Dance like the phoenix, sing like the luan

Luan bird, usually blue but said to be red in the 《说文解字》

鳳舞鸞歌(凤鸾)fèng wǔ luán gē
Lit: Dance like the phoenix, sing like the luan,
Fig. describes an outstanding performance (of singing and dancing)

The Chinese phoenix is not reborn from the ashes of a fire like the Western one, rather it is best known as the mythical king of the birds, and had many associations with Confucianism and academia.

The luan is best known from the epic Chinese bestiary The Classic of Mountains and Seas (《山海經》), a bird of blue plumage that inhabits wild idylls. Like the phoenix, it appears when the nation is at peace, and when songs are sung in praise of a just and great ruler. A luan bird is said to have been presented as a tribute by northwestern tribes to King Cheng of Zhou as a symbol of submission to his virtuous rule.


Pet dragons

The character 寵(宠) is a picture of a dragon under a roof, and originally meant to revere or honour (尊崇 zūn chóng) because if you have a dragon in your house you better be really polite.*

Later the meaning broadened and mellowed, you’ve probably seen it as:

寵愛(宠爱) chóng ài to dote on someone

As a grandma dotes on her grandchildren. But this can go too far and then you get

寵壞(宠坏) chóng huài to spoil a child

And from these meaning it did not take long to evolve into

寵物(宠) chóng wù (house) pet

Like a dog, cat or (small) dragon.  

* The character 寵(宠) goes back three thousand years to the Western Zhou dynasty, and has not changed in all that time: Actually it’s just a simple radical / phonetic construction, the roof radical 宀 (mián, usually known as 宝盖头) is used with characters meaning respect (官 guān official, 宦 huàn officialdom) while 龙 lóng is just there for the sound.

Bole judges a horse

Bole judges a horse

Bole (伯樂 bó lè) was a legendary judge of horses, said to be the inventor of equine physiognomy (相馬 xiàng mǎ, evaluating a horse’s qualities from appearance). He was so exceptional that even today in modern Chinese his name is used as a byword for judging hidden talent:

伯樂相馬 (乐马) bó lè xiàng mǎ
Literally: Bole judges a horse
Figuratively: To be an outstanding judge of someone’s (hidden) gifts or talent.

Bole judges an intern

Bole had the courtesy (honourific) name of Sun Yang (孫陽 sūn yáng), and so was sometimes known as Sun Bole. He worked as horse groom for the Duke Mu of Qin (秦穆公qín mù gōng, r. 659-621 BCE) during the Spring and Autumn period *.

Horses were never really a Han Chinese thing, even through to the Qing dynasty the best horses were always thought to be foreign bred and brought in from abroad. And there was no ‘horse culture’ as such, not as compared to China’s nomad neighbours. But that’s why horses (and horse trainers and grooms) were held in such esteem – they are what protected the country from the Mongolians, Jurchen and Xiongnu invaders. Bole was not the only famed judge of horses (ten are mentioned in Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals 吕氏春秋), and once you get to the Three Kingdoms era horses themselves are named and feature prominently in the story (more on these in another post).

* The Spring and Autumn period (春秋時代) ran from 771 to 476 BC, and is a golden age of Chinese culture. It gave us Confucius, Laozi, Mozi, Sunzi (The Art of War), and Lu Ban (China’s Daedalus). This is the Chinese late bronze age: In Chinese history you have the possibly mythical Xia, the exotic Shang with it oracle bones (the first time the Chinese were trounced by nomads on horseback), then the first recognizably Han Chinese dynasty with the Zhou starting 1046 BC. Halfway through the Zhou dynasty the place fractures into little feudal kingdoms, so instead of calling the latter half of the dynasty the (Eastern) Zhou, it’s split into the Spring and Autumn period and later the Warring States.

Feng Zikai award and book

非常感謝六哥給我和豐子愷研究會牽線搭橋(讀庫也做了《護生畫集》的超漂亮的版本),我就有機會認識研究會理事印樹葳先生(嗨Steven :),專門從上海過來大理送豐子愷先生90高齡的女兒豐一吟的贈書(豐子愷先生的孫子豐羽代贈),我榮幸得無法形容。明年有機會參選豐子愷漫畫獎,心情激動,好期待!

Roughly this says, ‘To Jason and Cecilia Pym, from Feng Yu, on behalf of my mother Feng Yiyin’

On Thursday, Steven Yin (印樹葳 yìn shù wēi) and his fiancée Ye Nan (葉楠 yè nán) flew over from Shanghai to visit me in Dali. Steven is in his last years of his Phd at Jiaotong University, studying the history of science, while Ye Nan is involved in organ transplant research. Steven also happens to be the director of the Feng Zikai Research Society (豐子愷研究會的理事), and on behalf of the society invited me to take part in next year’s Feng Zikai Award for Comic Art (豐子愷漫畫獎), which of course is a huge honour, I’m amazed and somewhat overwhelmed that they asked me – Feng Zikai was one of China’s most famous and beloved comic book artists. They found me because my publisher Liu Ge, of Duku Publishing House, passed on a copy of A Dali Sketchbook to the Feng family (Duku has also put out a beautiful version of Feng Zikai’s Buddhist-inspired art, Paintings for the Preservation of Life 《護生畫集》). Apparently Feng Zikai’s daughter, a lady now in her 90s, liked my book enough that she suggested I take part in the competition, and sent a signed copy of her father’s biography. I’m amazed and very happy, though it is amazing how slowly time unfolds in the book world – A Dali Sketchbook came out two years ago, I thought it was already off the radar.

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A Dali Sketchbook – English language version now out

So finally I put together my only English language version of the book, you can find it as a PDF on Lulu or buy it from Gumroad here:

Picturesque Dali Prefecture sits in the foothills of the Himalaya, for a thousand years the central, bustling hub of China’s southern Silk Road. This book gathers in one volume the sketches and notes of British illustrator Jason Pym who has lived in Dali for more than a decade. Topics range from local cuisine, crafts, religion, history, flora and fauna, and everything in between.

I’m on national tv (!)

When promoting The Dali Sketchbook I was interviewed for local television and radio, but this is the first time I’ve been on national tv, CCTV13 the China Central Television news channel. It’s for a segment on foreigners living in China (‘I Love China’, 我爱你中国). Not sure why they picked me, but very happy they did – and it was filmed when my family were here over Christmas. Here tiz: