Archive for the ‘Chinese Culture’ Category

I have several times noted occurrences where Chinese history and culture intersect with ants (see here, here, here, here, here, here, or even here). However, finding myself in Japan, I realized that I know nothing about the place of ants in Japanese history and culture. Not surprisingly, it took me less than a minute to find something relevant: The Dream of Akinosuke.

This story follows the experiences of Akinosuke, a wealthy man who falls asleep under a tree in the presence of his friends, and has a remarkable dream. He finds himself the receiver of bountiful blessings, including being adopted by the King through marriage to a beautiful princess who bears him five boys and two girls, and becoming governor of a pleasant realm. However, misfortune befalls the man when his wife dies. After a period of mourning, he is called back by the king, only to awake just as he is departing.

After waking, Akinosuke discusses the dream with his friends, and learns that a butterfly floating near his head had been pulled into an ant’s nest, emerging only after he awoke. An insightful friend opines that “The ants might explain it. … Ants are queer beings – possibly goblins… Anyhow, there is a big ant’s nest under that cedar-tree.” After investigating, Akinosuke finds that the nest is laid out exactly like the kingdom in his dream, including the “King”. Furthermore, he finds, underneath a pebble, the body of a dead female ant.

All of this sounded very familiar to me, and for good reason – it is apparently based on the Tang Chinese story The Governor of Nanke, which I have discussed previously. Like in the Chinese story, Akinosuke has a dream, finds that his life of blessings ends in sorrow, and then finds an ant’s nest under a tree that represents the life in his dream. Furthermore, both stories mistakenly describe a “king” at the head of the ant colony, which is erroneous for reasons I discuss in the other post. However, the moral of the Japanese story is less clear, whereas The Governor of Nanke makes its message explicit in its closing poem:

The noblest emolument and position
Power to overthrow cities and lands –
The wise man regards these things
As nothing different from swarming ants.

All of this is, of course, further evidence that the ways of the ant have permeated all human societies.

Aikido Bruxelles / Kwaidan / akinosuke

(Depiction of The Dream of Akinosuke, from here)


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Several days ago I said I would cover several things about my time in New York, including ants in my pants. Well, turns out someone beat me to it. This someone is Laurence Vickers, a fullback for the Dallas Cowboys.

On June 6th, according to CBS News, this happened,:

Vickers had to leave practice Wednesday when fire ants invaded his pants. The fullback discovered about four months ago that he was allergic to fire ants, so the sudden pain below his waste was a brief cause of panic, reports the Dallas Morning News.

“Fire ants got in my pants,” Vickers told the News. “I was freaking out. Oh, ants!”

Vickers further explains his feelings:

 “I wanted to pull my pants down and run inside, but I couldn’t do that. When those ants get close to those testicles, there ain’t no laughing about that.”

I’m not sure there ain’t no laughing about that. Also, I was surprised to discover that Vickers’ middle name is, in fact, Blanchard. Combined with the fact that there exists a Ben Blanchard who reports from Beijing on Chinese news and politics for Reuters, I have decided that I must be destined for Chinese ants.

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The Mawangdui texts, when discovered, revealed quite a bit about medicine and other aspects of ancient Chinese culture previously unknown. As I was reading over some of the items in the medical text, which dates to the 2nd century BCE, I came across some entomological treatments.

For “Infant-cord Rigidity”, likely some sort of infant ailment, the instructions for concocting the medicinal cure say to “take anthill loam and smith it.” For “Inguinal swelling” (including hernias), the text instructs to “wrap hive-bee eggs [larvae] that have been dried in the dark in cloth”. Alternatively, one can “at dawn take one bee egg [larva]. Soak it in one cup of fine gruel vinegar and give it to the person to drink.”

While such treatments found in these texts are, to my knowledge, rarely implemented today, insects are still being used in attempts to alleviate the illnesses of man. For example, leaf cutter ants have antibiotics, and current research on these ants and their antibacterial mutualists may ultimately contribute to the development of more effective antibiotics for humans. Alas, I have yet to learn of any positive medicinal effects provided by bee larvae. But feel free to comment if you have any pertinent anecdotes!


Donald Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London: Kegan Paul International 1998), 221-304.

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A friend of mine, who came to the U.S. from China a couple of years ago, is leaving on Wednesday to go to Indiana for a job opportunity. This has reminded me of one of  Confucius’ sayings:

In translation: “Is it not a pleasure to have friends who come from afar?” The characters here are traditional, because the saying is in Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is often more compact than modern Mandarin, and one character can have a whole host of different meanings. But the meaning of this saying is clear, and it rings true from antiquity to modern times! 再见, 我的朋友!


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Today’s Monday Mandarin Meanings breaks a bit with tradition, as it has nothing to do with insects! Instead, it pertains to something almost as fascinating as insects:

This is èrhú, the Mandarin word for, well, erhu. I chose this because this semester, I have begun to learn how to play erhu in a Chinese instrumental class, taught by 魏老师 (a real erhuist!). Some day I hope to post a video of me playing, but I’ll wait till I’m a bit better – this will be much appreciated, I’m sure.

Èr means “two”. This is because the erhu has two strings, with the hairs of the bow placed between them:

I believe that in this case,  means “wildly”, which may be a reference to the sometimes wild playing style of the erhu – the instrument is also called the Chinese fiddle.

In closing, 大家春节快乐!Happy Chinese New Year everyone!

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In my Chinese class a few days ago (taught by the wonderful 赵老师), we read a lesson about new words that have arisen in recent years due to technological and societal developments. We then chose a new word from a list and had to report the next day about what the word means. I selected “蚁族” because I recognized “蚁” from the word “蚂蚁”, or ant. It turns out that “蚁族” is translated “Ant Tribe” and describes a recent, unfortunate phenomenon in China.

“Ant Tribes” are groups of college graduates that live in large communities of poor living spaces, unable to find unemployment due to poor job prospects. They share the namesake of the most fascinating organism on this planet because they are intelligent, resourceful, and weak individually. However, like ants, they could create quite a stir by banding together with a common goal (I am reminded of a certain Chinese saying). The New York Times reported on this difficult situation, stating that there are “at least 100,000 in Beijing alone.” I never thought I’d say it, but I hope that these ants will be able to transform into something better!

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Xīn cíyǔ

Xylography: The art of making engravings on wood especially for printing (like what I saw many weeks ago at the University of Michigan Museum of Art).

– Merriam-Webster Word of the Day

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