China’s the kind of place where you can ask a totally innocuous question:
“Hey, what’s that?”
…and get the most bizarre answers, like this one from last week:
“That’s Píxiū (貔貅). Businessmen like Píxiū because it doesn’t have an anus, so it can eat fortune but the fortune can’t ‘exit’.”
“… … ah.” (See Pixiu in Wikipedia.)
It’s easy for foreigners to get used to being surrounded by stuff we can’t name, can’t read, don’t recognize or don’t understand. It becomes so overwhelming that we don’t think to ask or even want to ask. But curiosity in China is worth it. There’s a lot of crazy-to-us stuff in Chinese culture, all around us, just sitting out there in plain sight. Píxiūs aren’t uncommon; these pictures are from the front desk of the gym where we exercise.
All you have to do is ask. Take, for example, the alcoholic drinks pictured below that are often seen at the front check-out counters of restaurants. They’re usually in big glass jars filled with all manner of marinated/preserved-in-alcohol animals like snakes and seahorses and turtles and who knows what else.
Sure, just peering into their interesting-in-a-bad-car-crash-sort-of-way depths is surprising enough for most lǎowàis that we don’t even think to try the labels. I saw these particular jars regularly for three YEARS before I finally tried to read/translate the outside of the container, and…
Red Ginseng Three Penis* Tonic Liquor
The nourish-kidneys-and-strengthen-male-virility type, Original “Folk Recipe”
This isn’t in some scuzzy adult store in a nasty part of town (if it was I probably wouldn’t be blogging it); it’s right up at the checkout counter of a regular neighbourhood family restaurant. Much like the menu of the dog meat restaurant near our old place, which I translated as a student just to get some vocab and ended up with way more than I bargained for.
I’ve encountered too many “No way!” “Way!” moments in China. I don’t know why they so often involve body parts. But I do know that next time I ask, the person could make up a completely bogus, far-flung explanation for whatever it is and I’d totally buy it.
*P.S. — You are undoubtedly wondering, “Which three?” Well, the ingredients aren’t listed on that label. However it turns out that there’s a famous, traditional brand of “three penis liquor” 三鞭酒 that can be found on the shelves of the average neighbourhood supermarket that does list the ingredients. I found this one at the supermarket closest to us, two minutes up the road. (Cost about $2.)
Zhang Yu’s Specialty Three Penis Liquor
The long list of ingredients begins with: “high-quality baijiu 优质白酒, edible alcohol 食用酒精, soft-ified water 软化水, seal penis 海狗鞭, deer penis 鹿鞭, dhole (Asiatic wild dog) penis 广狗鞭….” And, in case you’re also wondering, there’s a very good chance that those are Canadian seals.
P.P.S. – This is begging for a better title. How would you answer this question: “Curiosity + China = ______”?