Wuhan and Auspicious Beasts

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: . 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 and , neither of which are very nice characters. It even contains , which in simplified Chinese means something like “to lose”. To make matters worse, Wenlin tells me that 咢 alone is another form of , 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 (donate) and (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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. So that’s what they are. We have a pair of the “Auspicious Beasts” in either blackwood or teakwood in the Rosewood House Oakland showroom. They tend to sit more upright and have bizarre horns. I was wondering what kind of bizarre “foo dog” variants they were. Thanks for the curiousity, John.

    Didn’t see any beasts at all in Macau, but I did see plenty of bird nest stores. I got info on the bird nests while flying United – the flights between Japan and Hong Kong show a quick feature on these small rock islands where all these sparrow type birds build 3 generations of nests each year and these savages live on the rock on a bamboo platform and with candles, climb the inside caves to retrieve the nests. Big HK and Macau buyers come with cash via boat (and big guns) to purchase and then resell at big profit. Why? The bird nests are believed to give the consumer the elixer of life.

    And eating “Recover” biscuits give you unlimited recovery against any ailment, right? And reading Sinosplice daily makes your brain stronger and faster, right?

  2. I went through Wuhan on a train back in 2003, and I have to say that, to me, it did seem bigger than Shanghai- it was neverending, absolutely MASSIVE. I found many cities in China felt much bigger than Shanghai (Jinan, Chongqing come to mind) although I’m sure, population-wise, they aren’t. They are just a lot more out of control and congested.

  3. Anonymous Says: March 5, 2005 at 3:03 am

    the weather there is horrible.

    very very hot and humid in the summer, the air does not cook down till 4am, in the spring, it rains non stop for a few month. Fall, very chilly wind, winter–snow, below 0 cold, and no heating at all.

    I spent 4 years there, felt Wuhan has all the possible bad weathers in one city. Every July, they are prepared for the flood

    I like people’s accents there, when they fight, it sounds humorous. and people use cursing words as often as we need commas.

    very interesting city.

  4. In Japanese, the “tortoise with the dragon’s head” is called Genbu, I recall it being called an armored serpent. Along with the Seryuu(Dragon), the Suzaku(Pheonix), and the Byakko(pegasus) they are the four directions, West, East, South respectively with Genbu as North, i recall. They are from Chinese mythology but I don’t know the chinese names.

  5. Melissa Smith Says: March 5, 2005 at 6:09 am

    Oh, so THAT’S what it was.
    Three shops in the Pacific Mall have a pair of pixiu, in one case on a pile of coins, flanking their doors. Unlike the Maneki Neko and lucky pigs, they’re very un-obvious about them, and in each case they’re practically hidden on the shelf of merchandise, but in all three cases they’re behind the shop windows on either side of the door, facing out, presumably to attract money.

    I had always wondered about them, and no one in the shops could explain (in English, at least) what they were, except ‘lucky’. The feathery tails and very short hooved legs are the give aways in these cases.

    Now if only someone could explain the owl statues that have suddenly become so auspicious around here…

  6. Melissa Smith Says: March 5, 2005 at 6:13 am

    Whoops, apparently, they don’t have hooves. But it’s still a pretty different sort of beast when I google it, and it’s definatly what I was seeing in shops. Sinosplice is an education!

  7. Kikko Man Says: March 5, 2005 at 8:17 am

    If you don’t mind suffering through its bad traffic, horrendous pollution, and the very mean and gruff sounding dialect, one might find Wuhan is actually a great city. Lot’s of history, old and new, and it is in some ways comparable to Shanghai(glitz and glamour excluded). There’s good food and its oh so convenient for travel.

  8. Joel,

    Thanks for the info. I had trouble finding any info on Genbu until I inputted it into Japanese IME and only one kanji result turned up: 玄武. Those are indeed the two characters for the creature you describe. I found mention of it in Wikipedia’s entries on the (traditional Chinese) Five Elements and on Chinese Constellations. Its name in Chinese is xúanwǔ and it’s referred to as the “Black Tortoise.” Especially after doing a Google Images search on 玄武, I’m quite sure it’s not the “tortoise with a dragon head” I’m referring to, though.

    I was looking through Wikipedia’s info on dragons (sorry, I don’t mean to be such a Wikipedia sycophant, but it’s a really good resource!), and I found some interesting info. Apparently the dragon is said to have 9 offspring, each with its own distinctive features. Go to the Chinese dragons entry and scroll down to the “Number nine” header. I’m thinking maybe the “tortoise with a dragon head” is 贔屭 (bìxì, the first son).

  9. Shame on me, I know the pixie but I have never heard of Pixiu before. Maybe I was confused it with the more common Kirin.

  10. You can almost bear any kind of clime once you get used to the weather in Wuhan.
    I have piles of pics of the city,mostly taken by me. You wanna see some of them on my blog? Pop it over.

  11. The abbreviation of Hubei- 鄂 starts using from Qing (清) Period, since its capital Wuchang (武昌) was the seat of the e-state (鄂州) government after Sui (隋) Period. In old Chinese, 鄂 has the meaning of “boundary”. It could also be used as 愕(the same as 噩 as you thought), meaning ‘shocking’. In addition, it’s the same as 萼,which means the receptacle of flower. When you put two 鄂 together, 鄂鄂 means ‘the look of flowers blooming’.

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