we were supposed to be merry. What’s with that sudden metaphysical bent?

Well, let’s just consider for a moment how chaotic Wang Xizhi’s time period was. The Western Jin dynasty collapsed as a result of internal and external threats. Warlords vied for power, while nomadic tribes gained enough traction to establish new political regimes.

These threats, internal and external, drove the Western Jin ruling class to escape southwards, establishing the Eastern Jin dynasty. The elites enjoyed momentary peace— yet, the awareness of their precarious situation loomed in the back of Wang Xizhi’s mind, even in a joyful setting as this one.

“眼看他起朱楼,眼看他宴宾客,眼看他楼塌了” 这不确定性极大的环境中,务实的儒家思想给不了人们心里的慰藉,人们对于生死问题极大关注,玄学流行于一时。王羲之提出的想法,正是当最热的议题之一。

Verses from the Ming dynasty play, “The Peach Blossom Fan” aptly captures his frame of mind: “I saw him building a mansionI saw him feasting with guestsBut I saw too, how his mansion collapsed”

The uncertainty faced by Wang Xizhi and his contemporaries drove them to rekindle an interest in Daoist thought. Daoism was concerned with questions the ever pragmatic Confucianists were reluctant to consider. The questions raised by Wang Xizhi in his essay were topics hotly debated by his contemporaries.





Is life and death but two faces of the same coin?

If death is inevitable, and if happiness is fleeting, what attitude should we keep?

And how do we find our place in this vast universe, as one among the multitude of things?

这些尖锐的问题,你一时也找不到答案。 它们曾困扰你,但生活琐事极多,你也无暇多想,只能关注眼下能及之事,仿佛这样就能给无常的人生赋予一点次序。

You feel some sympathy for Wang Xizhi. Like him, these questions had troubled you before. However, you have chosen to leave them aside as more pressing matters compete for your attention. Or perhaps, you were trying to install a sense of control as you focus your energy on immediate concerns.

“你们后人看到这篇文章,想必也会被我的话所打动吧?” 王羲之望向我们,问道。

“Perhaps you, our descendants, will be moved by my words.”

Wang Xizhi says to us.

你看着他,笑而不语。 生死大事,你不知。 但你很明确地知道,这场聚会,这篇《兰亭集序》,必能留传百世,绝卓千古。

You meet his gaze and return a smile.

The matters of life and death are beyond comprehension.

But there’s one thing you know for sure —This gathering, thanks to the “Preface of Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavillion” (Lan Ting Ji Xu) will be remembered and talked of for generations to come.


古人真会玩系列之二 – 宋代“咖啡”拉花 Ancient Chinese Pastimes 2: Song Dynasty ‘Latte’ Art


There’s a new cafe in town. Let us check it out!


The cafe, rather peculiarly, is filled with the aroma of tea leaves instead of freshly brewed coffee. But that’s not all – the barista – with his crossed-lapel shirt and headscarf, looks as though he hails from another time and place.


You approach the counter as two whispering women brush past you. They are dressed in loose jackets and long pleated skirts, while their updos were adorned with flowers and accessories.


“Are you time-travellers from the Song dynasty?” You ask, recognising the time period of their garments.

“也许是,又或许,我们只是爱好宋代文化的现代人呢。”茶师小哥哥神秘地说。只见他手握茶匙,拨弄着盏里的茶汤。 他手法娴熟,不经一会儿功夫,乳白色的茶沫上出现了一只小鸟的图样。

“Perhaps we are. Or perhaps, we are just historical re-enactors obsessed with Song dynasty culture.” The barista, or rather, tea master is deliberately vague. He whips a cup of tea with a deft hand. The foam settles; the likeness of a bird emerges.


“That is wonderful!” You gasp. You have always thought of latte art as a modern fad. But tea! The people of the Song Dynasty were really a creative bunch!

“这算什么。你知道吗,五代时有个福全和尚,可厉害了!他能在一碗茶上写一句诗,四碗茶就是一首四言绝句了! [1])对了,这位客官,我们店里今天进了新货,惊蛰时节采摘的福建建安好茶,要不尝尝?”

“This is nothing. There was a certain Buddhist Master Fu Quan of the Five Dynasties who was able to shape tea foam into lines of poetry. People flocked to his temple just to see him. By the way, we have a new batch of tea from Jian-an, Fujian, picked during the ‘jingzhe’ season (March). Would you like to try it?”

你点点头。茶师拿出一个铜板大的小茶饼,用砧椎砸碎,再用茶碾迅速地研磨成粉。接着,他用筛子把茶叶细细筛过几遍,才将茶粉舀入用开水烫过的茶盏中。You nod. The tea master retrieves a block of tea no bigger than a Chinese copper coin, and crushes it with a rolling pin, before grinding it into fine powder. Then, he sieves the tea powder several times until the consistency is even. Only then does he scoops the tea powder into a warmed cup.

光是准备工作,已如此繁琐。习惯了随手将茶叶包扔进杯子的你,却意外地享受这个过程。 你回过神来,只见茶师已将茶粉和少许水分调成膏状。他再次提起执壶,一点一点地将开水注入茶盏中,一边用一个小刷子快速搅动,只见绿色的茶汤中渐渐泛起乳白色的泡沫,煞是好看。

The preparation process is already time-consuming. Nevertheless, you enjoy the novelty of the whole thing, even if tea bags will always be your first choice for convenience.

You emerge from your thoughts to see the tea master mixing the power with a little water to achieve a paste-like consistency. Once again, he lifts the kettle and pours water bit by bit into the teacup while whisking it with a brush. A layer of white foam began to form above the green liquid.

“这是什么?” 你指着“刷子”问。“这是茶筅。”茶师解释。“这注水和击拂要来回七次,每次力度和方式都要看着情况变化,不可过于大力或无力,否则这茶汤上的泡沫不能持久,一下子就散开了。” [2]

“What is this?” you point at the ‘brush’.”That is a tea-whisk” The tea master explains. “This process of whisking and adding hot water has to be repeated seven times. The tea has to be whisked with varying force, depending on the situation. If the force isn’t right, the foam will thin out after a while.”


Putting aside his whisk, the tea master points at the teacup, “You see.” A fluffy and thick layer of foam sits on the surface of the tea. The foam parted at places to reveal the green liquid underneath. Together, they looked just like a landscape painting.


You marvel at the tea master’s handiwork. The Song dynasty tea masters were such a creative bunch!”Would you like some snacks to go with your tea?” The tea master asks. “We have steamed buns, glazed papaya, spiral-shaped pastries…”

“不了,我品这一碗茶就好了。” 你付了钱,找了个靠窗的角落坐下。细细啜饮,顿时茶香满溢,苦涩中带着泡沫般的轻盈,一时神清气爽。你眯着眼睛,倚靠在软垫上,午后一点斜阳正从落地窗透进,时间似乎在那刹那间,静止了。

“No thanks, I will just enjoy my cup of tea.” You pay the tea master and look for a nice sunny spot next to a window. You close your eyes slightly and take a sip. At once, the invigorating smell of tea lifts your spirits. You let your lids drop as you lounge on the couch, enjoying your moment of stillness.

恍惚中,你突然想起,刚才忘记拍照发朋友圈了。“临风一啜心自省,此意莫与他人传” [4] 脑海中忽然飘出这句话。

It was then when you realised — you forgot to post on social media.

你释怀了。不分享也罢 — 毕竟这盏茶的滋味,这慵懒的时光,只属于自己,无法言传。

It didn’t matter anyway. There are moments in life that can could not be shared in entirety. It belonged only to yourself, to be experienced and to be lived out fully, in this present moment.


[2]: 宋徽宗 《大观茶论》

[3]: 《荈茗录》

[4]: (元)洪希文《煮土茶歌》


古人真会玩系列之一:唐代裙幄宴 Ancient Chinese Pastimes 1: Tang dynasty Ladies’ Picnic



Chinese New Year is over. Spring has come. And the lovely ladies of the Tang dynasty are determined to make the most of this long awaited day.

唐朝人最喜欢在上巳节出门玩,而且根据传统,还要找个靠水的地方,欣赏春色。 这冬天闷在家里久了,怎样都要趁着大好春天出门透透气。

“What festival is this?” You, a 21st century time traveller, asks. It is the third day of the third month (of the lunar calendar), and it was a big deal for the ancient Chinese. Centuries ago, it was customary to undergo a ritual cleansing bath , but our Tang dynasty ladies no longer practiced public swimming. Rather, they put on their finest, packed their picnic boxes, and sought out a nice riverbank to make the most of the festival.


However, even the open-minded Tang dynasty folks considered it unseemly for highborn young ladies to picnic in public. So the ladies, not wanting to miss out on the fun, draped their skirts on poles and branches, effectively forming a makeshift screen. Then they would feast in privacy, safe from prying eyes. (On a side note, there’s a Tang dynasty mural of a group of men feasting in public while people gathered to watch…I suppose our ladies wouldn’t have appreciated being stared at while digging into their packed lunches!)


据《开元天宝遗事》记载,“长安士女游春野步,遇名花则设席藉草,以红裙递相插挂,以为宴幄。其奢逸如此也”。 虽然典籍里写的是“红裙”,但我已将人物色调设定为暖色,为了突出人物,就将背景的裙子涂成冷色调。

We know of these activities thanks to a book “Tales from Kai-Yuan and Tian-Bao Regime”. (a.k.a a historical/novella/gossip column about the period spanning 713-756 A.D.) I have taken liberties with the colours of the skirts here, depicting them as blue-green instead of the red described in the book.


So what did our ladies pack? The book gives no clue (apart from the fact that feasting was involved), so I’ve drawn some easy-to-pack baked goods, using some ancient pastry samples excavated from the Astana tombs in Xinjiang.

说起唐代的点心呢,和我们现代名媛们崇尚的法式下午茶不太一样, 黄油、砂糖这种东西太名贵,大部分人都吃不上。但唐朝吃货们发展出一套自己的方法,他们很喜欢吃烤饼和煎饼,有些上面撒有芝麻,有些里面包着馅料。而且根据出土的文物,这些面饼有些带着用模具印出样纹,有些这被扭成各式各样的形状,视觉上有点像德国的pretzels。(这里多加一个冷知识点:唐代人称一切面食食品为“饼”,所以我们现代认知中的面条、饺子、馒头、包子,统统称为“饼”)

Butter and refined sugar were expensive in the Tang dynasty. So the Tang dynasty folks had to improvise — and the result was an astonishing variety of roasted, steamed and deep-fried wheat-based pastry. (Now ‘pasty’ or ‘bing’, is a very generic term for anything made with wheat flour).

Some were stuffed with a variety of fillings, while others were topped with sesame seeds. And the Tang dynasty bakers took great care to make them aesthetically pleasing too. The excavated pastries from the Astana tombs come in various interesting forms, some twisted into pretzel-like shapes, and others pressed with decorative patterns.


Of course, there’s quite a distance between Xinjiang and Chang’an, so there may have been regional variations. And the Chang’an ladies did not necessary have pastries during their picnics. It is just imagination on my part.


The people of the Tang dynasty also loved fruits. They had a habit of dipping cherries into cane syrup and refined cream. As the poet Bai Juyi describes it, the end result is both sweet and sour. I’ve taken another artistic liberty here — cherries were only in season at the end of spring, and the ladies enjoying their early spring excursion would not have feasted on it. As a modern person who has no concept of seasonal fruits, (apart from the durian), I beg pardon for this mistake.


The Tang dynasty folks also enjoyed a range of desserts with poetical names. Let me attempt to translate a few – “Scarlet Consort”, “Crystal Dragon and Phoenix Cake”, “Jade Dew Ball”. Here I’ve included the “Consort Pastry” (the white things with red dots) as featured on the series “A Bite of China”. It is said to have originated from the Tang court cuisine, but truth to be told, we have no idea if the pastries actually looked like this, or if they tasted the same as their modern counterpart.


So I guess Tang dynasty food culture is enough to satisfy the modern foodie, despite the lack of chillies, potatoes, tomatoes and whatnot. Provided, of course, you are financially able to splurge on these delicacies! #古人真会玩#裙幄宴#唐代风俗#历史#插画#AncientPastimes#xlnyeong

How Mulan’s Image Evolved Throughout Chinese History

Let us talk about the latest Mulan movie.

And no, I am not going to talk about how ridiculous the movie is. How the ancestral phoenix has been compared to a kite, the Rourans to the Dothrakis, the emperor to Fu Manchu and our very heroine Fa Mulan to a mutant superhero who belongs to Professor X’s Institute (of Marvel fame) instead of to, I don’t know, a fantasyland called ancient China. Except, of course, that the so-called fantasyland reeks badly of last-century Orientalism mingled with a whiff of the Salem witch trials.

And I am not going to talk about how awkward the costumes look. How the character development arc is basically unneeded when you enter the scene with superpowers. How a mute phoenix represents Chinese ancestral beliefs no better than a talking dragon. How loose flowing hair with beach waves is not a mark of ancient Chinese femininity. Or how qi, a life-force permeating the entire universe, is reduced to some gendered thing just so Disney could spin a feminist tale out of it.

Instead, let us talk about something that is less controversial. About the fact that Mulan has a sword with the words ‘Loyal, Brave, True’ on one face and ‘Filial’ on the reverse. That, along with Christina Aguilera’s song of the same title, is Disney’s attempt at a closer representation of the original ballad.

Except that it is not.

Now is the time to look at the ballad itself. It starts with a scene of Mulan — not skidding on roof tiles before her aghast neighbours — seated idle at her loom. She sighs heavily. Dad has been called to serve in the army. There’s no adult male to take his place.

Alright then, I’ll go.

The ballad is as simple as that. There’s no grand declarations of filial piety. No sentiments of serving king and country. Just an ordinary girl faced with an impossible task. A family crisis, calling for action. Her father was in no state to serve — death is a foregone conclusion. And without the breadwinner, how would her family survive?

The poem proceeds with an almost disinterest in the machinations of war. Mulan bids her parents farewell. She sets up camp by the Yellow River. The river gushes in her ear. She hears not the calls of her parents. She is far, far away from home.

The troops cover a great distance. Their armour glint in the cold winter’s light. Ten years pass in a flash. Some experienced generals die. Some survive.

Mulan is one of the lucky ones.

She stands before the Khan. He dishes out rewards for his soldiers. Positions at court? Military titles?

No. Give me a fast camel. I want to go home.

At the city gates, dad and mom wait. They have aged. They lean on each other for support. Younger brother has grown up. Elder sister is as lovely as ever.

It is so good to be home. One might imagine Mulan’s sigh of relief as she puts on her civilian clothes. It is over. Peace has been restored — for goodness knows how long.

In fact, Mulan’s era was one of the most tumultuous in Chinese history. Wars were continually fought. Against the Rouran in the north, against the ethnic Han regimes in the south. Territories lost and reclaimed. Boundaries reestablished. Kingdoms rise and fall. Civilisations wiped out forever from existence.

And in the midst of it, there were just a group of women, desperately trying to survive.

They belonged to the upper classes. Had times been good, they would be cloistered in their rooms, secluded from the world, secure in their wealth and their place in society. They may have counselled their sons. Do some embroidery. Stroll around gardens and recite poetry. The men of the family would have protected them from harm. Or at least, they might have proceeded as Confucius would have envisioned.

Confucius envisioned a world in which everyone knew their place. That everyone would be filial to their parents at home and loyal to their superiors abroad. A society in which filial piety and loyalty, dual images of each other, would work together in some mysterious harmony to guarantee order and stability.

Except that the Han dynasty and its Confucianist convictions had long been overthrown. And in times of chaos, women had to do what they had to do.
Avenge their father while their male relatives sat in despair? Check.Train a retinue of maidservants for self-defense? Check. Break through enemy lines to save a town from starvation? Check.

It was during these times when we hear such stories of remarkable women who were skilled in martial arts, and actually used their talents for good. The stories all ran along a similar thread. A crisis has struck. The men of the family were either absent or weak. Some woman takes matters into her own hands. She crosses moral boundaries. Ultimately, she achieves victory, and is forgiven for whatever transgression committed.

Mulan’s story may seem one-of-a-kind when read in isolation. However, when seen in this light, against the multitude of stories featuring women and their attempts at survival, we see a common thread. And we come to realise that it is very much a product of the times. That no story is possible in a vacuum. Historical and material conditions have to come together to make a story possible. And in a way, Mulan, if she existed at all, is one of the many women who temporarily took the place of men to defend themselves and their family. It does not make her story any less exceptional. Rather, it gives us context, and we can understand Mulan’s motivations better yet.

So how did Mulan’s story become one of filial piety and loyalty?

Let us fast forward to the middle of the Tang Dynasty. The empire has been unified. The mighty Tang stretches deep into the West while firming its grip over China proper. Each year, the Silk Road brings in foreign traders and a vibrant, international culture.

Under this grand facade, things were coming apart. The An Lushan rebellion greatly weakened the empire’s might. An emperor was reinstated, but regional warlords still held power. How might a declining kingdom recall loyalty among its former subjects?

Now, there was a certain Wei Yuanfu, court official, loyal subject to the old Tang emperors. The shifting political climate would not have escaped his keen eyes. And, perhaps coincidentally, he penned a poem about Mulan.

It is an unremarkable piece of work in the rich repository that was Tang poetry. It neither had literary merit nor was it very novel. It reads very much like a rephrase of Mulan’s original ballad, except for the four concluding lines.
“Could there be officials/With a heart like Mulan’s/Both filial and loyal/Deserving of everlasting fame”

We know that Mulan had been revered as some semi-deity by the common people of Tang Dynasty. A temple was dedicated to her. It may have been a tourist hotspot of sorts. The famed poet Du Mu was known to have visited, and commemorated his trip with a dedication to Mulan. Still, it was the first time, at least in written history, that anyone had made the dual themes of filial piety and loyalty from Mulan’s story explicit.

Now, as it must be reminded, Mulan’s poem never framed her enlistment as an act of filial piety. And if her actions could be somehow construed as a filial self-sacrifice, it would take a leap of imagination to infer her loyalty to her sovereign. If anything, it was more like a by-product of her actions, rather than a motivation for her enlistment.

Casting that aside, Wei Yuanfu’s claim must have made so much sense to the Tang Dynasty literati. Of course Mulan was both filial and loyal. Wasn’t this something that our very own emperor Tang Xuanzong recommended in his commentary of the “Book of Filial Piety”? Convert your filial piety to your father into loyalty for your sovereign. And oh, most conveniently, loyalty should always come before filial piety.

Tang Xuanzong’s admonishments and Wei Yuanfu’s burning loyalty did little to save the Tang Dynasty from its inevitable demise. China was plunged once again into chaos, but not for long. In a matter of half a century, the Chinese found a new master in the Song emperors, and all was well again. For the time being.

The Song loved Mulan. They unquestioningly accepted the Tang dynasty’s designation of her as some figurehead of the filial piety-loyalty duality (that’s quite a mouthful, but I am sticking with it). And Mulan was made more popular than ever, thanks to development of moveable type printing. Which meant stories about heroes and heroines of yore could be circulated among the masses. And at the same time, literature became secularised, and stories like Mulan’s could be enjoyed by all.

And the people needed it. The Song Dynasty flourished for over a century, before a humiliating invasion by the Jin. The emperor and his dad were taken hostage, a sizeable chunk of the territory lost, and the elites migrated to the south. As time passed, and as generals fought in futility to regain lost lands, the people began to turn to another mode of solace. Stories in which brave heroes and heroines fought to defend their homeland. Mulan was one of them. She was worshipped, and revered, to the extent that no one quite thought to question certain glaring gaps in her story.

Where did she learn how to fight?
How did she conceal her identity for so long?
How did her parents feel about her leaving?

It was a century later when the Ming dynasty came along. Mulan had become a staple figure in Chinese imagination. But the Ming playwrights and novel writers were scratching their heads over the blank pages they had to fill. The original ballad gave hardly any details about these questions at all. Sure, it made for a very succinct read, very appropriate for a poem. But those moviegoers and novel readers had to be filled in with more details. They wanted to see some good action, some suspense. Perhaps a bit of humour, thrown in here and there.

In other words, the perfect goddess Mulan of filial piety-loyalty fame had to be pulled down from her pedestal. To be reworked, infused with flesh and blood, emotions, and very human concerns. She had to be made relatable in a way that would meet the expectations of her time. For example, her feet. Ming dynasty women had bound feet. As historically inaccurate as it was, a Ming dynasty audience could not imagine a time when women ran freely on unbounded feet.

So the playwright (among other things) Xu Wei gave her a pair of bound feet (which she unbounded), an opportunity to declare her purity (another fixation of Ming dynasty minds), and a heroic scene in which she captured the leader of the enemy alive. And not to mention, the perfect match to complete her story in a very satisfactory manner.

Xu Wei’s retelling caught on. And from then onwards, every single retelling of Mulan twisted her story in ways fan fiction authors would be familiar with. One story had her become sworn sisters with a fellow female warrior. In another, Mulan had a woman fall in love with her. (The woman later became Mulan’s co-wife).

In a number of retellings, Mulan’s relationship with her parents are explored. They protest, weep, beg and faint as they deal with the multitude of emotions that arise upon hearing of Mulan’s decision. It is very much unlike the stoicism implied by the ballad. Then again, given the ballad’s brevity, we cannot really know.

Now, the strong, weapon-bearing, family-protecting women embodied in Mulan’s ballad were a thing of the past. Apart from the occasional female warrior, many women would expect to spend their lives within the confines of their homes. But some women of the Ming and Qing dynasty had a new weapon — the pen. Female literacy was at an all-time high in the Qing dynasty. Over 3000 women had works published in their name — ten times the number in all the previous dynasties added up together. Their influence was such that a new genre catering to women writers and readers was born. It was a mixture of lyrical and prosaic form, and they became a medium in which women gave voice to their inner thoughts.

Mulan inspired some of these works. A recurring theme features women who’d cross dress out of desperation, but ends up with public recognition. And unlike the Mulan who tosses away her accolades to return to the private sphere, these new ‘Mulans’ do not give up their hard-won recognition so easily.

Perhaps these character archetypes were a foil for the hidden ambitions of these talented writers.

If I were given the chance, if I were a man, no — if I could dress and look and act like one, perhaps I could make something of myself.

Perhaps I could ace the imperial exams. Perhaps I could shine in public service.

But I am a woman, and a woman cannot make something of herself. She has to stay at home and mind the in-laws — but she can write.

Maybe someday things will change.

Maybe some day my granddaughter will pick this story up and see the desire written between the lines.

Perhaps she will go out there and prove herself.

Perhaps, she will no longer have to dress like a man.

现代人读《围城》: 他人的境遇,我们的焦虑



X同学创业开个公司,办得风生水起; Y同学升职加薪,婚姻幸福美满;  而自己不过是个小职员,每天唯唯诺诺,回家还要受伴侣一顿气。


“两年前,不,一年前跟她完全是平等的。现在呢,她高高在上,跟自己的地位简直是云泥之别。” 这是《围城》主角方鸿渐见了旧情人苏小姐后的心里独白,戳痛了多少读者的心。《围城》由民国学者钱钟书所著,以普通人方鸿渐的一生,叙述一个人如何从一个天之骄子,成为一位庸碌的普通人,也借着方鸿渐的际遇,顺带把当时的“上流社会”和“大师“们奚落一番,人谓是民国版的《儒林外史》。









但在围城的世界里,发挥优势是又意味着对现实的妥协。读《围城》的人也许会有种感触——如果鸿渐接受了家境优渥的苏小姐,或者低声下气地接受岳父的安排,人生会否过得好一些? 我能想象的是,他会混得不错,但他不会开心。因为利益而攀结的关系、结下的婚姻,始终包含着妥协和无奈。从苏小姐羞辱鸿渐夫妇一幕来看,方苏二人的婚姻终究不会是一个平等关系。鸿渐将会忍声吞气,任由苏小姐在他们的婚姻里称霸。

鸿渐不至于有“不为五斗米折腰”的骨气,但他起码保持了他的个性。他虽蠢,却不坏。旁人摆出的一副阿谀奉承,自我膨胀的模样,他身上没有,可以说是书中性情最真的一个角色了。这种角色,却注定在书中的时代背景里,渐渐埋没,庸碌一生。反观书中形形色色的”成功人士”,靠献媚、欺诈上位,哪怕肚子里装满着败絮, 还能理直气壮,时间一久,角色就演入了骨子里,成了自己人格的一部分。比起这类人,鸿渐看起来可爱多了。






Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Who Needs Qu Yuan?

The Double Fifth or Duan Wu festival, which falls on this very day, is celebrated as a commemoration of the poet Qu Yuan who was said to have drowned himself after his hopes for the Chu nation were dashed by ineffective rulers. The custom of eating rice dumplings and dragon boat racing is associated with efforts by villagers to retrieve his body. His suicide is conventionally celebrated as a self-sacrificial act stemming from patriotism, instead of cowardice triggered by thwarted political ambitions. While this version of events is taught as an unquestionable fact in schools, further research suggests a more nuanced version of the truth.

Was there really a person named Qu Yuan? An extensive biography of Qu Yuan is to be sought in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, though his existence is cast into doubt by several modern scholars such as Hu Shi. Even Qu Yuan’s exact role in court is highly disputed. While mainstream, politically-correct biographies of Qu Yuan portray him as a prominent and highly respected nobleman, by some accounts he is no more than a court jester or liberated slave. [1] Whoever the real Qu Yuan was and whether he existed is a matter of dispute. Even so, he strikes an impressive figure in the imaginings of later writers, first as a sympathetic figure and disgraced scholar, now as a patriotic revolutionary whose love for equality extended to the common people.

The story of Qu Yuan is told as such. Once a trusted advisor and favourite at court, Qu Yuan was banished from court after falling victim to baseless slander and political intrigue. Things went steeply downhill after his exile; first, the king of Chu became a political prisoner of Qin and died in captivity. He was succeeded by his son, who also refused to pay heed to Qu Yuan’s advice. In despair, Qu Yuan plunged to his death.

A Political Allegory
We owe much of our knowledge of Qu Yuan to Sima Qian. Sima Qian experienced his own share of tribulations as a court official to the Emperor Wu of Han. His father was the court historian, a position which Sima Qian was to take up later in life. As a young man, Sima Qian travelled extensively, his travels encompassing historical landmarks including the Miluo River where Qu Yuan had committed suicide. He returned to take up a succession of positions at court. One of his most important projects is the compilation of the histories, a massive project his father earnestly bade him take up. This project would later be known to the world as the Records of the Grand Historian, in which our earliest written record of Qu Yuan is to be found.

Sima Qian enjoyed a fairly successful career until the Li Ling affair erupted. His decision to defend Li Ling, general of a failed expedition, was not well-received by the emperor. Sima Qian evaded his death sentence by opting for castration—a humiliation he endured for the sake of the Records. His thoughts were expressed most eloquently in a letter to his friend, aptly named, “Letter to Ren An”. In this letter, he explains his reasons for choosing life over death despite suffering from humiliation and injustice—then thought of as unbecoming of a gentleman scholar[2]. In his own poignant words, he writes,

“Even slaves and servant maids are able to summon the resolve (to commit suicide). Why not I? I live in shame, in the filth of captivity, for I fear my personal thoughts will never be spoken, my death unremarkable, and my writings never be known to the world.” [3]

Sima Qian references historical figures extensively. Prominent men, he argued, were sentenced to harsh punishments, of which they had no control over. Yet it was those who rose above their situation who was remembered by later generations. Qu Yuan appears in the list of eminent persons. He is to be accorded his own entry in the completed historical volume. Sima Qian drew heavily on comparisons between himself and Qu Yuan, twice in the autobiographical preface, and in his epilogue to the combined biography of Qu Yuan and Jia Yi, he writes,

“When I first read Li Sao, the ‘Heavenly Questions’, the ‘Summons of the Soul’, I grieved for the noble spirit revealed in them. Later, when I visited Changsha and saw the spot where Qu Yuan drowned himself, I wept to think what manner of man he was.” [4]

It is even speculated that Sima Qian deliberately ‘edited’ facts to fit what was otherwise a hocus-pocus of sources into a narrative framework which was a thinly veiled disguise of his personal grievances. [5] He was certainly not the first nor the last to do so. Jia Yi, whose biography was combined with that of Qu Yuan’s in the Annals, wrote “A Eulogy to Qu Yuan” on his banishment to Changsha. He sympathised heavily with Qu Yuan while questioning his suicide,

“Why cherish this country, when you could have served another?”

The same view was echoed by Sima Qian, who wondered why didn’t Qu Yuan seek some opportunity or other in neighbouring countries, given his skill set which, in modern terms, would make him extremely employable. [6]

What is clear is how Qu Yuan served as a reference, a mirror of sorts which disappointed Chinese intellectuals could gaze into and see themselves reflected. His blamelessness and his integrity form an allusion through which disfavoured intellectuals could safely voice their disenchantment, protest their innocence, and criticise the government. However, this did not stop them from criticising Qu Yuan’s decision to take his life or question his manner of handling things. [7]

In fact, Qu Yuan’s form of ‘patriotism’ is a product of his times, a combination of the unique sociopolitical situation of the Chu nation which sought to distinguish itself from its Northern Chinese brethren , and his social status as a gentleman scholar, or ‘shi’ (士), a circumstance which demanded his full loyalty be directed towards a ‘zhi ji’ (知己, or ‘a person who appreciated his worth’. [8] It is no accident nor literary whim that Qu Yuan chose to cast himself as a female persona in his poems, for the relationship between a gentleman scholar and his lord was akin to the relationship between a husband and wife. This sentiment is echoed by Sima Qian in his letter to Ren An, in which he writes, “A gentleman will do his utmost for one who appreciates him, just as a woman adorns herself for one who takes delights in her.” [9]

The People’s Poet
Interpretations of Qu Yuan shifted over generations in accordance with the zeitgeist of the times. While the Han attempted to interpret him through the lens of Confucianist ideals, the Tang complained about his mode of verse (and, in a very Confucian way, linked it with the deterioration of propriety)[10], and the Song were inclined to base their interpretations against a historical framework. [11]

In recent times, Qu Yuan was given a new identity by Maoist scholars and writers as a ‘people’s poet’ whose sphere of concern extends to the common people. One of the most notable examples is that of Guo Moruo’s play “Qu Yuan” in which Qu Yuan speaks in the vernacular, addresses his student and servant girl as social equals, and espouses concepts familiar to a revolutionary, Maoist audience but would have been utterly alien to his contemporaries. His reference to an abstract idea of a unified ‘China’, his populist-oriented views on literature, and his overarching concern for the common folk occur multiple times in the play, in which his personal loyalty to the King of Chu is downplayed. By doing so Guo Moruo draws heavily upon elements from antiquity, albeit fashioning them into a populist rallying cry for social change. [12]

This view is succinctly expressed in an opening line from a book aimed at high-school students, which reads, ‘Qu Yuan is the first great patriotic poet in the history of our country’s literature’. It is not difficult to isolate populist leanings from the body of works associated with Qu Yuan. In “Li Sao”, the line “哀民生之多艰” is a popular candidate for humanistic reworkings, though the very word “民” (min: people, populace) is laced with arguably derogatory meanings, more closely representing the English word “commoner” than “people” in general. [13]

The essay “Fisherman” is also another notable example; Qu Yuan’s conversation with a fisherman implies a fairly equal relationship between members of two disparate social classes. This sentiment makes it difficult to challenge long-established facts such as the authorship of the “Nine Songs” or other works related to Qu Yuan. Even the existence of Qu Yuan himself, though disputed by Hu Shi, is accepted unquestionably by Guo Moruo and consequently, firmly rooted in the collective consciousness of the people.

It is hardly surprising then, that Qu Yuan’s link with the Double Fifth (or ‘Duan Wu’ ) festival became solidly established as a fact, despite evidence pointing to the contrary. In fact, the festival precedes Qu Yuan as a form of animist worship, though the original significance of the rites has been lost in the mists of time. In this retelling, existing customs of dragon boat races and rice dumplings are explained in relation to Qu Yuan’s suicide and the futile attempts by commoners to retrieve his body. A new dimension is added to the two-way relationship between Qu Yuan and his lord, in which the mass mobilisation of the people reflects their collective grief.

The association of a native festival with an ideological hero is nothing new. Wu Zixu of the Wu Nation, who met a grisly death at the hands of the king Fu Cha, preceded Qu Yuan both historically and in cultural consciousness as the celebrated figure of the festival. [14] Even Wen Yiduo, writer and advocate of Qu Yuan’s ‘people’s poet’ persona, is ready to admit that the Double Fifth festival probably has nothing much to do with Qu Yuan, though he is quick to add that it was a good lie to keep, for it is a lesson in living and dying nobly. [15]


To this day Qu Yuan remains vivid in the minds of the Chinese. Every festival is an occasion for remembrance, as the younger generation is taught Qu Yuan’s patriotism. To whom or what this patriotism is directed to is seldom questioned. In Chinese diasporic communities, this paradox is particularly prevalent, given that the object of their (or should I say our?) patriotism is not the same as their Chinese counterparts, just as Qu Yuan’s loyalty to the nation of Chu is not directly equivalent to an all-encompassing loyalty to China as entailed by our modern geopolitical understanding. The memory of Qu Yuan is one of familiarity mixed with a sense of distance and vagueness, like a whiff of incense from a time and land long lost to us.

This sentiment is encapsulated in a poem:

Dragon boats, we only know to fold paper vessels.
Rice dumplings, no more than a tasty meal
Qu Yuan is an illustration,
Tousled beard, head lifted,
He stands by the river.
We study our teacher’s expression.
No holidays for us. Everything is as usual.


History churns, to the south it dashes.
Where it breaks into bubbles
In the Chinese textbooks of ASEAN nations
Fragmented bits and pieces.

” [16]

Note: I realise the title I have chosen requires a stronger assertion than the ones I am able to give in this article. After some deliberation I have decided to keep it. For one, it is more clickbait catchy. Also, I see it as an invitation to my readers to draw conclusions for themselves.

[1] This view is held by scholars such as Sun Qidian and Wen Yiduo.

[2]: In Sima Qian’s time it was considered noble for gentleman scholars to “resolve matters for themselves”, i.e. commit suicide, when accused of a crime. To opt for castration over voluntary death was considered a disgrace which excluded Sima Qian as a member of the scholarly class.

[3] Translations mine.

[4] Translated by David Hawkes.

[5] Hawkes, David. 2011. The Songs Of The South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology Of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets. 2nd ed. The Penguin Group, 74-76.

[6] As mentioned before, the Chu nation’s unique situation prevents Qu Yuan from abandoning his cultural identity and affiliation with his lord and country and adopt Confucius’ mode of travelling around and seeking out someone who would hire him.

[7] Cheng, Sihe. 2004. Qu yuan kun jing yu zhong guo shi ren de jing shen nan ti [Qu Yuan’s predicament and the spiritual problem of Chinese intellectuals]

[8] Guo, Gang. 2015. Qu yuan de ai guo qing huai [Qu Yuan’s patriotic sentiments]. ke cheng jiao yu yan jiu (zhong) 屈原的爱国情怀

[9] Translated by Stephen Durrant

[10] Cheng, Sihe. 2004. Qu yuan kun jing yu zhong guo shi ren de jing shen nan ti [Qu Yuan’s predicament and the spiritual problem of Chinese intellectuals] 屈原困境与中国士人的精神难题

[11] Zikpi, Monica E M. “Revolution and Continuity in Guo Moruo’s Representations of Qu Yuan.” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 36 (2014): 175-200. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43490204.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawkes, David. p.91-93

[14] Martin Svensson, as cited in Zikpi, 2014.

[15] Wen, Yiduo. Duan wu jie de li shi jiao yu [Historical lessons of the Double Fifth festival] 端午节的历史教育

[16] Wen, Renping. 2015. Qu yuan zai ya xi an [Qu Yuan in ASEAN] 屈原在亚细安.

Debunking the Nien Myth

There’s a tale told so often in conjunction with Chinese New Year to explain the origins of various traditions, namely the wearing of red colours and the lighting of firecrackers. As the story goes, a scary monster, known as the ‘Nien’ (the Chinese word for ‘year’) appears every year to terrorise innocent villagers. It is invincible to all save for firecrackers and red clothing. That is why the Chinese dress up in red and burn firecrackers during Chinese New Year.

No one actually takes this literally as far as I know. And I don’t aim to debunk this myth along the lines of, “Nope, the Nien never existed.” My aim, rather, is to argue that the Nien myth was not as pervasive as imagined, that is–it did not date back as far as we often imagine it to be. No records are to be found of this myth in any classical sources, not “The Classics of Seas and Mountains”–a semi-mythical book that records, as you’ve guessed it, the geography of China (as the Ancient Chinese saw it) and its many strange inhabitants. Not “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”–essentially a compilation of local Chinese myths and ghost stories.

I’d go a step further and say that the Nien myth was made up in the past century or so, but the lack of written records does not permit me to make this statement. No one really knows if the Nien was a local folklore that never made it into written form, if written records had been destroyed, or if it was merely a tale spun in recent years.

The custom of releasing fire-crackers dates a long way back. An early record, written in the Northern and Southern dynasties, (420 to 589 A.D.) describes the custom of releasing firecrackers on the dawn of the new year to frighten mountain spirits. The mountain spirit is said to be shaped like a coma, hops around on one leg, and appears in the dark of night to terrorise humans.

This is likely the predecessor of the Nien mythology. However, most contemporary depictions of the Nien feature it as a four-legged beast with a magnificent mane and single horn–much like a hybrid between a lion and a unicorn. In fact, it resembles the lion used in southern lion dances.

So when was the myth of the Nien popularised? The earliest record I’m able to find online is this article in a Republican-era newspaper dating from 1939. The description is not too different from contemporary versions; though it is mentioned in the article that the humans used food to distract the Nien’s attention–a statement not commonly found in retellings of the tale. And the Nien eventually went extinct, because it failed to produce sufficient little Niens to keep the species going. (In some retellings, the Nien was captured by a celestial being to be used as a mode of transport.)

At any rate, the Nien myth is a tale of man against nature. It is a tale of resilience, of outsmarting the worst of threats–wild beasts and harsh winters, diminishing food supplies and mysterious illnesses. And as society progresses, the threat to survival has long been forgotten. All that remains is a vague tale, a faint remembrance of struggle, and an eventual triumph against all odds.

“Holy Men, Holy Women” by Dina Zaman Review

It is too easy to think of religion as a homogeneous entity, summarisable by a holy book, a set of rules, and an iconic figurehead instantly recognizable from miles away, so that people can point and say, “That’s ___. He’s (it always has to be a he), the founder of ___ism.

Anyone who has thought hard about religion and its many manifestations in various cultural settings would recognize this as an oversimplification of a sprawling web of intricacies and shibboleths. Religion, as it is practiced in the real world, consists of diverging interpretations, assimilation with local cultural beliefs, and idiosyncratic additions injected by neo-religious figureheads mingling their own worldviews into the otherwise two-dimensional set of beliefs.

And though followers of various sects may decry their counterpart’s beliefs as plain wrong, the practices remain very real for those who live and breathe them, who believe in them with the same conviction as one might believe that the Earth is round. (Unless you are a Flat-Earther)

This is pretty much what Dina Zaman is aiming to get at. She attempts to showcase the religious beliefs and practices of Malaysians in their natural setting. Variety is present, and presented honestly, not just between multiple religions, but within a single one.

So we are introduced, within Islam itself, to a group of individuals differing widely in the way they practice their religion. From the ultra-conservative, almost-cultish religious community, to the hijab-wearing agnostic, readers are regaled with a palate of interesting anecdotes which captures the diversity of practices by ordinary Malaysians.

But anecdotes they remain, save for a few exceptions. Make no mistake–Ms. Zaman’s writing is lucid and colorful, peppered with honest lines where the personality of the author and her subjects shine through. However, some of the tales are not written to their fullest extent. Take the hijabi-wearing agnostic as an example. We know she exists, and that she is not the only one. We know she chose to conceal their agnosticism behind the garments of a religious person. We are given a short overview of her background. But there’s about all. A lot is left to the reader’s imagination–we can only imagine her life story, how she came to arrive at this conviction, (aided by some brief passages of the author), and the inner conflict she must have felt between her inner thoughts and her outward show of piety. The reader walks away with this partial picture, somewhat wiser but not too much.

Perhaps I was wrong to expect so much of a book that is a collection of column articles. Perhaps the author never meant her work to be an NYT-esque in-depth study of the inner lives of her subjects. And to the author’s credit, there are a couple of more detailed pieces in the book itself. That said, I wish there were more of every interviewee’s story, for a brief impression invites hasty judgments, inevitably pulling the reader into the “you’re wrong, I’m right” kind of thinking. Which, I believe, is the exact opposite of what the author intends to gain by sharing these stories.

Another thing: expect this book to be more heavily centered on Islamic practices, and less on other religions. For one, the author’s identity as a Muslim prevents her from actively participating in other religious services. This is not a fault of hers–it is rather the fear of censure, by the groups she expressed an interest in, that prevented her from venturing further. It is a feature of Malaysian society which I will not elaborate further. Still, I admire her efforts to break through the barrier and speak the unspoken.

All in all, I would recommend this as an easy piece of reading if you have some time to kill, and want to broaden your mind a little. Take note: it is best to approach this, as with other works, with an open and unjudgemental mind. To acknowledge the practices of others does not undermine your own belief system; rather, it is a celebration of human diversity, a reminder of how far we have come, and how much farther we may go.