Episode 196: Ostrich

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In Chinese ostrich is called TuoNiao 鸵鸟. I am always curious about the name because Tuo 驼 means camels and Niao means birds. I though maybe ostrich kind of look like camels. But I am not convinced.




Until I saw a mythical animal recorded in the book TaiPingYuLan 太平御览, a book complied from the year 977 to 983 during the Song dynasty 宋朝. In the book, it says during the reign of Emperor GaoZong of Tang 唐高宗 around the year 650, the Kingdom of Tocharians 吐火罗gifted the emperor a big bird. Tocharians were Indo-European people who inhabited in the area of Xinjiang, the west-northern China today in ancient times. XinJiang is in the northeastern of Afghanistan today if you don’t know. The big bird was more than 2 meters tall and its feet looked like the feet of camel. I guess this is where the name is from. I checked the pictures of the feet of ostriches and camels and they do look alike. The bird has wings and can fly. They can run 300 miles per day and eats bronze and iron. Some people call it TuoNiao. The emperor considered his father Emperor TaiZong of Tang cared about the people from far away, he let people carved the bird in his cemetery.



Although this description is a little bit off the fact, it is pretty obvious it is about ostrich. Another earlier record about ostrich is from the book Book of the Later Han 后汉书covering the history from the year 25 to 220 compiled around the year 400. In the book, it also mentioned the bird has camel feet. It is amazing to see the trading in the ancient time since ostriches only live in Africa.



太平御览 TaiPingYuLan

后汉书 Book of the Later Han

Episode 173: Fish Oil

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Last time we talked about LanFuYu 懒妇鱼, a mythical fish in Chinese mythology. The fish oil can be used for lanterns or candles which light when you play musical instruments or play chess but not the light would be gone if you use it when spinning loom.


The fish oil from LanFuYu was forbidden to use during the reign of Wu of Tang 唐武宗, between the year 814 to 846. Maybe there was a reason and there is a story from the book DaTangGuYan 大唐瞽言 that we might find the answer.

In the book, it says, in the year 825, there were two people Mr. Zhao 赵 and Mr. Li 李 from the place called JiangLing 江陵. They went to attend the Imperial Examination together. On the way, they stayed in a hotel and lived in the same room. There were many other people staying in the same hotel were also on their way to attend the exam.

One day, people gathered together to have dinner. Mr. Zhao said, there was a famous fish oil from his hometown that if you light it at night while studying, you would get extra energetic and better memory like coffee today. He gave some to each of them in small cans. The fish oil is ivory and smelled nice. People thanked Mr. Zhao for his generosity.

Mr. Zhao also went to other hotels and gave the oil to more people needed to study for the examination. At night, Mr. Li used the fish oil to light the candles. Not after too long, he felt extremely tired and sleepy and fell asleep on the table. Night after night, he fell asleep right after he started to study. So did other people except Mr. Zhao. He looked fine.

After the examination, Mr. Zhao got one of the top rankings. This should be the start of his successful life. Weirdly, the next day, Mr. Zhao was found dead in his room in the hotel. It was in the morning, someone knocked at his door but nobody answered. The owner of the hotel opened the door and what he saw was a room full of water like an aquarium. I think it probably looked like the room in the movie Shape of Water. The table, chairs, beds, books everything were floating in the water. The door and the windows were open but the water was like frozen in an invisible box and stayed in the room. Mr. Zhao was floating in the water, naked. His face was deadly purple and some grayish white colored fish scales were clearly growing from his skin.



People standing out of the room were shocked. Mr. Zhao’s roommate Mr. Li touched the water. In a sudden, the water was unfrozen and flew everywhere. Everything floating including the dead body all fell on the floor.

Some people said Mr. Zhao was an evil fish spirit and wanted to get a high position in the palace to manipulate the emperor and killed by a Taoism priest. And some people think the fish oil was from the fish LanFuYu that made other people sleepy and failed the exam. But since he killed the fish, he got the revenge.

Of course, you might have a confusion like the author that Mr. Li was sleeping in the same room with Mr. Zhao and how could he not be in the room when it was filled with water? Nobody knew.



大唐瞽言 DaTangGuYan

Episode 172: Lazy Fish

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We have talked about mermaid and half fish half dragons in Chinese mythology. Today we will talk about a mythical fish called LanFuYu 懒妇鱼. Lan means lazy. Fu means women or wife. Yu means fish. So the name of the fish is lazy women.

In the book ShuYiJi 述异记from the Southern Dynasty 南朝, which is between the year 420 ~ 479, it says, the wife of the Yang 杨family was drowned by her sister in law and became a fish. The fish oil can be used for lanterns or candles which light when you play musical instruments or play chess but not the light would be gone if you use it when spinning loom. First I don’t know why the lady was killed by her sister in law. But in Chinese culture, there are always conflicts and tensions between a woman and her mother in law and also sometimes sister in law. After married, women had to move to live with her husband’s family and took all the responsibilities of households. Maybe this woman was not good at house work, after she became a fish, she still didn’t like doing housework. Her fish oil wouldn’t work for working like looming but would work for fun things like music and games.


Some historians think LanFuYu is based on the fish Andrias which only exist in China and Japan today. Some historians think LanFuYu is based on dolphins. I love dolphins and they are one of the smartest animals but they were unfamiliar for ancient Chinese people and there aren’t culturally positive effects. The most common descriptions in ancient Chinese texts is that they looked like pigs or cows. So the Chinese name for dolphins is Hai Tun 海豚- hai means sea and tun means pigs. In the book from Ming dynasty 明朝 and Qing dynasty 清朝. Books like YiBanLu 一斑录 , LuanZhouZhi 滦州志 and ShunTianFuZhi 顺天府志, they all mention that the sea pig or river pig is also known as LanFuYu. The meat of the fish is stinky but the fish oil can be used for light. I think most Chinese don’t know about LanFuYu and the relationship between them and dolphins. The understanding of modern Chinese people are affected by the positive image of dolphins from the west.


Next time we will tell a story of someone used the fish oil from LanFuYu.



述异记 ShuYiJi

一斑录 YiBanLu

滦州志 LuanZhouZhi

顺天府志 ShunTianFuZhi

Episode 169: Jinhua Cats

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In most cultures, people see cats as a mysterious animals. We love cats and sometimes are afraid of them cause they are so unpredictable. There are many stories in Chinese mythology and today we will talk about one kind of cats called Jinhua Cats 金华猫.



Jinhua is a place in China. In the book MaoYuan 猫苑, a book about cats from the Qing dynasties 清朝, around 19th century. It says, after a Jinhua cat has been kept in the house for three years, every midnight, the cat would jump on the roof of the house and open its mouth towards the moon. So the cat can obtain the essence of the moon.



Day after day, the cat can become a spirit. It would go back to the deep mountains and valleys. It stays in during the day and when the sun set, it would come out to seduce people. It transforms to a handsome man if it meets a woman and to a beautiful woman if it meets a man. Sometimes, the cat would sneak into some people’s houses. The first thing the cat does is to pee into the water bottle. If people drink the water, the cat would be invisible to them. Moreover, the people who drank the water would be sick. Once this happened, the family of the person covered a green clothes on the him at night and after a while, some cat hair showed on the clothes. The family then found a hunter to help. The hunter came with a few dogs to catch the cat in the house. After the cat was caught, the hunter pealed the cat’s skin and cooked its meat. The patience soon recovered after having the cat meat. However this doesn’t work if the cat’s gender is the same with the patience.



In the book YiJianZhi 夷坚志from the Southern Song dynasty 南宋, around the 12th century, it says in the place called LinAn 临安, there was a girl was haunted by some evil spirit. She met a young and handsome man. Whatever the man asks for she would do for him. The young man could sing and speak like a normal person however nobody else could see him except the girl. In the end, an old man figured it was the cat spirit and also is known as the Jinhua cat and killed it.





猫苑 MaoYuan

夷坚志 YiJianZhi

Episode 161: Chinese Gargoyle

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Today we will talk about about Chinese gargoyle that have been sitting on the top of roofs for hundreds and thousands of years.

The name for those Chinese gargoyle is called roof charms 檐兽. It is interesting that in both European architecture and Chinese architecture, they are both an important part. Gargoyle or originally from the French gargouille is designed to convey water from a ruff to prevent rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar between. Similarly, Chinese gargoyle, usually made of Chinese glazed roof tile, is to protect wooden pillars and metal nails from water. Due to the structure of the ancient Chinese architecture, there are different Chinese gargoyle on different parts of the roof. There are WenShou 吻兽, DunShou 蹲兽, ChuiShou 垂兽, QiangShou 戗兽 , TaoShou 套兽 and XianRenZouShou 仙人走兽.

Actually we have talked about WenShou or WangShou 望兽in Ep 89 in our podcast, the ninth son of the dragon is called ChiWen 鸱吻. If you are interested, please check that episode.

Today we will mainly talked about XianRenZouShou 仙人走兽 placed on the ridge line of official buildings of the Chinese empire. A row of figures made of glazed ceramic form an outward marching procession along the ridges. There are usually an odd number of them. The more figures there are the more important the building is. There is one exception though that the Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿 in the Forbidden City 紫禁城 in Beijing has 10 figures, which is an even number and also the largest number.The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the location where the emperors of the Ming 明朝 and Qing 清朝 dynasties hosted their enthronement and wedding ceremonies.


What are those figures?

At the head of the procession is a man riding a phoenix or a chicken which was based on Kalaviṅka in Sanskrit and 迦陵頻迦 in Chinese, an immortal creature with a human head and a bird’s torso with long flowing tail in Buddhism. There are different versions of the stories of the man, we will talk about it in our future episode.



The first mythical beast on in the procession is dragon, which represents royalty and the emperor. Some version say it is ChiWen, the ninth son of the dragon we just mentioned. ChiWen looks like a hybrid of a fish and a dragon.


The second mythical beast is Chinese phoenix represents noble people or more accurately noble men in the ancient times. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace. We have talked about Chinese phoenix in our Ep. 100. Please check it out.


The third mythical beast is the lion, the king of all beasts that represents bravery and protector in temples.


The fourth mythical beast is the heavenly horse that chasing after wind and the sun which represents the pride and exploration of new horizon.


The fifth mythical beast is the sea horse that represents loyalty, bravery and wisdom.


The sixth is Suan Ni 狻猊 , the fifth son of the dragon that we have talked about in our Ep. 89, a mythical creature that is quite and likes to sit down and can be found on the bases or at the feet of a Buddhist idols or a Buddhist incense burner. SuanNi looks like a hybrid of a lion and a dragon. It represents good omen.


The seventh is Xia Yu 狎鱼, a mythical creature in the sea that it can summon wind and storm. Since many buildings were made of wood, Xia Yu can prevent fire with water.


The eighth is Xie Zhi 獬豸, Chinese unicorn. A super wise mythical animal that understands people, which represents the law and justice.


The ninth is Dou Niu 斗牛,a mythical creature similar to dragon but without horns. Similar to Xia Yu, it can control water. Since the name Niu means null, the figure looks like a hybrid of dragon and ox.


The last one is called Hang Shen 行什 , which pronounced like “ranked tenth” in Chinese. It looks like a monkey person with wings and holding a mental pole. Some people say he is the God of Thunder. We have talked about God of Thunder in Chinese mythology in our episode 109. There are different images of God of Thunder throughout the history and a monkey person is one of them, which a good blessing that protect the architecture from lightning.