观音 (Guān Yīn) is the goddess of compassion, a divine being that transcends Buddhism, Daoism, Chinese folk religion, and gender itself.
Perhaps the most recognizable goddess in China, Guān Yīn has a place in most major temples regardless of denomination.
Guān Yīn’s name loosely means “the one who hears the troubles of the world” because she is said to have sworn not to rest until every creature in the world has been liberated from suffering. She is usually female, but sometimes male – a technicality like that doesn’t matter for a god.
She is so good that when one of her incarnations died, the Lord of the Underworld panicked and had to send her back to Earth because she exuded so much good karma that his dark realm was being flooded with light and happiness and flowers!
She is often depicted holding a child, which has led some Christians to compare her to Madonna.
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Breathe. You'll be okay. Baidu Baike
章泽天 (Zhāng Zétiān), known across China as “Sister Milk Tea” (奶茶妹妹) is the youngest female billionaire on China’s rich list, and a social media ultrasupermegastar.
Zhāng Zétiān first went viral in 2009, when this picture was circulated online. She was just a high schooler holding a cup of milk tea, but netizens decided that her innocent smile, rich family, athletic record, and good grades made her the image of a winner – she was shared relentlessly.
Fans got progressively more hysterical as she turned down an acting offer from the country’s most famous director, enrolled in the legendary Tsinghua University, and proceeded to marry the founder of e-commerce giant JD.com, one of the wealthiest people in China.
Rarely has someone made so many hopeful bachelors so disappointed.
A marketing force to be reckoned with, her social media following turns everything she touches into gold.
Regular or extra sugar? Baidu Baike
张家界 (Zhāngjiājiè) is a town and a natural park in Húnán province, famous for its spellbinding mountain structures.
Tourists have long flocked to see the breathtaking peaks, but their numbers were boosted even more after it became known that the mountains had inspired the flying “Hallelujah mountains” in the 2009 James Cameron blockbuster, “Avatar”. One of the mountains was later named after the movie!
The unusual sharp peaks of Zhāngjiājiè have not just inspired the makers of the fantasy world of Pandora - painters have been marveling at the mists, monkeys, and jagged rock formations for centuries, and many have been given creative names to describe the creatures they look like.
The park also features the highest glass bridge in the world, at a maddening 260 meters / 850 ft above ground - bungee jump, anyone?
Watch out for Na’vi and ikrans. Wikimedia Commons
糖葫芦 (Tánghúlu) is a Northern Chinese sweet snack consisting fruits or berries on a skewer, covered in hard candy. They’re particularly popular in the winter.
Once upon a time in the Song dynasty, the emperor’s most beautiful concubine fell ill and wouldn’t eat. Everyone was worried sick, and no medicine worked. Finally, a wise doctor suggested dipping fruits in sugar water, and soon (due to a medical miracle or simply sweet-toothedness?) the concubine was back in action.
Tánghúlu can be made with lots of different fruits (strawberries, grapes, kiwis, you name it), but are most commonly structured around mountain hawthorn (山楂, shānzhā). At first sight, these look like a mix between little red apples and strawberries.
The red fruits are used for many other sweets in China as well, from the little coin-shaped, chewy shānzhāpiàn to cakes, teas, or simply as dried fruit snacks.
Sweet and sour childhood memories. Sohu
周杰伦 (Zhōu Jiélún), known internationally as Jay Chou, is one of the most famous singers of all time. Of Michael Jackson-esque fame and renown across East Asia, he is better-selling that Beyoncé, hailed as the undisputed King of Pop.
Mixing the music of East and West, he writes his own songs, directs his owns music videos, and is widely recognized to have created his very own genre of music - a sleek mix of Chopin, Timberlake, and an Eminem who doesn’t swear.
Zhōu Jiélún sings about love, but is not afraid to branch into topics like domestic violence, war, loneliness, ninjas, nunchuks, and tea. He makes videos about everything from the mafia to the importance of listening to your mother.
Fans obviously follow Zhōu Jiélún zealously, and it sparked great amusement when the superstar revealed in an interview that he doesn’t like wearing underwear. Except during concerts. Fun fact.
Smoldering. But what else is he wearing? Baidu Baike
围棋 (Wéiqí), the "surrounding game", also known via Japanese as “Go”, is perhaps the oldest board game in the world. Although never huge in the West, it is said to have been enjoyed by Einstein.
Older than Confucius himself, weíqí was considered one of the fours ancient arts that a real gentleman must master – the others being painting, music, and calligraphy.
The game is played on a simple board with 19x19 lines. Players take turns placing a white or black piece on the intersections between the lines, and the winner is the one who can surround the other player’s pieces and claim the most territory.
While a computer was able to beat the reigning chess world champion as early as 1997, artificial intelligence had to wait until 2017 to beat the world weíqí champion – the literally billions of possible combinations of moves made human intuition a crucial ingredient!
Finger gymnastics? No, that's actually how you're supposed to hold it. Sohu
自相矛盾 (Zìxiāngmáodùn), or roughly, “the spear against the shield”, is an idiom that is used to describe things that are self-contradictory.
Once upon a time, a cocky weapons salesman stood in the marketplace and advertised his goods: “My spear is the sharpest in the world”, he shouted proudly, loudly and salesmanlike, “and it can go through anything!”
People stopped to listen as he continued: “And my shield is the strongest in the world – nothing can break it!”
All this obviously sounded quite good, and people were excited about these treasures, until one little boy remarked: “So – what if you use your spear against your shield?”
So whenever people claim two things that can’t be true at the same time, or if they act paradoxically, you can gently inform them that you're in a spear-and-shield situation.
Now here’s a spear-and-shield situation… Flickr
中秋节 (Zhōngqiūjié), the Mid-Autumn Festival, is today! This is the time for celebrating the harvest, appreciating the moon, and spending time with your family.
Because of the lunar calendar system, the Mid-Autumn festival always coincides with a full harvest moon. It’s represented by the moon goddess, Cháng’é (after whom the Chinese space agency's moon exploration program is named!) as well as by the iconic moon cakes.
Moon cakes make for great presents and often come in amazingly embellished packaging. Pastries of a myriad varieties, they most often contain a sweet filling such as red bean paste, but may also have savory fillings - or on this occasion, sometimes a salty egg yolk to represent the moon!
So happy Mid-Autumn - and happy Return-of-Mingbai, too! We’ve had a long summer break, and now we’re back with a new season of short posts about what everyone in China knows, and you still don’t!
Sweet bean paste or ham? You won't know 'til you try it! Baidu Baike
红楼梦 (Hónglóumèng), ”The Dream of the Red Chamber”, is one of China’s Four Great Classics – a DickensProustGoetheDostoyevskysque novel that has been studied, retold, and reimagined countless times.
The story follows the downfall of a noble family in the 18th century, with the main plot revolving around an epic love triangle: The son of the family is in love with his cousin, but is forced to marry… his other cousin!
About 40 main characters and 400 minor characters thicken the plot (there are so many cousins!), and the story is indeed so rich with culture and history and subplots and psychological depth that it has sparked an entire field of study where literary fans – known as redologists – write analyses, host conferences, and talk all night about the layers of the book.
The legendary novel glows with family tragedies, fraudulent weddings, dirty money, sudden death, forbidden love – what’s not to love?
Scene from the 1987 series, often considered the best TV version. Baidu Baike
慈禧太后 (Cíxí Tàihòu), Empress Dowager Cíxí, was one of the most feared rulers of China.
At 16, Cíxí became the emperor’s concubine. She did well. Not only did the empress like her, Cíxí also became the mother of the emperor’s only surviving son, so when the emperor died and the game of thrones was decided, Cíxí was the ruler of China.
Cíxí outlived three emperors (the last of whom she probably poisoned) before installing 2-year-old Pŭyí, the last emperor, on the throne in 1908 just before her death.
History has had its way with her. Was she a lavish old conservative lady who refused to modernize and killed all who stood in her way? Was she China’s most vicious defender against the invading Western powers? Was she a product of her time, married into imperial politics while still a scared teenager?
Regardless, she is the stuff of legends.
Did Cíxí look like her contemporary, Queen Victoria? Baidu Baike