Wuhan and Auspicious Beasts
04 Mar 2005
I just got back from a business trip to Wuhan (武汉). I took my fickle camera, which may or may not work at any given time, but I never bothered using it. That’s me being lazy.
I had been to Wuhan once before, just passing through on the way from Shiyan to the airport. It’s really a massive city (or “metropolitan area consist[ing] of… the ‘Three Towns of Wuhan,'” you might say). At dinner on Wednesday, one of our hosts — a native of Hubei — made an interesting comment: There are only two truly big cities in China. Shanghai and Wuhan. I smiled at the comparison. You can bet the Shanghainese don’t make it.
I couldn’t get used to the one-character province abbreviation Hubei uses on its license plates: 鄂. Why? Well, first, it makes me think of 鳄鱼, which means alligator. Second, it has that double 口 on top, which makes me think of 骂 and 咒, neither of which are very nice characters. It even contains 亏, which in simplified Chinese means something like “to lose”. To make matters worse, Wenlin tells me that 咢 alone is another form of 噩, which can mean “shocking, frightening, suffering from bad luck.” It doesn’t seem like the greatest character to combine with 阝, which here means “city.” These are just musings, mind you… I claim no authority on this. But such are the things I ponder in long car rides in Wuhan.
The sightseeing portion of the trip took me to Guiyuan Temple (归元寺). Our host hired a guide, who explained everything about the temple in detail and never failed to encourage us to 捐 (donate) and 拜 (worship) at each major Buddhist statue. As a member of another religion I was exempt from that, but it seemed my Chinese companions did a bit more 拜ing (and especially 捐ing) than they originally planned.
The guide also told us a story about the head monk of the temple, 昌明. He had become quite a famous calligrapher, but felt that his hand was only mimicking the works of the greats. In order to let his true nature come out in his calligraphy, he started using his left hand instead of his right. Thus, the various calligraphy works of his were identified by our guide as having been written by his right hand or his left hand.
In the temple gift shop I discovered another legendary Chinese animal of which I had previously been unaware. I knew about dragons, phoenixes, qilin (麒麟, AKA “kirin,” as in the Japanese beer), and even that tortoise with the dragon head (whatever it’s called). I hadn’t ever heard of this one, however.
It’s called a pixiu (貔貅). Dictionaries don’t help much on this one. Wenlin’s definition of qilin as “Chinese unicorn” may be forgivable, but pixiu is defined as “fabulous wild beast.” My big fat Chinese-English dictionary’s definition of “mythical fierce animal” isn’t much better. In the gift shop I picked up a free information card with this description:
It has the head of a lion, the body of a pig, and the tail of a phoenix. It has either a single deer’s antler (天禄) or a pair of horns (避邪).
My Chinese companions got pretty excited about the pixiu figures; three out of four of them bought one. On the way out of the temple one of them told me that pixiu are such powerful charms for financial success that they are banned in all of Macau’s casinos. Whaaat…?
Too bad I had so little time to enjoy it; Wuhan seems like it’s worth exploring.
If you’re curious, try this Google Images link: more pictures of pixiu figures.