There comes a point in every novel when…

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Bakeneko

In my current novel project, “Ice Phoenix”, the Black Dragons are a trio of dragonryders who act as the Imperial Princess’ bodyguards and closest and most trustworthy servants. There’s the swordsman and leader, Kayda Nara. The archer, Yazry Krys.
And the fisticuff fighter, Loy, who’s more brawn than brain yet still manages to be street-smart and has an absolute love of animals. So when he finds a strange kitten with two tails in Her Highness’ private garden, he naturally befriends it.

 

化け猫
ばけねこ

 

TRANSLATION: monster cat, ghost cat
HABITAT: towns and cities
DIET: carnivorous; fish, birds, small animals, and occasionally humans

APPEARANCE: Cats, feral and domestic, are found all over Japan: in houses as pets, on farms as exterminators, and in cities and towns as strays. When cats live to an old age, they begin develop supernatural powers and transform into yokai. Bakeneko begin their supernatural life looking almost identical to an ordinary housecat. Soon they begin to walk about at on their hind legs. As they age and their powers increase, they can grow to be very large, sometimes as big as a full-grown human.

BEHAVIOR: Bakeneko possess great shape-shifting abilities and frequently disguise themselves as smaller cats or humans – sometimes even their own masters. While in disguise, they like to dress up as humans with a towel wrapped around their head and dance around merrily. Many learn to speak human languages. They can eat things that are much bigger than they are, and even poisonous things, without any difficulty at all. It is even possible for a bakeneko to eat its own master and then take his form, living on in his place. If they do not kill their owners, they often bring down great curses and misfortune upon them. They can summon ghostly fireballs and are known to accidentally start house fires, their tails acting like torches on any flammable materials in the house. They also have the disturbing ability to reanimate fresh corpses and use them like puppets for their own nefarious purposes. They are generally a menace to any house they live in or near.

ORIGIN: Bakeneko can come into being as a result of a number of things, but the most common reasons are by living long-life (generally over 13 years), growing to a certain size (over 3.75 kilograms), by licking up large quantities of lamp oil. A telltale sign that a cat may be close to becoming a bakeneko is believed to be an exceptionally long tail. This superstition led to the custom of bobbing a cat’s tail at an early age to prevent it from growing supernaturally long and transforming into a yokai.

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~ Information and image courtesy of yokai.com

 

Marshmallow!

It’s incredible the things you learn doing research for a novel!
Did you know…?
The word marshmallow stems from the mallow plant (Althaea officinalis) that is a genus of an herb native to parts of Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The word “marsh” is used because the mallow plant grows in marshes and other damp areas. The plant itself has a fleshy stem, leaves, and a flower with five white petals. There is no exact date as to when marshmallows were invented, but their history goes back as early as 2000 B.C. Ancient Egyptians were said to be the first to make marshmallows, and it was considered a privilege to be able to partake in its consumption. It was strictly reserved for gods and royalty, who took the root of the plant and used it as a medicinal to soothe coughs and sore throats, and heal wounds. The first marshmallows were prepared by boiling pieces of root pulp with sugar until it thickened. Once thickened, the mixture was strained, cooled, and then used as intended.
Whether it was being used for candy or medicine, the manufacturing process was limited to a small scale. In the early to mid-1800s, the marshmallow had made its way to France where confectioners augmented the plant’s traditional medicinal value with indulgent ingredients utilized by the Egyptians. Owners of small candy stores would whip the sap from the mallow root into a fluffy candy mold. This candy was called Pâté de Guimauve. It was a spongy-soft dessert made from whipping dried marshmallow roots with sugar, water, and egg whites. It was sold in bar form as a lozenge. Drying and preparing of the marshmallow took one to two days before the final product could be produced. In the late 1800s, candy makers started looking for a new process, and discovered the starch mogul system, in which trays of modified corn starch had a mold firmly pushed down in them to create cavities within the starch. The cavities were then filled with the whipped marshmallow sap mixture, and allowed to cool or harden. At the same time, candy makers began to replace the mallow root with gelatin which created a stable form of marshmallow.
By the early 1900s, thanks to the starch mogul system, marshmallows were introduced to the United States and available for mass consumption. They were sold in tins as penny candy, and were soon used in a variety of food recipes like banana fluff, lime mallow sponge, and tutti frutti. In 1948, Alex Doumak patented the extrusion process which involved running marshmallow ingredients through tubes. The tubes created a long rope of marshmallow mixture, and were then set out to cool. The ingredients are then cut into equal pieces, and packaged.
Modern marshmallow manufacturing is highly automated, and has been since the early 1950s when the extrusion process was first developed. Numerous improvements and advancements allow for production of thousands of pounds of marshmallow a day. Today, the marshmallow typically consists of four components. These are sugar, water, air, and a whipping agent (usually a protein). The type of sugar and whipping agent varies depending on desired characteristics. Each ingredient plays a specific role in the final product.
~ Information and photo courtesy of wikipedia.com
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Mid-Autumn Festival

In “Ice Phoenix”, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a pivotal event that coincides with the climax of the story. As the Empire of Draycy is heavily drawn from Ancient China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is, of course, taken from the real-world harvest festival  celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people.

In the real world…
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people. The festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar with full moon at night, corresponding to late September to early October of the Gregorian calendar with a full moon at night.

Mainland China listed the festival as “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006 and a public holiday in 2008. It is also a public holiday in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. In Vietnamese culture, it is considered the second-most important holiday tradition after Tết.

Due to ancient China’s cultural influence, Mid-Autumn Festival spread to other parts of Asia. Mooncakes have also appeared in western countries as an exotic sweet.

The festival celebrates three fundamental concepts that are closely connected:
•Gathering, such as family and friends coming together, or harvesting crops for the festival. It’s said the moon is the brightest and roundest on this day which means family reunion. And this is the main reason why people think mid-autumn is important.
•Thanksgiving, to give thanks for the harvest, or for harmonious unions
•Praying (asking for conceptual or material satisfaction), such as for babies, a spouse, beauty, longevity, or for a good future

Traditions and myths surrounding the festival are formed around these three concepts, although traditions have changed over time due to changes in technology, science, economy, culture, and religion. It’s about well being together.

An important part of the festival celebration is moon worship. The ancient Chinese believed in rejuvenation being associated with the moon and water, and connected this concept to the menstruation of women, calling it “monthly water”. The Zhuang people, for example, have an ancient fable saying the sun and moon are a couple and the stars are their children, and when the moon is pregnant, it becomes round, and then becomes crescent after giving birth to a child. These beliefs made it popular among women to worship and give offerings to the moon on this evening. In some areas of China, there are still customs in which “men worship the moon and the women offer sacrifices to the kitchen gods.”

Offerings are also made to a more well-known lunar deity, Chang’e, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality. The myths associated with Chang’e explain the origin of moon worship during this day. One version of the story is as follows, as described in Lihui Yang’s Handbook of Chinese Mythology:

 

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved very much her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.

 

The festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Today, it is still an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives to eat mooncakes and watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity. During a year of a solar eclipse it is typical for governmental offices, banks and schools will close of extra days to enjoy the extra celestial celebration an eclipse brings.  The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs, among them:
•Burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang’e.
•Performance of dragon and lion dances, which is mainly practiced in southern China and Vietnam.

A notable part of celebrating the holiday is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition involving lanterns is to write riddles on them and have other people try to guess the answers.

It is difficult to discern the original purpose of lanterns in connection to the festival, but it is certain that lanterns were not used in conjunction with moon-worship prior to the Tang dynasty. Traditionally, the lantern has been used to symbolize fertility, and functioned mainly as a toy and decoration. But today the lantern has come to symbolize the festival itself. In the old days, lanterns were made in the image of natural things, myths, and local cultures. Over time, a greater variety of lanterns could be found as local cultures became influenced by their neighbors.

As China gradually evolved from an agrarian society to a mixed agrarian-commercial one, traditions from other festivals began to be transmitted into the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as the putting of lanterns on rivers to guide the spirits of the drowned as practiced during the Ghost Festival, which is observed a month before. Hong Kong fishermen during the Qing dynasty, for example, would put up lanterns on their boats for the Ghost Festival and keep the lanterns up until Mid-Autumn Festival.

Making and sharing mooncakes is one of the hallmark traditions of this festival. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and reunion. Thus, the sharing and eating of round mooncakes among family members during the week of the festival signifies the completeness and unity of families. In some areas of China, there is a tradition of making mooncakes during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The senior person in that household would cut the mooncakes into pieces and distribute them to each family member, signifying family reunion. In modern times, however, making mooncakes at home has given way to the more popular custom of giving mooncakes to family members, although the meaning of maintaining familial unity remains.

Although typical mooncakes can be around a few inches in diameter, imperial chefs have made some as large as several feet in diameter, with its surface impressed with designs of Chang’e, cassia trees, or the Moon-Palace. One tradition is to pile 13 mooncakes on top of each other to mimic a pagoda, the number 13 being chosen to represent the 13 months in a full lunar year.

According to Chinese folklore, a Turpan businessman offered cakes to Emperor Taizong of Tang in his victory against the Xiongnu on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. Taizong took the round cakes and pointed to the moon with a smile, saying, “I’d like to invite the toad to enjoy the hú cake.” After sharing the cakes with his ministers, the custom of eating these hú cakes spread throughout the country. Eventually these became known as mooncakes. Although the legend explains the beginnings of mooncake-giving, its popularity and ties to the festival began during the Song dynasty (906–1279 CE).

Another popular legend concerns the Han Chinese’s uprising against the ruling Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368 CE), in which the Han Chinese used traditional mooncakes to conceal the message that they were to rebel on Mid-Autumn Day. Because of strict controls upon Han Chinese families imposed by the Mongols in which only 1 out of every 10 households was allowed to own a knife guarded by a Mongolian guard, this coordinated message was important to gather as many available weapons as possible.

Imperial dishes served on this occasion included nine-jointed lotus roots which symbolize peace, and watermelons cut in the shape of lotus petals which symbolize reunion. Teacups were placed on stone tables in the garden, where the family would pour tea and chat, waiting for the moment when the full moon’s reflection appeared in the center of their cups. Owing to the timing of the plant’s blossoms, cassia wine is the traditional choice for the “reunion wine” drunk on the occasion. Also, people will celebrate by eating cassia cakes and candy.

Food offerings made to deities are placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges, and pomelos. One of the first decorations purchased for the celebration table is a clay statue of the Jade Rabbit. In Chinese folklore, the Jade Rabbit was an animal that lived on the moon and accompanied Chang’e. Offerings of soy beans and cockscomb flowers were made to the Jade Rabbit.

Nowadays, in southern China, people will also eat some seasonal fruit that may differ in different district but carrying the same meaning of blessing.

The Mid-Autumn moon has traditionally been a choice occasion to celebrate marriages. Girls would pray to Chang’e to help fulfill their romantic wishes.

In some parts of China, dances are held for young men and women to find partners. For example, young women are encouraged to throw their handkerchiefs to the crowd, and the young man who catches and returns the handkerchief has a chance at romance. In Daguang, in northeast Guizhou Province, young men and women of the Dong people would make an appointment at a certain place. The young women would arrive early to overhear remarks made about them by the young men. The young men would praise their lovers in front of their fellows, in which finally the listening women would walk out of the thicket. Pairs of lovers would go off to a quiet place to open their hearts to each other.

During the 1920s and 1930s, ethnographer Chao Wei-pang conducted research on traditional games among men, women and children on or around the Mid-Autumn day in the Guangdong Province. These games relate to flights of the soul, spirit possession, or fortunetelling.
•One type of activity, “Ascent to Heaven” involves a young lady selected from a circle of women to “ascend” into the celestial realm. While being enveloped in the smoke of burning incense, she describes the beautiful sights and sounds she encounters.
•Another activity, “Descent into the Garden”, played among younger girls, detailed each girl’s visit to the heavenly gardens. According to legend, a flower tree represented her, and the number and color of the flowers indicated the sex and number of children she would have in her lifetime.
•Men played a game called “Descent of the Eight Immortals” (jiangbaxian), where one of the Eight Immortals took possession of a player, who would then assume the role of a scholar or warrior.
•Children would play a game called “Encircling the Toad” (guanxiamo), where the group would form a circle around a child chosen to be a Toad King and chanted a song that transformed the child into a toad. He would jump around like a toad until water was sprinkled on his head, in which he would then stop.

~ Information and photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

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