What I’m reading 我在讀什麼?

I have been jumping from book to book lately, so going to post what I’m reviewing next in the hope that this will put a little pressure on me to stick with one all the way through. I started I Am China by Xiaolu Guo, but not overly impressed by what I’ve read so far – a tired story about a Chinese dissident rocker who is seeking asylum in the UK that right now is seeming a little bit pretentious, somewhere between an Amy Tan novel and Ma Jian’s Red Dust, except not as edgy, equipped with dullish references to the Beat generation (((((Kerouac’s overrated))))) and China’s misty poets – but going to give it a chance, because I completely misjudged Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and ended up loving it – so going to put it on the back-burner, and I am currently nose-deep in the long-awaited counterpart to Li Ang’s (李昂) 1997 work 《北港香爐人人插》 (Everyone sticks it in the Beigang incense burner) called 《路邊甘蔗眾人啃》 (Everybody nibbles on the sugar cane at the side of the road). The new book, published this year deals with men and power, whereas the previous book dealt with women and power. I haven’t read the previous book, but have heard interesting things about the author. I’m also interested to see if the “restricted to ages 18 and over” label stuck on the front is actually warranted, or is just a marketing technique.


The other books I’m lining up are 《馬橋詞典》 (A Dictionary of Maqiao in English) by Han Shaogong (韓少功), recommended to me by Chris Peacock, so looking forward to it.

I’m also going to give Yu Hua a second chance after the average but disappointing 《活著》 (To Live).

maqiaoyuhuaGot any recommendations? Reading any books that you are enjoying? Or read these books and want to have your say, comment below and I’ll get back to you.

I’ve also got a review of A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke in the pipeline, it’s a great film.

Book Review: Evan Osnos ‘Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China’

ageofambitionThis is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the “China threat” myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the “China is the best thing since sliced bread” line served up by China’s state media.

On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a “collective” society in contrast to the “individualist” Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao’s invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China’s collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society – despite the fact that Cromwell is also “Western”. This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by “individualist” and “collectivist” societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:

Listen to it here:



This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I’ve always been in the “people are essentially the same” camp – it’s just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:



I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that’s representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato’s plane of ideal forms, despite my friend’s protestations that I just wasn’t understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word “境界” – which I think I translated as “aura” but could easily have been “paradigm”.

I’ve regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald’s across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I’ve even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the “heartless onlookers” in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we’d like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:


They were conscripted  into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.


Indeed, it’s in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:


… she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China’s industrial id.


Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China’s art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China’s literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.

There’s an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from “revolutionary party” to “party in power,” for example.

I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term “bobozu” (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for “burnt out but opulent,” which didn’t seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, “bourgeious bohemians” being the “bobo” or “bubo” in question, although I still like my classmate’s explanation better.

Osnos’ book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.

There’s also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:


We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.


The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.

A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders – “fortune” referring to is now the cliched “meteoric rise” of China’s economy, “truth” dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.

5/5 Must read

Phrase of the Day – Duck hears thunder 鴨仔聽雷

 鴨仔聽雷 ah-á thiaⁿ lûi

A very apt description for the way some people have looked at me when I try to speak Taiwanese to them, somewhat equivalent to “like a deer in the headlights”, but in reference to hearing something that you can make neither head nor tail of. It’s nice that it conjures up a very specific image in your head. Suggested use – if you can get it out and be understood – is to use it to break the ice after a Taiwanese friend looks at you like a duck hearing thunder.

I will update the google doc soon. Feel free to contribute phrases you’ve heard, songs you can sing in Taiwanese, or recordings of you speaking Taiwanese.

(No ducks were harmed in the making of this post)

Reunification activist, or just a crazy guy in a car? 統一份子/瘋子?


Have been showing my little sister round Taipei, which occasioned the customary visit to Taipei 101. After the guided audio tour around the top – which is basically an extended advertisement by the Taipei City Government – and the trawl through the layers of gift shops set up to make it feel like a complete tourist trap, we descended back to ground level and caught sight of this guy driving around the district:

The message on top of the car says “Long live China” then underneath it says “We’re all one family”. He’s a pro-reunification activist – hoping that China can incorporate Taiwan, which is currently an independent country – although the majority of people I saw reacted to him more with incredulity or amusement than anything else.

The area outside Taipei 101 is often an interesting place to visit, as Falungong practitioners meet with mainland tour groups, along with other tourists. Falungong is banned in Mainland China, after a mass rally was organized by practitioners, which Beijing saw as a threat to its authority.

Paul Farrelly, a doctoral candidate at Australian National University and contributor to eRenlai, did a slideshow on the Falungong protesters which gather around the main sites visited by mainland tourist groups in Taipei, watch it here:


Phrase of the Day – Watermelons rest on the largest side 西瓜倚大傍

西瓜倚大傍 si-koe óa tōa-pêng (Click syllable to hear pronunciation)

I like this phrase quite a lot as I always picture a watermelon rolling and then falling on its heaviest side. It’s used as a metaphor to say that people generally tend to side with those who will benefit them (as opposed to choosing through justice or impartiality), it can also suggest populism or going with the crowd. Below I’ve compiled two super short clips of Wu Nien-zhen’s Human Condition (《人間條件》)in which this phrase is mentioned. I don’t own the copyright to the video and am using the clips for purely educational purposes. Here the woman speaking uses a variation of the phrase: 吃西瓜倚大傍 ﹣ although the 倚 is commonly rendered phonetically as 挖 – which sounds closer to the Taiwanese pronunciation of 倚, which is pronounced “yǐ” in Mandarin. The 旁 is also commonly written as 邊, because it’s closer to the meaning of the phrase in Mandarin. In both cases the whole phrase is used as an adjective.

In the first clip she says: (吃)西瓜倚大旁的個性lóng(攏/都)無改變呢啊!chia̍h si-koe óa tōa-pêng ê kò-sèng lóng  kái-piàn nih ah   and in the second she says 按呢(這麼)吃西瓜大án-ne chia̍h si-koe óa tōa-pêng?

Again, be careful how you use this phrase, as careless use can offend strangers.

I’ve updated the google doc, for those interested


Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese

Ibisbill's blog 鹮嘴鹬的博客

By Michael Rank

UPDATE – As I was researching Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese, I wondered whether Orwell ever wrote about China. His interest in India, where he was born in 1903, is well known, and he served in the Burma Police after leaving school and before becoming a writer, but my guess was that China didn’t concern him greatly. But when I went to the British Library to check in his massive, 20-volume Complete Works [CW] I was surprised to discover that he wrote quite a lot about China, and its fate under Japanese occupation in particular, when he was working for the BBC’s Eastern Service during World War II.

And of direct relevance to this article, it turns out that he asked his publishers to send a copy of Nineteen Eighty-four to his colleague, the literary critic William Empson in Peking, where he was teaching English literature. When he…

View original post 5,592 more words

Phrase of the day – Dead man’s bones 這是什麼死人骨頭?


這是啥物死人骨頭? chit sī siánn-mih sí-lâng kut-thâu?

Note: 啥物, sometimes written phonetically as “蝦米” means 什麼 in Mandarin or “what” in English

My coworker told me about this phrase recently, meaning “What the heck is this?”, or “What’s this nonsense?”, though it literally means “What kind of dead man’s bones are these?” – kind of equivalent to “這是什麼鬼?” in Mandarin. It can be used for comic effect, when someone does, has, wears or says something weird:

For example when looking at the “Retrospective tea” advertised on a sign at a Gongguan teashop featured above, one might ask one’s friend: “這是啥物死人骨頭?”

Beware though, it can be offensive if you use it on strangers.

Here’s the updated Google doc, noting patterns between Mandarin and Taiwanese or lack thereof.


Taiwanese Language

I’ve been making an effort to learn more Taiwanese lately, and have been trying to find some sort of pattern between Mandarin and Taiwanese that can provide me with an alternative method than just memorizing by heart. Some Taiwanese I’ve picked up from TV, KTV songs and from the Human Condition (《人間條件》 series of plays that I researched for my masters, but my vocabulary is limited to the very basic at the moment, so I hope that by starting a blog I’ll be more motivated. My approach to the language is not going to be scientific, but rather I’m going to rely on my own perceptions to build up an idea of how grammar and pronunciation rules work on my own terms, although I’m familiar with some of the rules around the language, as we were taught a limited amount as part of my master program.

Most of the phrases I’ve learned so far have only been simple greetings, basic common phrases or insults, as below:

你好: [Click on each syllable to hear it] (Strangely enough, to my ear the direction of the tone mark seems to be counter-intuitive, as I would describe it as a slowly falling 4th tone.) – Hello

Going to test a few theories, as I continue learning:

we see “n” turn to “l” [and this may be limited to a third tone in Mandarin when followed by an “i” or may not]  [ㄋ->ㄌ]

“i” (zhuyinㄧ) remains similar in Mandarin and Taiwanese [which may be limited to when preceded by an “n” in Mandarin and an “l” in Taiwanese] [ㄧ->ㄧ]

“h” remains similar in both Taiwanese and Mandarin [which may be limited to when it’s followed by “ao” in Mandarin and “o” in Taiwanese or not] [ㄏ->ㄏ]

“ao” changes to “o” [which may be limited to when it’s preceded by “h”] [ㄠ->ㄛ]

Tones: I know that in speech, tones are affected by tones sandhi, but for the minute I’m going to ignore this, as I’m taking individual vocabulary and tone marks from a dictionary – later I’ll try and examine this in more depth

Tones: Third tones in Mandarin change to second tone (high-falling – ˥˧ (53) [Tainan] or falling – ˥˩ (51)[Taipei]) in Taiwanese [3->2]

這個人我熟似 chit-ê lâng góa se̍k-sāi (我認識/熟悉) – I know that guy/person

“zh” in Mandarin changes to “j”/”ch” in Taiwanese [which may be limited to when it’s followed by “e” in Mandarin or “it” in Taiwanese] [ㄓ->ㄐ]

“e” in Mandarin changes to “it” in Taiwanese [which may be limited to when it’s preceded by “zh” in Mandarin or “j/ch” in Taiwanese] [ㄜ->ㄧㄊ]

Tones: Fourth tone in Mandarin changes to fourth tone (low stopped – ˨˩ʔ (21) [Tainan] or mid-stopped – ˧˨ʔ (32) [Taipei] in Taiwanese [4->4]

“g” in Mandarin disappears [which may be limited when followed by “e” (ㄜ) in Mandarin] [ㄍ->_]

“e” in Mandarin turns into “e” (sounds like ei ㄟ in Mandarin) in Taiwanese [May be limited to when it’s preceded by a “g” in Mandarin, and has no final] [ㄜ->ㄟ]

Tones: neutral tone in Mandarin changes to fifth tone (rising – ˨˦ (25) [Tainan] or ˩˦ to ˨˦ (14~24) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [5->5]

“r” in Mandarin turns into “l” in Taiwanese [may be limited to when followed by “en” in Mandarin or “ang” in Taiwanese] [ㄖ->ㄌ] *Note* I’ve also head 人 is pronounced “jîn” in different contexts

“en” in Mandarin turns into “ang” in Taiwanese [may be limited to when preceded by “r” in Mandarin and “l” in Taiwanese] [ㄣ->ㄤ]

Tones: Second tone in Mandarin turns into fifth tone (rising – ˨˦ (25) [Tainan] or ˩˦ to ˨˦ (14~24) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [2->5]

“w” in Mandarin turns into “g” or “gu” in Taiwanese [may be limited to when followed by “o” (ㄛ) or “oa” (ㄨㄚ) in Taiwanese] [ㄨ (initial) -> ㄍㄨ/ㄍ]

“o” in Mandarin turns into “oa” in Taiwanese [may be limited to when preceded by a w in Mandarin or a “g” in Taiwanese] [(ㄨ)ㄛ->ㄨㄚ]

Tones: Third tones in Mandarin change to second tone (high-falling – ˥˧ (53) [Tainan] or falling – ˥˩ (51)[Taipei]) in Taiwanese [3->2]

“sh” in Mandarin changes to “s” (sounds like sh) in Taiwanese [limited to followed by “ou” in Mandarin or “ek” in Taiwanese] [ㄕ->ㄕ]

“ou” in Mandarin changes into “ek” in Taiwanese [limited to following “sh” in Mandarin] [ㄡ->ㄧㄎ]

Tones: Second tone in Mandarin turns into eighth tone (high stopped –˥ʔ (5) [Tainan] or high stopped – ˦ʔ (4) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [2->8]

“s” in Mandarin changes to “s” in Taiwanese [may limit to preceding “i” in Mandarin or “ai” in Taiwanese] [ㄙ->ㄙ]

“i” in Mandarin changes to “ai” in Taiwanese [may limit to following “s” and “sh”] [~(i)->ㄞ]

Fourth tone in Mandarin turns into seventh tone (mid – ˨ (22) [Tainan] or mid- ˧ (33) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [4->7]

我相信 góa siang-sìn/siong-sìn – I believe

我(see above)

“x” (ㄒ) in Mandarin turns into “s” (sh) in Taiwanese [which may be limited to when followed by “i” with nasal final] [ㄒ->ㄒ]

“iang” in Mandarin remains as “iang” in Taiwanese [may limit to following “x”] [ㄧㄤ->ㄧㄤ]

or “iang” in Mandarin turns into “iong” in Taiwanese [may limit to following “x”] [ㄧㄤ->ㄩㄥ]

Tones: First tone in Mandarin turns into first tone (high – ˦ (44) [Tainan] or high – ˥ (55) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [1->1]

“x” (ㄒ) in Mandarin turns into “s” (sh) in Taiwanese [which may be limited to when followed by “i” with nasal final] [ㄒ->ㄒ]

“in” turns into “in” in Taiwanese (sound the same) [ㄧㄣ->ㄧㄣ]

Tones: Fourth tone in Mandarin turns into third tone (low – ˩ (11) [Tainan] or low-falling – ˧˩ to ˨˩ (31~21) [Taipei]) [4->3]

白癡 pe̍h-chhi – Idiot

“b” in Mandarin turns into “p” in Taiwanese (though may be the same sound) [may limit to preceding “ai”] [ㄅ->ㄅ]

“ai” in Mandarin turns into “eh” (sounds like “ei” ㄟ) [may limit to following “b”] [ㄞ->ㄟ]

Tones: Second tone in Mandarin turns into eighth tone (high stopped –˥ʔ (5) [Tainan] or high stopped – ˦ʔ (4) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [2->8]

“ch” in Mandarin turns into “chh” (pronounced similar to q/ㄑ in Mandarin) in Taiwanese [may limit to preceding “i”] [ㄔ->ㄑ]

“i” (~) in Mandarin turns into “ih” in Taiwanese (sounds like ㄧ (i)) [may limit to following “ch” in Mandarin or “chh” in Taiwanese] [~(i)->ㄧ]

Tones: First tone in Mandarin turns into first tone (high – ˦ (44) [Tainan] or high – ˥ (55) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [1->1]

流目屎 lâu-ba̍k-sái (流眼淚) – To cry

“l” in Mandarin remains “l” in Taiwanese [may limit to followed by “iu”] [ㄌ->ㄌ]

“iu” in Mandarin becomes “au” in Taiwanese [may limit to preceded by “l”] [ㄧㄡ->ㄠ]

Tones: Second tone in Mandarin turns into fifth tone (rising – ˨˦ (25) [Tainan] or ˩˦ to ˨˦ (14~24) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [2->5]

“m” in Mandarin becomes “b” in Taiwanese [may be limited to preceding “u” in Mandarin or “ak” in Taiwanese] [ㄇ->ㄅ*nasal]

“u” in Mandarin becomes “ak” in Taiwanese [may be limited to following “m” in Mandarin or “(m)b” in Taiwanese] [ㄨ->ㄚㄎ]

Tones: Fourth tone in Mandarin becomes eighth tone (high stopped –˥ʔ (5) [Tainan] or high stopped – ˦ʔ (4) [Taipei]) in Taiwanese [4->8]

“sh” in Mandarin becomes “s” in Taiwanese [may be limited to preceding ~(i)] [ㄕ->ㄙ]

“i” in Mandarin becomes “ai” in Taiwanese [may be limited to following “sh” and “s”] [~(i)->ㄞ]

The list goes on, but I’ll save the two Taiwanese songs I know for later posts. Below are a list of theoretical rules for shifting between Mandarin and Taiwanese, most of which are obviously not the case, but I will improve upon it as I go along:

[~(i)->ㄞ] preceding ㄙ          
[~(i)->ㄧ] preceded by ㄔor ㄕ or ㄙ        
[~i->ㄨ] before ㄙ            
[ㄅ->ㄅ] followed by ㄞ            
[ㄆ->ㄅ] before ㄤ            
[ㄇ->ㄅ*nasal] followed by ㄨ,ㄧㄢ, ㄥ      
[ㄈ->ㄏ] followed by ㄥ            
[ㄉ->ㄉ] before ㄚ            
[ㄊ->ㄊ] followed by ㄡ            
[ㄋ->ㄌ] followed by ㄧ, ㄧㄢ          
[ㄌ->ㄌ] followed by ㄧㄡ            
[ㄍ->_] followed by ㄜ            
[ㄍ->ㄍ] followed by ㄨ, ㄨㄚ          
[ㄎ->ㄎ] followed by ㄢ            
[ㄏ->ㄏ] followed by ㄠ, ㄨㄚ          
[ㄐ->ㄎ] followed by ㄧㄠ            
[ㄑ->ㄐ] followed by ㄧㄥ            
[ㄒ->ㄒ] followed by ㄧㄤ 西        
[ㄓ->ㄉ] followed by ㄨㄥ            
[ㄓ->ㄐ] followed by ㄜ            
[ㄓ->ㄗ] followd by ㄤ            
[ㄔ->ㄑ] followed by ~            
[ㄕ->ㄕ] followed by ~(i), a          
[ㄕ->ㄙ] followed by ~(i)            
[ㄖ->ㄌ] followed by ㄣ            
[ㄖ->ㄍ] followed by ㄨㄢ            
[ㄖ->ㄐ] followed by ㄣ            
[ㄘ->ㄗ] followed by ㄨㄥ            
[ㄙ->ㄕ] followed by ~(i)            
[ㄙ->ㄙ] followed by ~            
[ㄚ->ㄧㄚ(n)] preceded by ㄕ            
[ㄚ->ㄨㄚ] before ㄉ            
[ㄛ->ㄨㄚ] preceded by ㄨ            
[ㄜ->ㄟ] preceded by ㄍ            
[ㄜ->ㄧㄊ] preceded by ㄓ            
[ㄞ->ㄟ(h)] preceded by ㄅ            
[ㄡ->ㄠ] preceded by ㄊ            
[ㄡ->ㄧㄎ] preceded by ㄕ            
[ㄢ->ㄨㄚ~n] preceded by ㄎ            
[ㄣ->ㄤ] preceded by ㄖ            
[ㄣ->ㄧㄣ] preceded by ㄖ            
[ㄤ->ㄧㄣ] after ㄆ          
[ㄥ->ㄤ] preceded by ㄇ            
[ㄥ->ㄨㄥ] preceded by ㄈ            
[ㄧ->ㄐ] isolated            
[ㄧ->ㄧ] preceded by ㄋ            
[ㄧ->ㄧㄊ] isolated            
[ㄧ->ㄨㄚ] isolated            
[ㄧㄝ->ㄧㄚ] isolated            
[ㄧㄠ->ㄚ] preceded by ㄐ            
[ㄧㄡ->ㄠ] preceded by ㄌ            
[ㄧㄢ->ㄧㄣ] preceded by ㄇ          
[ㄧㄣ->ㄧㄣ] preceded by ㄒ            
[ㄧㄤ->ㄧㄤ] preceded by ㄒ            
[ㄧㄤ->ㄩㄥ] preceded by ㄒ            
[ㄧㄥ->ㄧㄥ] preceded by ㄑ            
[ㄨ (initial) -> ㄍㄨ/ㄍ] followed by ㄛ            
[ㄨ->ㄚㄎ] preceded by ㄇ            
[ㄨ->ㄛ] isolated            
[ㄨ->ㄧ(h)] preceded by ㄨ(initial)            
[ㄨ->ㄨㄊ] preceded by ㄍ            
[ㄨ(initial)->ㄅ] isolated            
[ㄨ(initial)->ㄇ] followed by ㄨ            
[ㄨㄚ->ㄨㄟ] preceded by ㄍ, ㄏ          
[ㄨㄢ->ㄨㄣ] preceded by ㄖ            
[ㄨㄥ->ㄤ] preceded by ㄘ            
[ㄨㄥ->ㄩㄥ] preceded by ㄓ          

Restless spirits on the Heping Line 安撫和平幹線上的冤魂

On the bus to work this morning, I saw these stickers stuck below seats on the bus. They were stuck on in a rather inconspicuous way, which suggested they weren’t necessarily there to be seen.

I’d downloaded a program at work called Mojikyo, which allows you to type obscure and antiquated Chinese characters – which don’t have a unicode assignation (a system that allows for consistency in characters across different systems), as well as oracle bone and seal scripts, into Word with special fonts which modify modern Chinese characters. It also has something called Siddham characters, which I later learned from Wikipedia is a form of Sanskrit. I recognized the characters from in the picture below from playing around with the program:


I worked out that the character on all four of the outer sides of the picture were all the Siddham character 102632. Through a little guess work I found out that the two vertical pillars within the circle were Buddhist mantras associated with Guanyin (觀音), also known as Guanzizai (觀自在) and Avalokiteśvara – who is incredibly popular in the Chinese-speaking world, and is known for his/her compassion for the suffering of humanity.

[On a side note, the ambiguity of Guanyin’s gender came under fire recently from a Christian preacher Kuo Mei-chiang (郭美江), whose comments sparked public outrage in Taiwan:

She starts off this diplomatically by saying: “Guanyin, this evil spirit, is neither male nor female…”

She’s also paranoid that Taiwan’s universities are being “invaded by gays” but that’s another story for another day. Back to Guanyin mantras on the bus…]

The mantras seem to be the same as this one:


It is pronounced “oṃ ma ṇi pa dme hūṃ” according to a website on different Buddhist mantras, which has been translated to English as “oṃ the jewel in the lotus hūṃ”, although there are questions about this translation which you can find out more about at the website.

One of my Taiwanese friends whose family is quite heavily into Buddhism told me that the first sticker is the “大寶廣博樓閣善住祕密陀羅尼咒輪” and that the second, which is below, is the “四解脫咒輪”, written in Tibetan script.

“大寶” can mean bodhisattva, or Dharma, “廣博” is broad or expansive, “樓閣” is pavilion, “善住” is one of the 36 guardian deities that is in charged with protecting from deadly injuries. “陀羅尼” is the Chinese for Dhāraṇī – which is a kind of protective charm which summarizes the meaning of a sutra.


The first sticker would seem to be to protect people from deadly injury, while the second is to help the dead move on after they’ve died, which fits in with what my friend told me when he said that it was likely that the bus had been in a deadly accident before, and the stickers were an attempt to exorcise the spirits of the dead. He said it wasn’t definitely the case but it was a possibility, and that this is part of Taiwanese culture, and it reminded me of my curiosity at flowers being tied to fences at the side of the road in the countryside in Ireland at accident black spots.

If anyone has any more information or corrections to make, suggestions are welcome in the comments section.

I’m going to continue to try and decode the Siddham characters on the first sticker, and will update in the comments section too. Here’s a list of websites I found pretty useful:


Visible Mantra : Buddhist Calligraphy: http://www.visiblemantra.org/avalokitesvara.html

Mojikyo: http://www.mojikyo.org/ (the content has to be downloaded from another site though, see this site for tips on how to get the fonts and the character map: http://tinyapps.org/blog/windows/201002130700_mojikyo_character_map.html )

A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: http://mahajana.net/texts/kopia_lokalna/soothill-hodous.html