Similes for female pulchritude in an ancient Chinese poem

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From Shī jīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic), circa 6th c. BC:

(Her) hands are like catkins;
skin is like congealed lard;
neck is like larva of longicorn;
teeth are like calabash seeds;
forehead (like that of) cicada,
eyebrows (like antennae of) moth,
(her) enchanting smile is winsome;
(her) beautiful eyes are clear-set.
         — Ode 57, tr. Diana Shuheng Zhang

Shǒu rú róu tí
fū rú níng zhī
lǐng rú qiú qí
chǐ rú hù xī
qín shǒu é méi
qiǎo xiào qiàn xī
měi mù pàn xī.
      —— Wèi fēng·shuòrén

 —— 衛風·碩人

When I first read this poem half a century ago, I was stunned — and have been charmed by it ever since.  Now I wish that there were a talented artist who could draw a picture of this eminent beauty from the "Airs of Wei" in the Poetry Classic!

Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:02 am

    Try as I might, I really cannot become excited by the thought of female "skin like congealed lard" …

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:10 am

    white, glistening, soft, smooth….

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:14 am

    No good, doesn't work — I cannot get "congealed" out of my mind !

  4. ycx said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:15 am

    I'm mildly amused by the combination of "碩人" (literally "big human") and "skin like congealed lard".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:18 am

    At least it's not "moist".

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:29 am


    Hah hah! Good one!!!!

    A lady in my hometown used to like to eat scoops of lard from a can. Let me tell you, she was BIG!! VERY BIG!! Especially her upper arms. They looked like nothing else than congealed lard.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:30 am

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    I would never have been able to read and understand the original, so the translation was very much appreciated. And I was very surprised by the modernity of the idea of describing the pulchritude of woman with such down-to-earth descriptive expressions.

    Chinese geniuses continue to surprise me.

  8. Steve Jones said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:33 am

    I expect there are erudite tomes on Tang appraisals for female pulchritude too?

    Meanwhile… in “L’indifférent” of Ravel's Shéhérazade, some translators of "Tes yeux sont doux comme ceux d’une fille" refused to countenance that it referred to an androgynous boy, rendering it as "Your eyes are soft like those of any girl". As I note in my post

    you wouldn’t say, “Your skin is wrinkly like that of an elephant” if you were talking to an elephant, would you?

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:39 am

    That would very much depend on whether I could be certain that the elephant rejoiced in her wrinkly skin …

  10. Steve Jones said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:47 am

    Fair point, Philip. But I still think it'd be considered a dodgy chat-up line on the elephant-dating circuit…

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 8:01 am

    Steve Jones: For what it's worth, according to French Wikipedia, Tristan Klingsor (the author of the Schéhérazade poems) was bisexual:
    Marié en 1902 à Marie Ernestine Morel, père d'une fille, il aurait, selon le critique Tim Ashley, connu une passion homosexuelle pour un « jeune étranger »

  12. Bloix said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 8:19 am

    This style of love poetry is common (and very old) in the West, as well. The Song of Songs includes similar comparisons of a woman's body parts to specific objects:

    Your eyes are doves
    behind your veil.
    Your hair is like a flock of goats
    streaming down Mount Gilead.
    Your teeth are like a flock of ewes to be shorn,
    that come up from the washing …
    Like a tower of David your neck,
    built in courses,
    A thousand shields hanging upon it,
    all the armor of warriors.
    Your breasts are like two fawns,
    twins of a gazelle
    feeding among the lilies.

    And Shakespeare parodied it in Sonnet 130:

    My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

  13. E Bruce Brooks said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 9:05 am

    —— 衛風·碩人

    Ah Yes, Shr 57, stanza 2 (Wei 3, a royal wedding; compare Psalm 45, where again the bride is from another country). The adjectives sort of give it away, don’t they. This is praise of a lady – a Chi lady, marrying into Wei — at the highest level of the elite stratum. “Skin like congealed lard” means the whitest of white skins. Nor is this all the whiteness in that stanza; see Waley’s translation. Notice also the delicacy of fingers and hands. This is not some clunky, dark-skinned person. We may be reminded that the upper stratum of China derived from the Aryan conquerors of the Shang period, who were not only whiter than the natives, but spoke a different language (eg ma, “horse,” and several other obvious cognates). Our Wei lady is being explicitly distinguished from the swarthy squatty folk down below. She has not a trace of racial admixture. Her blood line, attested by her skin tone, is pure. I have heard North European ladies speak of themselves in very much this fashion (“the whitest of the white”), and with very much this intention. The intention is to differentiate.

    As for 06c, not necessarily. The formation of the Shr corpus is currently under serious study, and it can be said with some certainty at this preliminary stage that this particular poem was added to the growing Shr collection at the end of the 05c. How much older it may be, in its own country (Wei) will depend on scrutiny of its dialect position: some of the poems from that area show traces of (original) local pronunciation; others do not. Stay tuned.


    I am of course the last person who would ever dare to breathe such suggestions, but it is open for someone else to point out there is a good deal of profit in the commentary parts of The Original Analects (1998, and readily available)

    In LY 3:7, closely datable to c342, half a century after its inclusion in the growing anthology, we see “Confucius” (with the aid of a now-lost rhyming Shr commentary) giving this same poem an ethical interpretation. The Confucianization of the collection is well underway. Always nice to watch things grow, not only texts, but also their interpretation by later readers.

  14. Matt said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 9:24 am

    I used this in a translation studies class to get students to think about equivalence. The translation I had used "boiled milk" instead of "congealed lard" and "the devil tree" instead of "calabash seeds".

  15. Lewis said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 9:29 am

    The congealed lard got my attention too, but the calabash seeds and the forehead of a cicada? So her teeth were yellow and pointed? And have you ever looked a cicada in the eye? Her forehead was shiny black and grooved and I'm not even going to mention the two bulbous, red eyes….

  16. Alexander Browne said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 10:04 am


    I imagine, before modern dental hygiene, yellow teeth might be preferable to teeth blacken with decay.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 10:34 am

    I cannot remember the nationality of the women involved, but I think it was Japanese — this was an episode of a fictional historical drama (possibly Zatoichi), and the female protagonists all had black teeth. Was there a time when this was deemed fashionable ?

  18. Leo said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 10:36 am

    "Pulchritude" is a word conspicuously lacking the quality it denotes.

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 10:40 am

    Bloix: The Song of Songs is from the West?

  20. Kate Bunting said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 11:10 am

    Philip Taylor – Yes. I thought I remembered seeing Japanese ladies with black teeth in old prints, so I checked it out.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 11:32 am

    "'Pulchritude' is a word conspicuously lacking the quality it denotes."

    That's partly the point.

  22. cliff arroyo said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 11:42 am

    "white, glistening, soft, smooth…."

    greasy…. sticky with a smell that clings to you….

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 12:17 pm

    In English, "raven-black," "snow-white," and "blood-red" are all so conventional we don't think of them as odd or offputting, but one of the early appearances of all three similes together (in Old Irish) is, if not offputting, at least quite striking.

  24. KevinM said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 12:17 pm

    The similes or symbolic comparisons make no sense when considered all together. This can result from mere ineptitude. (Ever try to sort out the body parts in Kilmer's "Trees"?). Here, though, I imagine it's a genre convention, as it is in the Song of Songs or Western love poetry. It can be reversed, as in Shakespeare's sonnet (@Bloix) or more popular art forms: "She's got eyes like crystal waters/Lips like cherry wine/A body like fine brandy/ And a soul like turpentine." (Dave Bromberg)

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 1:02 pm

    I'm not sure that I understand your reference to Kilmer's "Trees", Kevin. I don't think you are suggesting that Kilmer was inept, but nor do I have any problem identifying the various body parts of the tree — they may not be arranged as yours and mine, but they all seemed crystal clear to me when I re-read the poem after reading your comment.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 1:37 pm

    "Nor is this all the whiteness in that stanza; see Waley’s translation."

    Here's Waley's translation, which takes a completely different approach from that of Diana's philologically exacting rendition:


    Hands white as rush-down,
    Skin like lard,
    Neck long and white as the tree-grub,
    Teeth like melon seeds,
    Lovely head, beautiful brows.
    Oh, the sweet smile dimpling,
    The lovely eyes so black and white.


    As Bruce Brooks astutely indicated, Waley truly does emphasize whiteness (seems to go out of his way to do so). While he was at it searching for whiteness in the poem, he could also very easily have written "Teeth white like melon seeds" or more precisely, as Diana has it for hù xī 瓠犀, "Teeth white like calabash seeds" (i.e., not just any old melon seeds), since calabash seeds are famous for their rectangular regularity and gleaming whiteness, and hence are often used metaphorically for teeth.

    I will not comment on Waley's interpretation of all the other lines, but only on his glossing of pàn 盼 as "so black and white" in the last line.

    The usual definitions of the character are "look (forward to) gaze; expect, hope / long / yearn for". It should be noted that there is nothing in the character itself that explicitly indicates "black and white", though this is a traditional explanation that goes back to character construction lexicographical works beginning with the Shuō wén jiě zì 說文解字 (121 AD) that indicates a division between black (iris) and the white of the eye.

    Pàn 盼 is a phono-semantic compound (形聲, OS *pʰrɯːns): semantic 目 ("eye")+ phonetic 分 (OS *pɯn, *bɯns). To interpret pàn 盼 as meaning "eye (with [black and white] divided])" is to take 分 not only as the phonophore of the character, but also as its secondary semantophore, since its primary meaning is "divide; division". But one still has to go the extra mile to add in the sense of "black and white".

  27. D-AW said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 2:24 pm

    Readers of this forum will no doubt find pleasure in this variation on the theme:

    From the Irish
    by Ian Duhig

    According to Dinneen, a Gael unsurpassed
    in lexicographical enterprise, the Irish
    for moon means the white circle in a slice
    of half-boiled potato or turnip. A star
    is the mark on the forehead of the beast
    and the sun is the bottom of a lake, or well.

    Well, if I say to you your face
    is like a slice of half-boiled turnip,
    your hair is the colour of a lake’s bottom
    and at the centre of each of your eyes
    is the mark of the beast, it is because
    I want to love you properly, according to Dinneen.

  28. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:17 pm

    The poem “Between Your Sheets” by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu describes arms as being waxen, which is marginally more appealing than “congealed lard” but still lacking in warmth and not especially appealing in my view:

    “Imagination shows me all your charms,
    The plenteous silken hair, and waxen arms,
    The well turned neck, and snowy rising breast
    And all the beauties that supinely rest
    between your sheets.“

    A modernized translation of the Chinese poem in the U.S. could substitute Criso for congealed lard, if the desire was to emphasize whiteness and softness. Lard, packaged in bricks for piecrust and other uses, is rigid and white, as are slabs of paraffin from which candles can be made. The English cliche about “porcelain skin” seems to also favor color and fine texture over warmth and suppleness — quite a contrast to the catkin hands, where touch rather than color inspires the comparison.

    Would likening the forehead to a cicada be referring either to a smooth, firm, and unwrinkled texture or an extended forehead? Renaissance women in Europe were known to pluck their foreheads because a high forehead was considered beautiful. Are there other sources that would clarify whether smoothness or a high expanse of forehead — or both — were desirable?

    In regard to Shakespeare, the line about “black wires” always reminds me of a line from a Smothers Brothers parody of a folk song: “Black, black, black is the color of my love’s true hair.”

  29. julie lee said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 7:32 pm

    Philip Taylor,
    In the 1930s when my parents visited Annam (now Vietnam) they said the ladies had black teeth, which apparently was the custom or the fashion.

    E Bruce Brooks,
    Were there Aryan conquerors of the Shang period ?

    Re: whiteness of skin, I don't know why, but my mum would say,
    and this seemed to be the old Chinese view, "To be white is to be beautiful." A white skin was highly desirable for Chinese women. She was definitely not Eurocentric but very Sinocentric. A lot of Chinese have very white (light) complexions. Alabaster would be the English word, instead of "lard". I have never thought white (light) skin to be unique to the European. Of course the white Chinese skin is different from the European white. It is a paler shade of white, or a whiter shade of pale.

  30. TOM DAVIDSON said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 8:44 pm

    Just wondering if someone could come up with a rhyme scheme; after all, it is a poem with rhymed words… Anybody?

  31. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 8:50 pm

    From Shiamin Kwa:

    I have a weakness for fatty things, so quivering creamy lard and larvae alike don’t seem too far afield from things of beauty. And there’s mutton-fat jade, too. Thanks for giving me a GREAT idea for a little translation/illustration exercise in future classes!

  32. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 8:57 pm

    If you're not very familiar with lard, the Wikipedia article on it is well worth reading. It begins thus:

    "Lard is fat from a pig, in both its rendered and unrendered forms. It is a semi-soft white fat derived from fatty parts of the pig, with a high saturated fatty acid content and no trans fat."

  33. D. Patel said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 9:21 pm

    While there are numerous head-to-toe descriptions of pulchritudinous women in Sanskrit literature, here is an interesting one from a 12th century Sanskrit poem (The Naisadhiyacarita or "The Story of King Nala") that takes hackneyed tropes for female bodily characteristics and reworks them in interesting ways to describe not only virtues of the physical virtues of Damayanti (the poem's heroine) but also her intellectual gifts. Here's a taste (the first 6 are my translations, the rest by K.K. Handiqui, who translated the entire poem in the 1934):

    The eyes of the king plunged into each and every limb of his beloved, then into the nectarine ocean of an inner, secret bliss and then into a tearful stream of intense delight.

    When first he intently observed just a single tip of her hair, he experienced the intense delight of finding the One God. Accordingly, in beholding her entirety, he likewise experienced the joy of realizing the One Love.

    When the ocean of Nala's passion swelled up on account of the nectar flowing from the vision of her moon-face, which had flooded a wide shoreline, his eyes found shelter on her elevated breasts. [The image plays on the fact of the moon's influence on the ocean's waves and fancies Nala's eyes as a drowning swimmer seeking higher ground.]

    Was his gaze so submerged in the nectar of her moon-face? Caught in between the (tight) space between her breasts, was it delayed there? Was it from fear of a (precipitous) fall that it left her exceedingly svelte waist only after a long pause?

    Nala's restless eye was most happily roaming, a wanderer among the limbs of the beloved, returning again and again to her breasts, as if bewildered in the gathered darkness of the musk that had been smeared on them.

    Having rambled around the circle of her pleasing hips, the messenger's [i.e. Nala's] stumbling eye was, after a long while, steadied by firmly embracing with its ray of light [by pun: with its hand] her plantain stalk-like thighs.


    Then, after having presented his beloved and her friends to his eyes to his heart’s content, the king said thus in his mind, full of joy and wonder.

    It is doubtful if the creation of this amazing beauty pervading each limb would be possible, even if Cupid himself or my own fancy were to be installed in the Creator’s place.

    As her limbs are superior, in spite of some resemblance, to all similar objects through some particular excellence, is any comparison of them possible? The fact is, any comparison of those limbs (with other objects) would be for them a humiliation.

    Verily the women created in former times served only as sketching practice for the Creator’s hand in order to create her, while the creation of the present and future women is meant to procure her the fame of surpassing them in beauty.

    The lock of her hair that surpasses the peacock’s train, though it has so many ‘moons’ [moonlike patches] on its feathers, has very properly found a place above her face which has but one moon as its friend. [its like in beauty]

    It is the darkness in the front and on either side, dispelled by the moon of her face, that is tied behind her in the guise of her clearly undulating hair.

    Did the flowery bow of Cupid, turned black during the latter’s burning (by Shiva), have only the filaments as its residue? Did Shiva in his wrath split even that into two, wherewith the Creator made Damayanti’s eyebrows?

    Here she is, the tender arch of Cupid’s flowery bow, with a waist capable of being held in the grasp of the hand, who, in order to stupefy us, casts a shower of arrow-like glances let loose from the beautiful corners of her eyes.

    Did the gazelles ever borrow from her the beauty of her eyes that she has by force realized it from the timid animals manifold and entire?

    Would not her unsteady eyes, stepping far, meet each other, if the fear of falling into the earholes did not create an obstacle to their going?

    The outline of her lower lip emerging along with the moon of her face calls itself the twilight of childhood and youth, resembling as it does the Bandhuka flower by the beauty of its crimson hue.

    The two sides of her lower lip close to the center look somewhat swollen: am I not perhaps myself guilty of having bitten it with my teeth in my dalliance with her in dreams?

    How many branches of learning with their sub-varieties dance on Damayanti’s lower lip? — thus being curious, the Creator, free from his toils, seems to have reckoned them (by marking the lip) with lines.

    The slightly elongated drops of luster, thicker than the rays of the moon, emitted by her face excelling the moon, are acting as the two rows of her teeth, the drops oozing first having become second (in the process). [i.e., the smaller drops oozing first have formed the second row, i.e., the lower teeth. The white teeth are fancied as drops distilled from the luster of the face.]

    The Creator, having made all the limbs of Damayanti who is softer even than the cup of the Shirisha flower, and attained perfection in the creation of tender objects, put the final seal of softness on her voice.

    Or, perhaps, does not the cuckoo bird living on alms from trees learn from her moon-like face a certain mystic doctrine propounding the oneness of Cupid, (just as a pious Brahmin living on alms learns from a learned Brahmin the monistic doctrine of the Upanisads)? [i.e., the amorous song of the cuckoo is an imitation of her voice.]

    Did the Creator, on finishing her beauty, look at her, raising up her face? For there appears on her chin, slightly depressed (in the middle), something like an impression of a finger caused by a grasp.

    The Creator made her lotus face an emperor amid the entire race of lotus blooms; hence it is that two lotus kings named ‘eyes’ wait upon it.

    When the moon afraid of the sun during the day and the day lotus afraid of the moon at night deposit their beauty in her face, they are then without their beauty; but by virtue of the beauty of the one or the other, when is her face not lovely?

    The channel-like line carved on her earrings that runs in the direction of her ear-holes is the path, by which the eddying nectar flow of the essence of the scriptures entered her ears.

    Is it a new kind of numeral denoting the number nine with its deep-set outline carved within her ears, (indicating) that her ears, diving the eighteen branches of learning, held one half each? [The reference is to the curve of the outer ear resembling the Nagari script's number 9. The idea of “hearing” different sciences from the guru is continued.]

    Wonderful is her neck: it is beautiful with the nape and adorned with a necklace of pearls; it assumes a shape worth embracing, and by it the entire upper portion of the body looks beautiful. [By a clever choice of words the poet makes this verse sound strange in the ears of the hearer: “Her neck is something strange, being adorned with a manavaka (boy), though it is beautiful with an avatu (one who is not a boy); it looks beautiful (surupatabhak), possessing a whole urdhvaka drum, though it is assuming the form of an alingya drum.” The apparent contradiction is to be removed by taking these words in a more appropriate sense.]

    In her throat the Creator fashioned poetry, song, courteous speech and truth, and under the pretext of putting three lines on it, he apportioned boundaries for them to live. [The presence of three lines on the neck is regarded as a sign of luck.]

    “The making of lotus blossoms is my sketching practice for the making of thy hand” – did the Creator announce this to the deer-eyed damsel by sketching lotus blossoms on her hands? [The presence of lotus marks on the palm is regarded as a sign of luck. The idea is that the Creator was putting these marks by way of acquiring practice, in order to make the hands as beautiful as lotus blossoms.]

    Are these creeper-like arms lotus-stalks visible on both sides of this my ‘joy-giving’ Narmada (literally: joy-giving) river? Are these breasts the islets that emerged when in her the water of childhood dried up with Cupid’s heat? [i.e., at the advent of youth]

    The palm fruit would be able to imitate her breasts, happy in their ascent, if it did not (at times) fall to the ground; not, however, by simply clinging on to the high tree; for the breasts of the slender girl are high by themselves. [i.e., without any outside help]

    The traces left by the minds of the entire race of young men, as they slipped into the hollow of her bosom, slippery with sandal paste, are flashing in the shape of the beams emitted by the gems in her pearl-string. [It is fancied that the minds of young men slipped into the intervening space between her breasts, as they were brooding over her beauty; while the jets of luster emitted by the gems in the pearl-string across her bosom, wet with sandal paste, are fancied as the traces of slipping left by these minds.]

    It is a curious phenomenon of the kingdom of Cupid on Damayanti’s frame, perfect in every limb, that the slender belly is not attacked by its folds, though it stays amidst them. [The fatty rolls of skin on the upper belly, called Bali or Vali, meaning (by sound) also ‘powerful’, might be expected to attack their weak neighbor, the slender belly; but it remained free from all such attack, hence the wonder. The ideas is, her waist was slender in spite of the fatty rolls projecting over it.]

    Round her waist, the Creator put a blue string in the shape of a row of hair, as if thinking, lucky like Parvati, she, too, would one day realize through her husband the completion of her half-complete self. [The row of downy hair on the waist is fancied as a string with which she would be joined to her husband.]

    Verily on this plate of gold, namely, her back, this is a panegyric in honor of Cupid in letters of silver in the shape of the halos of the jasmine blossoms that are on her hair bound in knots.

    The two stems of the slender damsel’s thighs surpassed the elephant’s trunk; so it is proper that it should hide its face – the tip of its trunk, in shame, under the pretext of coiling it round.

    As in her pride of beauty she put her lotus-feet on the heads of the women of the world, her feet, owing to the redness of the dense vermilion power on their heads, became ruddier than the young sprouts of leaves.

    The Creator, angry at the pride of being unique on the part of her single ear, eye, lip, arm, hand, foot, and the like, which surpassed all object similar to them, made on the self-same body a companion limb to each. [i.e., made a second ear, eye, etc. to wound the vanity of the first ones.]

    The Creator drew on her, in the shape of her toes, as many lines as there were directions [The ten toes are fancied as lines indicating the ten directions], from which kings oppressed by Cupid would come to take shelter under those lotus feet.

    The Creator had already created her as above the world; youth took her even beyond that; and then, Cupid, by training her in all accomplishments, put her beyond the range of words.

  34. D. Patel said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 9:25 pm

    And here's an anti-pulchritude poem from the "100 verses on Renunciation" of poet Bhartrhari. Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller:

    Her breasts , those fleshy protuberances,
    are compared to golden bowls;
    her face, a vile receptacle of phlegm,
    is likened to the moon;
    her thighs , dank with urine, are said
    to rival the elephant's trunk.
    Mark how this despicable form
    is flourished by the poets.

  35. Diana S. Zhang said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 10:10 pm

    Bhartrhari's poem, as presented in the last comment by Prof. D. Patel, reminds me of a passage in "Jin shu" (Book/History of Jin [266-420AD, China]):

    "Sun Zhen, the Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues for the Crown Prince, asked Cui Yue the Palace Attendant: 'My eyes hurt. Do you know any remedies for it?' Cui Yue has been overtly intimate with Sun Zhen for a while, so he joked: 'I'll pee in them and they'll heal.' Zhen said: 'How can you pee in my eyes?' Yue replied: 'Your eyes are as deep as two bowls — they are perfectly made for me to pee into!' "

    That's what "her face, a vile receptacle of phlegm" inspires me to think of…! LOL

  36. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 11:13 pm

    I have known many Chinese whose skin is as white as or whiter than the typical European. One of them is a regular commenter on Language Log. Another is the granddaughter of one of the most famous political figures of the 20th century; her nickname is "Pinkie" because her skin is so light that it has a red tinge from the blood coursing beneath it. Yet another is the great-great-great-great… granddaughter of the most important Chinese Catholic intellectual during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

    The persons who have the whitest skin I know of are two distinguished Finnish scholars.

  37. Terpomo said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 11:24 pm

    I don't think you need to postulate lighter-skinned conquerors for light skin as a beauty standard to make sense; in many places light skin has been considered beautiful because it meant you could afford to spend all day inside instead of working in the fields and getting a tan like a peasant.

  38. Michael Watts said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 12:05 am

    some translators of "Tes yeux sont doux comme ceux d’une fille" refused to countenance that it referred to an androgynous boy, rendering it as "Your eyes are soft like those of any girl". As I note in my post

    you wouldn’t say, “Your skin is wrinkly like that of an elephant” if you were talking to an elephant, would you?

    But you're equivocating between two very different constructions:

    1. Your eyes are soft like those of a girl.

    2. Your eyes are soft as those of any girl.

    #2 is an entirely conventional way to praise the feminine softness of a girl's eyes. It says that her eyes are superlatively soft rather than expectedly soft. (Much less — as in #1 — unexpectedly soft.)

  39. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 2:39 am

    When I saw "skin like lard", I thought we were going to get a Chinese version of the infantile things boys used to say about girls:
    ..her skin is like peaches …… peaches and custard
    ..her teeth are like stars……they come out at night..
    are (fortunately) the only lines I remember.

  40. Philip Taylor said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 4:44 am

    Julie Lee — "alabaster" — thank you, prefect ! That is the word for which I have been mentally searching ever since Victor's first mention of congealed lard.

    My wife's grandmother (Vietnamese), who died in the earlier 1990s, had blackened teeth at some point in her life, but then had them re-whitened.

  41. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 7:22 am

    @Michael Watts: That's exactly the point Steve Jones was making: that "comme ceux d’une fille" *doesn't* mean the same as "AS those of ANY girl", so "as those of any girl" is a (perhaps ideologically motivated) mistranslation.

  42. Steve Jones said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 7:55 am

    Thanks, Rachael!

  43. James Wimberley said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 8:11 am

    Here's a photo of a longhorn beetle larva:
    It's white, pudgy, curvy. and segmented. I don't quite get it.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    @James Wimberley

    Thanks very much for digging up that photograph of a longhorn beetle larva. I've often wondered what they look like. I can imagine the neck of a plump, fair-skinned woman possessing the characteristics it displays and which you well describe in the four adjectives you chose, with "segmented" referring to ridges of fatty flesh on her neck. In fact, I know one pretty Chinese woman whose neck looks quite like that, though not so elongated.

  45. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    We should not overlook these celebrated lines from Bo / Bai Juyi's "Cháng hèn gē / Coeng4 han6 go1 長恨歌" ("Song of Everlasting Regret"), composed in the year 806:


    In the coolness of springtime, she was permitted to bathe in the Hua-ch'ing pools,

    Where the slickening waters of the hot springs washed over her firm flesh.

    — tr. Paul W. Kroll, in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, p. 479

    On a cold spring day, he bestowed upon her the honor of bathing with him at the Huaqing* pools,

    The waters of the hot springs were smooth, and washed over her pale white skin.

    — tr. Wikisource

    chūn hán cì yù Huáqīngchí / ceon1 hon4 ci3 juk6 waa4 cing1 ci4

    wēnquán shuǐ huá xǐ níngzhī / wan1 cyun4 seoi2 waat6 sai2 jing4 zi1



    *Built in 723, the Huaqing pools was a hot springs in Huaqing ("Floriate Clear") Palace (Huáqīng gōng 華清宮), which was situated at the base of Mount Li (驪山) in the Qinling Mountains. It was located approximately 25 km to the east of the capital city of Chang'an.

    [h.t. Hiroshi Kumamoto]

  46. julie lee said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 8:53 am

    "Alabaster": You're welcome, Philip.

    "blackened teeth": Thanks for the comment.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 3:47 pm

    From Yijie Zhang:

    It's very intriguing for me to conceive the image of this eminent beauty depicted in this well-known poem from the Poetry Classic. I was so curious that for the first time, I searched for relevant paintings throughout Chinese art history to see how artists conceived and constructed this figure, after which I saw many paintings based on this poem, yet I did not find a satisfying one which could meet my own imagination.

    It was from then on that I started to realize that there could be two main aspects of this beauty that are difficult to delineate through painting rather than writing–or in other words, in graphic language rather than verbal language: her pulchritude illustrated by the unique, wondrously peculiar similes, and her mien portrayed by the famous expression "巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮". This poem largely applies similes to an almost extreme degree, and it is precisely because of this bold, creative, and effective way of rhetoric that this poem leaves later generations a nearly unsurpassable representation of a beauty. It's hard to conceive and to visualize a specific image of this beauty according to this idiosyncratic sequence of similes, which, however, could be exactly the very purpose of the author: to produce an image that is too perfect to be imagined, although every pair of comparison makes perfect sense separately. As for the renowned expression "巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮", I think it has been deemed an unequalled description partly because it leaves readers sufficient space for imagination and creates a dynamic image of this beauty, rather than a still one.

    I thus completely understand why you wish that there were a TALENTED artist who could draw a picture of this beauty, because these seven lines, concise but precise, detailed yet also abstract, could always provoke universal curiosity and personal imagination of this beauty, both of which contribute to this unexampled depiction.

  48. Andrew Usher said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 7:34 pm

    Michael Watts:
    The person you were replying to agreed with you. But you both probably missed the ambiguity there. The translator made no mistake literally, even if he was intentionally misleading by downplaying the homosexual intent.

    The troublesome word he used in 'any'. In that context, we of course take it as a superlative – it's meant to be extravagant praise, right? – so 'any' means a universal, 'any in the world'; there is no girl more soft.

    But that's not the most usual meaning of 'any', is it? It's more often a generic, 'any ordinary', 'any random' – e.g. 'My computer runs Windows, like any PC' or, even more obvious, 'I could replace him with anybody! [any person]'. With that sense your choice #2 has the same actual meaning as choice #1, even if its implication as to gender differs!

  49. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 11:42 pm

    From Tong Wang:

    A Tang Dynasty beauty may fit the description in the poem "Shuòrén 硕人“ ("Eminent person"). "Neck is like larva of longicorn" is picturesque,but the thought of a larva still gives a bit of grotesque sensation.

  50. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 11:00 am

    The painting shows a Tang beauty who is said to exemplify some of the qualities of the "Shuòrén 硕人“ ("Eminent person") in the ode (Shi, "Wei" #57) featured in the post. What I see in this painting are two beautiful women who are playing with a cute, little dog. I take it that the woman on the right, whose body has a nice curve to it, is the maid of the larger woman to the left, who is the dominant personage in the painting.

    What interests me most of all about this painting is that the dress of the larger woman has pearl roundels or other circular Sasanian designs all over it. Over the dress, she seems to have a diaphanous shawl. All in all, her clothing appears to be quite sumptuous, and I would surmise that the Sasanian ornamented dress must have been extremely expensive.

    Two notes:

    1. I believe that the Sasanian style textiles may have been brought to China by Sogdians.

    2. I recall that my retired colleague, Michael Meister, wrote on the subject of pearl roundels, as did my friends Susan Bush and Matteo Compareti.

  51. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 11:16 am

    From Michael Meister:

    Check out Shosoin textile collection …

    My article reference is

    The Pearl Roundel in Chinese Textile Design
    Michael W. Meister
    Ars Orientalis
    Vol. 8 (1970), pp. 255-267

  52. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 11:18 am

    From Michael Meister:

    Does it have ‘pearls’ or just round fields? Is the central figuration floral or figural?

    It seems to me more East Asian than not, but influenced by the ‘roundel’ matrix of other trade traditions?

  53. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 11:20 am

    From Arthur Leeper:

    Toward the end of the Tang period a Chinese adaptation of Sogdian roundel silks became fashionable. The fabrics it derived from were far from rare in that period, since half of the Chinese capital’s market was devoted to materials from the west.

    The distinction between the originals, and the Chinese derivations of them, is the more rigid pearl borders disappeared and the roundels became decorative floral spheres. That Chinese version would appear to be what we see in the lady’s quite vividly colored dress.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 12:54 pm

    From Pao Raffetta:

    The full text article by Matteo Compareti with notes and images

    The role of the Sogdian Colonies in the diffusion of the pearl roundels pattern

  55. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 1:08 pm

    From Matteo Compareti:

    I am not sure that those motifs are "Sasanian" roundels nor modified roundels. They look like Chinese flower motifs typical of the Tang period. You can see them in Sogdiana motherland, for example on the textiles of the saddle of the elephant reproduced in the Varakhsha paintings (7th-8th century).

    In my opinion, Sasanian roundels to be found quite often in Xinjiang and Northern China between the 6th-7th centuries are not Sasanian at all but Sogdian or, in any case, Central Asian creations that Sogdians exported into China. Exactly as it happened in Tang China, such roundels appeared occasionally in Sasanian art and very late, at the very dawn of the Arab conquest. They can be observed just in late Sasanian and very controversial monuments such as Taq-i Bustan. I wrote a paper about Taq-i Bustan attribution. Judith Lerner and Annette Juliano published it in the last issue of the Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology (2019).

    Sogdians and important Chinese of Sogdian origins such as He Chou very skillfully spread the news at court about precious "Persian textiles" that, in my opinion, were possibly Sogdian products presented to the Chinese as Persians. In this way, the Sogdians probably increased their value to earn more money.

    For some reason, rich people – and even poor! – liked very much to spend a lot of money on fashionable things without caring about the origin. Just to make an example, in the '80ies when I was a teenager, everybody wanted American clothes here in Italy but those garments and accessories were actually produced mainly in Italy. We even knew in some cases but fashion is fashion!!

  56. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 5:41 am

    From Judith Lerner:

    Please, let us no longer attribute the pearl roundel to the Sasanians! It does not appear in a datable Sasanian context until Khosro II’s reliefs at Taq-e Bustan (590/1-628) and even then the “pearls” represented may have been embroidery imitating actual pearls sewn on to the garment, such as may be depicted on male clothing on the much earlier statues from Parthian Hatra (and at T-e B it is the king’s arrow-bearer who wears this textile not the king).

    If the pearl roundel was not developed by the Sogdians, it was certainly spread by them. But I wonder (pace Matteo) if the Chinese didn’t do it first, as the paintings in the tomb of the Northern Qi general, Xu Xianxiu, d. 571 (near Taiyuan), show the women of his household wearing skirts decorated with a band of individual pearl roundels. Even earlier is what seems to me a textile design painted on the lacquer coffin found in a Northern Wei tomb at Hudong (Datong, Shanxi province), which most likely belongs to the 5th century when Datong/Pingcheng was the N Wei capital. Dotted or “pearled” strap or hexagonal-shaped patterns decorate the Northern Wei silk banner found at Dunhuang (Gansu), which is dated 487, as well the lacquered sarcophagus from Guyuan (Gansu), also of the Northern Wei, 470-480.

    So we have pearl roundels pre-dating anything claimed as Sasanian. Whether or not it originated with Chinese weavers, the Sogdians took the pearl roundel and ran with it!

    Yes, Victor, Michael Meister tackled the issue back in 1970 and again in 1987, refuting the Sasanian origin of the pearl roundel.

  57. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 6:01 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Meister's article was written 50 years ago, and was ahead of its time in terms of studies of historic textiles. Here is a more recent article:

    The author refers to Compareti's work on the subject.

    This is an organization that has organized conferences on Silk Road textiles:

    International Association for the Study of Silk Roads Textiles – IASSRT

    These kinds of textiles would certainly have been of high prestige. They have been preserved, both above ground and in tombs, in Japan, Tibet and China.

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