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"madam xian" painting by annie wong leung kit wah.

lady xian – warrioress for peace

lady xian (traditional chinese: 冼夫人; pinyin: xiǎn fūrén; cantonese yale: sín fūyàhn; c. 512 to 516–602) was a warrioress who, though she fought in many battles, is known for bringing about peace, justice and harmony in southern china during her life. over two hundred temples have been dedicated to her in southern china alone. more than two thousand temples have been built to venerate her in china, malaysia, and vietnam. she is still revered two millennia after her death.

chinese prefectures

guangdong province

boundaries of guang prefecture or guangzhou (廣州) circa 572 ad (top, source) and modern guangdong province (广东省) (bottom).

in mandarin, she is called lady xian. in cantonese, she is named lady sin. her birth name was precious xian or sin (traditional chinese: 冼珍; pinyin: xiǎn zhēn; cantonese yale: sín jān). she was the daughter of the chieftain or qiú (酋) of the xian or sin clan (冼氏) of the hlai in guang prefecture (廣州, lit. "wide state"), modern guangdong province (广东省, lit. "eastern expanse"), a coastal administrative district in south china (中国南方 or 中国南部) on the northern shore of the south china sea or nanfang hai (traditional chinese: 南方海; pinyin: nánfāng hǎi; lit. "southern sea"). guangdong is part of the area of lingnan (岭南) south of the nanling mountains (南岭), which was then considered by han chinese to be a tropical barbarian land. by the eastern han dynasty (traditional chinese: 東漢; pinyin: dōnghàn; 25–220 ad), a three-tier administrative land division system had emerged. it was composed of provinces or prefectures (zhōu 州), commanderies (jùn 郡), and counties (xiàn 縣).

the hlai speak the hlai languages, called lí yǔ (黎语, lit. "li speech") by the chinese. the hlai languages are a branch of the kra-dai languages, a family of tongues spoken in southern china, mainland southeast asia, and northeast india. across passing dynasties, the hlai were referred to with varying chinese characters but with the sound of "lai" or "lei" in middle (ancient) chinese. during the time of the sui dynasty (traditional chinese: 隋朝; pinyin: suí cháo; 581–618), one of the chinese names for the hlai was lǐliáo (俚僚; lit. "rustic/vulgar associates"). today the hlai are referred to by the chinese as the li people (lízú 黎族).

lingnan circuit

modern lingnan

boundaries of tang dynasty administrative division or "circuit" (道, dào) of lingnan circa 660–663 ad (top, source) and modern lingnan (bottom).

the members of xian's family were the hereditary headmen of their clan, which numbered over 100,000 families. the hlai were freedom-loving, nomadic warriors. the first written record of the hlai is the history of the southern regions (nánzhōuzhì 南州志) or the history of unusual things from the southern regions (nánzhōu yìwū zhī 南州异物志), a lost 3rd century text by wan zhen (萬震) of the wu (吳) kingdom in the three kingdoms period (三國時代; 220–280 ad). wan zhen was the grand administrator or tàishǒu (太守; prefect or governor; lit. "grand defender") of danyang commandery (丹楊郡). danyang is roughly the modern city of xuancheng (宣城) in southeast anhui province (安徽省), a landlocked division in east china. yuan shu (袁术, d. 199), an eastern han general and politician, noted on danyang as "this place is famous for its outstanding soldiers." wan zhen made mention of bandits called lǐ (俚) who dwelled south of guangzhou in five commanderies: cangwu (蒼梧), yulin (榆林), hepu (合浦), ningpu (寧浦), and gaoliang (高良). the li took refuge in the mountains and narrow passes and they resided in villages that were not walled. the li did not have lords or commanders who ruled over them.

the traditional hlai homeland lies along the basin of the jian river (鑑江) in modern maoming prefecture (茂名州) in western guangdong. the jian river flows into the south china sea on the eastern coast of the leizhou peninsula (雷州半島) furthest to the south of guandong's western half. the hlai were skilled at crafting boats from single tree trunks that let them cross the hainan (海南, "south of the sea") strait to the modern province of hainan island, where they settled as well.

hlai homeland

illustration of traditional hlai homeland (in yellow) on leizhou peninsula in western guangdong and hainan island. source

hlai girls

photo of hlai girls wearing ceremonial clothing. source

by 《人民画报》 - 《人民画报》1952年, public domain, link

li people

photo of hlai women in ledong county (樂東縣), hainan island on may 31, 1962.

the hlai were the earliest settlers on hainan island. the oldest hlai kingdom is that of the dam er (traditional chinese: 儋耳; pinyin: dān ěr; cantonese yale: dāam yíh; lit. "carry ear") clan in northwestern hainan. the dam er kingdom existed before the rise of the qin dynasty, or ch'in dynasty, (traditional chinese: 秦; pinyin: qín; 221–206 bc), the first dynasty of imperial china. the dam er were recorded by the chinese as having large ears that drooped very low due to the wearing of large, heavy earrings.

dam er long ear

display of hlai national clothing with large earrings. source

the hlai are among many non-han ethnic groups in south china who were generally called by the chinese as the baiyue (百越, "hundred yue" or "yue"). the yue peoples were distinguished for their short hair styles, body tattoos, fine swords, and sailing prowess.

baiyue statue

statue of baiyue man with yue-style short hair and body tattoos before 200 bc. the lingnan area was the land of the diverse baiyue peoples who were eventually sinicized.

xian was born during the liang dynasty (traditional chinese: 梁朝; pinyin: liáng cháo; 502–557), also called the southern liang (traditional chinese: 南梁; pinyin: nán liáng). the liang dynasty was the third of five southern dynasties during the northern and southern dynasties (traditional chinese: 南北朝; pinyin: nán-běi cháo; 386–589) period, a time of political chaos and civil war in china. the emperors of the northern dynasties were of xianbei (traditional chinese: 鮮卑; pinyin: xiānbēi) descent and the emperors of the southern dynasties were ethnic han chinese. xian is roughly coeval with the legendary hua mulan (traditional chinese: 花木蘭; pinyin: huā mùlán), who was a xianbei woman warrior and lived during the rule of the northern wei dynasty (traditional chinese: 北魏朝; pinyin: běi wèi cháo; 386–584) in northern china.

northern and southern dynasties

the northern and southern dynasties period was a time that saw a flourishing of arts and culture, technological advancement, large-scale migration of han chinese to areas south of the yangtze river (长江), and the spread of buddhism and daoism, which are among the san jiao or three teachings (sān jiào 三教) of china. emperor xiaowen of northern wei ((北)魏孝文帝; r. 471–499) founded the shaolin temple in 495 in henan province (河南省) in central china. emperor xiaowen raised the temple to honor buddhabhadra, an ācārya (preceptor) from either india or greco-buddhist central asia, who became the first shaolin abbot. buddhabhadra practiced theravāda or hīnayāna buddhism, which in china was called xiaosheng (traditional chinese: 小乘; pinyin: xiǎochéng; lit. "the lesser vehicle").

liang dynasty

though women were generally not viewed as equals to men among the hlai, xian had a tenacious desire to learn and empower herself that her father was unable to put down. while a maiden, she studied martial arts and military strategy in secret.


the liang dynasty had nominal control over guangdong during the early 5th century. it waged an inconclusive war against the hlai called the "pacification of the eastern li" (píngdìng lǐ dōng 平定俚東). arrogant han chinese officials in guangdong also discriminated against the hlai and other yue peoples, who in turn raided chinese settlers and feuded among themselves. guangdong was thus lawless and continually strife-ridden.

stories that continue to circulate in guangdong tell of xian's wisdom and ingenuity throughout her life. in gaozhou (高州市), a prefecture-level city in southwestern guangdong, there is a tale of the "wise dividing of the duck pack" ("zhì fēn yā qún" "智分鸭群").

when xian was a teenager, she lived by a small river that featured large lawns on both of its banks. the local people stocked ducks there. one day, a duck breeder mistakenly drove two flocks of ducks together and he couldn't tell which ducks belonged to him. xian was invited to pass a judgment.

xian saw that the ducks were similar in size and color, making it difficult to distinguish which pack they belonged to. she asked the two duck breeders about the feeding situation of the ducks and learned there was a significant difference in the feeding methods of the two groups. xian then asked the two duck breeders to treat the ducks with their distinct feeding methods.

the ducks soon divided into two groups. xian was then hailed by the people for her insight.

xian possessed an innate sense of justice that made her a natural leader who defended the xian clan from its opponents. the people of her clan often fought with rival yue clans. she frequently attempted to avert her clan's involvement in wars through negotiation and diplomacy.

in contrast, lady xian's older brother xian ting (冼婷) added to the chaos that engulfed guangdong and the greater lingnan region. xian ting was the governor or cìshǐ (刺史) of nanliang prefecture (南梁州) within the area of lingnan. he was known to be haughty from wealth gained through trade with the chinese and he was notorious for raiding the people of neighboring counties and robbing them of their possessions.

xian was said to have publicly rebuked her brother for his feuds. she thoroughly embarrassed him and made him promise to cease his banditry, which gradually assuaged the resentment of their neighbors. additionally, thousands of people from dan'er commandery (儋耳郡) on hainan island were drawn by her reputation and settled in guangdong. after her brother died, xian became the first queen of the hlai.

due to her reputation, feng rong (冯融), a chinese tàishǒu in guangdong, proposed to xian that she marry his son, feng bao (冯宝 or 馮寶). as the future prefect, bao would be responsible for uniting the many yue peoples of guangdong in service to emperor wu of liang (梁武帝; r. 502–549). bao lacked the shrewdness to maneuver through the ruthless waters of liang politics, though, which prompted the proposal of feng rong to xian for a marriage alliance.

in 535, xian agreed to the marriage with feng bao. she soon became the main advisor, general, and bodyguard of her husband. xian aided her husband with settling the many disputes of the hlai and other yue natives and the han chinese settlers in guangdong.

another popular story told in gaozhou is the "opportune judging of the bamboo hat" ("qiǎo pàn zhú mào" "巧判竹帽"). the story takes place after xian's marriage to bao.

one day, two people came to the government office and asked the prefect feng bao to arbitrate between them. they quarreled over a bamboo hat, which both claimed belonged to them. the argument was inconclusive. xian arrived to consult on the dispute.

xian listened to the debate between the two parties and did not settle on the spot. she maintained possession of the bamboo hat and dismissed the two people to await her verdict. when the two parties left the prefectural palace, she had them both followed and placed under observation by court officers.

she soon summoned both people back. she asked them:

"are you two scolding me behind my back?"

person b, who was notably more composed than person a, answered first:

"it was person a who scolded you, and he said that you were unfair, and even detained his bamboo hat."

xian studied person a, who had acquiesced with her actions up to that time though visibly distressed. xian didn't argue with person a and she made her determination on the situation. she returned the bamboo hat to person a and severely punished person b for being greedy.

when person b expressed dissatisfaction, xian smiled and answered:

"i deliberately kept the bamboo hat to test your reaction. only person a feels distressed, but you seem indifferent. this shows that the bamboo hat was bought by person a with money. after all, it was bought by someone else. having one's property possessed by another causes distress."

the accounts of xian illustrate her cleverness in her dealings with people. she was not bound by tradition, dared to innovate, and unraveled difficult problems with unexpected methods.

xian proved to be impartial and incorruptible when resolving civil lawsuits and meting out punishments to members of her clan and other yue peoples, who were criminal offenders. she also promoted the acceptance of chinese culture among the hlai and other yue peoples and intermarriage with the chinese settlers. xian was instrumental in establishing a joint authority with bao in guangdong, which went unchallenged by both the yue natives and the han chinese immigrants.

coincidentally, bodhidharma was active in guangdong shortly before xian's marriage to feng bao. as many accounts go, bodhidharma journeyed from india to southern china for three years. he arrived by sea at the port of guangzhou in 527. acknowledged as the 28th indian patriarch in a line of succession from buddha, bodhidharma resided at guangzhou for three years. he taught mahāyāna buddhism, which chinese followers called dasheng (traditional chinese: 大乘; pinyin: dàchéng; lit. "the great vehicle"). a popular legend tells that emperor wu of liang, who was a devout xiaosheng buddhist, invited bodhidharma to visit him in 527 at his capital city of jiankang (建業), present-day nanjing (南京市) of jiangsu province (江苏省) in china's eastern-central coastal region.

emperor wu detailed his actions in support of buddhism and queried bodhidharma if they were good. bodhidharma answered that they were not.

surprised, emperor wu asked if buddha, through the presence of enlightenment and wisdom, is in this world. bodhidharma replied that there was not.

the emperor also asked how much merit, or positive karma, he had gained through his actions. bodhidharma replied that good deeds done with the intention of gaining merit were valueless. such acts would lead to favorable rebirths, but not enlightenment.

bodhidharma couched his answers in an effort to show emperor wu a reflection of the wayward path the latter was traveling. by asking if his actions were good, emperor wu sought validation from bodhidharma. bodhidharma refuted that emperor wu's actions were good as it was the responsibility of the ruler to care for his subjects. rather than seek praise, emperor wu should have been satisfied to help his people according to buddha's teachings. if one asks if there is buddha in the world, then one has already answered the question. buddha is a matter of faith. by questioning the existence of buddha, emperor wu had shown a lack of faith.

disappointed with the meeting, emperor wu dismissed bodhidharma from his court. bodhidharma journeyed to the territory of northern wei and set up at the shaolin temple. there he laid the seeds for ch'an (chinese zen) and became the chánshī (禅师; lit. "dhyana master" or "zen master"), the first patriarch of china. he also set the foundation for shaolin five animals martial arts or shaolin chuan fa (traditional chinese: 少林穿法; pinyin: shàolín chuān fǎ; lit: "shaolin fist technique"). shaolin chuan fa combined with ch'an philosophy to form ch'an or chinese zen martial arts (traditional chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: chánzōng wǔshù).

human trafficking was common in guangdong among the hlai and other yue peoples with chinese traders during the northern and southern dynasties period. details of this practice are recorded in the book of liang (liáng shū 梁書), a history of the liang dynasty. work on the book of liang began during the sui dynasty and it was completed in 635 during the tang dynasty (traditional chinese: 唐朝; pinyin: tángcháo; 618–690, 705–907). the book of liang contains a biography of wang sengru (王僧孺), who was the tàishǒu of nanhai district (南海区), which was part of the city of foshan (佛山市) in central guangdong. foshan lies on the western side of the delta of the pearl river (德庆县), an extensive system of rivers in guangdong that share a common landform created by the deposit of sediment. the book of liang records that many foreign boats were docked at nanhai due to its connection via the pearl river delta (珠江三角洲) to gaoliang town (高良镇), which is part of deqing county (珠江) in western guangdong. many people were sold in gaoliang and businessmen traveling to nanhai traded various goods in return for captives. liang dynasty officials did nothing to outlaw nor stop this trade practice. when xian rose to power, though, she ended the hlai trafficking system. she admonished the hlai to do good acts in addition to being loyal to the liang dynasty.

hou jing disturbance

the twilight of the liang dynasty arrived in the summer of 548 with the onset of the hou jing disturbance (hóujǐngzhī luàn 侯景之乱), though. hou jing (侯景; d. 552), a liang general and politician who had controlled the liang imperial regime for several years, declared a rebellion in order to preserve his power. the basis for his revolt was to remove and execute a number of corrupt officials in the liang court.

xiao bo (蕭勃), the nephew of emperor wu and the dūdū (都督, "provincial military governor") of guangdong, recruited men and horses to aid the liang dynasty.

hou jing had emperor wu under house arrest and installed himself as the regent of the liang dynasty, though. hou jing made emperor wu dependent on supplies, which he reduced in 549 when the latter refused to name certain of hou jing's associates to high government posts. emperor wu soon died either of illness or starvation. hou jing then had xiao gang (蕭綱), the third son of emperor wu named as emperor jianwen of liang (梁簡文帝; r. 549–551).

chaos grew as the free liang princes fought with one another rather than cooperated to eliminate hou jing. other warlords emerged to carve out their own territories as the liang dynasty continued to disintegrate.

in 550, li qianshi (李遷仕), the provincial governor or cìshǐ (刺史) of gaozhou added to the disorder. at first, he revolted in secret and occupied the nearby town of dagao (大皋) under the pretext of securing it for the liang dynasty. li qianshi then summoned bao to gather his troops and to meet for the stated reason of protecting taicheng subdistrict (台城街道), the capital of the county-level city of taishan (台山市) in southwest guangdong.

xian sensed a trap and suspected that li qianshi supported hou jing instead, though. she persuaded her husband that li qianshi would take him hostage and compel him into joining the rebellion against the liang dynasty. when bao didn't arrive as summoned, li qianshi openly rebelled and dispatched du bulu (杜不虜), his military commander-in-chief or zhǔshuài (主帥), with an army to take the town of ganshi (甘什) on hainan island.

to spare the people of ganshi from the devastation of war, xian led 1,000 warriors disguised as servants bearing gifts of goods and money to gaozhou. xian sent a message to li qianshi that she had come in her husband's place to negotiate, pay his respects, and offer tribute. li qianshi opened the gates of his city to receive xian and her gifts. xian and her disguised soldiers then drew their weapons and captured gaozhou, ending the rebellion of li qianshi.

the liang dynasty bestowed upon xian the title of "lady protection queen" (bǎohù hòu fūrén 保护候夫人) in 551. the rank honored xian as the ultimate woman protector. xian and bao then aided general chen baxian (陳霸先; 503–559) with ending the rebellion of hou jing in 552.

when bao died in 554, xian continued as the sole prefect. xian had fought in many battles and gained a reputation as a brilliant and clever general in her own right. even though she had numerous opportunities to gain more power, she remained loyal to the liang dynasty. she held to her main goal of keeping the peoples of guangdong and the wider area of lingnan safe.

her authority continued as the liang dynasty fell in 557. following the hou jing disturbance, armies from the northern dynasties of western wei (西魏; 535–557) and northern qi (北齊; 550–577) invaded the liang dynasty. chen baxian opposed the invaders and was progressively promoted to the title of "prince of chen" (陳太子).

in spring 557, xiao bo declared resistance from guangdong to chen baxian who was gaining power to overthrow the liang dynasty. xiao bo and other provincial leaders in lingnan fought the forces of chen baxian, sowing chaos in the region and driving many inhabitants into poverty and homelessness.

to restore peace in lingnan, xian adopted the strategy of zhì shèng yú zhàn (治胜于战; "cure better than war"). she posted notices entreating the governors of nearby counties to not join the cause of xiao bo, but to focus instead on public security and ending the fighting. she promised that if the governors helped stop the combat, they would not be punished. xian also passed strict disciplinary measures among her military forces in which soldiers who committed crimes like killing and robbing would face beheading and have their heads publicly displayed. the fighting in lingan soon ended and xiao bo was killed by his own generals.

chen dynasty

in winter 557, chen baxian had the last liang emperor abdicate the throne to him. he established the chen dynasty (traditional chinese: 陳朝; pinyin: chén cháo; 557–589), which he named after his former princely title. he named himself emperor wu of chen (traditional chinese: 陳武帝; chen wudi; 557–559).

in 570, the chen dynasty awarded xian with the title of "highest lady stone dragon" (shí lóng tài fūrén 石龙太夫人) as a reward for quelling rebellions within the lingnan area. this particular title honored xian as an enduring dragoness who brought peace. in the history of the northern dynasties (北史), a historical work completed between 643 and 659 during the tang dynasty, it was recorded that she received the title of "highest lady of gaoliang commandery" (gāo liáng jùn tài fūrén 高凉郡太夫人).

feng pu (馮僕), xian's son and only child who was known by name, joined xian in many battles and also received awards from the chen dynasty. xian helped her son with the administration of local affairs as well.

sui dynasty foundation

in northern china, yang jian (楊堅; 541–604) came to power as a han chinese military officer and official of the northern zhou (北周; 557–581), the last of the northern dynasties. yang jian served the northern zhou court with distinction from the age of 14 in 555. he received several official ranks over the years. in summer 580, emperor xuan of northern zhou ((北)周宣帝) (559–580; r. 578–579) who was an erratic ruler, passed away of a sudden illness. yang jian became regent to the young emperor jing of northern zhou ((北)周靜帝) (573–581; r. 579–581), the last xianbei ruler. as the father-in-law of the previous emperor, yang jian seized the throne for himself and founded the sui dynasty in 581. he named himself as emperor wen of sui (隋文帝; r. 581–604) and went on to conquer the chen dynasty in 589. he reunited the whole of china under han chinese rule after centuries of division following the end of the western jin dynasty (traditional chinese: 西晉朝; pinyin: xījìn cháo; 266–316) in 316.

sui invasion of chen

china reunified under sui dynasty

xian, who neared age 70, did not want to see the lives of the people of guangdong and the greater lingnan area devastated by war. she took the initiative to surrender to emperor wen in exchange for peace. wearing a complete suit of battle armor, she rode out to meet emperor wen. the latter was impressed with xian and named her and her descendants as the hereditary rulers of guangdong. emperor wen granted her the name of "lady of songkang commandery" (traditional chinese: 宋康郡夫人; pinyin: sòngkāngjùn fūrén; lit. "lady of peaceful song commandery").

xian used her authority to fire arrogant han chinese government officials, arrest criminals, and enforce the equality of all ethnic groups under the law. in 601, she received the additional title of "lady of qiaoguo" (traditional chinese: 譙國夫人; pinyin: qiào guó fūrén; lit. "lady of drum tower nation").

xian was recorded as having three grandsons named feng hun (馮勳), feng xian (馮賢), and feng ang (馮昂). they all received awards from emperor wu. during the chinese new year and other holidays, xian would display all the gifts bestowed upon her by the emperors of the liang, chen, and sui dynasties in the main yard of her manor. she admonished her grandsons to be loyal to the reigning emperor of the day and to not seek power for themselves as she did during her life.

she is recorded as telling her grandsons:

"thou (you all) should be equally and fully committed to the son of heaven (the rightful emperor). i had served lords of three dynasties with a kind heart. all these gifts granted by them were the reward of my loyalty and obedience too. so i hope thou (you all) can think about that and be loyal to him (the son of heaven)!"

("汝等宜尽赤心向天子,我事三代主,唯用一好心. 今赐物俱存,此忠孝之报也. 愿汝皆思念之!")

when xian died at the age of nearly 90 in 602, guangdong had become a land where the han chinese and ethnic minorities lived in peace and harmony. emperor wen posthumously named her as "lady of chengjing" (traditional chinese: 诚敬夫人; pinyin: chéng jìng fūrén; lit. "lady of sincerity and respect").

xian's achievements were recorded in the book of sui (suí shū 隋書), the official history of the sui dynasty, which was completed in 636 during the tang dynasty. she is also listed in the table of peerless heroes (wúshuāng pǔ 無雙譜), a book of woodcut prints, first printed in 1694, early in the qing dynasty (traditional chinese: 大清; pinyin: dà qīng; manchu: daiqing gurun; 1616/1636–1912). the prose text of the book is written in yuèfǔ (樂府), chinese lyric poetry arranged in a folk song style. the book contains the biographies and conceptualized portraits of 40 significant heroes and heroines from the han dynasty (traditional chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: hàncháo; 202 bc–220 ad) to the song dynasty (traditional chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: sòng cháo; 960–1279).

xian temple entrance

entrance to temple dedicated to xian in guangdong.

during the five dynasties and ten kingdoms period (五代十国; 907–979), another time of prolonged multiple political divisions in china, xian was named "lady qingfu" (traditional chinese; 清福夫人; pinyin: qīngfú fūrén; lit. "lady of justice and honesty and good fortune").

in the southern song dynasty (traditional chinese: 南宋; pinyin: nánsòng; 1127–1279), she received the titles of "lady xianying" (traditional chinese: 显应夫人; pinyin: xiǎn yīng fūrén; lit. "lady of prominent legality") and "lady rouhui" (traditional chinese: 柔惠夫人; pinyin: róu huì fūrén; lit. "lady of flexible benevolence").

in the qing dynasty, the tongzhi emperor (同治帝; r. 1861–1875) of manchu descent honored xian with the name of "ciyou" (traditional chinese: 慈佑; pinyin: cí yòu; lit. "humane protector").


chinese phoenix art on wall of taoist temple in china (left), chinese phoenixes painting (right) by kanō school (狩野派, kanō-ha), one of the most famous japanese painting schools. influenced by chinese artistic technique, the kanō school was popular from the late 15th century until the meiji era (明治; 1868–1912) of japan.

lady xian hairpin

close up of hairpin featured in statue of lady xian in guangdong.

lady xian is celebrated in china as an icon of unity and safety. xian's phoenix hairpin or fengchai (traditional chinese: 鳳釵; pinyin: fèngchāi) is seen as a talisman of protection. the phoenix hairpin emerged during the qin dynasty. the upper section of a fengchai was typically composed of gold and silver while the lower section was made from tortoise shell. chinese hairpins are variously called chāi (钗), zānzi (簪子) or zān (簪) for short, and fà zān (髮簪 or 发簪). the term (筓) for hairpins came into being during the qin dynasty. hairpins were worn by chinese women of all social ranks from ancient times. the chinese phoenix or fenghuang (traditional chinese: 鳳凰; pinyin: fènghuáng) symbolizes many things: peace, honor, power, virtue, harmony, faith, auspiciousness, prosperity, righteousness, courtesy, benevolence, love, and faith. male phoenixes were originally called fèng and female phoenixes huáng. today the two genders are blended into a feminine being that represents marital happiness and is paired with the chinese dragon or loong (traditional chinese: 龍; pinyin: lóng), which is considered male and a symbol of heaven.

lady xian is celebrated in china as an icon of unity and safety. xian's phoenix hairpin or fengchai (traditional chinese: 鳳釵; pinyin: fèngchāi) is seen as a talisman of protection. the phoenix hairpin emerged during the qin dynasty. the upper section of a fengchai was typically composed of gold and silver while the lower section was made from tortoise shell. chinese hairpins are variously called chāi (钗), zānzi (簪子) or zān (簪) for short, and fà zān (髮簪 or 发簪). the term (筓) for hairpins came into being during the qin dynasty. hairpins were worn by chinese women of all social ranks from ancient times. the chinese phoenix or fenghuang (traditional chinese: 鳳凰; pinyin: fènghuáng) symbolizes many things: peace, honor, power, virtue, harmony, faith, auspiciousness, prosperity, righteousness, courtesy, benevolence, love, and faith. male phoenixes were originally called fèng and female phoenixes huáng. today the two genders are blended into a feminine being that represents marital happiness and is paired with the chinese dragon or loong (traditional chinese: 龍; pinyin: lóng), which is considered male and a symbol of heaven.

jade hairpin

nephrite jade hairpin with phoenix head (top) and dragon head (bottom).


close ups of jade hairpin (left and right). design dates back to archaic or bronze age china which covers the xia dynasty (traditional chinese: 夏朝; pinyin: xià cháo; c. 2070–1600 bc) shang dynasty (traditional chinese: 商朝; pinyin: shāngcháo), also called the yin dynasty (traditional chinese: 殷代; pinyin: yīndài), and the zhou dynasty (traditional chinese: 周朝; pinyin: zhōu cháo; c. 1045 bc–221 bc).

white jade phoenix hairpin

exquisite white jade fengchai phoenix hairpin. design dates from 10th to 14th centuries which spans the song dynasty (traditional chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: sòng cháo; 960–1279) and the yuan dynasty (traditional chinese: 元朝; pinyin: yuán cháo; 1271–1368) during the imperial age of china.

because the chinese phoenix and the chinese dragon are auspicious symbols, reported sightings of either were seen as providential. the sightings supposedly heralded an honored time of peace and prosperity for china and its people. a chinese saying goes: "when the dragon soars and the phoenix dances, the people will enjoy happiness for years, bringing peace and tranquility to all under heaven." ("龍騰鳳舞,民樂萬年,天下太平.")

nine dragons

close up view of two dragons from taoist themed handscroll nine dragons painted in 1244 by chen rong (c. 1200–1266), song dynasty-era (traditional chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: sòng cháo; 960–1279) painter. the complete handscroll painting depicts nine manifestations of dragons flying amid mists, clouds, whirlpools, fire, and rocky mountains. the dragons represent the nine sons of the dragon king (lóngwáng 龍王). the number nine is auspicious in chinese astrology, associated with the chinese emperor and representing longevity or eternity.

statues of xian wearing a phoenix crown or fengguan (traditional chinese: 鳳冠; pinyin: fèngguān) have been raised as well. the phoenix crown developed from the phoenix hairpin. a phoenix crown could be made with inlaid iridescent blue kingfisher or tian-tsui (traditional chinese: 點翠; pinyin: diǎncuì; lit. "dotting with kingfishers") feathers, beaded pheasants, gold dragons, pearls, and assorted other gemstones.

xian statue

statue of xian adorned with a phoenix crown in guangdong.

the oldest phoenix crown found thus far is that of empress xiao (蕭皇后; r. 605–618) of the sui dynasty in the tomb of emperor yang of sui (隋煬帝; r. 604–618) in 2013. emperor yang succeeded his father emperor wen, whose murder he is suspected of ordering. notwithstanding the symbolism of empress xiao's phoenix crown, emperor yang proved to be one of the worst tyrants in chinese history. he is held to be the reason for the sui dynasty's short rule and fall to the tang dynasty in 618.

empress xiao phoenix crown

reconstruction of empress xiao's fengguan phoenix crown.

li yuan (李元; 566–635), who was>princess pingyang (平阳公主; c. 598–623; t. 618–623) and his son li shimin (李世民; 598–649). li yuan named himself as emperor gaozu of tang (唐高祖; r. 618–626).

li shimin, who was a formidable warrior and general in his own right, helped to fight the enemies of the tang and secure the dynasty. in 626, li shimin deposed and succeeded his father. he named himself as emperor taizong of tang (唐太宗; r. 626–649).

taizong was one of china's most outstanding>legendary 13 shaolin cudgel fighting monks who aided him during the establishment of the tang dynasty and the shaolin temple in henan province. his reign was viewed as the standard against which future emperors measured themselves. the tang would go on to become a high point in chinese civilization and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture.

the hlai rose in a failed rebellion against the tang from 621–640, though. the revolt began during the reign of gaozu and it continued into the rule of taizong. the revolt of the hlai was sparked by rising han chinese migration to their homeland in western guangdong and discriminatory practices against them by tang officials, who undid the life work of xian.

during>southern shaolin temple in fujian province (福建省) on the southeastern coast of china was founded with the blessing of taizong.

during the latter years of taizong's reign, the hlai on hainan island were troubled as well by the encroachment of persian and arab muslim pirates. the pirates journeyed from the middle east and established themselves on the island. the pirates launched a series of raids that greatly upset the peace and stability of southern china, prompting taizong to call upon the shaolin cudgel monks to assist him once more. the cudgel monks led a contingent of 500 warrior monks that aided the tang military in defeating the pirates. following the campaign against the pirates, a southern shaolin temple in fujian province (福建省) on the southeastern coast of china was founded with the blessing of taizong.

beheaded xian statue

mausoleum statue of xian beheaded by empress wu zetian. source

in 692, a statue of lady xian at a mausoleum was beheaded by empress wu zetian (武則天; r. 690–705), who had usurped the tang throne and ruled as the only official woman sovereign of china. wu zetian was the empress regnant of the short-lived wu zhou dynasty (traditional chinese: 武周; pinyin: wǔ zhōu; 690–705), which was also called the second zhou dynasty.

the hlai were gradually driven to abandon guangdong and immigrate to hainan. by the 11th century during the northern song dynasty (traditional chinese: 北宋; pinyin: běisòng; 960–1127), they were no longer recorded as being on the mainland. on hainan, chinese settlers gradually pushed the hlai from the island's coastland agricultural regions into its inland mountainous areas. by the fall of the ming dynasty (traditional chinese: 明朝; pinyin: míng cháo; 1368–1644) in the mid-17th century, the process was mostly completed. the hlai continued to clash with han chinese authorities over the centuries.

during the second sino-japanese war (1937–1945), the hlai allied with the chinese communist party or ccp (zhōngguó gòngchǎndǎng 中国共产党). they were therefore subjected to extermination and the women experienced rape by kuomintang (kmt) or chinese nationalist party (zhōngguó guómíndǎng 中國國民黨) soldiers and then japanese forces who occupied hainan from 1939 to 1945. however, the hlai endured this period and are viewed with respect today by the ccp for their support against kuomintang authority during the chinese civil war that was fought periodically from 1927 to 1949.

lady xian

painting honoring lady xian (left), statue on hainan island dedicated to lady xian (right). source

to the present day, the people of guangdong venerate lady xian as the "saintly mother of lingnan" (岭南圣母). visitors to the numerous temples dedicated to xian burn incense beneath statues of xian and feng bao, her husband. quarrelling couples often pray before the statues for guidance on how to get along. the largest and most prominent shrine is the high temple of xian or xiǎn tàimiào (冼太庙) in gaozhou at wenming street (文明街) near the city's eastern gate (東門).

high temple of xian

high temple of xian or xiǎn tàimiào (冼太庙) in gaozhou.

lady xian is an integral part of china's tradition of female martial artists. men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the monks and nuns of the shaolin temple in martial arts classes offered by the michigan shaolin wugong temple.



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