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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Mon 30th Nov

The sad tale of Ginseng

Because the roots of ginseng are often forked it can look like a person, indeed the Chinese name is renseng, it has long been used as a medicine. Just like mandrake it was believed to scream when harvested. There is no proven efficacy for the drug at all but it has been collected so voraciously that there is no longer any wild ginseng in China. The drug is routinely adulterated with other substances and can actually do you harm.
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Sun 29th Nov

Jin dynasty

When the Khitan people drove the Song dynasty out of northern China they established their capital at Zhongdu (Beijing) and in many ways turned to Chinese traditions. They bore the brunt of the assault of the Mongols and ruled for just over a hundred years.
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On this day

1835 Dowager Empress Cixi born 1835 (185 years ago)
Sat 28th Nov

Sinkiang and Kweichow

In old maps and books you may find place names that are hard to decode. Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles devised a way of writing Chinese sounds that was used extensively between 1859 and 1960 when it was replaced with pinyin. Sinkiang then became Xinjiang and Kweichow became Guizhou. The stark difference is spelling reflects the fact that Chinese sounds are not the same as English ones and some are intermediate between them.
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Fri 27th Nov

Inspiration from hoof-prints

The person who gets the credit for devising the Chinese characters is the legendary Cang Jie who is reputed to have lived 4,500 years ago. One story has it that he got the main idea for the characters from hoof-prints. A skilled hunter can tell which animal has been around just by the pattern of the simple hoof print. It is easier and quicker to draw a hoof-print than sketch the whole animal so these simple drawings could unambiguously stand for the animal.
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Thu 26th Nov

Southern Clouds

The border province of Yunnan in the south west has a different feel to most of China. Culturally and historically it shares much with neighboring Laos, Thailand and Burma. It has many deep valleys that run north to south trapping moist tropical air allowing the province to have unique wildlife to China. The famous nature reserve at Xishuangbanna has many tropical delights including elephants. The province is home to a diverse range of minority peoples with their own traditions and customs.
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On this day

1811 Zeng Guofan born 1811 (209 years ago)
Wed 25th Nov

Lucky toad

The toad is considered to be auspicious in China. It eats many insect pests and because in some dialects 'toad' sounds like 'money' it is regarded as a talisman to bring good fortune and riches.
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Tue 24th Nov

Open examinations

One of the key Chinese innovations was the concept of written examinations so that people could be appointed to posts on basis of merit rather than patronage. The idea was that these should be 'open' examinations so that anyone could have a go, however all women were excluded and some others were not eligible: criminals (and their descendents), actors, slaves and merchants. It was a distinct advantage to be born into a wealthy, scholarly family but some from poor background did make the grade. The idea of written examinations was copied in western countries after about 1,500 years of use in China.
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On this day

1898 Liu Shaoqi born at Ningxiang Hunan 1898 (122 years ago)
1987 Zhao Ziyang no longer Premier PRC 1987 (33 years ago)
Mon 23rd Nov

Beijing's names

Like Chinese people the cities of China have changed their names over the centuries. Beijing is no exception. It took it's name 'Northern capital' to distinguish itself from Nanjing 'Southern capital' when Ming Emperor Yongle moved the capital north in 1421. As the capital of China in Mongol dynasty times it has been called Dadu (Great capital) or Khanbaliq. Before that it had been called Zhongdu (Central capital) when capital of the Jin dynasty. Most recently it was named Beiping or Peiping (Northern peace) from 1928 to 1949.
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Sun 22nd Nov

Emperor at age of 3

The Last Emperor of China, Puyi was born in 1906 and came to the throne in 1908. It is believed his uncle (former Emperor) was murdered by his grandmother the Dowager Empress Cixi; she then quickly anointed Puyi as the new Emperor. A day later and Cixi herself was dead. Puyi was forced to step down when the Republic was declared in 1912, he lived in luxury at the Forbidden City until 1924; he was then installed as the puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese. Surviving the war he was rehabilitated in a Communist prison camp before release as a lowly gardener and archivist up to his death in 1967. An incredible life story.
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Sat 21st Nov

Emperor at age of 3

The Last Emperor of China, Puyi was born in 1906 and came to the throne in 1908. It is believed his uncle (former Emperor) was murdered by his grandmother the Dowager Empress Cixi; she then quickly anointed Puyi as the new Emperor. A day later and Cixi herself was dead. Puyi was forced to step down when the Republic was declared in 1912, he lived in luxury at the Forbidden City until 1924; he was then installed as the puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese. Surviving the war he was rehabilitated in a Communist prison camp before release as a lowly gardener and archivist up to his death in 1967. An incredible life story.
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Fri 20th Nov

Ming philosopher

Most of the well-known philosophers who shaped Chinese philosophy lived over two thousand years ago. Only a few others from later years had a great influence. One of these was Wang Yangming who lived 1472-1529. He developed the leading Neo-Confucian thought and proposed that there is innate knowledge that is not learned - for instance good and evil.
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On this day

1915 Hu Yaobang born at Liuyang Hunan 1915 (105 years ago)
1962 Sino Indian War ended 1962 (58 years ago)
Thu 19th Nov

Hunan braves

Hunan is very much a central Chinese province; it has produced food for northern China for centuries. During the Taiping Rebellion the Hunan Braves under Zeng Guofan were an important military unit that led to the eventual defeat of the Taipings. This history influenced the thinking of Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi, both born in Hunan, in the early days of the Communist party in China.
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Wed 18th Nov

Amoy

One of the place names that have changed dramatically is the port city of Amoy. The old name is still seen on many commercial products. The official PRC name is Xiamen 厦门 meaning 'mansion gate'. The name 'Amoy' comes from the local Fujian Min Nan dialect. The original Chinese name was 下門 Xiamen or 'lower gate' so that name has changed too.
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Tue 17th Nov

Lofty Everest

As the international border runs directly through the mountain China claims the eastern half of the world's highest mountain. The English name is named after the surveyor who measured its height - Sir George Everest. In China it is known as Zhumulangma 'Holy Mother'.
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Mon 16th Nov

Lofty Everest

As the international border runs directly through the mountain China claims the eastern half of the world's highest mountain. The English name is named after the surveyor who measured its height - Sir George Everest. In China it is known as Zhumulangma 'Holy Mother'.
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Sun 15th Nov

Pujin iron bridge

As early as 724CE China built an impressive iron bridge over the great Yellow River at Pujin. The anchor points for the great anchoring chains were iron sculptures of men and massive oxen. One third of the country's entire annual iron production went into making the iron.
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On this day

2002 Jiang Zemin no longer President PRC 2002 (18 years ago)
2002 Jiang Zemin no longer General Secretary Communist Party 2002 (18 years ago)
2002 Hu Jintao became General Secretary Communist Party 2002 (18 years ago)
2002 Jiang Zemin no longer Paramount Leader 2002 (18 years ago)
2002 Hu Jintao became Paramount Leader 2002 (18 years ago)
2012 Hu Jintao no longer Chairman Chinese Military Committee 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Xi Jinping became Paramount Leader 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Xi Jinping became General Secretary Communist Party 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Li Keqiang became Premier PRC 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Xi Jinping became Chairman Chinese Military Committee 2012 (8 years ago)
Sat 14th Nov

Bamboo paper

Paper in China dates back at least 2,000 years and it was here that a durable, mass-produced writing material was invented. Before paper was first made Chinese was usually written on thin vertical strips of bamboo which were tied together at top and bottom - the writing could then be rolled up for protection and safety. Most early paper was made from tough bamboo leaf fibers. Following the early tradition writing was vertical and rolled up into a scroll.
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On this day

976 Emperor Taizu no longer ruler 976 (1,044 years ago)
1908 Emperor Guangxu no longer ruler 1908 (112 years ago)
2012 Wen Jiabao no longer Premier PRC 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Hu Jintao no longer President PRC 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Hu Jintao no longer General Secretary Communist Party 2012 (8 years ago)
2012 Hu Jintao no longer Paramount Leader 2012 (8 years ago)
Fri 13th Nov

Yellow riding jacket

Yellow has always been the color of high honor in China and is best translated as 'golden' in many cases. The Manchu people who formed the Qing dynasty were horsemen of the northern plains. The Imperial court spent time in the summer in hunts and other outdoor pursuits. One of the highest honors that an Emperor could bestow was a yellow riding jacket 黃馬褂. The owner had the right to ride a horse within the Forbidden City.The Englishman General Charles Gordon was one of the few foreigners to be given the honor.
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Thu 12th Nov

Cathay

A strange name you sometimes see for China is 'Cathay'. This needs a little explaining, it is not self evident just like the name 'China' itself. The name Cathay is mainly used in Russia and Central Asia. This is because the name is derived from the northern Chinese tribe of Khitan or Qidan. The Qidan people formed the Northern Jin dynasty just before the Mongol dynasty. It may have been the Mongol conquest that spread the name ‘Cathay’.
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On this day

1866 Sun Yatsen born at Cuiheng Guangdong 1866 (154 years ago)
1969 Liu Shaoqi died 1969 (51 years ago)
Wed 11th Nov

British Rebels

During the Taiping Rebellion both sides of the Civil War received support from British mercenaries. Augustus Lindley helped the Taiping cause and wrote a book of his experiences 'The History of the Ti-ping Revolution'. On the other side General Charles Gordon helped the Qing forces, and he was ultimately successful in helping to beat the Taipings.
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Tue 10th Nov

Softening actions

The character yī is about the second-most common character in Chinese. As well as meaning 'one' it is used where in English 'a' would be used as in: 'a bit' and 'a while'. A common use in spoken Chinese is to soften the meaning of an action verb. So instead of saying 'wait' it is phrased as 'wait-a-wait' or děng yī děng and take an informal look at something as kàn yī kàn.
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Mon 9th Nov

Goddess of Mercy

The Buddhist Goddess of Mercy is probably the most widely revered deity in China. In many ways she is similar to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian theology - she is compassionate and pure. She is often portrayed with hundreds of arms.
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Sun 8th Nov

Spades as money

One of the curious early forms of money in China were small bronze 'spades'. These come from the early Bronze Age in China (c. 1000BCE) and are called spades 'bubi' 布币.It was later in the reign of the first Qin emperor (200BCE) that the familiar round coin with a square hole was introduced and this lasted into the 20th century.
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On this day

1875 Qiu Jin born 1875 (145 years ago)
Sat 7th Nov

Lion and Dragon dances

At Chinese festivals the two most common dances you normally see are lion and dragon dances, both are usually seen at Chinese New Year but also other festivals nowadays. A lion dance has two performers and there are distinct northern and southern forms. Whereas the dragon dance has multiple performers along the body the dragon often chases a ball or pearl around. Both are choreographed with music on drums, cymbals and bells.
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On this day

1901 Li Hongzhang died 1901 (119 years ago)
Fri 6th Nov

Cracking bones

To ask the gods a question in Shang dynasty times a cow bone or tortoise shell was inscribed with the question. The diviner (sometimes the emperor himself) would then place a heated bronze rod against the bone. With a popping sound the bone would crack, it was the pattern of the crack that gave a 'yes' ( bǔ which is the modern character for divination) or 'no' ( xiōng).
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Thu 5th Nov

Birth stars

There was a traditional Chinese belief that everyone had an associated birth star. Almanacs would list which particular star is associated with a particular birthday. Everyone would learn to locate and venerate their star in the heavens.
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Wed 4th Nov

Harmonious cranes

Cranes and storks are much loved birds in China. They are long-lived birds that form loyal pairs. They symbolize peace and a wish for long and comfortable life. A painting with two cranes flying towards the sun represents ambition.
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Tue 3rd Nov

Chairman Hua

Most historians dismiss Hua Guofeng's leadership of China 1976-78 as a bit of a footnote. Mao is believed to have said that he considered his legacy to be safe is Hua's hands and so the appointment of Hua resulted in none of the mayhem that often follows the death of a dominant leader. Although Deng Xiaoping soon emerged as the next leader to take China this was not the obvious outcome in 1976. He is considered to be wedded to Mao's philosophy with his 'two whatevers' approach - follow whatever policy Mao made and follow Mao's instructions.
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Mon 2nd Nov

Yuan Shikai's Imperial dream

Dowager Empress Cixi turned to General Yuan Shikai in times of crisis. In 1900 it was he that suppressed the Boxer Rebellion. When the dynasty fell in 1911 it was Yuan Shikai rather than Sun Yatsen who came to lead the new Republic of China. The western powers, perhaps swayed by his actions against the Boxers, backed him rather than the revolutionary Sun from southern China. However it soon became clear that Yuan's ambition was to found his own new dynasty rather than embrace republicanism. Southern China swiftly rose is revolt against the new Hongxian Emperor and another long conflict was only averted in 1915 when he died of kidney failure. He ruled as Emperor for only 83 days.
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Macau
Bahia Da Praia Grande. Nam Van Lake (South Bay lake) one of two man made lakes in the Macau Peninsula. July 2012
Image by Kabacchi available under a Creative Commons license