Category Archives: Culture



I highly recommend that everyone read this article by River Devora on “The Revolutionary Art of Hearth-Keeping.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters…and Huntress

Ashol Pan, eagle huntress. Credit: Asher Svidensky.

Ashol Pan, eagle huntress. Credit: Asher Svidensky.

Keen at Rotwork drew my attention to the Kazakhs of Western Mongolia, who hunt with golden eagles. Upon following a link to the website of photographer Asher Svidensky (follow the link to see some amazing pictures), I discovered that at least one young woman has taken up this tradition, which historically was restricted to men:

I’ve learned that Mongolia’s rough surface and difficult climate were the reason that the eagle hunting art was meant for men alone. I thought to myself that in a country where seventy percent of its educated population are women, and most of its education institutes are run by females – is it possible to think that the future of the art of eagle hunting tradition could also lean on feminine shoulders? I had gone looking for my eagle huntress.

I found her in the form of Ashol Pan, the daughter of an experienced eagle hunter around Han Gohadok, which is south of Ulgii. She was perfect. I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the grand eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.

At the end of the photographing session, I sat down with her father and the translator to say my goodbyes, and I asked him this:

“How did it feel watching your daughter dressed in Kazakh uniform, on a mountain top, sending the eagle off and calling it back again?”

“Very good.”

“And honestly… would you have considered truly training her? Would she become Mongolia’s first ever female eagle huntress?”

I expected a straightforward “No” or a joking “Maybe”, but after a short pause he replied:

“Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army, and he’s now an officer, so he probably won’t be back with the tradition. It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn’t dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.”

From the father’s answer I realized that the idea of women’s participation in keeping the tradition is a possible future, but just like many other aspect of Mongolian life, it’s an option which women will need to take on by themselves.

Ghost Heroes

Chu's boundaries in 260 BCE. Credit: Philg88.

Chu’s boundaries in 260 BCE. Credit: Philg88.

Last Saturday was Duanwu Festival, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The festival has ancient roots in early summer ceremonies to protect against plague, and also ceremonies to propitiate river spirits. It is most often associated now, however, with the poet Qu Yuan who lived in the state of Chu, and who committed suicide in 257 BCE when Chu was conquered by Qin. This conquest was a significant battle in the first unification of China, which led to rule by an Emperor rather than a feudal over-King. The name “China” actually comes from Qin. Here is one of Qu Yuan’s poems, the “Elegy for the National Martyrs” from the Songs of Chu, as quoted in Deng Ming-Dao’s The Lunar Tao:

They gripped the halberds of Wu, wore rhinoceros-hide armor.
Chariot hub crashed, short swords clashed.
Banners blotted out the sun, their foes charged like clouds.
Volleys of arrows answered each other, warriors vied to be first.

The enemy broke their ranks, trampled their lines.
The horse on the left died, the one on the right was slashed.
Chariot wheels seized in the dust, teams of horses fell tangled.
Raising jade drumsticks, they shouted and beat their drums.

Yet heaven’s season was against them, the powerful gods were angry!
Our staunchest men were slaughtered, left scattered on the field.
They went out, did not come back, will never return.
The plains lie empty, the roads stretch on.

They buckled on their long swords, raised their Qin bows.
Although their heads were hacked from their bodies, their hearts held no regret.
They were truly brave, such great warriors.
Strong and powerful to the end, they were never cowed.

Their bodies may be dead, but their spirits have become gods.
Their souls are transformed, they are our ghost heroes! (152)

Today is the thirteenth day of the fifth lunar month, Guan Di’s birthday as a mortal [EDIT: festival, one of several throughout the year. Attributed by some sources as (one of) his birthday(s), celebrated by others as his son Guan Ping’s birthday or the day that he sharpened his blade — see comments below].

I’m posting this poem on this blog in his honor as well, for the last two stanzas apply to his life and apotheosis perfectly.

“Let the foreigners figure it out”

Painting by Zhao Mengfu. Public domain.

Painting by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322 CE). Public domain.

A writer named Nikhil Sonnad recently wrote an interesting article entitled “Happy lunar new year! But is it the year of the sheep or something else?” which deals with the difficulties of figuring out whether the animal (羊, yáng) associated with the current lunar year is a sheep or a goat (or a ram, though there’s actually nothing in the word 羊 to indicate the animal’s sex).

It’s a problem that only really comes to the forefront in translation, but the word 羊 is indeed ambiguous with regards to this question. However, Sonnad notes that “The Chinese-speaking world does seem to think less of the effort to make a distinction,” and indeed have mocked Westerners for their consternation:

The article mentioned above ridiculed the deployment of “so-called China experts” who were unable to resolve the issue.

Another article claims that “the Chinese Year of the Yang is driving the English-language media crazy.” […]

A Taiwanese friend told me that it refers to “yang in general.”

One user on microblogging service Sina Weibo said, “I believe yang is just a common term. Whether it means ‘goat’ or ‘sheep,’ let the foreigners figure it out.”

Another: “Whether it’s ram, goat, or sheep, everyone have a brilliant, prosperous, and joyful new year.”

In the Chinese sexagenary cycle, the year is actually called 乙未 (the first character is one of two Heavenly Stems which signify that the element of the year is Wood), but isn’t any actually more specific than .

Four Yang Square Zun, a Shang Dynasty vase. Creative Commons.

Four Yang Square Zun. Creative Commons.

There’s a Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 to 1046 BCE) bronze vessel decorated with four 羊 called the Four Yang Square Zun, but the horned creatures depicted could also be seen as either sheep or goats.

Sonnad comments that the one thing that can be said without doubt is that “Looking at the character’s history, it’s at least clear that it has always referred to an animal with horns. The earliest instances of yang have been passed down to us in the form of oracle bone inscriptions.” So there’s another shred of certainty: whatever 羊 refers to, they’ve been around in China for a long time.

Versions of on oracle bone inscriptions. Source: Chinese Etymology.

Versions of yang in oracle bone inscriptions. Source: via Quartz.

Sonnad’s article begins with a wry comparison with Matthew 25:31-2: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

As the Sina Weibo user said, “Let the foreigners figure it out.”

Cultural Appropriation Has Consequences

The point of talking about cultural appropriation isn’t to tell people what they can’t and can’t do (often a futile effort anyways), but to remind people that their actions have consequences. Guan Sheng Di said:

However, if your heart is full of evil and you do not do good things, lust after other people’s wives and daughters, break up their marriages, destroy their purity, ruin their skills, scheme for their wealth, instigate lawsuits, harm others in order to benefit yourself, rail against Heaven and Earth, slander the wise and virtuous, destroy statues of the gods, cheat the gods, wantonly kill living things, destroy good books, rely on force, slander the good, use wealth to oppress the poor, separate people from their relatives and brother from brother, not believe in the true path, lust, steal, go whoring, swindle others, act extravagantly, waste grain, are ungrateful, go against your conscience, use crooked weights and measures, set up false teachings, lead on the simpleminded, falsely say that someone has died, extort goods, cheat others, talk obliquely, curse people in broad daylight, scheme to hurt others behind their backs, not follow Heaven’s way, not make others happy, refuse to believe in karma, entice others to do evil, and do not even a bit of good yourself — Those who do such things will have reason to regret it. They will suffer fire, flood, and bandits. They will suffer plague, give birth to idiots, be destroyed themselves, and have their family line extinguished. Their sons will become thieves and their daughters whores. Retribution will fall upon them, their sons, and their grandsons. The gods see everything and don’t miss things even as tiny as a hair. Good and evil are two paths. Disaster and fortune are separate things. If you do good, you will have good fortune; if you do evil you will suffer misfortune. I tell you this to encourage you to act. Although my words are simple they are of great benefit. Those who make fun of my words will be destroyed. [Emphasis added].

Guan Di is “the protector of the Chinese ecumene” (Duara 789), the Chinese people and their world.

Don’t fuck with our shit.

Feng shui isn’t housecleaning tips for bored suburban housewives, it’s a system for finding auspicious locations to bury one’s ancestors and build one’s house, and to mitigate the effects of not having access to the most auspicious locations. Feng shui led Chinese people to topple telegraph poles and rip up railroad tracks. Don’t fuck with what you don’t understand.

Qi gong isn’t for New Agers, it’s for warriors.

Shaolin monks perform qigong, a type of traditional Chinese martial arts, during the opening ceremony of the fourth Southern Shaolin Martial Arts Cultural Festival in Putian city

Shaolin monk practicing qi gong. Credit: Ripleys.

Edit: This post originally quoted a speech attributed to Chief Seattle, which I’ve since learned was written by a white man, and is not authentic. Accordingly, the quote has been removed.

Laba Festival

Credit: Bugtiger, L. tak.

Laba porridge. Credit: Bugtiger, L. tak.

Today, the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, is Laba Festival (腊八节). According to Deng Ming-Dao’s The Lunar Tao:

Year-End Sacrifice on the Eighth Day, or the Laba Festival (Laba Jie), is a vestige of an old day of offering. La means “the year-end sacrifice” and “the twelfth moon.” Ba means “eight” and is a reference to the eighth day of the twelfth moon. The festival is also known as the Laji Festival, meaning the end-of-the-year festival. It originated more than three thousand years ago as a sacrificial ceremony in which the game captured during great hunts was offered to ancestors and gods.

By the Song dynasty (960-1279), Laba had also become an occasion for farmers to express their gratitude for good crops. Especially when the harvests had been good, the farmers showed their appreciation by making sacrifices to heaven and earth. In time, the Laba Festival’s main culinary symbol became Laba porridge.

Laba porridge consists of glutinous rice simmered with sugar for one hour and a half, with additional ingredients such as red beans, millet, sorghum, peas, dried lotus seeds, dried dates, mung beans, jujubes, peanuts, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, or lotus seeds. In the north, Labo porridge is a sweet dish, but in the south it is a savory dish with soybeans, peanuts, broad beans, taro, water chestnuts, walnuts, vegetables, and diced meats. People tend to select eight ingredients to add to the rice and sugar, probably as a reference to the eight of Laba, and also because eight is considered a lucky number. (396)

Bees in Ancient China

Detail, "Magnolia and Two Bees" by Qi Baishi (1864-1957)

Detail from “Magnolia and Two Bees” by Chinese painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957)

Constantine W. Lau is a biologist specializing in honey bee communication. His 2012 paper “Ancient Chinese Apiculture” details the long relationship between bees and humans throughout Chinese history.

Lau cites Eva Crane’s The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting to note that there are four species of honeybee native to China.

Lau suggests that some of the earliest mentions of bees in the Chinese historical record may occur on oracle bones dating to the Shang Dynasty:

In general, bees and wasps are called Feng [蜂] in Chinese, and honey bees are called Mi-feng [蜜蜂]. The earliest written record of bees is the Chinese character Feng in ancient inscriptions on animal bones dating back 3000 years (Zhou Yau 1990).

Later in the Zhou Dynasty (around 300 BCE), the Chinese character Mi, meaning honey, was recorded in the Book of [Rites], Li Ji, as a dietary recommendation (1993).

bees - oracle bone

Another character found on an oracle bone inscription may have a connection to bees as well:

[One form of the character for “Autumn”] had fire below the insect, which possibly meant the bee (hive) was being smoked and handled.

The earliest record of smoking a bee hive can be dated back to Song (960-1279) and the technique has been employed by the Chinese tribe of Dai for driving off hornets and the collection of larva from the nest since ancient times (Wild China, BBC 2008).

Detail from

The first description of bee hives portrayed them as a frightful monster:

[The] bee hive was first described in Shan Hai Jing [a highly mythological bestiary compiled during the early Han Dynasty].

It was a creature that looked like a human with two heads called Jiao-chong [that] lived in the Grain-Citadel Mountain. It was the leader of the stinging insects.

According to the description, it was possibly two big colonies of Apis dorsata hanging on a tree branch similar to those [pictured below].

Apis Dorsata Hives

Apis dorsata hives

Of course, there are some fairly monstrous members of Order Hymenoptera that live in East Asia:

[One ancient Chinese] document mentioned that the hive of the biggest Feng (no name offered) was as big as a wheel lid and [that] its deadly venom could kill a cow.

By matching the description with the list of native species in China, we can deduce that the bee is in fact a hornet, and its nest, along with the nests of wasps, was commonly known as the “bee nest” which [is] used in […] traditional Chinese medicine (Materia Medica).

Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia

Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia

The first records of beeswax candles being used in ceremony and of a professional beekeeper both date to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE):

Beeswax was harvested and made into candles (Mi-zhu) and given in offerings to the first Han Emperor (206-195 BCE). Soon after, there is the first record of a professional beekeeper. His name was Jiang-qi (158 CE-167 CE) [and he] had more than 300 servants working in his bee and pig farm (Zhou Yau 1980)

By the end of [the] Tang Dynasty (9th century CE), honey harvesting had become a very common business practice in China. The honey harvest had even become [a] nationally recorded event in the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE-1644 CE). It took place in the sixth month of the Chinese calendar (approximately July).

Today is the eleventh day of the sixth lunar month.

Finally, a note about the painting by Qi Baishi at the top of this post. In Chinese paintings, the bee often symbolizes “industriousness and thrift” (Cultural China, “Chinese Symbols and Art Motifs“).

ADDENDUM 7/27/2014: Read this article about spirit-work and massive bee die-off, and this uncanny response.