more Chinese-to-English translation fail(ure)

Randy Alexander strangeguitars at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 19 17:50:04 UTC 2009

Continuing on, off topic:

On Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 1:10 PM, Douglas G. Wilson<douglas at> wrote:
>>> (1) Why is smallpox called "sky-flower" or so?
> As for smallpox, I found this --
> -- apparently an excerpt  from an early-modern-Chinese-medicine text
> from 1830 with commentary (text on p. 177, footnotes on p. 181). The
> name "tian-hua" for smallpox is said to refer to the lesions like "red
> flowers" as one might expect. As for the "tian", note "tian-xing", here
> glossed "heaven current" and equated to "epidemic", I guess based on a
> belief that such diseases appear secondary to some disturbance in the
> sky or heaven (or maybe depending on the season, i.e. the positions of
> the stars?). Conceivably this is the source of the "tian"? [Quick
> Web-Google shows this "tian-xing" today mostly in the name of contagious
> conjunctivitis.]

As I was looking for something in some Manchu-related materials I
serendipitously found the answer to this question.

Journal of the History of Medicine: Vol. 57, April 2002, p177-197
Chia-feng Chang, Disease and Its Impact on Politics, Diplomacy, and
the Military: The Case of Smallpox and the Manchus (1613-1795)
The Manchus were so afraid of smallpox that they used only auspicious
words when referring to smallpox patients. They adopted terms such as
_tianhua zhixi_ the auspicious heavenly flower) or _xidou_ (auspicious
smallpox) to describe smallpox sufferers in the hope of avoiding bad
luck. When the Shunzhi Emperor contracted small pox in 1661, any words
pronounced like _dou_ (smallpox), such as bean (_dou_), were strictly
prohibited; nor were frying beans or lighting
candles allowed, because the flames of candles were shaped like beans.
The idea that the Manchus considered smallpox a life-threatening force
that could also mature the body was embodied in their worship of the
smallpox goddess. The Manchus begged the _Zisun Niangniang_ (Offspring
Goddess) for the protection of smallpox patients.... According to a
folk collection about the Manchu legend of Nishan Shaman during the
Ming dynasty, _Zisun Niangniang_ was surrounded by a number of women
who were busy carrying or holding children and doing other things
connected with child care. _Zisun Niangniang_ was also named..._Omosi
Mama_. ..._Omosi_ means descendants, and _Omosi Mama_ therefore was
regarded as symbolic of fertility. ...the Manchu deemed smallpox as a
potentially fatal affliction but also as a turning point of life. Once
they safely passed through the point, they were no longer bothered by
smallpox and reached their maturity.

(If anyone wants a PDF of this paper, email me.  It's 153k.)

All of the words discussed here are Chinese words, which of course the
Manchus used, but looking at the Manchu words is interesting as well.

Via (Online Manchu-English dictionary)
[x sounds like sh, everything else is more or less like you might guess]
- erxembi  - 1. to serve, to wait on, to attend 2. to take care of
(children) 3. to get smallpox
- mama erxembi - for pocks to appear, to get smallpox
- sure - 1. wise, intelligent 2. prajna, wisdom (Buddhism) 3. chilled (of fruit)
- sure mama - the goddess of smallpox
- surgi - a smallpox pustule

"Mama" is the second element in many Manchu goddesses' appellations.
Here we can see the Manchu phrase meaning "to get smallpox" also means
"the goddess takes care of you".

Some other important points: 1) "surgi" is not a Chinese import word.
2) There is another Chinese word for pox (which until smallpox was
eradicated I would guess usually referred to smallpox), dou4.
Assuming this word was already around, this gives more credence to the
idea that the Manchus invented the word tian1hua1 (pertaining to
smallpox pustules, not ceilings). 3) "sure" means "wise" -- the
Manchus certainly had a heck of a lot of respect for (or fear of)
smallpox to name their goddess of smallpox "wise goddess", and even to
have a goddess of smallpox in the first place.

Randy Alexander
Jilin City, China
My Manchu studies blog:

The American Dialect Society -

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