The rake and the vamp

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Chris Brannick posted this photograph of a fan on his Facebook page:

Chris invited his Facebook friends to help him figure out what it means, and they offered a lot of suggestions, but nothing conclusive or ultimately satisfying.  In the end, they sent out the Language Log bat signal, so here I am, responding to the call.

To tell the truth, we don't have much context to go on, but I will do what I can with what I've been given:  four characters on a fan of unknown derivation.

So that people aren't too annoyed by seeing those four big characters without any explanation, I'll give their basic meanings first, then start to explore deeper levels of possibility, then try to put everything together in a way that makes some sort of sense.

Zhèngzhōu yī sāo


sāo of Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou is the capital and largest city of Henan Province in the central part of the People's Republic of China.  Presumably, it has some sort of connection with the person who commissioned the fan and / or the person who produced it.

The next character presents no particular problem:  "a; one".

The final character offers an enormous range of possibilities, and many of these have been proffered by the respondents to Chris's request for suggestions.  The range of possible meanings is greatly multiplied when we consider the likelihood that the calligrapher may have miswritten the character or had one or more close cognates in mind (some of these are also mentioned in the Facebook replies).  Just the character as written could mean the following:

coquettish; flirty; have sex appeal; provocative; upset; disturb(ed); perturb(ed); agitate(d); vexation; grieved; sad(dened); sorrow(ful); harass; bother; molest; annoy; commotion; disturbance; be in turmoil; be in a tumult; restless(ness); riot(ous); literary writings; poet; smell of urine; foul smell; male; jackass (topolectal)

Moving on, let's look at some of the larger issues surrounding the fan.

1. It's not a work of art, but was probably created / sold on the street or by a small vendor, though the brushwork might have been added to a plain fan by a friend or craftsman.  In any event, the calligraphy is undistinguished.  As a connoisseur friend says, "The calligraphy is pretty terrible, so it can't be something sold on the market", by which she means "art market".

2. The characters are in simplified form:  郑州一骚.  The traditional, more highly prized, form would be 鄭州一騷.

3. At the end of his introductory note, Chris says "lvoey, this is your present from China…!", so the fan is his gift to lvoey.  The person who added the calligraphy may have cleverly been making a statement about Chris, and perhaps ingeniously also making a statement about lvoey at the same time.

4. As for what sort of statement is being made about Chris, I would invoke the notion of "sāorén 騷人" ("poet", i.e., "vexed person"), but it could also signify a "rake" as in "A Rake's Progress":

A Rake's Progress is a series of eight paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth. The canvases were produced in 1732–34, then engraved in 1734 and published in print form in 1735. The series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling, and as a consequence is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam). The original paintings are in the collection of Sir John Soane's Museum in London, where they are normally on display for a short period each day.


I should note that there are any number of stories in premodern fiction, especially in Tang (618-907) classical language fiction (chuánqí 傳奇) about fathers who spend a lot of money to send their son off to the capital to prepare for the examinations, but the young man wastes it all in profligate pursuits, after which he goes through degraded suffering, only to be rescued by a woman with a truly good heart.

5. As for what sort of statement is being made about lvoey, she is a seductress, a temptress, a siren, a Lorelei, but she also has a loving, warm heart.

Just as I was about to make this post, I received the following note from one of my M.A. students in modern literature who is from China and to whom I had shown the photograph of the fan:

Oh my goodness. This one is too difficult for me. I can totally understand the Chinese, but really cannot find an English word to translate the fourth character. He is right, that if it is for a man, the word is not at all negative, but it is also not like a typical complimentary word. It gained many new meanings in the recent popular Chinese culture. It can mean someone is talented, knowledgeable, and intelligent, someone who does not mind showing off, and usually wears exquisite but garish clothes, talks in a very humorous way, and whose action is as charmful as flirting a girl.

Now, Robin, we've been up all night rescuing Chris from his perplexing vexation over the wording on his fan.  Let's hop in the Batmobile and get home for some shut-eye.

[Thanks to Julie Lee, Xinchang Li, Chenfeng Wang, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 4:31 pm

    Before she got a chance to read this post (she only saw the photograph of the fan with Chris Brannick's note), a Ph.D. candidate in premodern Chinese literature offered these thoughts:

    I think one thing worth noticing about 騷 is that nowadays it doesn't have to be sexually oriented. Therefore, it can be used to describe not only people but everything, for example, a male student's changing hair color.

    I can think of some adjectives for 騷, such as flamboyant, showy, unabashed, unconventional, and even fancy and wild. But I can't think of a noun that is better than "tease".

  2. Paul Turpin said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 7:30 pm

    I suppose it isn't like those Chinese tee shirts with random English words on.

  3. tom davidson said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 6:12 am

    Funny no one mentioned the 骚/騒 in Qu Yuan's "离骚/離騒…

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 6:42 am

    In no. 4 of the o.p., I mentioned "sāorén 騷人" ("poet", i.e., "vexed person"). That derives, of course, from Qu Yuan's having written "Li sao (Encountering Sorrow)".

  5. David Morris said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 5:34 pm

    The calligraphy is "undistinguished" and "pretty terrible". I don't know how fans are made and how and when the writing is added. Are the letters painted before the fan is folded, or after? If after, then how is it possible to write "distinguishedly" or "non-terribly" on a folded surface. An online search shows many images of fans with neater writing that this, so it must be possible.

  6. loonquawl said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 1:05 am

    So the sentence is "A (rake/temptress/…) of Zhengzhou" ? Or does the connection ("of") vary with the supposed meaning of the mystery character? Is the Zhengzhou-translation sure, or can that, too, have an ulterior meaning? Does the sentence need to be on a fan, or would its content be the same written on a card?

  7. Michael Watts said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 6:33 pm

    I'm going to have to ask again — why are we interpreting 郑州一骚 as "a Zhengzhou flirt" and not as "the number one flirt in Zhengzhou", the way the same syntax is interpreted in other titles like 嘉定一中, "the number one 中学 ["middle"/high school] in Jiading"?

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