Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Peony Tang, one of my favourite bloggers, writes about the city of Huế:

1000 kilometers north of Saigon lies Vietnam's old imperial capital of Hue. Famous for its Forbidden City set along the shimmering Perfume River, it was a place created while dreaming of China.
You all know that the word kara (and kuro) signifies "black" in Altaic languages like Japanese, Manchurian and Turkish. While in English, "black" doesn't perhaps conjure up the most promising images, this is not so in all other countries, and the Black Sea is no more black-- and no more "dark"-- than the Red Sea is red. For black merely signifies north, while red signifies south.

Closely associated with China's theory of the five elements, from the earliest of times four celestial beasts 四獣 have been associated with each of the cardinal directions: the tortoise (black warrior of the north 玄武): the white tiger of the west 白虎; the red phoenix of the south 朱雀 and the blue dragon of the east 青龍. These concepts (along with so many others) traveled East to Japan and west as faraway as Turkey. According to this cosmology, the Black Sea really just means the "northern sea" and the Red Sea the "southern sea." In Turkish, the Mediterranean is known as the White Sea (that is, the Western Sea).

It should also be noted that black, according to this ancient system, was considered the position of authority. The Imperial Palaces of China were always positioned in the north -- facing south.They sat, in fact, beneath the Northern Pole Star, which was associated with the color purple and abode of the Celestial Emperor. For this reason the Imperial Cities 紫禁城 of old Peking and Hue are called in Chinese "Forbidden Purple Cities" (that is, located in the place of authority-- the north-- under the Northern Pole Star).

You have to admit there is something very intriguing about imagining an Emperor sitting on a throne in a Palace located beneath where the heavenly emperor sits in sky above.

In Japanese, "kara" (using a different character-- the character for Tang 唐) has for almost 2000 years been used to refer to China, but the concept (kara→black→north→authority) is actually believed to have been of Mongolian or Turkish origin (which is why it perhaps spread so far West into Turkey).

In Vietnam, in just the same way that the Chinese calendar was adopted so that today we would be entering the time of Small Snow 小雪 (no matter how hot is was in tropical Hue) so too did the Vietnamese emperors create their own Chinese Purple City.

And, in the most beautiful country in the world, there is the world's most beautiful city. And within that city there is an imperial palace, which perhaps rather than invoking feelings of splendor and awe like the other far grander one much further north, instead slowly seduces you with its poetry.

Read the rest of this post at Tang Dynasty Times.