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 50 | HLC none
For more on Chinese culture and language, check out the resources on That’s Mandarin!
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.
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.
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.
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?
Related to the Military
鸡毛信 (jīmáoxìn): A message with a feather attached as a sign of urgency
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.
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!
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.
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:
- 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
- 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
道 (dào) Taoism/The Way
道士 (dàoshi) Taoist Priest
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.
黄泉 (huáng quán) The Yellow Springs: The underworld of Chinese mythology.
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.
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
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.
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
Read more about Chinese Calligraphy.
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.