more Chinese-to-English translation fail(ure)

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Wed Aug 19 18:18:34 UTC 2009

Fascinating, Randy.  And the Manchus seem to have been as fearful of
smallpox as the American colonials (whom I've read about), as well as
the British and continentals (whom I haven't) of the same period.


At 8/19/2009 01:50 PM, Randy Alexander wrote:
>Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit
>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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