Why Bling dynasty bad boys believed they ought to die

Updated: 2007-11-16 06:54

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) fashion was ultra cool. Deep-indigo silk robes, cobalt blue collars, horseshoe-shaped red hats with gemstones on top, rubies, pearls, jade, beads, and colorful bird insignias weaved into the coats.

It was not the Qing Dynasty - it was the Bling Dynasty.

When I first saw old Chinese outfits as a boy, I thought the costumes looked strange but captivating, and after recently watching the mini-series Zhou Xiang Gong He (For the Sake of the Republic) I'm hooked on these cool threads. The baggy silk clothes and all the exotic jewelry worn by the Qing officials are similar to what millionaire rappers are sporting now.

The lush outfits of the late 1800s were more impressive than the stiff suits and ridiculous top hats Westerners wore at the time.

The 2003 historical drama covers the fall of the Qing Dynasty and delves into wonderful detail. It helped me break the code of that puzzling expression "Chinese characteristics".

My Beijing-born friend Angela scolds me for focusing on the late Qing period because she considers it "the bad bit" of her nation's history. She urges me to wind back the clock 1,000 years. Those were the glory years, she says, when emperors were not such pathetic losers.

Angela is an acutely intense girl and often gets very angry with her boyfriend of the day. The men who wrong her "ought to die" for making her feel upset, she vows. I thought her wishes were a bit harsh, however, after watching the mini-series I now better understand one of her many "Chinese characteristics".

The Chinese have invented many great things, but one of my favorite Middle Kingdom creations is the humble apology.

Wo gai si (I ought to die) is a very intense way to say you're sorry. It is a very old phrase and kowtowing officials said it before an angry emperor. The extreme words of repentance were often embellished. "I deserve to die 10,000 times," was said by a court official to reflect the deep concern of his error, even if he was completely innocent.

The phrase has currency today, and is still used by men who want to win back their way-ward girlfriends. "Wo gai si," they will scream on bended knee with tears flowing down their cheeks. In other words, "Baby, I know I made you upset and I deserve to die for doing so. Your feelings are important to me. Please forgive me."

Sending a bunch of sweet-smelling flowers with a nice card works in the West but this does not translate for my friend Angela. She thinks it's a bribe.

In the TV show, whenever the empress was grumpy, which was most of the time, the officials would fall down flat and in chorus wail: "I deserve to die 10,000 times."

The Empress Dowager would gaze at them rather sternly, allow a moment's silence, and then ask them to rise. Occasionally the old lady would agree with their sentiment, but mostly those who said "wo gai si" never actually died. It was the thought that counted.

Empress Angela acts the same way. If the boy humbles himself, and says: "wo gai si" she always takes him back. It is always the thought that counts.

(China Daily 11/16/2007 page20)

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