Cat or Mao

31 01 2008

The Cat, called Mao (貓 māo)

in Chinese, is said to have been given this name because of its mewing, but the composition of the written character, is to express an animal which catches rats in grain (Miao). Although the cat catches rats, it is loathe by the Chinese as being lazy as it sleeps most of the time. It is said that because of this lazy nature, it was not included as one of the twelve zodiac animals, being tricked and outwitted by the rat. Moreover, the coming of a cat into a household is an ill omen of approaching poverty, as it is believed to foreshadow an unfavorable change in the pecuniary condition of the family as the cat can foresee where it will find plenty of rats and mice in consequence of approaching dilapidation of a house, following the ruin or poverty of its inhabitants.

The cat lacks fidelity and considered as being insincere so that a popular phrase used by the Chinese Maokulaoshu (貓哭老鼠 māo kū lǎo shǔ) the cat weeping over the mouse which it has just caught and eaten — an insincere person. In addition a cat is believed to have demonic powers, and can see spirits in the dark, which it uses as a mouse-catcher. However, should a cat jump over a coffin, the corpses would be rise up and become an ‘undead’ to haunt the area. Therefore, a broom is always placed near the coffin so that if such occurrence should take place, the broom is thrown over the rising corpse to calm it and allowed to lie down dead again. For this reason, there is a custom that dead cats should not be buried lest they turn into mischievous spirits, therefore, they are hang up on trees.

It is said that the cat could tell time; at midnight, noon, sunrise, and sunset, the cat’s eye is like a thread. At 4 o’clock and 10 o’clock, morning and evening, it is round like a full moon. At 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock, morning and evening, it is elliptical like the kernel of a date.

The end of the nose is always cold, but for one day during the summer (Hsia-chih or summer solstice), it becomes warm, as the cat naturally dreads cold, but not heat.

As an auspicious symbol,the cat is found in two major depiction in wood block prints. One is called Canmaotu (蠶貓圖 cán māo tú), the silkworm cat picture, which is placed on the door to the shed where silkworms are reared. The picture serves two purposes, one is that the cat would protect the silkworms from the rats and mice and secondly, it is a pictorial ‘Keep Out’ sign, of not disturbing the silkworms. This wood block print is also used as a paper votive during the sacrificial offering to the silkworm deity called, Matouniang (馬頭娘 mǎ tóu niáng) or Mamingwang (馬明王 mǎ míng wáng), at her temple or shrine called Canshenmiao (蠶神廟 cán shén miào)/

The second type of wood block print is called Maodietu (貓蝶圖 māo dié tú) which depicts a cat, butterfly and peony blossom. It is the symbolic forming of the rebus, Maodiefigui (耄耋富貴 mào dié fù guì) or longevity and prosperity. The term for a cat, Mao (貓 māo) is pronounced phonemically similar to the word Mao (耄 mào), meaning a person seventy or eighty years of age; and the term for a Butterfly, Die (蝶 dié), is pronounced phonemically similar to the word Die (耋 diè), a homonym for a person eighty or ninety years of age. Although the specific ages are sometimes mixed for the word Mao and Die, nevertheless, both refer to a person of great age and in turn means longevity.

Oftentimes, derogatory remarks include the use of the word for cat, such as Maoshutongmian (貓鼠同眠 māo shǔ tóng mián), literally, the cat and the rat are asleep together, meaning officials and bandits working in collusion. In the early Qing (清 qīng) dynasty, there were porcelain cats, made with eyes cut out so that a candle could be placed inside to scare off rats, a form of night light, and meticulously described in early Jesuit writings of Chinese ceramics.

The most popular and famous Chinese folktale of a cat is associated with the Rat’s Wedding, when the pretentious rat wanting to marry their daughter to someone great, dismissed the Sun, the clouds, the wind, the wall and opt for the cat, who made havoc of the wedding party and had a great meal of them.

Recently, the Chinese have adopted the Japanese ‘beckoning cat’ called Mani nekko in Japanese and renamed as Zhaocaimao (招財貓 zhāo cái māo), meaning inviting wealth cat, by the Chinese, as a good luck symbol for business establishments. However, being unsure of which paw should be raised, the Chinese have made alterations, of having either a right or left paw, and also having the figurine of the cat made with two faces, a front and a back so that the cat could have either a right or left paw raised.

It should be pointed out, that inasmuch as the Mani Nekko is a late-Tokugawa period Japanese folk art, the Japanese themselves are confused as to which paw should be raised, moreover, to the different colors of the cat. In addition, the Chinese have added various other inscriptions to the cat, which then appears like a Japanese version but with a Chinese flavor. There are so many variations and so often seen in Chinese establishments, that many believe it to be Chinese instead of an adapted version of something Japanese.

-By William C. Hu and David Lei


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Dove or Jiu

30 01 2008

Jiu (鳩 jiū)

The dove and a pigeon is very similar, in fact the former is a kind of pigeon, so that it is generally grouped together and called in Chinese as Ge (鴿 ). However, in colloquial Chinese, there is a distinction made with the word Ge, meaning a pigeon and the dove as Jiu (鳩 pinyin:jiū) or Banjiu (斑鳩 bān jiū) for the turtle dove. It is because of this generalization that the two types of birds have been mistaken.

Although there are a number of different types of doves, nevertheless, they differ very little in form or shape, all being small and rounded with rather drab colored feathers, with not having bright variegated feathers. Nevertheless, they appear cute and cuddly so it is adored. One of the characteristics of the dove is to gather in flocks.

In the 3rd century B.C., at the fall of the Qin (秦 qín) dynasty, there were two rivals contending to become Emperor, namely, Xiangyu (項羽 xiàng yǔ) and Liubang (劉邦 liú bāng). The latter, as a minor official of the Qin dynasty, had rebelled and raised a large following, which joined forces with the main anti-Qin army under its leader, Xiangyu. The two mean soon fell out; whereas Liubang had ordered moderation towards the defeated Qin, forbidding looting and sparing his royal captives, while Xiangyu had the capital Xianyang (咸陽 xián yáng ) destroyed and the entire Qin family slaughtered.

The conflict between them was more than a question of personalities, it was a battle of the aristocrat and the peasant. The fall of the dynasty had revived the ambitions and rivalry of the former feudal states and the aristocratic Xiangyu attempted to restore the former kingdoms under the imperial rule of his own Chu (楚 chǔ)state. Liubang, king of Han (漢 hàn), opposed this return to feudalism and from his strong base in Sichuan (四川 sì chuān) embarked on the conquest of China, which in 206 B.C. he was successful in his cause and founded the Han dynasty.

According to the work of popular folk customs and beliefs, entitled, Fengsutong (風俗通 fēng sú tōng), after an early encounter with Xiangyu, the defeated Liubang fled into a forested area to seek cover and re-organize his troops. Xiangyu was in pursuit and hearing the cooing of the doves, and believing that the enemy was gathered there, directed an attack only to discover the area empty of men. Therefore, Liubang was able to make his escape. After Liubang became the Emperor, he granted staffs with an image of a dove atop called Jiuzhang (鳩杖jiū zhàng) to the elderly.

The term, Jiuzhang or ‘dove staff’ is often mistakenly translated as ‘pigeon staff’ by western scholars. The reason why a dove was depicted on top of the staff was that it was both a reminder to the Emperor GaoZu (高祖 gāo zǔ)of his benefactor, the dove which allowed him to make his escape and fight another day in successfully defeating the enemy and establishing a new rule and dynasty. Therefore, the dove was a symbol of longevity and an auspicious symbol.

Moreover the reason for bestowing the ‘dove staff’ to the elderly is because the dove is considered a bird which does not choke on his food or unable to swallow food, Buyezhiniao (不噎之鳥 bù yē zhī niǎo)

Therefore, it was a wish for the elderly to enjoy good health and good appetite in gaining longevity. In the section on rites and rituals section of the Houhanshu (後漢書 hòu hàn shū), the history of the Latter-Han dynasty, 25-220 A.D., it notes that, during the 8th lunar month, the government officials of the prefectures, and sub-divisions would evaluate the people and those seventy years of age would be given a Yuzhang (玉杖 yù zhàng) or jade staff, and given porridge to eat. Those eighty and ninety years of age would be bestowed a Yuzhang or jade staff, nine feet in length with a dove on top. The dove, is a bird that does not have problems in swallowing food, likewise it is also a wish for these elderly persons.

In as much as the dove symbolizes longevity and good health, nevertheless, the dove is used in a number of deprecatory phrases such as Jiuju (鳩居jiū jū, my humble abode but meaning to sponge on others, to occupy the nest of others. Another term Jiuxinggumian (鳩形鵠面 jiū xíng gǔ miàn) to look very thin and emaciated. However, a most common and popular remark is the term Jiuzhuo (鳩拙 jiū zhuó) to be as stupid as a dove which cannot make its own nest. Therefore the Chinese believe the dove to be eminently stupid and lascivious

-By William C. Hu and David Lei

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Lion or Shi

30 01 2008

Shi (獅 pinyin: shī)

The Lion, in Chinese is called Shi (獅 pinyin: shī) or Shizi , a term which has been advanced to have been derived as a transliteration of the first syllable from some Iranian language, possibly from the ancient Persian, Ser, Iranian, Sary, or even the Sanskrit, Sinha. It is generally held that the lion was first known in China during the great period of expansion and commercial penetration into Central Asia under the Former-Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-24 A.D.

In the light of the continuously accumulating evidence of archaeological finds revealing much earlier inter-communications between China, Central and Western Asia, it would seem strange that no information whatsoever was possessed by the Chinese in the pre-Han dynasty era concerning the mighty king of beasts.

In the ancient Chinese dictionary, Erhya (爾雅 ěr yǎ), there is an ancient and probably indigenous Chinese term for the lion. This term is Suanni (狻猊 suān ní), described as a light-colored tiger (or feline) which eats other tigers and leopards’, and identified by the earliest commentators with the Han lion, Shizi. It was probably in a period when communications became disrupted that the earlier term disappeared from the Chinese vocabulary and the lion became linguistically extinct in China until it was resuscitated under another name during the Han period, 206 B.C.-220 A.D.

To the Chinese, the lion was not only considered the king of beasts, but was also regarded as a symbol of power and good fortune. In reference to its earlier name, Sunanni, the lion is believed to be eighth descendant of the Dragon, Longshengjiuzi (龍生九子 lóng shēng jiǔ zǐ). As such, it was considered a sacred animal Shengshou (聖獸 shèng shòu) and had the powers of protection to drive away evil. From the Han dynasty onwards, stone sculptures of lions were used as temple guardians and as decorations for government buildings. The art motives of lions were also found in popular folk art.

In Buddhism, the lion is regarded as the defender of law and protector of sacred buildings. The Boddhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusri (文殊菩薩 wén shū pú sà) is always depicted mounted on a lion. Wherever the Buddha sits is called the Lion Throne and the voice of Buddha is called Lion’s Roar. Therefore, there is a close affinity and association of the lion with Buddhism in both art and symbolism.

Guardian lions are always in pairs. The male is featured with one paw on a ball, which represents the dual powers of nature and the precious jewel which gives life, while the female has a paw over a young cub lion. The lioness is neither playing with her cub nor keeping it in line, however, she is feeding the youngster. There is an ancient legend relating that the lion produces milk from its paws, and therefore, the lion cub is being suckled by its mother, so that the claws should be correctly represented as in the mouth of the youngster. With the displaying or placement of the Guardian Lions, it is imperative that they be placed correctly. The Chinese have a saying, Nanzuonuyou (男左女右 nán zuǒ nǚ yòu ), literally, the male on the left the female on the right. However, it is a reference to stage right and stage left, which means that facing the pair of lions, the male should be on the viewer’s right and the female on the left.

Oftentimes, there is a mistake in placing the Guardian Lions, which the Chinese believe would bring about Bad Luck and commonly called Tiecuomenshen (貼錯門神 tiē cuò mén shén), reversing the order of the door guardians and Yinyangdaoluan (陰陽倒亂 yīn yáng dǎo luàn), the mixed-up of the Yin and Yang elements. An easy method of remembering this is the written Chinese character, Hao (好 hǎo) ,or Good, with the female on the left and the male on the right. There is a popular Chinese folk dance called Shiziwu (獅子舞 shī zi wǔ), whereby two persons dance in a costume of a lion with a colorful cloth and papier mache head, and a another postures in front with a large ball called Xiuqiu (繡球 xiù qiú), or embroidered ball, representing the dual powers of nature as a precious jewel. The lion sports with the ball and the dance is called Shizikunqiu. Sometimes, more than a single lion is featured.

The lion, called Shī, is the homonym for the word meaning master, teacher or official and so it has been used in symbolically forming rebuses. In addition, the term Shih is also a homonym for the word meaning generation and used in that capacity.

-By William C. Hu and David Lei


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