Chinasage Diary

Your daily snippet of information about China. Our diary has a daily fact, proverb and a reminder of upcoming festivals and holidays in China.
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Fri 18th Sep

Eunuch Explorer

Like many Imperial servants the great Ming explorer 'Zheng He' was a eunuch, not only that he was a Muslim too. He commanded the vast navy that went on a voyage of exploration in 1413-33 as far as Madagascar and Mecca.
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On this day

1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria 1931 (89 years ago)
Thu 17th Sep

Pears as gifts

The Chinese have used symbolism for many centuries. Particular objects in a painting have a symbolic meaning, for example a pine tree symbolizes long life. When giving gifts it is important to avoid things with an unfortunate meaning. Pears are a case in point, as 'li' sounds the same as 'li' separate and divorce. Umbrellas, clocks and belts are similarly problematic.
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Wed 16th Sep

Blank mahjong tiles

Many sets of Mahjong contain four completely blank tiles. This is intentional, they are white dragon tiles. There are three types of dragon in Mahjong: red, green and white. Some sets use an empty frame rather than leaving the tile blank. Sets of dragon tiles score more highly than other tiles.
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On this day

1859 Yuan Shikai born 1859 (161 years ago)
Tue 15th Sep

Crouching tiger, Hidden dragon

The popular film 'Crouching tiger, hidden dragon' tells the tale of martial art prowess in the 19th century. The title is a popular proverb Cáng lóng wò hǔ meaning there are people of great talent amongst us. The term 'hidden dragon' is also used in Feng Shui to describe the topology of hills that is very auspicious and a great place to build a city - Nanjing is such a city. In Feng Shui there are four guardians - the Green Dragon is on the left while the White Tiger is on the right.
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On this day

1942 Wen Jiabao born 1942 (78 years ago)
Mon 14th Sep

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an important regional grouping of nations in East Asia. China is the lead nation, the nations are pledged to respect each other's sovereignty and co-operate on regional issues. It is possible it will develop like NATO into a military alliance.
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On this day

1368 Mongol dynasty ended 1368 (652 years ago)
1998 Yang Shangkun died 1998 (22 years ago)
Sun 13th Sep

Roof color

Only Imperial buildings were allowed to have yellow roof tiles, most houses had terracotta colored tiles. The one exception in the Forbidden City was the vast Imperial library which had a black roof. This was due to a Feng shui belief that the color black was associated with the water element; so to keep fire from the books the roof was black to suppress that possibility.
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Sat 12th Sep

Chinese villain

If you ask a Chinese person the name of a villain you may well be told 'Cao Cao' as the embodiment of evil and Machiavellian deviousness. As in many cases of villainy, this is mainly because he was on the losing side and the victors wrote the 'accepted' history of events. He is charged with massacring innocent people but there is little evidence for this. Luo Guanzhong in his book 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms' used Cao Cao as the loathed enemy figure to all unite against. Yet Cao Cao was given the rare honorific of 'xiaolian 孝廉' by the Han Emperor for his selfless loyalty and incorruptibility. This is a bit like Napoleon being seen as an evil man in England.
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Fri 11th Sep

Mercury magic

From ancient times the sulfide of mercury cinnabar has been considered magical. When heated liquid mercury is created and so it was a substance for transformation including mortal to immortal. Cinnabar was used to give the red color to the wax on seals used on paintings and documents.
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On this day

1982 Hu Yaobang no longer Chairman Chinese Communist Party 1982 (38 years ago)
1982 Hu Yaobang became General Secretary Communist Party 1982 (38 years ago)
Thu 10th Sep

Measuring up

China had its own system of weights and measures that were scaled in units of ten long before the French adopted the metric system under Napoleon. When the Republic of China was declared in 1912 the Chinese authorities aligned the traditional Chinese measures to the Metric system. The traditional measure of distance the 'li' is now defined as 500meters (or 547 yards).
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On this day

210BCE Emperor Qin Shihuangdi no longer ruler 210BCE (2,231 years ago)
1980 Hua Guofeng no longer Premier PRC 1980 (40 years ago)
1980 Zhao Ziyang became Premier PRC 1980 (40 years ago)
Wed 9th Sep

Writing Chinese phonetically

Because the Chinese language is character not phonetically based it is hard to write down Chinese with a Western alphabet A-Z. British scholars Wade and Giles made a creditable attempt at the end of the 19th century but it had some glaring problems. Perhaps because it was a 'foreign' system the new Peoples' Republic set about creating their own system - pinyin, which seems only fair. The unfortunate repercussion is that old books use the Wade Giles system and modern ones Pinyin. Some web sites use a mixture if they are referring to historical events (Peking and Beijing; Mao Tsetung and Mao Zedong). It is still the case that if you want to read about Chinese history you should be broadly familiar with Wade-Giles.
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On this day

1945 Wang Jingwei Regime ended 1945 (75 years ago)
1976 Mao Zedong died 1976 (44 years ago)
1976 Mao Zedong no longer Paramount Leader 1976 (44 years ago)
1976 Hua Guofeng became Paramount Leader 1976 (44 years ago)
Tue 8th Sep

Journey to the West

This famous book also known as 'monkey' was written by Wu Cheng'en in c.1580CE. It tells of the journey of the monk Xuanzang who traveled west from China to India to bring them back Buddhist scriptures in the Tang dynasty. The monk's most famous companion is 'monkey' an impish creature of great strength and courage.
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On this day

685 Emperor Xuanzong born 685 (1,335 years ago)
712 Emperor Xuanzong became ruler 712 (1,308 years ago)
Mon 7th Sep

Stroke practice

Even with smartphones everywhere many people in China are still proud of their calligraphic hand-writing skills. A character is made up of a number of strokes each of which has its own name and are produced in a particular way. One of the simplest is the héng stroke. It is a horizontal line with the brush pushed down slightly at either end.
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On this day

1901 Boxer Rebellion ended 1901 (119 years ago)
Sun 6th Sep

Shaoshan pilgrimage

The province of Hunan just south of the Yangzi river is famous as the birthplace of Mao Zedong. His home village of Shaoshan is still a popular tourist destination. As well as Mao the province was the birthplace of another early leader of the Peoples Republic - Liu Shaoqi.
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Sat 5th Sep

Tiger army

As tigers are strong and fierce they are an appropriate association for soldiers. Soldiers would often wear a real tiger skin or markings of a tiger. The army used this as late as the First Opium war (1840-42) in the belief that tigers were particularly potent against foreign demons - the British.
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Fri 4th Sep

Silkworm devouring a leaf

It was the famous historian Sima Qian (135 - 86 BCE) who described the conquest of the whole of China by the Qin kingdom was 'like a silkworm devouring a mulberry leaf'. Unlike the other incessant wars between the seven kingdoms of the China region the Qin conquered each of its eastern neighbors one by one with brutal efficiency.
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Thu 3rd Sep


China has the largest population of any country in the world, more than the populations of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom put together.
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Wed 2nd Sep

A simplification too far

The simplification of the written Chinese language is an achievement that is not widely acclaimed. It would be like changing English spelling so that it was much closer to being phonetic (though-thoe, bough-bow, cough-coff, rough-ruff etc.). Everyone would have to learn how to spell again. Although some people hanker after the more complex traditional forms, many of the simplified forms have a long history. A further stage of simplification to make the characters much more closely phonetic was rejected in 1977.
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Tue 1st Sep

Lapsang souchong

Lapsang souchong is a special type of tea originally only produced in Fujian province. It develops its distinctive taste by being dried with a pine wood fire and so it is infused with the odor and taste of pine. The authentic tea is expensive as it is produced from a small area near Mount Wuyi in northern Fujian.
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Mon 31st Aug

Lapsang souchong

Lapsang souchong is a special type of tea originally only produced in Fujian province. It develops its distinctive taste by being dried with a pine wood fire and so it is infused with the odor and taste of pine. The authentic tea is expensive as it is produced from a small area near Mount Wuyi in northern Fujian.
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Sun 30th Aug

Empress Wu Zetian

The only woman to have ruled China in her own right was Empress Wu Zetian. Other Empresses rose to great power but they tended to do that from 'behind the curtain'. The dangerous precedent of an Empress caused her life and achievements to be somewhat distorted by later historians. As far as can be gathered she seemed to have ruled wisely if autocratically. Her downfall was due to infatuation with two young men who rose to great power and influence.
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Sat 29th Aug

Chinese speakers

There are about twice as many Chinese speakers as English speakers in the world. Mandarin Chinese is fast becoming the 'common' language in East Asia. As China becomes more important this trend is only likely to increase in the coming decades.
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On this day

1842 Treaty of Nanjing 1842 (178 years ago)
1842 Signing of Treaty of Nanjing 1842 (178 years ago)
1842 First Opium War 1842 (178 years ago)
Fri 28th Aug

Democratic Election

The members of the National People's Congress are democratically elected. Local elections choose provincial representatives that vote for those on the NPC. Only Communist party members can stand for election. The NPC votes on key areas of policy but rarely if ever disputes the guidance given to it by the SCP.
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Thu 27th Aug

Lady Hao

As elsewhere in the world China became very male dominated early on. However there are hints that in the Shang dynasty at least there were strong, female military leaders. Clear evidence comes from the tomb of Lady Hao in Henan province. She was one of the wives of king Wuding and served as a military general and high priestess.
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On this day

1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk 1689 (331 years ago)
Wed 26th Aug

Topnot hierarchy

In the Qing dynasty the number of officials and the number of different grades mushroomed. This was mainly to raise money for the country which was in severe economic plight. To quickly distinguish seniority of officials the different grades wore different robe decorations and most conspicuously a 'button' on top of their hat. The top officials had a red ruby as the 'button' while the ninth grade had plain silver or gold.
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Tue 25th Aug

The most gruesome torture

China's criminal system was and still is heavily weighted to deter crime by severe punishment. China executes far more people than any other country. Before 1911 the traditional way to deter treason was the threat of the 'death by a thousand cuts' the 'ling chi' torture. The victim was cut to pieces bit by bit starting with muscle and skin before eventually cutting off vital organs. It is hard to imagine how gruesome this must have been. The victim would offer anything for the torture to stop, he would often bribe the torturer to make death come quickly.
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Mon 24th Aug

Engineer Leaders

All three recent Presidents of China studied engineering at University. Jiang Zemin : Electrical Engineering, Shanghai 1947; Hu Jintao : Hydraulic Engineering, Beijing 1965 and Xi Jinping : Chemical Engineering, Beijing 1979.
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On this day

1624 Guoxingye born 1624 (396 years ago)
2008 Beijing Olympic Games ended 2008 (12 years ago)
Sun 23rd Aug

Red Flag canal

One of the main construction projects in the early days of the Peoples Republic was the building of the Red Flag canal 1960-74 to bring irrigation and provide transportation to arid northern Henan. It is claimed to have burrowed through 1,250 hills, excavated 134 tunnels totaling 24 kilometers, and built aqueducts with a total length of 6.5 kilometers. It required huge numbers of laborers and was compared to building the Great Wall and Grand Canal. It was touted as a key achievement of the new co-operation and dedication to projects for mutual benefit.
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On this day

551BCE Confucius born 551BCE (2,572 years ago)
Sat 22nd Aug

The date

Prior to the adoption of the Western calendar on the foundation of the Republic in 1912, China used a lunar based calendar. The year was divided into 12 or 13 months determined by the phase of the moon. The day within the month was named after the constellation that the moon was in (or near) on that particular date. This allowed everyone to work out the precise date on a clear night without the need for clocks and calendars.
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On this day

1904 Deng Xiaoping born at Guang'an Sichuan 1904 (116 years ago)
Fri 21st Aug

Grand Canal

China's greatest engineering construction is usually regarded as the Great Wall of China; but the Grand canal is surely just as impressive. More importantly the Great Wall was an epic failure - it failed to stop both the invasion of the Mongols and Manchus. On the other and the 1,100 mile Emperor's canal proved most useful - it transported rice from the south to northern China without which there would have been mass starvation. The main building phase was in the Sui dynasty when a conscripted labor force of 5,000,000 dug the channel.
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Beijing, lion
Bronze lion statue at the Summer Palace, Beijing