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Birds in Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanse culture

I've lifted these examples of birds in culture from the weird and wonderful guide to Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese bird names.

The author introduces the page with " What's so great about a list of bird names? After all, the names that men give are just a pale reflection of the birds themselves." The skylark may well be beautiful but so are the names given by man. "The names in common standard usage are bai-líng literally meaning 'hundred spirit' or 'hundred clever' and yún-què (literally 'cloud sparrow/finch'), which ornithologists use for larks in the genus Alauda" .


  • In Chinese the albatross is xìntianweng , literally 'believe-heaven-old man'.

  • In Japanese the albatross is aho-dori , meaning 'idiot bird. Probably based on the fact that it does not fear humans and is easily caught.


  • In Chinese, the bustard was traditionally regarded as a sexually promiscuous bird and its name is found in some words describing lustful old whores. An exampleof this can be seen in the Journey to the West , a sixteenth-century Chinese novel (as translated by Arthur Waley in Monkey ):

    Monkey whisked out of the water, and changed himself into a freckled bustard, standing all alone on the bank. Seeing that he had reached the lowest possible stage in transformation, for the freckled bustard is the lowest and most promiscuous of creatures, mating at hazard with any birde that comes its way, Erh-lang did not deign to close with him.


  • In Japanese. the term u-nomi ni suru ('swallow like a cormorant'), which means 'to swallow whole' or, in a figurative meaning, 'to swallow uncritically', from the bird's habit of swallowing fish whole.


  • The Chinese and Japanese names relating to 'fairy cranes' refer to the Chinese legend that the crane carries an immortal or sage ('fairy') on its back when he visits the mortal world.
  • The crane is a symbol of longevity in Oriental culture and is often depicted in traditional paintings and statues.
  • In Vietnamese, tu?i h?c ('crane years') refers to old age, specifically the years over 60.
  • To describe exteme slimness, Vietnamese uses the expression G?y nhu h?c 'slim as a crane'.


As in English, 'parrot learning' is looked down on in CJV. Chinese uses the expression yingwu xuéshé , literally 'parrot learn-tongue', to refer to mechanical repetition of what someone else says.


  • The Japanese expression chi-dori-ashi 'plover's feet' signifies an inability to walk straight when drunk.


  • In Chinese, there is a popular belief that the skylark is the spirit of a person who has come back from the dead. This is found in the expression: 'Becomes a skylark after death and flies back to visit its relatives'


  • The Chinese have a proverb: yù bàng xiang zheng, yúrén dé lì .'The yu and the clam struggle together; the fisherman makes the gain'. This derives from an old story of a snipe/sandpiper who had put his bill inside the clam's shell in order to eat the clam. The clam countered by clamping his shell tightly onto the bird's bill. The two were locked in a battle that neither could win. Along came the fisherman and claimed the both of them. The moral of the story is obvious

China has by far the longest written tradition, culture, and civilisation of any country in East Asia, completely dwarfing those of Japan and Vietnam. Professor Cheng Tso Hsin begins his preface to 'A Field Guide to the Birds of China' (see Sources ) with a reference to the Shang dynasty, which flourished between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. According to this preface, precursors of the modern characters for 'bird', 'pheasant', 'chicken', and 'sparrow' can be made out in oracle bones from this era. (Oracle bones were tortoise shells or other bones exposed to fire so the future could be read from the resulting cracks. Forecasts were then incised in the shell for preservation.). Read about the history of birds in China here


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