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 14th Jun

Life long learning

We are used to study and examinations coming to an end at 18, 21 or if going for a PhD by the age of 25. But in dynastic China up until 1912 it was quite normal for someone to keep on taking the examinations for years and years, there was no age limit. This led to some continuing into old age, in 1889 as many as 35 candidates were over 80 years old. Sometimes grandfather, father and son would all take the same examination at the same time.
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Sun 13th Jun

Imperial think-tank

When there was a particularly knotty problem troubling the Chinese Imperial system, a famine, a revolt or tax shortfall, the Emperor would call on members of the Hanlin Academy for their advice. The academy founded in the Tang dynasty was only open to the most intellectually gifted men, they had to come in the top three of the highest national examinations. Appointing people on merit rather than patronage goes back two thousand years in China.
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Sat 12th Jun

Cs and Xs

When starting to learn pinyin there is natural surprise on how certain Chinese sounds are expressed in Pinyin. Dowager Empress 'Cixi' name might naively be expected to sound something like 'si-xy' while in fact it is more like 'Tze-hsi'. This came about because at the time that pinyin was being devised Russian was the main western language in China not English and so the Russian sounds from the Cyrillic alphabet were used. It's one of those strange quirks of history which we now have to live with.
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On this day

618 Sui dynasty ended 618 (1,403 years ago)
Fri 11th Jun

Heaven's mandate

A cornerstone of Chinese history is the relationship of the ruler to heaven and to the people. Unlike the medieval idea of the 'Divine right of kings' and 'Papal Infallibility' which give the leader total control, since the earliest dynasties in China there has been the concept of a heaven-given mandate that is conditional. A Chinese ruler was responsible to heaven and the people, should the heavens be displeased he loses the mandate and can be legitimately overthrown.
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Thu 10th Jun

Analects

Arguably the most important Chinese book is the 'Analects of Confucius'. It sets out the ethics and philosophy using incidents from the life of the great sage. Written around 300BCE a long time after his death, it admonishes the reader to obey the state rituals and know ones place in the order of things. It is not spiritual - Confucians do not believe in the after-life and does not include cosmology or the natural world. The system of ethics that are set out continue to guide the lives of many people in China.
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Wed 9th Jun

Crows

Careful observation of the behavior of crows long ago in China showed that young crows helped their parents bring up the next brood of chicks. This devotion to family has led the crow to be a metaphor for the highly regarded Confucian duty to the family, particularly of son to father.
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Tue 8th Jun

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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On this day

1916 Yuan Shikai died 1916 (105 years ago)
Mon 7th Jun

Emperor Taizu of Song

Many dynastic founders were belligerent military despots. Not so Zhao Kuangyin (927-976CE) who rather reluctantly took up the Imperial duties. He is renowned for his compassion and magnanimity. After the country had been reunited after years of internal wars he immediately made all the generals swear an oath to disarm and keep the peace.
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Sun 6th Jun

Quintessence of the Nation

Peking (Beijing Opera) is considered the supreme art-form as it combines dance, acrobatics, singing, acting, music and comedy. Originally all the actors were men and they started training at a very early age. It would become soon clear what type of role the boy was best suited to and they would play just that role for their whole acting career. The Opera has the barest of sets; the actors have to suggest the action with standard gestures and movable props. The music was considered an integral part of the performance with the musicians occupying a part of the stage playing traditional instruments.
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Sat 5th Jun

Celadon

Some of the most prized Chinese porcelain is not at all showy. It is elegant in shape with little ornamentation. While blue and white porcelain of the Ming dynasty springs to mind this and the more garish versions of the Qing were produced for export. More discerning Chinese connoisseurs preferred simple shapes and simple glazes. Celadon from the Song dynasty commands very high prices.
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Fri 4th Jun

Taiwan's name

The island of Taiwan has had many names over its long history. When the Portuguese conquered the island in 1554 they gave it the name 'Formosa' : 'beautiful island' and you will still see this name in places. It was the Dutch who then gave it the name 'Taiwan' after the port of 'Tayouan'. This name became adopted in China tái wān. However with continuing diplomatic tensions the PRC now use the name Chinese Taipei zhōng huá tái běi to indicate its claim on the island. This is the name used by the islanders at the Olympic Games.
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Thu 3rd Jun

First center for Chinese studies

The interest in China that was instigated by the Jesuit missions in the 17th century led to the founding of the first institute concentrating on Chinese studies at Naples, Italy in 1732. It was founded by the early sinologist Matteo Ripa and aimed to train people in the language, culture and philosophy of China.
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Wed 2nd Jun

Master Strategist

One of the most famous figures from Chinese history is not an Emperor but a master strategist. Zhuge Liang helped the southern kingdoms defeat the reviled Emperor Cao Cao at the end of the Han dynasty. He was initially reluctant to help but then aided Liu Bei to outwit the overwhelming northern forces at the battle of Red Cliff.
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Tue 1st Jun

Learn from Dazhai

One of the slogans heard in Mao's China was ‘In agriculture learn from Dazhai’ 农业学大寨. Many agricultural reforms were trail-blazed at this village in Shanxi. In the fervor of the Cultural Revolution, train-loads of people came to see how the Chinese model of workers' co-operatives could revolutionize farming. Unfortunately many of the impressive claims for dramatic crop yield increases turned out to be false.
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On this day

195BCE Emperor Gaozu no longer ruler 195BCE (2,217 years ago)
1864 Hong Xiuquan died 1864 (157 years ago)
1953 Xi Jinping born 1953 (68 years ago)
Mon 31st May

One thousand years of vaccination

It may come as some surprise to the anti-vaxers just how old the process of giving immunity to infection is. In China a form of vaccination called variolation was in use for smallpox as far back as the Song dynasty. The mildly infectious material from dried smallpox pustules was inhaled and this gave some immunity against the deadly disease.
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Sun 30th May

Chinese dialects

It is often thought that the Chinese language is the same all other China. There are however many distinct Chinese languages that are written the same but pronounced differently. The main language groups: Wu (Zhejiang) 77 million; Yue (Guangdong/ Guangxi/ Overseas) also known as Cantonese; Min (Fujian/ Guangdong/ Taiwan) 60 million; Jin (Shaanxi/ Shanxi/ Inner Mongolia) 45 million; Xiang (Hunan) 36 million; Hakka (Guangdong/ Overseas) 31 million; Gan (Jiangxi) 30 million; Hui (Zhejiang/Anhui) 3 million; and Ping (Guangxi) 2 million. The large emigration of people from Fujian and Guangdong has given Yue (Cantonese); Min (Hokkien) and Hakka a worldwide distribution.
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Sat 29th May

Chinese dialects

It is often thought that the Chinese language is the same all other China. There are however many distinct Chinese languages that are written the same but pronounced differently. The main language groups: Wu (Zhejiang) 77 million; Yue (Guangdong/ Guangxi/ Overseas) also known as Cantonese; Min (Fujian/ Guangdong/ Taiwan) 60 million; Jin (Shaanxi/ Shanxi/ Inner Mongolia) 45 million; Xiang (Hunan) 36 million; Hakka (Guangdong/ Overseas) 31 million; Gan (Jiangxi) 30 million; Hui (Zhejiang/Anhui) 3 million; and Ping (Guangxi) 2 million. The large emigration of people from Fujian and Guangdong has given Yue (Cantonese); Min (Hokkien) and Hakka a worldwide distribution.
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On this day

1981 Song Qingling died 1981 (40 years ago)
Fri 28th May

Eight Immortals

The Eight Immortals Ba xian are some of the best known and best loved folk deities in China. The disparate band of individuals is usually shown in a boat each holding an emblematic object: bottle gourd, fan, basket, bamboo tube, peach, sword, flute and castanets. They joined together to defeat the Dragon King.
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On this day

1981 Song Qingling no longer President PRC 1981 (40 years ago)
Thu 27th May

The largest encyclopedia

The largest compilation of human knowledge up until recent times was 'Complete Library of the Four Treasuries'. The project was undertaken by leading scholars from the Hanlin Academy and was begun in 1773. It took 361 scholars nine years to produce the encyclopedia was arranged in 36,381 volumes - about 800 million characters in all.
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Wed 26th May

A boat is not a boat

If you see a boat portrayed in a traditional Chinese artwork it may have greater meaning than just a method of transportation. One character for 'boat' is chuán sounds the same as chuán 'to pass on; generation' and so expresses the wish for a family to be prosperous over multiple generations
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Tue 25th May

Oranges at New Year

Oranges are grown in southern China and were popular presents for children. In Chinese it sounds close to zhù 'to wish' so it symbolizes a wish for good fortune.A tribute of oranges used to be sent from Fujian province to Beijing in time for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) festivities. It was a much prized fruit to brighten up the house in winter.
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Mon 24th May

Chess without Queens

One of the main differences between the Chinese Chess and 'western' Chess games is that Chinese chess does not have a queen. Many chess players do not like the queen as a chess piece - it is too powerful and will often exchange queens early on. This suggests the Chinese form is in some ways the better form.
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Sun 23rd May

Rhinoceros horn

The main reason that rhinoceroses are being hunted to extinction is the belief in China that the horn gives immunity to poison and impotence. Cups made of rhino horn were said to detect any poison in their contents. Poachers still hunt wild rhinos because its horn fetches its weight in gold in Vietnam and China.
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Sat 22nd May

Qingdao beer

Many Chinese restaurants in the West offer their customers Chinese beer from Tsingtao (Qingdao), Shandong province. However the technology to brew the beer is in fact German. Germany ruled Qingdao 1898-1914 and it was during this time that a brewery was built. The water from nearby Mount Lao is an essential ingredient of the beer. German style bread and pastries can also be bought there.
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Fri 21st May

Last Emperor

The last Chinese Emperor Xuantong (better known as Puyi) ruled from 1908 (at the age of three years old) until he was forced out of the Forbidden City in 1924. During the period from 1912 until 1924 China had both a President and Emperor, although the Emperor had no power he was allowed to retain his title and privileges. He soon fled to the Japanese legation and then with Japanese help he was installed as 'puppet' Emperor/King of Manchuria 1932-45. After WW2 he was then put on trial in Japan and then imprisoned by the new Communist government. After rehabilitation he was released and served as a gardener and librarian in Beijing until his death in 1967.
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On this day

1086 Wang Anshi died 1086 (935 years ago)
Thu 20th May

Unlucky 60th year

The full astrological cycle of years is 60 years rather than 12 because each year is associated with one of the five elements 12 x 5=60. The start of the new cycle is considered unlucky and to counter the ill effects some Chinese will wear lucky red underwear to counter the effects.
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On this day

1062 Bao Zheng died 1062 (959 years ago)
1948 Chiang Kaishek became President Republic of China 1948 (73 years ago)
Wed 19th May

Chinas within China

With the spread of foreign enclaves within China there were many Chinese who move to them to evade the Qing government or making it rich. In 1900 there were 7 million Chinese people in the treaty ports, immune from Chinese law. The Qing objective was to isolate foreign contact to specific places which had worked up to a point but by 1900 the huge population of Chinese under foreign laws undermined the government's ability to rule the whole country.
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Tue 18th May

Number of Christians in China

The number of Christians in China is quite hard to estimate. Although Christianity is no longer banned there are restrictions and supervision that has made many Christians to form informal 'underground' churches. Also, many Chinese Christians will also consider themselves Buddhist, Daoists and so on because faith is not considered exclusive. Total numbers are roughly estimated to be between 30 and 60 million (2019).
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Mon 17th May

Residence permits

In America and the European Union there is a right of free movement. People can seek employment and residence where ever they wish within the whole region. When people move they take their rights to public service with them. In China the situation is different. For access to housing, police, schools and hospitals you need a residence permit (hukou). In many places these are hard to obtain. There are many cases of hardship because one partner in a marriage could not obtain a permit to be with their other half.
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bamboo
A bamboo grove. Image by Manfred Heyde available under a Creative Commons license