Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Year of Le Tigre

It's that time of year again, when another zany animal from the Chinese zodiac lopes into the scene. This time, it's the Year of the Tiger (hu3 nian2 虎年)! Rawwr!

Minor Digression: Tiger Woods' parents should have seen this coming. Tiger recently issued an emotional apology to all of his fans and sponsors and lady friends. If he had only paid attention to a few simple and obvious details, he probably could have avoided all of this trouble. You see, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger, but not just any tiger - the Metal Tiger. The Wood Tiger's year will not roll around until 2035, which is when Tiger Woods will really shine, probably on the Seniors Tour. See, Tiger was born in 1975, part of which was a Wood Tiger year. But our Tiges was born in December, a full 10 months after the year switched from tiger to rabbit. Although the phase of that rabbit year was still wood.

Major Digression: Wooden rabbit. 1975. Can anybody see the connection here? Okay, I admit. I had to Google what year "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" came out, but yes it was 1975, and the film features a wooden rabbit (No, not the killer rabbit of Caerbannog. What is wrong with you nerds?) that is created as a Trojan horse to sneak into the French Person's castle. Were the Monty Python crew taking a pot shot at traditional Chinese astrology? We don't know for sure. But the connection is intriguing.

Post Regression: Is anyone confused yet? Okay, so most people know about the Chinese animal years, Pig, Chicken, Rat, Ox, Sloth, Fruit Bat, etc. But the animals are merely the tip of the astrological iceberg. In addition to the 12-year animal merry-go-round, there is also a 60-year cycle in Chinese astrology, which is made up of 60 different combinations of the 10 Heavenly Stems (天干 tian1 gan1) and the 12 Earthly Branches (地支, di4 zhi1). These were created several thousand years ago as ways of simply keeping track of time, and as a way of fortune telling.

Each Earthly Branch corresponds to one of the animals (which have characteristics used in fortune telling), and the Heavenly Stems are associated with the negative and positive (yin and yang) aspects of each of the 5 Elements or Phases (wu3 xing2 五行): Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. So once you have gone through each permutation, a 60-year, or sexagenary, cycle is complete.

The more I read about this the more confusing it gets, so I will try to keep it simple for my own sake. This year in the cycle is the 庚寅年 (geng1 yin2 nian2), which is the 7th Heavenly Stem, 3rd Earthly Branch. It is the 27th year of the current 60-year cycle, and the represents Yang (positive) and metal, while the represents the Tiger and all of its characteristics.

According to the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, Tigers are suspicious, short-tempered, sensitive, have trouble with authority, indecisive, and unlike wooden rabbits, are generally bad at golf.

Tiger-related Note: I just read on the Language Log website that a popular saying this year for Valentine's Day (mostly in advertisements) was "I 老虎 you," where 老虎 (lao3 hu3), which means "tiger," sounds like a terribly pronounced version of the English word "love." And since Valentine's Day was the first day of the new year it was especially clever.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Temple of Womb

Recently a translation job took me from the banal world of college diplomas, deep into the uncharted and lawless hills of northeastern China.

The document was hand-scrawled on official government stationary from an area of Yi County (义县 yi4 xian4) in Liaoning Province (辽宁省 liao2 ning2 sheng3). Since it was written by hand, this thing was a little hard to decipher. There was a clue on the paper, though, where it said the name of the town, printed at the top of the page: Dizang Temple Manchu Village (地藏寺满族乡di4 zang4 si4 man3 zu2 xiang1). First I looked up Dizang Temple.

Turns out it is a Buddhist temple, and Dizang can also be translated as Ksitigarbha, a Sanskrit name. He is a bodhisattva (an enlightened person who tries to help others), and 地藏 (Dizang) is actually a translation of Ksitigarbha, which means Earth Store or Earth Treasure or Earth Womb (hence the witty titular pun of this post. Actually there is an even subtler connection there, to be described below!).

According to the Internet, the Dizang Temple in this village was founded by Manchurian chieftain Nurhachi (努尔哈赤 nu4 er3 ha1 chi4) in the 16th-17th century. He was famous for creating the written form of the Manchu script, and as the father of the Qing Dynasty.

Also, he is the same Nurhachi whose ashes appear in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when Indy trades them for a large diamond in Shanghai!

As Hannibal used to say on the A-Team, I love it when a blog comes together.