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 organize the terms in alphabetical order by pinyin.

*This is a work in progress that I will be adding to as I continue translating*

Cultural Concepts

六藝 (liùyì) Six Confucian Arts: Six subjects which formed the basis of education in ancient Chinese culture. They were:

  1. 禮教 (lǐshù) Rites/Etiquette
  2. 音樂 (yīngyuè) Music
  3. 書法 (shūfá) Calligraphy, Literature, and Poetry
  4. 數學 (shùxué) Mathematics
  5. 射箭 (shèjiàn) Archery
  6. 御 (yù) or 騎馬車 (qímǎchē) or 骑术 (qíshù) Charioteering/Equestrianism

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


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).

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.

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.

秘府 (mìfǔ) The Secret Respository: The palace repository for rare and valuable books.

奏折 (zòuzhé) Memorials: Written reports to the Emperor folded like an accordion and bound with special paper.



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


Chinese Astrology

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.



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

施主 (shīzhǔ) Patron: A monk or nun’s form of address for a layman

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:



道 (dào) Taoism/The Way 

道士 (dàoshi) Taoist Priest


Illeisms (How one refers to themselves)

Ancient Chinese people like to talk in the third person to denote their relationship or status relative to whom they’re speaking.

Imperial Illeisms

哀家 (āijiā): Lit. “This grieving one”; Used by a widowed Dowager Empress/Consort.

本宫 (béngōng): Lit. “This palace”; Used by Imperial consorts who lived in their own palace (妃 fēi rank and up!).

本王 (bénwáng): Lit. “This king”; Used by Wangyes.

臣妾 (chénqiè): Lit. “This subject-concubine”; Used by Imperial consorts of all ranks to refer to themselves in front of the Emperor.

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.”

Subordinate Illeisms – Used when speaking to superiors

臣 (chén) This Subject: Used by officials when speaking to 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

小人 (xiǎorén) This Lowly One: Used by commoners when speaking to anyone of a higher social status

General Illeisms

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.



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.


Units of Measurement (Money)

* 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

Check out this page for more units of measurement.

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