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"Godly Worm" and the "Literati Prism" of Chinese Sources.


While archeological findings have played an increasingly important role in the past century or so, not the least in supplying many of the onomastic data used in this study, traditional Chinese literature still represents the leading primary source in Sinology and related studies. This is not only due to the enormity of its volume, but can also be more consequentially attributed to the simple fact that, as far as received primary sources are concerned, for a long time the educated Confucian gentry monopolized almost all genres of writing, not the least historiography, in East Asia. The inherent gentry bias of traditional written sources, though long recognized, still permeates much of modern scholarship. More often than not, we are looking at China's past through a "literati prism."

This "literati prism" has a particularly distorting effect for times when the Confucian elite lost socio-political domination. Early medieval northern China under various "Barbarian" rulers was a case in point. A few years ago, it took me quite some effort to convince several well-versed scholars that the perennial negative connotation associated with the proud ethnonym Han [phrase omitted] was an unacknowledged legacy of the lowly socio-political status of the Han people, especially the Confucian literati, during the Northern Dynasties. Small wonder that the Yuan dynasty gentry author Tao Zongyi [phrase omitted], who experienced a similar humiliating environment himself, first pointed out this long-forgotten fact. (1)

For the early medieval period, one should not ignore Daoist and Buddhist sources. However, firstly there were few influential contemporary Daoist writings, and Daoist authors tended to be cut from the same cloth as the Confucian literati. Or, in the words of Arthur Wright, "neo-Taoist colloquies continued to be a major pastime of the upper class." (2) So much so that, in the winter of 554, after declaring martial law and just days before his capital Jiangling [phrase omitted] fell to a Western Wei [phrase omitted] expedition army, the Southern Liang [phrase omitted] emperor Xiao Yi [phrase omitted] (r. 552-54) was still giving lectures on Daodejing [phrase omitted], with courtiers all attending in military uniforms. (3) Earlier, the Daoist master Tao Hongjing [phrase omitted] (456-536), founder of the Supreme Clarity (Shangqing [phrase omitted]) school of Daoism and author and/or compiler of several early Daoist texts, was so deeply involved with the Confucian-dominated southern court that he was awarded the epithet "grand councilor who resides in the mountains" [phrase omitted]. (4) The famous Wang clan of Langye [phrase omitted] that produced the legendary calligrapher father-son duo Wang Xizhi [phrase omitted] and Wang Xianzhi [phrase omitted], yet was also closely associated with the Daoist Celestial Masters Sect (Tianshi dao [phrase omitted]), is another good example. Furthermore, Chen Yinke [phrase omitted] has pointed out that zhi [phrase omitted], widely used in personal names borne by the Confucian elite, seemingly violating the familial naming taboo, reflected Daoist beliefs. (5)

Secondly, although Buddhist literature, again as Arthur Wright has pointed out, (6) did sometimes provide an alternative perspective not quite consistent with that of the mainstream Confucian elite, received Buddhist literature was still heavily dominated by "intellectual Buddhists" who largely came from the same educated social classes as the Confucian literati. Or, as Timothy Barrett summarized, (7) "Chinese Buddhist sources primarily give a picture of Buddhism as a literary phenomenon worthy of the attention of a highly literate audience," thus containing precious little information about less educated believers. The best example is bianwen [phrase omitted], "transformation texts." Before the early twentieth-century chance discovery of this important genre of writings, which apparently played a critical role in medieval popular Buddhism in China, nobody even knew of its existence, since it is absent from all traditional written sources, both secular and Buddhist.

An important development lost by the literati prism through which we commonly view the Northern Dynasties was the vulgarization, if not debasement, of Chinese high culture. This was similar to what transpired during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, yet was much less recognized. With the fall of the gentry-dominated Western Jin [phrase omitted] court and the court-approved Confucian Canon inscribed in stone earlier (both at Luoyang [phrase omitted]), (8) Chinese writing lost its unifying authority and standard. The phenomenon is most prominent in inscriptional sources, of which over ninety percent are from the north. (9) By one account, on some inscriptions nearly half of the Chinese characters written could be labeled erroneous. (10) While the resulting orthographical chaos has become an extensive subject of scholarship, among all contemporary authors only Yan Zhitui [phrase omitted], who grew up in the gentry-dominated south and moved to the north first as a captured prisoner of war, characterized the rampant vulgarization of Chinese writing in the "Barbarian"-dominated north, "much inferior to that south of the Yangtze" [phrase omitted], as the unfortunate result of political disasters ([phrase omitted]). (11) Earlier, as recorded in Wei shu [phrase omitted], the official history of the Northern Wei dynasty founded by the formerly nomadic group Tuoba [phrase omitted], a literati courtier Jiang Shi [phrase omitted] in a memorial to the throne in 514, while carefully inserting a positive spin on the phenomenon, bitterly complained that many newly coined popular characters, dismissed as "vulgar characters" (suzi [phrase omitted]) by Yan Zhitui, violated the orthography set by "ancient Confucian classics, (12) the great zhuan [phrase omitted] script of Shi Zhou [phrase omitted], the Shuowen [phrase omitted] dictionary by Xu Shen [phrase omitted], and the Stone Canon [phrase omitted]." (13)

Incidentally, the fate of the Stone Canon cited here clearly demonstrates a direct relationship between the loss of an orthographical standard and "Barbarian" rule. Though glossing over the considerable additions during the Three Kingdoms era, (14) Wei shu aptly underscores the most important function of the Stone Canon, as recalled by the Confucian literati under the Tuoba rule: "Back during the Han era, the Stone Canon in Three Scripts was erected at the National University. When students could not write characters properly, they often sought corrections therewith" [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted]. (15)

When the Western Jin capital Luoyang was sacked by troops of the Former Zhao [phrase omitted] polity (16) established in 310 by the Xiongnu [phrase omitted] chieftain Liu Yuan [phrase omitted] (d. 310), the National University was burned down, but the Stone Canon steles, though damaged, stood or fell in situ. It was the Tuoba Wei nobles and officials who pillaged these tablets for other uses, especially for building Buddhist temples, causing irreversible losses and devastation of the collection. (17) Even more revealingly, the Confucian literati courtier Zheng Daozhao [phrase omitted], chancellor of the National University [phrase omitted], in a passionate memorial to the throne appealed for the restoration of this national standard for Confucian learning. The request was rejected by none other than Emperor Xiaowen [phrase omitted] (Yuan Hong [phrase omitted], r. 471-99), the most "Sinophilic" Tuoba monarch, who moved the Northern Wei capital to Luoyang and initiated wholesale Sinification reforms. (18) The emperor was probably mindful of the hundreds of "new characters" (xin zi [phrase omitted]) that the Tuoba court had created and promulgated since 425. (19) The destruction of the Confucian orthographic standard constitutes a sharp contrast to the extravagant undertakings, both official and private, in erecting Buddhist statues and monuments in which "vulgar" characters proliferated.

Commenting on an earlier version of this essay, Scott Pearce suggested an intriguing possibility of relating the Northern Wei's officially sanctioned coinage of numerous "vulgar characters" to the Tuoba rulers' reported attempts in creating their own "national language" [phrase omitted]. This indeed can be further linked to the more successful efforts by the Khitan and Jurchen rulers of the Liao [phrase omitted] and Jin [phrase omitted] dynasties, respectively, in creating the writing scripts for their "national languages," (20) and the even more impressive creation of the sophisticated Tangut script, all more or less based on the Chinese script. Then in the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol court's forceful decision to discard the age-old classical Chinese, the epitome of Chinese high culture, adopting instead the "vulgar" colloquial Chinese as the official administration language for the Han population, was accompanied by the introduction of the famous 'Phags-pa script, the "National Script" intended for all languages in the empire, but used primarily for the Mongol "national language." (21) While this is too major a subject to be elaborated in this short essay, the least we can say is that the literati prism constitutes a major obstacle to the study of this fascinating subject, exemplified by the total oblivion of any concrete records on the Tuoba's "national language."


In his memorial Jiang Shi cited and interpreted four examples of these "vulgar characters," three of which have survived to posterity: (22) [phrase omitted] by combining two characters, literally "clever speech," to replace bian [phrase omitted] "debate"; [phrase omitted] by pairing two characters meaning "small rabbit" to replace nou [phrase omitted], "young rabbit"; (23) and [phrase omitted] by stacking up two characters presumably meaning "godly worm" to replace can [phrase omitted] "silkworm." This research note will focus on the last two cases.

The above seemingly rational interpretations missed the critical factor: the religio-cultural environment in which these vulgarized characters emerged. (24) A major driving force behind the "vulgar characters" was simplification. This applies to the first two characters cited above, and numerous other examples, especially those used to replace characters with many strokes such as shou [phrase omitted], "longevity"; ling [phrase omitted], "daemon, spirit"; and shuang [phrase omitted], "couple, duo." (25) It is worth noting the role played by the "reduced-stroke characters" (Jianzi [phrase omitted]) in the development of the Khitan and Jurchen scripts. (26)

Another fact is that the foremost, if not nearly all, attestations of these "vulgar characters," including the three "stacked-up" ones cited in Wei shu, are found among contemporary onomastics, which underwent a sea change during that period. In a recent joint work, we have named this change "Iranization of Chinese nomenclature," represented by the introduction and spread of theophoric names and the related notion of "personal gods," guardian deities who were regarded to be responsible for personal well-being. (27) In another recent paper, I demonstrated how a group of "ugly" personal names actually represented such guardian gods related to one's birth year. (28) In addition to the five cases cited in that paper, five more "ugly" names I have identified since, for which the bearers' birth year can be determined, reconfirm my conclusion. (29)

We digress to discuss what constituted the Sinitic onomasticon of the time, as it provides an apt case of gentry bias, showing a large gap between the elite and the lower classes. In a nutshell, it consisted of all forms of given names. In traditional written sources from pre-modern China, a person, mostly male but many an educated female too, bore three types of given names: a formal name ming [phrase omitted], a more respectful style name [phrase omitted], and often various epithets hao [phrase omitted] or biehao [phrase omitted], sort of high-brow pen names. Occasionally, we also learn the person's childhood name xiaoming or xiaozi [phrase omitted]. This general pattern was somewhat disrupted in the early medieval era by the appearance on the socio-political stage of many "Barbarian" and other alien figures, whose native appellation was often taken as one of the above given names. But for the Sinitic elite and educated Han people, the old pattern held.

According to the Tangong [phrase omitted] chapter of Liji [phrase omitted] (Book of rites), part of the Confucian canon during the Han dynasty, the formal name and style name are assigned in the following manner: "The formal name is given during infancy, and the style name is assigned when reaching adulthood [i.e., at 20 sui [phrase omitted]" [phrase omitted], [phrase omitted]. (30) Here is the astonishing fact revealed by inscriptional and other archeological data: unlike the great majority of Chinese personalities found in traditional literature and modern references, in the medieval period, and likely in much of the entire premodern era, the uneducated majority of the Chinese population actually possessed neither a formal name nor a style name, much less a fancy epithet. All these commoners carried were just their childhood names, likely given at birth. In addition, contrary to the stipulation by the Book of Rites cited above, even children of educated gentry families were not given their formal names, often called guanming [phrase omitted], "official name," until they were nearing adulthood. (31) Following are two revealing examples. The epitaph of a gentleman named Lu Shui [phrase omitted], dated 757, says:
He is survived by three sons.... They are listed by their respective
childhood name because their official names have not yet been
[phrase omitted]. (272241-42)

The epitaph of a youngster surnamed Zheng, dated 850, states:
This son of Zheng... yet to have an official name had the childhood
name Kuilang.
[phrase omitted]. (QTZ 379)

Another tomb inscription (LY 519) demonstrates that girls of the gentry class were only given a childhood name, not a formal given name, during their childhood.

The fact that the majority of ordinary Chinese did not bear formal given names was to my knowledge first observed by the perceptive Qing [phrase omitted] dynasty scholar Yu Yue [phrase omitted]. He cited a handwritten note in a private clan genealogy claiming that Yuan [phrase omitted] dynasty regulations forbade commoners without official positions to bear formal names. After agreeing with the existence of such an official rule, Yu commented that it cannot be found in the official Yuan history, but that it probably existed since the Song [phrase omitted] dynasty. (32)

The early medieval evidence that I presented above extends Yu's observation regarding the Yuan society to a general public phenomenon in premodern China: unless a person was to receive an education in preparation for officialdom, there was little practical need for him (much less for her) to bear other names than that given after birth. That is why the official name guanming was also called xueming [phrase omitted] "schooling name." (33) Yu's commentary is valuable as it helps to show how these low-brow yet pervasive social phenomena seldom reflected in traditional written sources tended to reveal themselves during and after foreign conquests which suppressed and disrupted the social status and functions of the Confucian elite. In addition, onomastic data from archeological finds and inscriptional sources that lean heavily towards the non-elite, such as those uncovered at Dunhuang and Turfan as well as the dedicatory inscriptions in northern China, would thus prove to be not quite consistent with traditional sources. In addition, from the limited number of individuals for which we know both the childhood name and the formal given name, (34) there was no apparent relation between the two, in sharp contrast to the well-established relation between formal name and style name. (35)

The fact that most souls of the Sinitic world only carried a childhood name has its complications with regard to inscriptional data utilized by the current study, particularly because the highly normative and often stylish medieval tomb epitaph usually required the inclusion of both the formal given name and the style name of the deceased. Given the increased social mobility of the era, many a personality with only his/her childhood or non-Sinitic original name rose to a status worthy of an epitaph. This original name usually became the listed formal name, leaving the indication of the style name to various options. In addition to repeating the given name as the style name, or the space awkwardly left blank, a creative method was to break up the original name into two parts to serve as the formal and style names respectively. For example, the common name Senghu [phrase omitted] "Sangha-protected," could be separated into a formal name Seng [phrase omitted] and a style name Hu [phrase omitted] (QTZ 6). Another popular personal name, Pusa [phrase omitted], "bodhisattva," was broken into a formal name Pu [phrase omitted] and a style name Sa [phrase omitted] (HB 1104-5). A Central Asian immigrant, apparently carrying a popular Iranian name Shapur (Middle Persian Shabuhr), (36) "king's son, prince," was given a formal name Sha [phrase omitted] and a style name Boluo [phrase omitted] instead (HB 1304). Another example, a Sogdian immigrant, received a formal name Shewu [phrase omitted] and a style name Panto [phrase omitted]. (37) Luckily the epitaph of a Sogdian with the same clan name Shi [phrase omitted], likely representing their original city-state Kish in Central Asia, contained a segment inscribed in Sogdian that cited a personal name [delta]rymt[beta]ntk/ Zematvande, which according to Yutaka Yoshida was, if not the same [phrase omitted], at least a namesake. (38) Nicholas Sims-Williams further interprets the Sogdian name as "slave of Demetra." (39) The deity Demetra/Demeter, representing the eleventh month of the Sogdian and Bactrian calendars, was originally the Greek goddess of agriculture, which makes this a case of Sino-Greco-Sogdian cultural fusion in the medieval Chinese onomasticon, adding a Hellenistic touch to the Iranization of Chinese nomenclature.


As mentioned earlier, "vulgar characters" tended to appear in contemporary onomastics of the lower classes. They would thus reveal things unfamiliar from traditional literature. The memorial cited by the Northern Wei courtier Jiang Shi provides two such examples.

First, the onomastic use of the "vulgar character" nou [phrase omitted]"small rabbit," with a rather rare pronunciation in Chinese, was very popular. We know names such as Nouren [phrase omitted], "Rabbit's benevolence"; Nouzi [phrase omitted], "Rabbit's son"; Nouxiang [phrase omitted], "Rabbit's girl"; and Nouzhu [phrase omitted], "Rabbit's pearl[-like daughter]." (40) We also have a hypocorism, Anou [phrase omitted]. (41) There is little doubt that these names were part of the early medieval fad of zoological names related to the twelve-animal cycle to mark the birth year of the name-bearer. Puzzlingly, the usage seems to indicate a deliberate avoidance of directly using the character tu [phrase omitted], "rabbit," which appeared rarely in personal names. This was in sharp contrast to the two animals with the worst images in Chinese written sources: the dog and the pig. Personal names figuring gou [phrase omitted] and zhu/tun [phrase omitted] in positive theophoric context are numerous nonetheless. (42) The avoidance of tu in personal names gets more surprising with the highly positive and laudatory image of the rabbit in Chinese written literature: the legendary yutu [phrase omitted] "jade rabbit" was said to reside on the beloved moon, a romantic icon for so many men of letters in Chinese history, and the white rabbit, which was rare in China before the import of the domesticated type in late Ming dynasty, was considered an auspicious omen. (43) A recent study of the rabbit's historical image in China, both secular and sacred, had nothing negative to report but that rabbits also served as a meat source. (44) The reason for this avoidance contrary to the rabbit's excellent reputation in written sources remains an enigma. (45)

The second example is the "godly worm" character [phrase omitted]. The "silkworm" interpretations in Wei shu have been copied almost verbatim by all Chinese dictionaries, starting with Yupian [phrase omitted], or at least its Song dynasty edition, without any re-examination. (46) Indeed, to an educated Confucian literatus, Jiang Shi's explanation seemed to make perfect sense. It was apparently based on firstly a presumed equivalence between shen [phrase omitted] "god," and tian [phrase omitted] "heaven," the latter approximating parts of the top component of the character [phrase omitted], and secondly that the character [phrase omitted], with the correct pronunciation hui and the original meaning of "reptile," was emerging in the same vulgarization process as a simplified variant of chong [phrase omitted] "worm." (47) In short, by this line of logic the "godly worm" can be regarded as a precursor to the modern simplified character [phrase omitted].

However, given that almost all known "vulgar characters" represented some sort of simplification in terms of the number of strokes, why do we here see the replacement of the character [phrase omitted] by the more complex character [phrase omitted]? Such complexification probably led the dictionary Longkan shoujing [phrase omitted] (compiled by the Khitan Liao [phrase omitted] dynasty Buddhist monk Xingjun [phrase omitted] and predating the Song dynasty edition of Yupian by sixteen years) to classify the character as "archaic" [phrase omitted], (48) a qualification that seems hardly appropriate for this early medieval neologism. All other early dictionaries that I have consulted stuck with the "vulgar" characterization, among them Xinxiu leiyin yinzheng qunji yupian [phrase omitted] (compiled by the Jurchen Jin [phrase omitted] dynasty scholar Xing Zhun [phrase omitted]), which is known to have preserved all characters contained in the Tang dynasty edition of Yupian, (49) or the slightly later Wuyin leiju sisheng pianhai [phrase omitted]. (50) In my opinion, the component can only be attributed to a need for deification. Yet we have virtually no evidence of the silkworm being deified to become an object of worship in that period, or any time in Chinese history--the silkworm's close association with the humiliating punishment by castration (see below) notwithstanding. In other words, we do not see any raison d'etre for such a substitution.

The sole attestation of the "godly worm" being used to refer to the silkworm is the inscription "Ning chansi sanji Futu bei" [phrase omitted], commemorating the construction of a Buddhist temple in 539 in modern Hebei province, (51) commissioned by a large group of people headed by a local Zhao Rong [phrase omitted], who had jointly financed its construction. The inscription, which uses the character under discussion, was elegantly written in classical Chinese, evidently the work of a highly educated literati author. Intriguingly, the same character appeared two more times in the long list of donors attached to the inscription, a "coincidence" that likely prompted the literati author to use the character in the verse-like introduction resembling the rhapsody (fit [phrase omitted]) genre. Due to damages to the inscription, we cannot tell the two full personal names. The characters that are left appear like two given names: [phrase omitted], "godly worm's grace," and [phrase omitted], "godly worm's Way." (52)

These two names, in addition to their obvious theophoric halo, lead to the biggest obstacle to the "silkworm" interpretation: to my best knowledge, among the tens of thousands of personal names in both traditional literature and archeological findings of the era, there is not a single case of the onomastic use of the character can [phrase omitted]. Given that canshi [phrase omitted], "silkworm chamber," was where those condemned to castration (including the father of Chinese historiography, Sima Qian [phrase omitted]) were sent to recuperate after the procedure, the character's absence in Chinese onomastics should not come as a big surprise.

A reviewer has objected to my reading of the two personal names above, insisting on the traditional interpretation that the character [phrase omitted] here represented a surname instead. While complete agreement in this respect may be hard to reach, (53) the surname reading is equally, if not more conspicuously difficult to reconcile with the "silkworm" interpretation. Given the societal obsession with familial lineage and the enormous amount of onomastic sources it has engendered, one can state with an even bigger certainty that the standard character [phrase omitted] never appeared as a surname in medieval China. Meanwhile, my alternative interpretation of this "godly worm" character definitely allows it to be used as surname, as will be shown below.

There is indeed at least one more attestation of the "godly worm" personal name: [phrase omitted], "godly worm's child," in a Northern Qi inscription dated 571. (54) Together with the two names cited above, we see familiar patterns of popular Chinese theophoric names. As such, the "godly worm" character is no more than a deified version of [phrase omitted], pronounced hui, meaning "snake." (55) What the literati prism fails to reflect here is the convergence of two social phenomena: first, a cultural taboo on directly using the character she [phrase omitted], "snake," in personal names, and second, the deification of the twelve-animal cycle to use them as divinities in theophoric names. The "vulgar character" [phrase omitted] thus reflected no more than the snake's newly acquired godly status to those less educated commoners born in the year of the snake. The name [phrase omitted] in fact had numerous contemporary parallels without the "godly" component but with unmistakable theophoric interpretations nonetheless: Hui'er [phrase omitted], "Snake's child"; Huizi/Zihui [phrase omitted], "Snake's son"; Huiji [phrase omitted], "Snake's girl"; Huiren [phrase omitted], "Snake's benevolence"; Dehui [phrase omitted], reversed form of "Snake's virtue/favor"; and Minhui [phrase omitted], reversed form of "Snake's mercy/love." (56)

A related case distorted by the literati prism is the name Mei Chong'er [phrase omitted], of an upstart and, according to the official histories, wicked courtier in the Confucian-dominated Southern Qi Dynasty. (57) In addition to the parallel names cited above, three of Mei's four fellow villains listed in Nan shi bore theophoric names too, namely Ru Fazhen [phrase omitted], "Dharma's treasure"; Zhu Lingyong [phrase omitted], "daemon's bravery"; and Yu Lingyun [phrase omitted], "daemon's charm." (58) In revealing contrast, the northern source Wei shu, while echoing the southern gentry's claim that Mei was a crook, correctly named him Hui'er [phrase omitted], likely because the same name was too popular in the north to mistake. (59) The persisting legacy of the gentry bias is that many modern Chinese books continue to mistranscribe this naming character as [phrase omitted], including the very case of [phrase omitted] and numerous other names cited above. The latest such name I could locate belonged to the second son of the Later Liang [phrase omitted] courtier Wu Cun'e [phrase omitted] (d. 917), Wu Huizi [phrase omitted], whose name was again mistranscribed to [phrase omitted] in a recent collection. (60)

Returning to the interpretation of the character [phrase omitted] as a surname, in contrast to the absolute absence of a surname [phrase omitted], the surname [phrase omitted] is attested repeatedly in medieval China, (61) and there were at least two double-surnames containing the character, namely Sheqiu [phrase omitted] and Shezhi [phrase omitted]. (62)


A reviewer has raised a stimulating counterargument to my attribution of the rarely broken taboo on directly naming people she [phrase omitted] in medieval China (63) to the widespread repugnant cultural image of the snake by pointing out that--unlike in the Book of Genesis of the Old Testament or in Aesop's fable about the farmer and the viper--in ancient China the snake in fact enjoyed a rather respectful cultural image. This perceptive point helps reveal another substantial difference between China's high and popular cultures.

The snake is widely considered a partial yet important origin of the dragon in East Asia, based on solid evidence, not the least the half-snake bodies of China's "Adam and Eve"--Fuxi [phrase omitted] and Nuwa [phrase omitted]--and such early sayings as "the snake morphed into a dragon" [phrase omitted]. (64) The dragon played an unsurpassed role in Chinese mythology as an icon of celestial power and auspice, exemplified, inter alia, by a Sinitic version of the annunciation regarding the godly provenance of the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang [phrase omitted]. (65) The closely associated snake thus shared some of the positive image of the dragon, mostly in Chinese high culture.

However, to the lower classes, the farmers and laborers toiling on the land and the woods, imperial fortunes would hardly figure in their dreams, whereas snakes, especially the venomous ones, posed real and serious danger, leading to natural fear as well as repugnance. As will be stressed below, Xu Shen ascribed the origin of the character ta [phrase omitted] as the third-person pronoun to a well-wishing greeting "nothing (bad) happening?" [phrase omitted] that originally meant "no snake (attacks)?"--reflecting a deep fear of the reptile. (66) Medieval popular writings repeatedly used the snake as a metaphor for viciousness and calamity. For instance, a Northern Wei colophon to a Buddhist sutra, dated 527, contains the passage: "One has witnessed and experienced warring anarchies, with disasters and evils taking place constantly, as if large serpents were ferociously spitting venoms across thousands of miles" [phrase omitted] (BN 189). The word changshe [phrase omitted] as a metaphor for viciousness and greed goes back to as early as Zuozhuan [phrase omitted]. (67) Apart from such popular negative metaphors as sheshi [phrase omitted], "snakes and pigs," and sheshi choulei [phrase omitted], "ugly species like the snake and the pig," (68) the snake was further lumped together with the xie [phrase omitted], "scorpion," to form the binome shexie [phrase omitted] as a metaphor for cruelty and viciousness. It was, for instance, frequently used in Xuanzang's [phrase omitted] translations of Buddhist sutras. (69) Shexie xinchang [phrase omitted], "(having) a heart like that of snakes and scorpions," has since become a popular idiom. The word sishe [phrase omitted] "four (venomous) snakes," imported from Buddhism, (70) became a standard allusion to misfortune in medieval inscriptional sources. (71) The strongest evidence for the snake's negative reputation in contemporary consciousness is the famous manifesto denouncing Empress Wu Zetian [phrase omitted] written by Luo Binwang [phrase omitted] on behalf of Xu Jingye [phrase omitted], a Tang aristocrat who revolted under the pretext of restoring the rightful imperial house. In this masterpiece of propaganda, Luo Bingwang accused Empress Wu of "having the heart of a (venomous) snake and the nature of a wolf" [phrase omitted]," (72) a biting example of using elegant literary language to tap into the popular abhorrence of the snake. Small wonder that this public denunciation even won grudging admiration of the politically astute Empress Wu herself, who had earlier changed the surname of her deposed and murdered predecessor from Wang [phrase omitted]. to Mang [phrase omitted], "python, large snake," as an ultimate insult and humiliation. (73)

The above discussion helps explain the rarity of directly naming people she, "snake," especially in contrast to the huge number of personal names containing the character long [phrase omitted], "dragon," in medieval China. Therefore, the original dizhi [phrase omitted], "earthly branch," sign si [phrase omitted], corresponding to the snake, provided an alternative option for those born in a snake year, especially to the educated gentry class. Thus we find the following theophoric names: Sinu [phrase omitted], "Si's slave"; Sixing [phrase omitted], "Si rises/prospers"; Silong [phrase omitted], "Si prospers"; and Siyan [phrase omitted], "Si multiplies." (74) Solid proof is found in the tomb inscription of a Tang dynasty gentleman Yang Xian [phrase omitted], (15) whose given name, meaning "offering," was elegantly paired with the style name Zhensi [phrase omitted] "loyal to Si." He died on April 11, 720 at age 65 sui. By my revised formula, he was indeed born in a snake year (657 [phrase omitted]). (76)

The need to highlight the guardian deity for those born in the snake year led to another group of theophoric personal names using ta [phrase omitted] (early medieval pronunciation tha), (77) otherwise the standard third-person pronoun in Chinese. This is because [phrase omitted] and ta/tuo [phrase omitted] were interchangeable homophones, either as the third-person pronoun or in other functions. (78) But the latter character, again according to Xu Shen, (79) was yet another pictograph of the snake and represented the very original form of [phrase omitted] (early medieval pronunciation zia), with or without the [phrase omitted] component. As cited earlier, Xu further intimated that even the character's role as a third-person pronoun had evolved from the "snake" connotation. This is corroborated by the exhaustive listing by Mao Yuanming: in the entire era from the Han dynasties up to the Sui [phrase omitted] reunification, the character [phrase omitted] in contemporary inscriptional texts was always written as [phrase omitted], differing from [phrase omitted] only by the component to the left. (80) Thus in addition to a deified snake [phrase omitted], we have also an anthropomorphized one in the following names: Ta'er, [phrase omitted], "Ta's child"; Tanu [phrase omitted], "Ta's daughter"; Tasheng/Tade [phrase omitted], "Ta-begotten"; Tamin [phrase omitted], "Ta's people"; Tanu [phrase omitted], "Ta's slave"; Taren [phrase omitted], "Ta's benevolence"; Tagui [phrase omitted], "Ta (is) precious/noble" as well as the hypocorism Ata [phrase omitted]. (81) In view of ta's [phrase omitted], morphological role as a third-person pronoun, the "child/daughter" and "slave" names alone may still be classified as plausible opprobrious ones, similar to Mainu [phrase omitted], "bought slave," and Jinu [phrase omitted] "slave-on-loan." But the other Ta-names, especially the "precious/noble" one, disprove this option. The theophoric nature of this "precious/noble" format is amply shown by such names as Shengui [phrase omitted], "god (is) precious/noble"; Fugui [phrase omitted], "the Buddha (is) precious/noble"; and Fagui [phrase omitted], "the Dharma (is) precious/noble." (82) As additional evidence, forms without the human component ([phrase omitted], early medieval pronunciation ya) as Yeren [phrase omitted], Yenu [phrase omitted], Yenu [phrase omitted], Yehe [phrase omitted], and Aye [phrase omitted] are also attested. (83)

My interpretation of the above ta-group of given names is supported first by the name Shenu [phrase omitted], "slave/servant of the snake," found in Turfan, around the era of Empress Wu Zetian (TLF 7.446). The fact that the name-bearer was a slave likely has contributed to this rare direct onomastic use of [phrase omitted]. This example, involuntary as it may be, is a good hint for what the component [phrase omitted] in other names represented. Then we have at least one solid case: that of the Tuoba prince Yuan Ta [phrase omitted], (84) a grandson of the founding emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty Tuoba Gui [phrase omitted] (r. 386-409). His biography in Wei shu records that Yuan Ta died in the twelfth year of Taihe [phrase omitted] (488) at age 73 sui. (85) By my revised formula, he was born in 417, a snake year ([phrase omitted]).

More evidence is found in the Northern Song [phrase omitted] dynasty, when the once popular fad of zoological personal names had largely faded, at least among the elite. It comes from none other than the family of the great historian Sima Guang [phrase omitted], whose masterpiece chronicle Zizhi tongjian is cited repeatedly by the current study. Guang's father, also a well-educated and successful Confucian scholar-official, had the rather rare given name Chi [phrase omitted]. Though Chi's biography in the official dynastic history Song shi [phrase omitted] contains neither his year of death nor age at death, a Ming dynasty chronological biography of his son Guang fortunately recorded both based on an inscription extant at the time. (86) Accordingly, Sima Chi passed away on the guiwei [phrase omitted] (eighth) day in the twelfth lunar month of the first year of Qingli [phrase omitted] (or January 2, 1042 according to the Julian calendar), at age 62 sui. Therefore, Chi was born in 981, a snake year ([phrase omitted]), revealing what the critical component [phrase omitted] of his name signified. This is also an example of how the literati prism "gentrifies" a popular tradition.

Back to earlier times, given that most preserved tomb inscriptions belonged to the educated gentry, and that zoological names--aside from childhood names--tended to be found only among commoners and lower social strata, I have yet to identify a bearer of a /zKi'-name whose birth year can be accurately inferred. But the thesis that such a name represented birth in a snake year is strongly supported by a number of cases. The first is a married gentry woman of the Tang period, nee Wu [phrase omitted], who died and was buried in 867. (87) Her tomb inscription, written by the bereaved husband, says that the survivors included a daughter nicknamed Dahuipo [phrase omitted] who was "still at nursery age" [phrase omitted]. Here the character po [phrase omitted], literally "old lady," was an endearing epithet for a young daughter. (88) A contention here is that [phrase omitted] might be misunderstood as [phrase omitted], "tiger," by the less educated. In this case, the closest tiger year and snake year were 858 [phrase omitted] and 861 [phrase omitted]. The former as the birth year of the "big snake lady" would make her 10 sui on her mother's death, just one or two years shy of being considered for marriage, hardly fitting the "nursery age" description. (89) The snake year 861 would thus be a much better fit as her birth year.

For additional evidence, first observe that, as exemplified by the case of Sima Chi, the educated gentry tended to avoid "blunt" animal-cycle personal names, whether figuring the animal or the corresponding earthly branch. They would often mask such names by adding to or removing components from the pertinent character. I have many confirmed examples, too numerous to be individually cited, proving the use of xiang [phrase omitted] and even mei [phrase omitted] (90) for yang [phrase omitted], "sheep"; tun [phrase omitted] for tun [phrase omitted], "pig"; and gai [phrase omitted] for hai [phrase omitted], the earthly branch sign for pig. The use of "ugly," chou [phrase omitted], to substitute for you [phrase omitted], which I have studied before, can be regarded as a vulgar form of the same script play. (91)

Along those lines, the gentry-naming rong [phrase omitted], "harmonious," was an attractive replacement for [phrase omitted]. Indeed, I have identified at least four such cases. The first is the last child-emperor, Xiao Baorong [phrase omitted], of the Southern Qi, who was murdered in 502 at the age of 15 sui by his remote clansman Xiao Yan [phrase omitted], founding emperor of the succeeding Liang dynasty. (92) Using my revised formula, Baorong was thus born in 489, a snake year ([phrase omitted]). Further strengthening this case, his brother Baoyin [phrase omitted], the last character being a variant of yin [phrase omitted], also had a theophoric name marking his birth year. This elder and luckier brother, hunted by Xiao Yan's executioners, barely escaped to Northern Wei territories in 501 at age 16 sui, confirming a tiger birth year (486 [phrase omitted]). (93) Remarkably, the identical pattern was repeated by another pair of brothers, Gao Baoyin [phrase omitted] and Baorong [phrase omitted], from a warlord family of the Five Dynasties era. While Baoyin's birth year cannot be definitely determined, it is well attested that yin is calendric. (94) Based on his biography, Baorong was born in 921, a snake year ([phrase omitted]). (95) Moreover, the tomb inscription of a Northern Qi official named Pei Rong [phrase omitted] confirms that he was born in the same snake year (489) as the last emperor of the Southern Qi (AF 264). The final case is the famous Tang general Yuchi Jingde [phrase omitted] (585-658), a legendary hero in both official history and folklore, commonly known by his style name Jingde. He played a critical role in the Xuanwu Gate [phrase omitted] coup d'etat in 626 by killing the then crown prince and securing the enthronement of his patron, the second Tang emperor Li Shimin [phrase omitted] (r. 626-49). Starting with a Northern Song dynasty source, Jingde's given name has usually been given as Gong [phrase omitted] (XTS 89.3752). However, his tomb was discovered in 1971, and its inscription clearly listed his given name as Rong [phrase omitted], matching the fact that he was born in a snake year ([phrase omitted]). (96) By the way, the family name Yuchi indicated that Jingde's forefathers came from either a western Xianbei [phrase omitted] tribe or the Central Asian city-state of Khotan, (97) another reminder of a multi-ethnic and multicultural medieval China.


AF: Jia Zhenlin [phrase omitted]. Wenhua Anfeng [phrase omitted]. Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe, 2011.

BN: Wang Su [phrase omitted] and Li Fang [phrase omitted], comps. Wei Jin Nanbeichao Dunhuang wenxian biannian [phrase omitted]. Taipei: Xinwenfeng chuban gongsi, 1997.

BP: Yan Juanying [phrase omitted], comp. Beichao Fojiao shike tuopian baipin [phrase omitted]. Taipei: Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, 2008. (Digitized at and cited by inscription numbers.)

BT: Beijing tushuguan jinshi zu [phrase omitted], comp. Beijing Tushuguan cang Zhongguo lidai shike tuoben huibian [phrase omitted], vol. 8. Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1989.

BZ: Lu Zengxiang [phrase omitted], comp. and annot. Baqiongshi jinshi buzheng [phrase omitted]. Rpt. Lidai beizhi congshu [phrase omitted], vols. 9-11. Nanjing: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 1998.

CS: Shen Tao [phrase omitted], comp. Changshan zhenshi zhi [phrase omitted] Rpt. Lidai beizhi congshu, vol. 12. Nanjing: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 1998.

DH: Tang Gen'ou [phrase omitted] and Lu Hongji [phrase omitted], comps., Dunhuang shehui jingji wenxian zhenji shilu [phrase omitted], vols. 1-5. Beijing: various publishers, 1986-1990.

HB: Zhou Shaoliang [phrase omitted] and Zhao Chao [phrase omitted], comps. Tangdai muzhi huibian [phrase omitted] Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1992.

HW: Mao Yuanming [phrase omitted], comp. and annot. Han Wei Liuchao beike jiaozhu [phrase omitted]. 10 vols. Beijing: Xianzhuang shuju, 2008.

JTS: Jiu Tang shu [phrase omitted]. if. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975.

LX: Lu Xun da quanji: Xueshu bian [phrase omitted], vols. 23-26. Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi chubanshe, 2011.

QQ/QZ: Han Lizhou [phrase omitted], comp. Quan Bei Qi Bei Zhou wen buyi [phrase omitted]. Xi'an: San-qin chubanshe, 2008. (different pagination)

QS: Han Lizhou, comp. Quan Sui wen buyi [phrase omitted]. Xi'an: Sanqin chubanshe, 2004.

QTZ: Wu Gang [phrase omitted], comp. Quan Tang wen buyi: Qian Tang zhizhai xincang zhuanji [phrase omitted]. Xi'an: Sanqin chubanshe, 2006.

QW: Han Lizhou, comp. Quan Bei Wei Dong Wei Xi Wei wen buyi [phrase omitted] Xi'an: Sanqin chubanshe 2010.

SY: Hu Pinzhi [phrase omitted], comp. Shanyou shike congbian [phrase omitted]. Rpt. Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 1988.

TLF: Tang Changru [phrase omitted] et al., comps. Tulufan chutu wenshu [phrase omitted], vols. 1-10. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1981-91.

XTS: Xin Tang shu [phrase omitted]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975.



I am indebted to Scott Pearce and Victor Mair for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this essay. I also acknowledge the pertinent critique, corrections, and suggestions of the three reviewers, especially that of the third, which helped improve and enhance the structure and presentation of this work significantly.

(1.) Nancun chuogeng lu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 8.104.

(2.) Studies in Chinese Buddhism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), 12.

(3.) Sima Guang [phrase omitted] et al., Zizhi tongjian [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1956), 165.5117-18.

(4.) Zizhi tongjian 157.4872.

(5.) Chen Yinke, "Tianshidao yu binhai diyu zhi gnanxi [phrase omitted]," in his Jinmingguan cong-gao chubian [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2001), 1-46.

(6.) "Sui Yang-ti: Personality and Stereotype," in The Confucian Persuasion, ed. Arthur Wright (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960), 47-76, 48.

(7.) "The Origin of the Term pien-wen: An Alternative Hypothesis," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd ser. 3 (1992): 241-46.

(8.) The "Stone Canon" was first erected by the imperial Eastern Han government in 175-183, then supplemented in 241 by the Wei [phrase omitted] court during the Three Kingdoms era.

(9.) According to the statistics given by Lu Mingjun [phrase omitted], Wei Jin Nanbeichao bei biezi yanjiu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Wenhua yichu chubanshe, 2009), 30, of a total of 536 surviving tomb inscriptions of the era, 481 (90%) belong to the Northern dynasties. For the other varieties, especially the huge number of religious dedications and sutras, the volume of southern samples is miniscule.

(10.) Ibid., 7-8.

(11.) Wang Liqi [phrase omitted], annot., Yanshi jiaxun jijie [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1993), 7.575.

(12.) "[phrase omitted]," likely referring to the books written in pre-Qin scripts allegedly retrieved from inside the walls of Confucius' old residence in the early Western Han dynasty. See Han shu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 53.2414.

(13.) Wei shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 91.1963. The enormous political pressure on Confucian literati not to ruffle the ethnic feathers of their nomadic masters is also reflected in an earlier story about Cui Hao [phrase omitted], another Han minister at the Tuoba court. An accomplished calligrapher, Cui was frequently asked to write the popular Jijiu zhang [phrase omitted] (also called Jijiu pian, "Quick-learning chapter"), a textbook for learning Chinese characters. Cui would always change the made-up personal name Hanqiang [phrase omitted], "(may) the Han be strong," to Daiqiang [phrase omitted], Dai being the original dynastic name of the Tuoba polity (Wei shu 35.827-28). Despite such precautions and enormous contributions to the Tuoba state as a military strategist. Cui and several entire related clans were cruelly executed in 450 due to the "scandalous slander" of Tuoba forefathers in a "national history" Cui had authored. See Wei shu 35.826, or for a more complete and less restrained account, Zizhi tongjian 125.3941-43.

(14.) The original Han dynasty Xiping Stone Canon [phrase omitted] was erected in 175 and inscribed only with the lishu [phrase omitted] script. The Stone Canon in Three Scripts usually refers to the Zhengshi Stone canon [phrase omitted], completed in 241, that included xiao zhuan [phrase omitted] "small seal script" and guwen [phrase omitted] "ancient script."

(15.) Wei shu 55.1220.

(16.) At the time known as the State of Han [phrase omitted].

(17.) Li Daoyuan [phrase omitted], Shuijing zhu [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990), 16.334; Wei shu 83b.l819; Bei shi [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 44.1620; Zizhi tongjian 148.4639.

(18.) Wei shu 52.1240-41.

(19.) Wei shu 4a.70; Bei shi 2.42.

(20.) For the relationship between Chinese "vulgar characters" and the development of the Khitan and Jurchen scripts, see, e.g., Lu Xixing [phrase omitted], "Gu qinpu jianzi yu qita minzu wenzi de chuangzhi" [phrase omitted], in Zhongguo wenzi yanjiu [phrase omitted], vol. 22 (Shanghai: Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 2015), 226-37.

(21.) See, e.g., Victor H. Mair. "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages," Journal of Asian Studies 53 (1994): 707-51.

(22.) Yanshi jiaxun jijie 5.576-77.

(23.) One of the anonymous reviewers raised the point that an earlier popular Baina [phrase omitted] edition of Wei shu has xiao'er [phrase omitted] "small child," instead of "small rabbit" here, which makes little textual sense. The latest emended edition of Wei shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2017), which, as the 1974 edition, used the Baina edition as its "prototype" [phrase omitted], but incorporated all corrections and new material accumulated over forty years, has nonetheless kept the "small rabbit" reading here (91.2128).

(24.) See Mair, "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia."

(25.) See, e.g., Mao Yuanming [phrase omitted], Han Wei Liuchao beike yiti zidian [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2014), 548-49, 817, 831.

(26.) See, e.g., Lu Xixing, "Gu qinpu jianzi."

(27.) A theophoric personal name contains the name of a deity in whose protection and care the name-bearer is entrusted. It was prevalent in the ancient Near East, as can be seen in all old onomasticons from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece. For a brief introduction to its relationship with the personal god. see Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976), 147-64. See also Sanping Chen and Victor H. Mair, "A 'Black Cult' in Early Medieval China: Iranian-Zoroastrian Influence in the Northern Dynasties," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 27 (2017): 201-24.

(28.) "Were 'Ugly Slaves' in Medieval China Really Ugly?" JAOS 136 (2016): 117-23.

(29.) These are the Northern Dynasties official Tian Sheng [phrase omitted] with the style name Chouxing [phrase omitted], born in 457 ([phrase omitted]) (AF 168); the long-lived Northern Qi official Lu Zhong [phrase omitted] with the style name Erchou [phrase omitted], born in 461 ([phrase omitted]) (QQ 82); the Sui dynasty official Chang Chounu [phrase omitted], born in 521 ([phrase omitted]) (QS 217); the Tang dynasty gentleman Shi Shanfa [phrase omitted] with the style name Chouren [phrase omitted], born in 629 ([phrase omitted]) (Zhao Liguang [phrase omitted] comp., Xi' an Beilin bowuguan xincang muzhi huihian [phrase omitted], 3 vols. [Beijing: Xianzhuang shuju, 2007], 272); and the Tang dynasty youngster Tang Choujin [phrase omitted], born in 853 ([phrase omitted]) (Zhongguo wenwu yanjiusuo [phrase omitted] et al., comps., Xin Zhongguo chutu muzhi: Shaanxi er [phrase omitted] Part 2 [Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe. 2003], 260).

(30.) Sun Xidan [phrase omitted], annot., Liji jijie [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1989), 8.207. It also gives the classical interpretation of you [phrase omitted], "small," here: "three months after birth."

(31.) Modern Chinese dictionaries based on traditional literature only trace the term guanming to an obscure Song dynasty source. See, e.g., Luo Zhufeng [phrase omitted] et al., Hanyu da cidian [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 1989), 3:1381. Yet in inscriptional data it appeared no later than the high Tang era, as shown below.

(32.) Chunzaitang suibi [phrase omitted] (Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe 2001), 6.64-65.

(33.) Luo Zhufeng, Hanyu da vidian, 3:1381.

(34.) E.g., the founder of the Southern Song dynasty Liu Yu [phrase omitted] (356-422) had a childhood name Jinu [phrase omitted]; the famous Southern dynasties poet Xie Lingyun [phrase omitted] (385-433, note Xie's theophoric given name, meaning "daemon's fortune) had a childhood name Ke'er [phrase omitted]; Wei Shou [phrase omitted] (505-572), the author of Wei shu, had a childhood name Fozhu [phrase omitted].

(35.) This relationship is a feature of Sinitic high culture going back all the way to Confucius' time. It has become an important tool for studying Chinese onomastics and linguistics, as exemplified by the superb treatise on names in the Spring and Autumn era by the Qing dynasty scholar Wang Yinzhi [phrase omitted], "Chunqiu mingzi jiegu [phrase omitted]," chapters 22-23 of his Jingyi shuwen [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1935), 857-945.

(36.) Phillipe Gignoux, Iranisches Personennamenbuch, vol. 2, fasc. 2: Noms propres sassanides en moyen-perse epigraphique (Vienna: Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1986), 161.

(37.) Luo Feng [phrase omitted], Guyuan nanjiao Sui Tang mudi [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1996), 17.

(38.) Yoshida Yutaka [phrase omitted], "The Sogdian Version of the New Xi'an Inscription," Les Sogdiens en Chine, ed. Etienne de la Vaissiere and Eric Trombert (Paris: Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 2005), 57-72; Pavel Lurje, lranisches Personennamenbuch, vol 2: Mitteliranische Personennamen, fasc 8: Personal Names in Sogdian Texts (Vienna: Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), 181.

(39.) Nicholas Sims-Williams and Francois de Blois, "The Bactrian Calendar," Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series 10 (1996), Studies in Honor of Vladimir A. Livshits, 149-65.

(40.) Here xiang [phrase omitted] and zhu [phrase omitted] are among some ten popular suffixes, meaning "daughter, girl," used in Chinese theophoric names, such as Shenxiang [phrase omitted] (HW 7.112), "god's girl"; Faxiang [phrase omitted] (QW 500), "Dharma's girl"; Sengxiang [phrase omitted] (TLF 7.16), "Sangha's girl"; Shenzhu [phrase omitted] (QW 518), "god's daughter"; Tanzhu [phrase omitted] (QW 633), "Dharma's daughter." They likely represent "gentrified" translations of the medieval Iranian theophoric suffix -duxt, "daughter."

(41.) BP 93; LX 25.284; 25.484; 26.19; 26.170; 26.418; 26.508; etc.

(42.) Such as Gouren [phrase omitted] (TLF 6.550), "Dog's benevolence"; Goude [phrase omitted] (DH 2.356), "Dog's virtue/ favor"; Jingou [phrase omitted] (DH 1.194), "Gold dog"; Zhuren [phrase omitted] (TLF 7.52), "Pig's benevolence"; Zhuguang [phrase omitted] (DH 4.52), "Pig's light"; Zhuxin [phrase omitted](DH 2.436), "Pig's trust." Another example is the name of the eunuch slave Li Zhu'er [phrase omitted], "Pig's child," who joined the patricide plot against the famous Tang rebellion leader An Lushan [phrase omitted] (JTS 200a.5371). To my knowledge, the only zodiac animal that was never used to directly name people is hou [phrase omitted], "monkey," an interesting cultural taboo.

(43.) Sightings of white rabbits were recorded by all official histories from the Later Han to the Tang; see, e.g., Hou Han shu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965), lb.62; JTS 11.289; XTS 195.5590; Wei shu 112b.2942-46; Song shu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 27.837-39.

(44.) Chen Lianshan [phrase omitted], "Shisu de tuzi yu shensheng de tuzi: Dui Zhongguo chuantong wenhua zhong tuzi xingxiang de kaocha" [phrase omitted], Minsu yanjiu 2011.3: 23-32.

(45.) A possible, if tenuous explanation could be that tu was a nickname for luantong [phrase omitted], "homosexual male prostitute, young 'male concubine'," a usage not attested before the late eighteenth century. See Shen Qifeng [phrase omitted], Xieduo [phrase omitted], rpt. Biji xiaoshuo daguan [phrase omitted], vol. 21 (Yangzhou: Guangling guji keyinshe, 1983), 1.5; Yuan Mei [phrase omitted], Zi buyu [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1998), 19.370.

(46.) Hu Jixuan [phrase omitted], annot., Yupian jiaoshi [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1989). 25.5041.

(47.) Up to the authoritative Qing dynasty dictionary Kangxi zidian [phrase omitted],. first published in 1716 (rpt. Shanghai: Shanghai shudian, 1985), this vulgarized form of [phrase omitted] was never accepted by the gentry (Kangxi zidian, 1200, calls such an interpretation a "gross falsehood" [phrase omitted]), with the character [phrase omitted] always retaining the pronunciation hui and the primary meaning "snake."

(48.) Goryeo [phrase omitted] edition (rpt. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 2.219.

(49.) Preface dated 1188. Rpt. Xuxiu Siku quanshu [phrase omitted], vol. 229 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1996), 25.208.

(50.) Compiled by the father-son duo Han Xiaoyan [phrase omitted] and Hao Daozhao [phrase omitted] and first published ca. 1212. A Ming dynasty edition is available online from Kyoto University Library. See

(51.) See, e.g., QW 66-70 and LX 23.340-52.

(52.) In addition to its fundamental role in Daoism, the character dao [phrase omitted] was also heavily used in early Chinese Buddhism, almost as an alternative to fa [phrase omitted], "Dharma," so much so that the term daoren [phrase omitted] frequently referred to Buddhist priests and monks, and had entered the Turco-Mongol world (toyin) in this sense. See, e.g., Sir Gerard Clauson. An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-lhirteenth-century Turkish (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), 569.

(53.) The use of [phrase omitted] as a surname was already questioned by Qing dynasty scholars. See, e.g., CS 2.48b.

(54.) See the rubbing in BT 25. The name is unsurprisingly mistranscribed as [phrase omitted] by QQ (275).

(55.) Xu Shen in his monumental etymological dictionary Shuowen jiezi [phrase omitted], cited by Wei shu above, interpreted the character [phrase omitted] as a pictograph of the snake. See Duan Yucai [phrase omitted], annot., Shuowen jiezi zhu [phrase omitted] (rpt. Shanghai: Shanghai shudian, 1992), 663.

(56.) BP 9; Li Song [phrase omitted], Chang an yishu yu zongjiao wenming [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2002), 427; DH 1.229; HW 7.183; LX 26.170; SY 2.15a; 2.17b; QQ 224; Wu Gang [phrase omitted], comp., Quan Tang wen huyi [phrase omitted] vol. 7 (Xi'an: Sanqin chubanshe, 2000), 218; QW 453; etc. Several sources mistranscribed the character [phrase omitted] as [phrase omitted]. My readings are based on rubbings or photos.

(57.) Nan shi [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), 77.1933 et passim.

(58.) Ibid., 47.1182.

(59.) Wei shu 59.1317; 98.2170. A similar case is the hypocorism Chongniang [phrase omitted] (XTS 83.3660), given to the youngest daughter (Princess Shou'an [phrase omitted]) of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong [phrase omitted] (r. 712-56). The story seems to have come from an earlier source, Duan Chengshi's [phrase omitted] (d. 863) Youyang zazu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), 1.2. Based on the limited information available, she was likely of similar age to that of Emperor Daizong [phrase omitted] (born in 726 or 727; r. 762-79), the most senior (by primogeniture) grandson of Emperor Xuanzong, thus born in 729 ([phrase omitted]). See below on another hypocorism, [phrase omitted], directly attested in Tang inscriptional data.

(60.) Zhou Agen [phrase omitted], comp. and annot., Wudai muzhi huikao [phrase omitted] (Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 2012), 74. My reading [phrase omitted] is based on the rubbing of the epitaph. The name can only represent a childhood name; thus the boy was likely born in 909 ([phrase omitted]), the closest snake year, given that his married elder brother already had a formal name, Yanlu [phrase omitted].

(61.) See, e.g., Zizhi tongjian 109.3458 and 117.3697.

(62.) Lin Bao [phrase omitted], Yuanhe xingzuan [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1994), 5.580; Yu Naiyong [phrase omitted], Xinjiao huzhu Songben Guangyun [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2008), 3.308.

(63.) Other than the "snake-slave" cited below, I found one rare exception, Yushe [phrase omitted] (LX 24.224), "Jade snake."

(64.) Sima Qian, Shiji [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1964), 49.1983. This passage appears to have originated with the co-author of the Shift, Mr. Chu [phrase omitted].

(65.) Ibid., 8.341.

(66.) Shuowen jiezi zhu, 678.

(67.) Du Yu [phrase omitted], Chunqiu jingzhuan jijie [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1988), 27.1630.

(68.) Sui shu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 63.1502 and 85.1900.

(69.) Daboreboluomiduo jing [phrase omitted] (Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra), T05, 128.700a, T06, 333.707a, etc.

(70.) Daboniepan jing [phrase omitted] (Mahaparinirvana sutra), T12, 23.499c, Fayuan zhulin [phrase omitted], T53, 78.866c, etc.

(71.) Zhou Shaoliang [phrase omitted] and Zhao Chao [phrase omitted], comp., Tangdai muzhi huibian xuji [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2001), 1042, BP 91, 92, etc.

(72.) Luocheng ji [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1937), 1.26. See also the citation and translation by Richard Guisso, "The Reigns of the Empress Wu, Chung-tsung and Jui-tsung (684-712)," in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 3, Sui and Tang China, 586-906, pt. 1, ed. Denis Twitchett (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), 295.

(73.) Zizhi tongjian 203.6424 and 200.6294.

(74.) DH 1.117; Rong Xinjiang [phrase omitted] et al., comps., Xinhua Tulufan chutu wenxian [phrase omitted], 2 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2008), 131, 136, 140, and 142.

(75.) Hu Ji [phrase omitted] et al., comps., Da Tang Xishi bowuguan cang muzhi [phrase omitted], 3 vols. (Beijing: Beijing Univ. Press, 2012), 399.

(76.) '"Age Inflation and Deflation' in Medieval China," JAOS 133 (2013): 527-33.

(77.) Based on Edwin G. Pulleyblank, Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia Press, 1990), supplemented by Zhou Jiwen [phrase omitted] and Xie Houfang [phrase omitted], Dunkuang Tufan Han-Zang duiyin zihui [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue chubanshe, 2006).

(78.) Say, the toponym Tuoshan/Tashan [phrase omitted], nowadays only used in the popular idiom tashanzhishi [phrase omitted] "the stone from Mount Tuo/Ta," originally a verse from Shijing [phrase omitted] and now a metaphor for drawing on other people's strength or advantages.

(79.) Shuowen jiezi zhu, 678.

(80.) Han Wei Liuchao yiti zidian, 778.

(81.) BP 76; BZ 22.396a; CS 4.513b; JTS 142.3868; LX 24.313, 25.390, 26.343, 26.480; QQ 224, 233, 300; QS 377, 386; QW 679; QZ 74, 100; Wang Yun [phrase omitted], Shi'eryan zhai jinshi guoyanlu [phrase omitted], rpt. Lidai beizhi congshu, vol. 12 (Nanjing: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 1998), 7.370b; SY 2.17a; XTS 123.5948; and Duan Songling [phrase omitted] comp., Yidu jinshiji [phrase omitted], rpt. Shike shiliao xinbian [phrase omitted], vol. 20 (Taipei: Xin-wenfeng chuban gongsi, 1982), 1.14816b.

(82.) QW 68, 74, 456.

(83.) BN 181; LX 25.343; QQ 224; QW 496, 616; Shi Anchang [phrase omitted], Huotan yu jisi niaoshen: Zhongguo gudai Xianjiao meishu kaogu shouji [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zijincheng chubanshe, 2004), 164 and 174.

(84.) His given name is also written using the variant character tuo [phrase omitted]. See Zizhi tongjian 136.4262.

(85.) Wei shu 16.391.

(86.) Ma Luan [phrase omitted], Sima Guang nianpu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1990), 1.316.

(87.) Mao Yangguang [phrase omitted] and Yu Fuwei [phrase omitted], comps., Luoyang liusan Tangdai muzhi huibian [phrase omitted], 2 vols. (Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2013), 630-31.

(88.) As shown by three interrelated tomb inscriptions for a Tang dynasty couple Lu Hui [phrase omitted] et ux, nee Li [phrase omitted]; see Zhao Wencheng [phrase omitted] et al., comps., Xinchu Tang muzhi baizhong [phrase omitted] (Hangzhou: Xiling yin-she, 2010), 282 and 284; and QTZ 373, in which a young daughter of theirs was alternatively called Liupo [phrase omitted], Liuniang [phrase omitted], and Liunu [phrase omitted].

(89.) Numerous Tang tomb inscriptions show that girls started to be married off at the ages of 11 and 12 sui. See, e.g., Yao Ping [phrase omitted], Tangdai funu de shengming licheng [phrase omitted] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2004), 8, 10-11.

(90.) The character [phrase omitted] can also be considered a variant of gao [phrase omitted] "lamb." Zhao Tingmei [phrase omitted] (original name Kuangmei [phrase omitted], 947-984), younger brother of the first two emperors of the Northern Song dynasty, is an apt example. Another interesting case is Song Xiang [phrase omitted], principal graduate [phrase omitted] of the national civil service examination in 1024 and a contemporary of Sima Chi. Xiang can be shown to have been born in the sheep year 995 ([phrase omitted]).

(91.) "Were 'Ugly Slaves' in Medieval China Really Ugly?" (above n. 28).

(92.) Nan Qi shu [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1972), 8.114.

(93.) Wei shu 59.1313.

(94.) We can cite the noted Ming dynasty painter Tang Yin [phrase omitted] (style name Bohu [phrase omitted], 1470-1524) and the world-class ping-pong player Xu Yinsheng [phrase omitted] (b. 1938), among many other cases.

(95.) Song shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 1977), 483.13952 and 483.13955.

(96.) Wu Gang [phrase omitted] et al., comps., Sui Tang Wudai muzhi huibian Shaanxi juan [phrase omitted], vol. 3 (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 1991), 50.

(97.) Yao Weiyuan [phrase omitted], Beichao huxing kao [phrase omitted] (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1958), 189-98. Recently, Xin Wen, "What's in a Surname? Central Asian Participation in the Culture of Naming of Medieval China," Tang Studies 34 (2016): 73-98, argued that there was no direct relationship between the Xianbei tribal name and the royal house of Khotan.

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Author:Chen, Sanping
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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