End of the Season

The full moon, a lantern festival, and eating little balls of yumminess called
汤圆 tangyuan and its the end of the season  of the Chinese New Year.


Fireworks went off (again),


people ate out or in,


and the compulsory sticky sweet balls of 汤圆 tangyuan were eaten all over the country.

The New Year’s officially over but the Monkey promises to hang around, and keep up with his trickery when we least expect it!




ling long

is the sound made when carved crystals touch each other and tinkle…..


Chinese does not have an alphabet as such, but it does have component parts.

They are called 部首 bushou or in English, “radicals”, and there’s hundreds of them. Under the Kangxi system, 214 radicals, in fact.

crystals 027

In our tinkling of gemstones, the first word, 玲 ling ,on one side is 土tu or earth, and the other side is 令 which is simply a classifying word. It’s a mistake to think that all characters are pictorial – often there is a meaning symbol and a sound symbol. In this case, the right side radical is a sound syllable.


The next word is also made up of the earth radical土tu, and on the other side is 龙 which means dragon.

the traditional character for dragon

I used to imagine 玲珑 ling long meant ‘the sound that a crystal carved as a dragon made when it bumped other crystals” – but that’s are rather imaginary poetic vision….. really it just an onomatopoeic word which means “tinkle” –

Or, in plain English, often used to mean exquisite – like this

珑 long – carved dragon . (“crystal dragon” should   really should be written as 水晶龙 shuijinglong , ) but i like the poetry of the characters  玲珑

The picture is very much like one I have, but taken from http://yingyujade.com/products/classic-chinese-jade-dragon-carving as I cant find my photo!

From the exquisite carved crystal dragon, and the sound it makes as it tinkles against other gemstones, we fall into a discussion about  the “alphabet” in traditional Chinese writing systems! It’s  complicated, poetic, and difficult to learn …. but… welcome to…




ling long sheng huo guan

“ling long” life station.

or something like that 🙂

The careful selection of calligraphy brushes

A range of brushes, each with differing lengths and thickness –  even material from which the brush is made – are used for varying styles of calligraphy.

Brushes are dipped into an inkstone, wiped carefully to allow excess ink to leave the brush.

The brush must be held correctly, at proper angle.

Single words, or phrases, poems or quotes are written,

carefully, with thought and focus.

Calligraphy and painting by Meizi.

Sometimes paintings are added, or sometimes a painting is made, and calligraphy is added. The arts of Chinese painting and calligraphy complement each other, in  a dance of movement and grace.

After each careful stroke, the brushes are washed.

There are many forms of script in China.

Seal script and modern script counterposed.

The calligrapher gives thoughtful consideration to which script she will use,


the type of brushes she will use, and attentively makes each brush stroke a work of art, each stroke adding texture and depth to the formed character.

Calligraphy is a work of art, a meditation, an exercise in focus, calm, and beauty.


 I owe a debt of gratitude to Meizi for her beautiful calligraphy and photos.

San Zuo Qiao – Three Bridges

I’ve long been fascinated by bridges – I’m always photographing them. To me they symbolise humanity’s attempts to overcome obstacles, to create union and communication where hitherto there was none, and mainly to not succumb to the immense powers of nature and misfortune but to determine to overcome obstacles and “build bridges” between opposing grounds, points of view, peoples.

Tonight  I stumbled upon Desley Jane’s pictures of one of my favourite bridges – the Storey Bridge in my hometown. Desley Jane in turn inspired Perelincolours Three Bridges of Berlin. In blog-bridge inspiration category, it would be remiss of me to not include the remarkable bridge in the equally remarkable Lucile de Godoy’s Bridging Lacunas – long a reminder I must “do a bridge post” one of these days.

Desley and Perelincolours invite us to share three bridges, so today and tonight ( after all, time is quite irrelevant when we are aboard spaceship china) I am bringing you three Chinese bridge pictures.

Not necessarily my three favourite bridges  – my favourite bridge in the world in fact, is the feature picture – Willow Bridge in Hangzhou, so I’m getting around the ‘three bridges’ rule by including a feature photo.

The Rainbow Bridge, Mudu, Jiangsu, China

Mudu is a small township not far from Suzhou, in the province of Jiangsu. It’s a water town, full of many classic-style bridges.

MuDu 101

Along the waterways straddled by stone bridges, people go about their daily lives much as they have for centuries past.

View from canal near Rainbow Bridge, Mudu.

Far away in Guizhou province, the Miao people – one of China’s 56 nationality groups – have a traditional style bridge.

Bridge in Guizhou

It’s called the Wind and Rain Bridge.Wind and Rain  Bridges are common to Miao and Dong peoples in Guizhou  and often feature as the entrance to their villages. Usually quite long, they are constructed with pagodas atop to help people shelter from the wind and rain.

The Wind and Rain Bridge leads to one side of the Miao village, where houses perch atop the steep hill.

The Bridge is a nice place to stop, meet friends and chat, or take in a view of the green surrounds.

Not a nail was used in the construction of this elaborately carved bridge.

Finally, going much further back to some unspecified time BC, but probably around the time of the Zhou dynasty, before Qin Shi Huang invaded other nations states, united them under one rule and gave his own name to what we now call “China”, there was a  state called Shu, nestled between mountains on all sides in the green luxuriousness of what we now call Sichuan province. In 1929 a group of farmers – as often happens in China – stumbled upon some amazing historical artefacts buried in the ground. They were unlike anything else ever seen before –

Sanxingdui mask on Spaceship China

The mysterious culture was given the name Sanxingdui, meaning Three Star Mound. A musuem was built on the exact site of the find, which is now believed to be the capital city of the ancient state of Shu. The entrance to the museum is over an old stone arch bridge – noone is too sure how old this bridge is, but it’s style is certainly  in keeping with the Chinese stone arch tradition, with localised Shu characteristics.

Chengdu 2015 055

The stylised lines and patterns are similar to the unusual patterns carved into Sanxingdui statues. Noone knows their meaning, however some theorise they may have been a written language of the ancient Shu.

Patterns on a rooster – a relic from Sanxingdui

The ancient bridge leading into Sanxingdui is actually not just one bridge, but a series of three, so we have three bridges nestled into three bridges.

To say “three bridges” in Chinese, you will need three words.


san zuo qiao

san  means three, and 座 zuo usually means ‘sit’, but in this case is one of those mysterious things in Chinese grammar called “measure words”. A measure word is bascially a classifier, and comes before the noun and after the number – i.e. – three “classifying word” bridges.

The word for bridge itself, 桥, is a fascinating word. Chinese characters are composed of things called “radicals” which are basically part of a character. In this case, the left side radical is  木, mu which means wood. On the right hand side at the top is 天 which means sky or heaven, and beneath it are two lines which don’t really form a radical by themselves, but are similar to a radical with a line through two lines 廾gong ,  meaning two hands.

Even though the ‘etymology’ is not correct, it helps me to remember how to write the word for bridge by recalling that bridges in ancient times were made of wood, hands built with wood to reach to heaven.

250 ~ er-bai-wu

Unless you are Chinese, you might be wondering why I am titling a post 250. No, it’s not one of those wordpress glitches that happens when you forget to put a title on the post and wordpress asigns a random number.

250 – 二百五 er bai wu – has a special meaning in Chinese language.

There’s another way to say the number 250, and thats 两百五 – liang bai wu.

Notice the character 两 -visually it suggests “double” with the doubed symbol at the top. It could be suggested that  两 means “a couple of”  but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I was walking past the sunday markets opposite my apartment the other day, and saw a couple of nice clothes. Of course, I got into bargaining – it becomes habitual, obligatory even, after a while. The stall holder wanted over 300 kuai for two lovely linen shirts. Okay, one was 手工 – shou gong, handmade. “handmade” doesn’t sound all that fantastic in English, but in China, especially Suzhou, it invokes painstaking handicraft to produce something fabulous.

Like this –

Hand embroidered skirt from the Miao people, Yunnan

– the lovely and incredibly intricate hand embroidered skirt from Yunnan.

I offered 200. Ridiculously low. 290 became his offer.

I suggested 250.

He countered with 260.

By this time, the passersby, also browsing his skirts and dresses, began to chuckle.

Why? Well, because 250 – 二百五 er bai wu has another meaning in Chinese. Usually shopkeepers will say  两百五 – liang bai wu if the total is 250.

You see, 二百五 er bai wu means a bit silly. Not the full quid. A 傻瓜 shagua, a dumb melon.

He stuck to his 260.

“I don’t have any more money in my purse,” became my next offer. I really didn’t. I showed him.

“You can swipe the card,” he countered, bringing out his card-swiping machine. That started a whole new conversation with the passersby, about the market stall holder even having one of those machines. He decided to milk the opportunity.

“Okay, okay, 二百五 er bai wu.”

hand-embroidered detail on shirt

Everyone laughed, he got some more customers, and I got my two new linen shirts – one with shougong – hand stiched embroidery. Everybody happy.

No-one     二百五 er bai wu !


The Poetry of Silk

Some may say that SILK, in its multifarious beauty, and the many intricate ways it is woven to make a multitude of beautiful products, is like a poem – a creative expression which captures something essential about the way human’s interact with the world.

For those following these series of silken posts, clicking this link will take you to an informative article explaining the specialities of Suzhou silk culture.

Today we turn to more literate endeavours. Silk as a metaphor or subject is scattered throughhout the literature of China. It appears in ancient poems and famous books, such as the Shi Jing, an ancient classical book of poetry, and the Dream of Red Mansions ( one of China’s most famous classical novels).

Idioms stemming from these literate works have spun into everyday expressions in Chinese.

Zuo jian zi fu, coming from a line of Tang dynasty poet, means to spin a web around oneself, just like a silkworm – to get caught up in one’s own web.

Jin shang tian hu came from a line in a poem from the Song dynasty, meaning adding flower to brocade – making what is good even better, being blessed with double good fortune.

——Would you like to have a n xiu qian cheng – a brocade and emroidery like future? Sure you would. It means a wonderful, splendid future!

You might, then Yi jin huan xiang ,return to your home wearing brocade robes –

come home in with riches to celebrate your great good fortune.

—- Manchu court official robes from Qing dynasty. Picture borrowed from http://citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-30064-chinas_last_emperors_wore_some_cool_threads.html

Wishing you all to    return home in brocade robes ….

Borrowed Words

When cultures intermingle, languages collide. “Borrowed words” are words taken from one language and used in another language to represent new things, things that didn’t exist prior to the arrival of new people, from a new culture.

Take, for example, the word “coolie” – we all know it means a Chinese labourer. That’s an example of a borrowed word that entered the English vocabulary from a Chinese term.

 kǔlì simply means bitter labour.  When you’ve seen the lines of men lined up in the street at certain spots in every city, each carrying placards saying things like “wood worker”, “electrician”, “general labourer”, and you see them day after day, you come to a new understanding of the term. Bitter labour indeed, waiting for a job to buy rice for the family.

Words also go the other way. The usual manner of introducing foreign words into Chinese, is to find existing words that sound someone like the foreign word

Take  another ku, this one pronounced with a downward inflection, 酷 ku  originally meant ruthless, or strong when referring to wine. It has come to mean something completely different, a word which also has a newer meaning in English  – cool. So that handsome guy carrying the new iphone 6 might be  酷 ku

If you’re hungry, and you want to try some western fast food, you can have a

汉堡 hanbao.  汉 hàn​   is the word referring to the majority ethnic group in China, the Han – and by default meaning Chinese – and 堡​ bǎo is a fortress. I suggest you don’t start thinking too much about etymology next time you are eating a hamburger – munching on a Chinese fortress isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

three bright harness   might do if you want something a tad more healthy –  can you guess what   三明治 san ming zhi   might mean?

三 san is three, 明 ming means bright, and 治 zhì is either to rule, to govern, or to harness.  A three bright harness?

Any guesses ….. hint… just think of the sound, not the meaning. Remember, it’s a borrowed word, with Chinese characters used for the sound key only.​

Then there’s the new social groups. Sure you know what a

雅痞 (yǎ pǐ)  is – that’s right – a yuppie.

There’s another Chinese word  for young urban professionals though –蚁族 (yǐ zú  – the Ant Tribe.

Which one do you prefer? I’d go for the ant tribe, myself !

Oh, and 三明治 san ming zhi  is a sandwich.

Mandarin and Cantonese – language or dialect?

The common language spoken in China is called 普通话 Putonghua – known in English as Mandarin. Putonghua simply means “the common language” and is based on Beijing dialect. Mandarin became the official language of China in 1949 ( although scholars had agreed on the Beijing dialect as the choice of common language as early as 1932)

Other countries have a number of dialects which adopted a national language – the Tuscan dialect became standard Italian after the Unification of Italy in 1861.

There are many regional ‘dialects’ in China, some comprehensible to other dialects, others not. Dialects similar to Mandarin are found in the north. In the southern province of Guangdong, Cantonese is spoken, thus Hong Kong is a largely Cantonese speaking area.

However even with these broad provincial characteristics, there are also regional differences within townships and villages. Travelling in rural Guangdong some time back I noticed differences from town to town simply in the pronunciation of ‘hello’. In Suzhou, the ‘dialect’ is Wu speech, and many people from rural areas around Suzhou have come to live here. Once I asked two friends who had come from villages north or Suzhou – the villages were about 100 kilometre apart – if their local dialects were similar. They laughed for some time and finally replied – “no, we can’t understand each other”! They use Mandarin to talk with each other.

Cantonese is probably the most diverse language or dialect from Mandarin – its tonal structure and even grammar at times is different, and phrases are used with are dissimilar to phrases which would be used for the same meaning in Mandarin.

Linguists argue if it is a ‘dialect’ or separate language.

To determine that, it’s important to understand exactly what a ‘dialect’ is.

The word dialect came into the English language via the Greek term dialektos which meant the language spoken by people in different (Greek) cities ( and often had specialized functions).

The word ‘dialect’ is usually used today meaning different, localized forms of the same language.

In Chinese, the written script is the great unifier, and if the written script were taken as the definer, various Chinese ‘languages’ would be taken as being ‘dialects’.

However spoken language is a different matter – the ‘rule of thumb’ to classify languages as dialects or otherwise is are those languages mutally comprehensible. For Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese, the answer is simply “no”.

There are two more important factors in the “language or dialect” debate. One is paramount – language is more than a communication system, it is also a social and political construct. Those in power determine which ‘dialect’ or pronunciation system is ‘correct’ and people whose pronunciation systems are slightly different are said to be speaking ‘ in dialect’.

Thus political determinations influence when dialects are determined languages – for example many Scandanavian languages are mutually comprehensible but Danish, Swedish etc are determined “languages” and not “dialects’ because politically they are different countries.

The second problem in determining the difference is the term ‘dialect’ in Chinese.

This term is 方言fangyan in Chinese – literally ‘place language’ meaning a regional form of speech. Victor Muir, who has published on the world wide web a number of interesting papers in the field of Sinology, suggested a new term be used, called “topology” which reflects the meaning of the Chinese term ‘fangyan’. Scholars have also noted that the Chinese languages systems form one of a kind in the world.

Julie Groves has done one of the first comprehensive surveys of how Cantonese and Mandarin speakers perceive the differences. Her findings show that the respondents of her survey consider the differences in language are due to regional and political differences, not “mutual comprehensibility”.

Mandarin speaking Mainland Chinese are more likely to view Cantonese as a dialect, while the majority of Cantonese speakers themselves also see it as a dialect, although there are regional differences between Mainland Chinese Cantonese speakers and Hong Kong Cantonese speakers. Linguistic autonomy is one reason given for the respondents choice of classification.

Interestingly, within the Cantonese speaking population, Hong Kong respondents believed their version of Cantonese as being the “standard” whilst those living on the mainland believed theirs to be “standard”. Once again, social and political constructs influence what determines ‘standard’ language.

Groves’ study also showed that Cantonese speakers in southern China – the province of Guangdong – were more likely to consider Cantonese as a thriving, separate ‘language’ that that of Hong Kong Chinese.

Groves’ conclusion was that ‘topology’ would be a better term to represent the differences in language as it is spoken in Greater China than ‘dialect’.

In short, the answer to whether Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects or separate langauges is best summed up by another Chinese phrase –

复杂fùzá – it’s complicated!

Notes: Groves has also pointed out that many European languages are based on Latin yet they are classified as separate languages. She suggests this may be similar to the diverse Chinese ‘topological’ languages. A Spanish speaker may easily learn Italian due to similarities in pronunciation however learning a Scandanavian language might be more difficult. (Spanish and Italian, though similar and both having Latin as a base, are deemed different ‘languages’ because of social and political reasons, not linguistic.)Differences within English speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, USA and Great Britain are quite minor in comparison and there is obviously “mutual comprehension” between national and regional accents within the English language.

For further reading,

Victor Mair’s original 1991 paper suggesting “topology” as a better term for the differences in Chinese regional speech can be found here

Julie Groves comparative study between Cantonese and Mandarin based on local perceptions can be found here 

and for an analysis on the grammatical and linguistic differences between Mandarin and Cantonese see Xiaoheng Zheng’s study here


What does warm mean to you? The word probably conjures up visions of tropical beaches and sunshine.

In this cold winter, I am certainly thinking about the warmth of my Queensland home – it’s a warm, late summer, there right now.

When we read the word ‘warm’ we immediately have a visual or sensory image of what that word means. But do we consider the letters ‘w’ ‘a’ ‘r’ and ‘m’? Probably not, unless we are a first-grader, or someone just learning the English language.

In Chinese, the word for warmth looks like this


It is composed of two ‘radicals’ – smaller symbols which added together make a written word or Chinese ‘character’.

暖 nuǎn ,   is made of




meaning love.

 Warmth is the sun’s love.

 The word  暖    is one of my favourite characters – it encapsulates the beauty and poetry of the Chinese written language.


Warmth is the sun’s love.

The calligraphy from the header image of 暖 is taken from a Chinese dictionary. the calligraphy is written by Hong Liang Ji, a famous Qing dynasty scholar.

Just so-so Horse and Tiger

Any language has its common sayings, which seem hilarious to people from other cultures.

I translated the English expression “raining cats and dogs” once – and everyone, here in China, just looked at me like I was mad.

But then, people are always telling me that I am ‘chaos seven’.

乱七八糟 luàn qī bā zoo

Well, ‘chaos seven and eight messy’ to be exact.  My working desk has papers scrawled everywhere – some see this as a ‘big mess’ – but i just see it as being busy.

乱七八糟 luàn qī bā zào     –  

 chaos seven eight messy

 Often enough, non-native speakers pick up on sayings they think are used regularly in the foreign language. “Just so so” is one of those annoying phrases you will here often enough spoken by Chinese people with fluent English.  I mean who says that any more?  ( did anyone ever say it, about something they were ambivalent about?)

I prefer the Chinese expression. You’ll hear it regular in China, and it’s a favourite one used by anyone learning just a smidgen of Chinese.

To express my ambivalence, about a meal, a movie, a person, a city – just about anything really, I can just say, “horse horse tiger tiger”

馬馬虎虎.  Mǎmǎ hǔhǔ


Like most things in China, and all idioms, there is a story that dates back a millenium or two. Or three even.  In this case, it’s about a painter who had finished a beautiful painting of a tiger. A customer came in and asked to buy a painting of a horse, so the painter made a few quick strokes and hey presto, he has a horse painting to sell.

hence :   馬馬虎虎.  Mǎmǎ hǔhǔ

There’s a bit more to the story though.  The painter’s son, seeing a tiger when he was out hunting, thought a horse was a tiger, so shot it and had to recompense the horse’s owner. The second son thought a tiger was a horse and went to pat it.

He got eaten.

Did you enjoy this post? Or is it just so much horse-horse-tiger tiger!

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