Glossary of Historical/Ancient Setting Terms
Here is a list of common terms that you might see in historical novels i.e. concepts that keep showing up in my footnotes 🙂
I mainly organize the terms in alphabetical order by pinyin.
Let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions for how to organize this better!
*This is a work in progress that I will be adding to periodically as I continue translating*
Updated until: WHI Chapter 79 | HLC Chapter 1pt.2
For more on Chinese culture and language, check out the resources on That’s Mandarin!
面子 (miànzì) Face
The collective perception of someone by others and it extends to all sorts groups – especially families.
One could gain face for one’s family (bringing honour to the family) by ascending in social rank and improving the collective perception and status of the family unit. This was also a form of filial piety.
Similarly, losing face for one’s family went against filial piety and had both moral and social consequences (i.e. if a young person of marriageable age was known for not showing filial piety, their reputation would be ruined and they wouldn’t be able to get married! – more serious for females).
Read more to learn about the concept of face.
孝道 (xiàodào) Filial Piety
A deeply-rooted Chinese cultural value that requires children to offer love, respect, support and deference to their parents, elders and ancestors, and by extension, to their country and its leaders. There are many interpretations but filial piety can be summed up by the following:
- Parents gave life to their children and provided for them. Therefore, their children have an eternal obligation and debt towards them that can never fully be repaid.
- To try and repay this debt, children are obliged to obey their parents’ wishes, take care of them in old age, and work hard to provide them with material comforts and social standing.
Filial piety could be considered the foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Chinese family unit, and society by extension.
分家 (fēnjiā) To divide up family property and live apart
Separating the household was a BIG DEAL in ancient times. Traditionally families would live all together so if one family separated from the rest, they would also need to split the family assets accordingly (or not because of schemes) and then each would live their own lives.
Related to the Palace/Imperial Harem
八分 (bāfèn) Eight Privileges: Privileges enjoyed by the six highest ranks in Imperial society. They were: Red carriage wheels, purple horse reins, heated carriages, purple cushions, gemstone mandarin hat crests, two-eyed peacock feathers on mandarin hats, use of leather whips to clear the path, and the employment of eunuchs.
伴读 (bàndú) Study Mate: A person hired to be a companion to children from a wealthy family. To my knowledge, it was usually children of nobility who were invited into the palace as study mates and playmates for the princes and princesses.
八议 (bāyì) Eight Deliberations: A set of legal principles used by ancient Chinese law to lessen legal punishment for members of royalty, nobility, and the upper class. The Emperor’s permission was required before any kind of interrogation or judgement could be carried out against offenders within these legally favoured categories.
- These groups were: relatives of the sovereign, old acquaintances of the sovereign, individuals of great virtue, individuals of great ability, meritorious individuals, high officials, individuals who were exceptionally zealous at their government duties, and guests of the sovereign (i.e. descendants of preceding imperial families).
赐死 (cì sǐ) Bestow Death: To commit suicide by imperial decree as a mark of imperial favour, so that one is spared the indignity of execution and could die with their body intact. Usually, the method is poisoned wine or hanging using a white strip of cloth.
大选 (dàxuán) The Grand Selection: A large draft for imperial concubines that occurred every three to five years. The women had to undergo a rigorous elimination process to be chosen. Read this article for specifics [Ming Dynasty]
地龙 (dìlóng) Underfloor Heating System: A type of underfloor heating system in which hot air/smoke is channelled under the floor to heat it up to keep the room warm. So far I’ve only seen it used in the context of the imperial palace and don’t know if regular homes had this too.
东西六宫 (dōngxī liùgōng) The Six Eastern and Western Palaces: Twelve palaces that housed the imperial consorts and concubines in the Forbidden City. There were three larger main palaces in the middle which were reserved for the Emperor and Empress and the Hall of Union in between them.
绝子汤 (juézǐ tāng) / 毙子汤 (bìzǐ tāng) / 断子汤 (duànzǐ tāng) A medicinal soup for infertility typically given to imperial consorts. [I’ve heard all three used in Chinese dramas]
冷宫 (lěngōng) The Cold Palace: Abandoned palace(s) to where concubines who have fallen out of favour are banished. Usually known for having poor living conditions and perhaps several madwomen.
龙涎香 (lóngxiáng xiāng) Ambergris: Dried whale vomit. It gives off a musky scent and has been used to make perfume for centuries. Read more about it. It seems to have been used by Emperors over the dynasties.
秘府 (mìfǔ) The Secret Repository: The palace repository for rare and valuable books.
天子门生 (tiānzǐ ménshēng) The Emperor’s handpicked retainers: Candidates that have been handpicked by the Emperor through the imperial examination. Thank you for explaining, Little Potato!
朱笔 (zhūbǐ) Red Brush: An imperial red brush used to review official documents.
奏折 (zòuzhé) Memorials: Written reports to the Emperor folded like an accordion and bound with special paper.
六宫 (liùgōng): This referred to the six eastern and six western palaces in the forbidden palace which housed the Imperial Harem.
敬事房 (jìngshìfáng) Office of Eunuch Affairs: The eunuchs that worked here were in charge of recording the Emperor’s nightly activities. If one of the concubines became pregnant, they would check the records to verify that it was indeed the Emperor’s child.
九五至尊 (jiǔwǔzhìzūn): symbolizes the authority of the Emperor. In ancient China, numbers were classified into yin and yang numbers where yang numbers were odd numbers. Nine was the highest yang number and five was in the middle. The term “九五/Nine Five”could also come from the Book of Changes.
合同凭由司 (hétong píng yóu sī) Full name: Inner Palace Requisition Verification and Auditing Office.
Related to the Imperial Court/Bodies of Government
皇城 (huángchéng) The Imperial City: The inner part of Beijing with the Imperial Palace at its centre. This area mainly consists of institutions and facilities serving the court and the offices of the court.
枷 (jiā) Cangue: Similar to the European pillory, a cangue was a wooden collared scaffold used to restrain and punish criminals in China. It was also used for public humiliation. There’s also a cage form that you might be more familiar with from dramas. See images.
贴加官 (tiē jiā guān): A feudal version of waterboarding where sheets of mulberry paper are stuck to the prisoner’s face, making it harder and harder for the prisoner to breathe. While it was mainly used as a torture technique to extort confessions from prisoners, the method can also be used to kill someone without leaving behind scars and was suitable for maintaining the royal family’s reputation when punishing officials.
衙门 (yámen) Government Office: The government’s office in feudal China was typically associated with embezzlement, hence the saying ‘衙门八字开, 有理无钱莫进来,’ meaning ‘The yamen gate is open wide; with reason/right but no money, don’t go inside.’ Its function is similar to a municipal court office or police office today. When I hear yamen, I think of Bao Qing Tian [My childhood | Historical figure]. Did anyone else watch that drama?
Nine-Rank System [九品中正制 (jiǔpǐn zhōngzhèngzhì) or 九品官人法 (jiǔpǐn guānrénfǎ)]: Ancient Chinese officials were classified into nine ranks where those directly under the Emperor were of the first rank while county judicial officers or other low-level officials were of the ninth rank.
Some ranks were further divided into grades:
- principal [正 (zhèng)]
- deputy [從 (cóng)]
- upper [上 (shàng)]
- lower [下 (xià)]
管勾往来国信所 (guǎn gōu wǎnglái guóxìn suǒ) The office that controls anyone coming and going and you need an imperial seal/some form of verification to prove that you’re allowed to enter/exit the country/capital/palace.
军头引见司 (jūntóu yǐnjiàn sī) Based on my research, this was an office unique to the Song Dynasty. Originally two departments, it was responsible for the military roster and facilitating audiences with the Emperor to finalize promotions. Since officials in this department had the opportunity to contact the Emperor on a daily basis, it assumed political, military, and judicial functions. Sources: this research abstract and this book. This thesis paper gives a much more detailed explanation.
翰林书艺局 (hànlín shūyìjú): 翰林 (hànlín) Refers to academics employed as imperial secretaries from the Tang Dynasty onwards who comprise the Hanlin Imperial Academy (翰林院 hànlínyuàn); 书艺 (shūyì) refers to calligraphy, literature (Confucian classics), and poetry. It’s one of the Six Confucian Arts (六艺 liùyì) that formed the basis of ancient Chinese education.
Related to the Military
鸡毛信 (jīmáoxìn): A message with a feather attached as a sign of urgency
嫡 (dí, of lineal descent) v.s. 庶 (shù, common)
Ancient Chinese families were polygamous with one main/principal wife and however many concubines. The principal wife’s children are considered the main bloodline or 嫡 (dí, of lineal descent), while any children of concubines are considered 庶 (shù, common/illegitimate) children. Children of concubines need to call the main wife, “Mother,” but they have less status.
九族 (jiǔzú) Nine Degrees of Kin
Either the nine generations from one’s great-great-grandfather down to one’s great-great-grandson; OR four generations of one’s paternal relations, three generations of one’s maternal relations, and two generations of one’s wife’s relations
门生 (ménshēng) Retainers: In ancient times, scholars, warriors, and students seeking to take the imperial exam would offer their services to a noble/wealthy person or train under them (in the case of a general). They became part of that person’s faction and received their protection and patronage in return. Other translations might be follower, student, scholar, or disciple. Thank you to the helpful souls on NUF: Little Potato, Nightow1, and Nonononononono!
哥哥 (gēge) Lit. older brother; A respectful form of address for an older male in the same generation as you, though not necessarily related. The female equivalent would be 姐姐 (jiějie).
生辰八字 (shēngchénbāzì) The Eight Birth Characters: Eight Chinese characters in four pairs indicating the year, month, day, and hour of a person’s birth combined with their heavenly trunk and earthly branch. This was used for astrological purposes.
五象 (wǔ xiàng) The Five Heavenly Beasts / The Five Celestial Animals
a.k.a. 四象 (sì xiàng) The Four Directional Animals / The Four Guardians / The Four Auspicious Beasts:
These are five mythical figures representing the five elements in Taoist cosmology. Each one represents a colour, an element, a season, and a cardinal direction.
- 北方玄武 (běifāng xuánwǔ) The Black Turtle-Snake / Black Tortoise of the North represents black, water, winter, and the north. The turtle symbolizes happiness, stability, longevity, endurance, and mental agility.
- 東方青龍 (dōngfāng qīnglóng) The Azure Dragon of the East represents blue/green, wood, spring, and the east. The Azure dragon is a symbol of power, strength and integrity so it was respected as the guardian of the land.
- 南方朱雀 (nánfāng zhūquè) The Vermillion Bird of the South represents red, fire, summer, and the south. 朱雀 was believed to be a mystical creature that leads one’s soul to heaven after one dies. Sometimes it’s depicted as a phoenix instead. It’s regarded as a symbol of favourable opportunities and financial success.
- 中心黃龍 (zhōngxīn huánglóng) The Yellow Dragon of the Centre represents yellow/gold, earth, late summer, and the centre. The yellow dragon was superior to other mystical creatures and supposedly had wings, unlike other Chinese dragons. These were later changed to rainbow clouds in Chinese art.
- 西方白虎 (xīfāng báihǔ) The White Tiger of the West represents white, metal, autumn, and the west. The white tiger is a symbol of loyalty, power, bravery, justice and is respected as the God of War. Therefore, many militaries throughout the history of China used the white tiger on their flag and seal.
Thoth Adan has a great article (and beautiful prints) about these five heavenly beasts~
长明灯 (chángmíngdēng) Eternal Lamp: Altar lamps that are kept burning day and night
大师 (dàshī) Great Master: A courtesy title used to address a Buddhist monk
大藏经 (dàzàngjīng) The Tripitaka Koreana: Buddhist scriptures carved on 81,340 wooden tablets and housed in South Korea
阿弥陀佛 (emítuófó) “Buddha be praised!”: A commonly heard Buddhist saying praising Buddha for his mercy
酒色财气 (jiǔ sè cái qì) The Four Cardinal Vices: wine, sex, greed and anger.
僧帽 (sēngmào) Mitre: A religious headdress/cap worn by monks and nuns
施主 (shīzhǔ) Patron: A monk or nun’s form of address for a layman
双手合十 (shuāngshǒuhéshí) Palms Together: The gesture of putting both hands together, used as a Buddhist greeting.
五迷三道 (wǔmísāndào) The Five (Worldly) Desires and Three Evil Paths:
- The Five (worldly) Desires are: wealth, sex, fame, food and sleep.
- The Three Evil Paths refer to the path of fire (the realm of hell), the path of swords (the realm of hungry spirits), and the path of blood (the realm of animals), respectively. They are called paths because one leads to the other, resulting in evil karma which manifests as suffering. Beings are born into these states of suffering due to misdeeds in their previous lifetime.
- Read more:
- Five worldly desires [The Free Dictionary | Buddhism Text Translation Society (scroll to ‘Five Desires’)]
- Three Evil Paths [Nichiren Buddhism Library: six paths; three evil paths | Chinese Buddhism Encyclopedia: three paths, evil path].
四大皆空 (sìdàjiēkōng) “The Four Great Elements are all empty.”: This is a Buddhist saying that helps one understand the steps to detach oneself from the material world. The four elements – earth, water, fire, air – each represent stages towards achieving a supreme state of pure emptiness or Nirvana.
六根清净 (liùgēn qīngjìng): refers to six unwholesome mental factors or states of mind that are the main drive for all other negative mental states which are otherwise known as Kleshas. They are attachment/desire, aversion/anger, ignorance, pride/conceit, afflicted view/opinionatedness, and afflicted indecision/doubt.
六藝 (liùyì) The Six Confucian Arts: Six subjects which formed the basis of education in ancient Chinese culture. They were:
- 禮教 (lǐshù) Rites/Etiquette
- 音樂 (yīngyuè) Music
- 書法 (shūfá) Calligraphy, Literature, and Poetry
- 數學 (shùxué) Mathematics
- 射箭 (shèjiàn) Archery
- 御 (yù) or 騎馬車 (qímǎchē) or 骑术 (qíshù) Charioteering/Equestrianism
四德 (sìdé) The Four Confucian Injunctions (for men) / The Four Virtues (for women):
- 孝 (xiào) Piety to one’s parents
- 悌 (tì) Respect to one’s older brother
- 忠 (zhōng) Loyalty to one’s monarch
- 信 (xìng) Trust/faith in one’s male friends
- 德 (dé) Morality
- 容 (róng) Physical charm
- 言 (yán) Propriety in speech
- 功 (gōng) Efficiency in needlework
For women, you might also hear 贤良淑德 as praise for a woman conducting themselves morally according to the four virtues. These were typically used as titles for the four consorts (妃).
- 贤 (xián) Talented, Worthy
- 良 (liáng) Good, Kind, Gracious
- 淑 (shū) Pure
- 德 (dé) Virtuous, Moral
不亦乐乎 (bùyìlèhū) is part of a quote from The Analects of Confucius and is used today to describe something in an extreme state.
- The full quote is: 子曰: 「学而时习之，不亦说乎？有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎？人不知而不愠，不亦君子乎」 | The Master said: “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If people do not recognize me and it doesn’t bother me, am I not a noble man?” — Translation by A. Charles Muller.
雅歌 (yǎgē): A character’s name in WHI ch.77 which refers to a part of the Book of Songs 詩經, an early collection of Chinese poems and one of the Five Classics of Confucianism; A poem set to elegant music.
书艺 (shūyì) refers to calligraphy, literature (Confucian classics), and poetry. It’s one of the Six Confucian Arts (六艺 liùyì) that formed the basis of ancient Chinese education.
道 (dào) Taoism/The Way
道士 (dàoshi) Taoist Priest
五行 (wǔxíng) The Five Elements / The Five Phases of Transformation / The Cycle of the Elements
This literally means ‘moving stars’ and describes five stages of transformation as yin and yang flow and harmonize. The five elements and their associated seasons:
- 水 (shuǐ) Water – associated with the potential of new life hidden underground in winter
- 木 (mù) Wood – associated with new growth and vitality in spring
- 火 (huǒ) Fire – associated with maturation under the summer sun
- 土 (tǔ) Earth – associated with ripening, levelling, and dampening between seasons (or a separate season known as Late Summer)
- 金 (jīn) Metal – associated with harvesting and collecting in autumn. This is the end and beginning of a new cycle.
This concept has been used to explain many phenomena ranging from cosmic cycles in Chinese astrology, the interaction between internal organs, the properties of medicinal drugs and food, the days of the week, feng shui, martial arts, music, organization of the imperial court, martial arts, and military strategy. Each element is also associated with a colour.
Thoth Adan has a great article (and a beautiful print) for it along with the five heavenly beasts. Wikipedia’s article about it is also quite comprehensive.
符瑞宝玩 (fú ruì bǎowán) 符 refers to magic figures drawn by Taoist priests to expel spirits and bring good fortune (in this case! – It can also do the opposite); 瑞 describes something auspicious; 宝玩 Jewellery and antiques/treasures.
招魂 (zhāohún): To call back the dead (person’s soul).
巫蛊 (wūgǔ) Witchcraft: Usually referring to evil or black magic.
- 巫婆 (wūpǒ) | 巫女 (wūnǚ) Witch: ‘old witch’ and ‘young witch,’ respectively.
Honourifics and Illeisms (How one refers to themselves)
Ancient Chinese people like to talk in third person to denote their relationship or status relative to whom they’re speaking. There are ways to call someone of higher or similar status than you and ways to elevate/lower your status by how you refer to yourself.
Addressing someone of higher status
阁下 (géxià): Your distinguished self; Sire; Your Excellency
您 (nín): Your honoured self
Addressing someone of similar status (same age/generation)
兄台 (xiōngtái): Lit. brother; A polite appellation for a male friend one’s age; To my knowledge, I’ve only seen this form of address used between males. Perhaps it’s the ancient Chinese version of the Korean Hyeong 형?
*This subsection is ordered by rank, not pinyin
哀家 (āijiā): Lit. “This grieving one”; Used by a widowed Dowager Empress/Consort.
朕 (zhèn): Lit. “Subtle”; Used by the Emperor. It changed depending on the dynasty.
- Other variations: 寡人 (guǎrén): Lit. “This lonely one”; 孤 (gū): Lit. “Alone.”
本宫 (běngōng): Lit. “This palace”; Used by Imperial consorts who lived in their own palace (妃 fēi rank and up!).
本王 (běnwáng): Lit. “This king”; Used by Wangyes.
妾身 (qièshēn): Can mean concubine or servant, depending on who the speaker is talking to. Similar to 臣妾，小女 etc., it’s deprecatory self-reference for women. Cai’ren Li used it (in chapter 57) to refer to herself as opposed to 本宫 (běngōng) like before. Since she’s a much lower-ranked concubine compared to MSY, therefore “servant” was used here.
Superior Illeisms – Used when speaking to someone of lower status/you consider lower than you (in a haughty way)
本公子 (běn gōngzi) This young master/young lord
本小姐 (běn xiǎojiě) This young mistress/young miss
大爷我 (dàyéwǒ) / 老爷 (lǎoyé) / 老子 (lǎozi) This great lord: Lit. great lord me or old lord/master or this old one, respectively. A rough or arrogant form of self-address similar to 俺 (おれ) in Japanese, but more haughty and not used in everyday conversation.
老娘 (lǎoniáng) This great lady: Lit. old lady. MSY refers to herself like this a lot in her inner dialogue about Emperor ZW.
Subordinate Illeisms – Used when speaking to superiors
臣 (chén) This subject: Used by officials when speaking to the Emperor
臣妾 (chénqiè): Lit. “This subject-concubine”; Used by Imperial consorts of all ranks to refer to themselves in front of the Emperor.
属下 (shǔxià) This subordinate: Generally used by guards/military men
下官 (xiàguān) This lowly official: Used by lesser officials when speaking to their boss
小女 (xiǎonǚ) This girl: Used by commoners (young female) when speaking to anyone of a higher social status
小人 (xiǎorén) This lowly one: Used by commoners when speaking to anyone of a higher social status
为[Relationship] (wéi[x]) [Relationship] in Third-Person: Usually used when speaking to someone subordinate to you in status. I have only seen it used in reference to male relationships since male>female in ancient times. Examples: 为父 (wéifù) I (your Father); 为夫 (wéifū) I (your Husband); 为师 (wéishī) I (your Teacher).
[Lastname]某 ([x]mǒu) This Humble X: A humble way to to refer to oneself.
Other Forms of Address
**Check out my post for a comprehensive list of Ancient Chinese Ranks and Titles**
小二 (xiǎo’èr) Waiter: The form of address for a young waiter in a bar, inn or restaurant. I don’t think anyone uses this nowadays. It seems to be akin to calling a waiter ‘garçon’ – quite rude and disrespectful.
Units of Measurement
Check out this page for more units of measurement.
* Ordered by unit size not pinyin
千 (qiān) Qian = 4g; The ideal weight of one copper cash coin.
兩 (liáng) Liang or Tael = 40g; The unit of measurement for silver ingots (銀子 yínzi or 銀錠 yíndìng)
1,000 copper coins = 1 string of coins (貫 guàn or “string”) = 1 liang/tael
时辰 (shíchén) Hour and 刻 (kè) Quarter Hour: The ancient Chinese used the 时-刻 timekeeping system where time was divided into roughly two-hour intervals called 时辰 (shíchén) and quarter-hour units called 刻 (kè). Each 时辰 corresponds to one of the twelve Earthly Branches and twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. The animals were used as a mnemonic for the system. Check out my post on ancient Chinese timekeeping~
斤 (jīn) Catty = ~500g (in China) and ~600g (in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Thailand) or about 604.8g (Hong Kong and Malaysia).
兩 (liáng) Liang = 40g
千 (qiān) A nominal unit of weight in the Song Dynasty ~4g. 1 qian is about the weight of 1 bronze coin.
两 (liáng) A traditional unit of weight equal to 0.1 jin (another unit of measurement) or 50g / 1.763 oz.
里 (lǐ) An ancient unit of measurement for distance. 1 lǐ = ~500 m.
Furniture & Architecture
案几 (ànjī) Teapoy: A small three-legged table that usually holds a tea caddy.
八仙桌 (bāxiānzhuō) Eight Immortals Table: A square table with four benches on each side; able to seat 8 – See WHI Chapter 29 TL Notes for a picture
窗棂 (chuānglíng) Window Lattice: Here is an image~
闺房 (guīfáng) Boudoir: Women’s quarters or a lady’s chamber.
炕桌 (kàng zhuō) A small, low table that could be placed on top of divans or other large couches or beds. I imagine their original use was to be placed on top of a 炕 (kàng) a.k.a. a heated bed stove – See WHI Chapter 30 TL Notes for a picture
牌匾 (páibiǎn) An inscribed board fixed to a wall or the piece of wood above a door or archway. See WHI Chapter 36 TL Notes for a picture.
软榻 (ruǎntà) A low bed or divan – See WHI Chapter 27 TL Notes for a picture
绣墩 (xiùdūn) Round drum-shaped ceramic or wooden stools with an embroidered cover.
游廊 (yóuláng) A covered corridor linking two or more buildings.
南墙 (nán qiáng) South wall: refers to the screen wall used to shield an entrance in traditional Chinese architecture. To enter/exit, you would have to go to the right or left. If you insist on going straight, you’d walk right into the screen.
龙凤飞云 (lóngfèngfēiyún) Engravings of ‘the dragon and phoenix flying through the clouds’ : a typical design motif used in architecture – structures, furniture, windows etc. It symbolized prosperity and childbirth.
西华门 (xīhuámén) is the western outer gate of the Forbidden City.
Clothing, Hairstyles, & Accessories
步摇 (búyáo) Dangling Hair Ornament: A dangling hair ornament, typically a hair stick with beads. These could be very elaborate. It literally means, “shake as you go.”
凤冠 (fèngguān) Phoenix Coronet: Worn by the Empress. Another version was also formerly used as a bride’s headdress.
佛尘 (fóchén) Horsetail Whisk: A stick, similar to a feather duster, with strands of horsetail, or other animal hair, attached to the end. In Chinese Buddhism, it’s a holy tool that symbolizes sweeping away one’s troubles.
荷包 (hébāo) Embroidered Pouches: A handmade pouch used to carry coins, typically hung from one’s belt. In ancient dramas, you might see scenes where a thief runs by and snatches someone’s coin pouch. Sometimes used as a love token for the target of one’s affections.
香囊 (xiāngnáng) Perfume Sachets: A handmade (usually embroidered) pouch where one would add different types of potpourri. Basically, ancient Chinese perfume. Sometimes used as a love token for the target of one’s affections.
霞帔 (xiápèi) Embroidered Tasselled Cape: Worn by noblewomen as part of their ceremonial dress.
衣襟 (yījīn) Lapel: One or two pieces of fabric making up the front part of a Chinese jacket.
指甲套 (zhǐjiǎ tào) Nail Guards: Metal nail covers worn by concubines and nobles as a symbol of wealth and status. They originated in the Ming Dynasty but became popular in the Qing Dynasty. Take a look or read more about them.
坠马髻 (zuì má jì) Ponytail Bun: Literally translated as a falling-horse bun. This was a type of women’s hairstyle in ancient times and was one of the most distinctive and important hairstyles in history. It’s a type of bun that hangs on one side typically seen in Chinese paintings.
Read more about ancient Chinese hairstyles for men and women throughout the dynasties. This is a great resource by Ling from New Hanfu.
*Not in order by pinyin
Like many cultures, colours are associated with various meanings. These still continue today for certain occasions.
红色 (hóngsè) Red represents warmth, life, good fortune, fertility, and happy events e.g. traditional wedding outfits were red for both the bride and groom; the lunar new year features red lanterns and red decorations etc.
黄色 (huángsè) Yellow represents royalty, power, and authority. It was the exclusive colour of the Emperor.
青色 (qīngsè) Green & Blue represents growth, longevity & harmony. 青 (qīng) was used to describe both green and blue and is sometimes translated as cyan. Blue was also sometimes used to denote heavenly blessings.
- 绿 (lǜ) Green is associated with the phrase, 戴绿帽子, meaning that someone’s partner is unfaithful. Therefore, green hats are particularly not acceptable.
白色 (báisè) White represents death and mourning. In mourning, one is supposed to remove all bright decorations and instead wear white and dress plainly. You might see direct family members dress humbly in hemp/straw clothing as well.
黑色 (hēisè) Black represents darkness and evil. However, it seems to also represent otherworldliness/the divine. It’s the colour of one of the Five Heavenly Beasts/Four Directional Animals, the black turtle-snake, who was believed to have been able to take questions to the divine realm and bring back answers from one’s ancestors. Black was also previously used to represent stateliness and sacred worship as the imperial colour before yellow.
Read more about Chinese colour symbolism in this detailed article. It goes beyond the basics and looks at various shades.
行书 (xíngshū) Running Script
文房四宝 (wénfáng sìbǎo) The Four Treasures of the Study refer to calligraphy and painting tools: the calligraphy brush, ink, paper, and inkstone. It specifically refers to the Xuan brush, Anhui ink, Xuan paper and Taohe inkstone. Held in the Lonely Castle features a chapter all about inkstones~
Read more about Chinese Calligraphy.
翰墨 (hànmò) literally means ‘brush and ink’ but refers to writing, painting or calligraphy – all of which require these tools.
Different styles of Chinese calligraphy:
- 篆 (zhuàn) Seal characters
- 隶书 (lìshū) Clerical script
- 行草 (xíngcǎo) Running script – semi-cursive
- 草 (cǎo) Cursive script
- 章草 (zhāngcǎo) Memorial script – a type of cursive script bearing some characteristics of clerical script
- 飞白 (fēibái) Flying white or hollow script – a style of calligraphy characterized by hollow strokes as if done with a half-dry brush.
Other Common Terms:
白莲花 (báiliánhuā) White Lotus: Describes a woman who is innocent and kind. Used sarcastically, it can refer to people who seem pure on the outside but are actually rotten on the inside.
戴绿帽子 (dàilǜmàozi) Green hat: meaning that someone’s partner is unfaithful.
吃醋 (chīcù) Lit. Eating vinegar: A metaphor for jealousy in romantic relationships. The phrase stems from the Tang Dynasty. In order to win over people’s hearts, Tang Taizong wanted his minister Fang Xuanling to take a concubine, but his wife was against it. She was very stubborn so he gave her the option of choosing between drinking poisoned wine or accepting the concubine. Unexpectedly, Mrs. Fang decided to drink the poisoned wine, but only after did she realize that it wasn’t in fact poisoned wine, but thick vinegar. Since then, consuming vinegar has been a metaphor for jealousy.