I posted this in response to a query on the American Dialect Society mailing list (ADS-L), and am cross-posting it here because it is more relevant here than there.  Someone had asked about a strange Chinglish translation: smallpox for 天花灯 (tiānhuādēng).  The answer to that is easy enough, and James Harbeck answered it there: the same characters are used for ceiling (天花板) and smallpox (天花).  Another poster, Douglas G. Wilson, then asked the more difficult question of why they are so named.

As I was looking for something else in some Manchu-related materials I serendipitously found the answer to this question.

Journal of the History of Medicine: Vol. 57, April 2002, p177-197

Chia-feng Chang, Disease and Its Impact on Politics, Diplomacy, and the Military: The Case of Smallpox and the Manchus (1613-1795)


The Manchus were so afraid of smallpox that they used only auspicious words when referring to smallpox patients. They adopted terms such as tianhua zhixi (the auspicious heavenly flower) or xidou (auspicious smallpox) to describe smallpox sufferers in the hope of avoiding bad luck. When the Shunzhi Emperor contracted small pox in 1661, any words pronounced like dou (smallpox), such as bean (dou), were strictly prohibited; nor were frying beans or lighting candles allowed, because the flames of candles were shaped like beans.


The idea that the Manchus considered smallpox a life-threatening force that could also mature the body was embodied in their worship of the smallpox goddess. The Manchus begged the Zisun Niangniang (Offspring Goddess) for the protection of smallpox patients…. According to a folk collection about the Manchu legend of Nishan Shaman during the Ming dynasty, Zisun Niangniang was surrounded by a number of women who were busy carrying or holding children and doing other things connected with child care. Zisun Niangniang was also named…Omosi Mama. …Omosi means descendants, and Omosi Mama therefore was regarded as symbolic of fertility. …the Manchu deemed smallpox as a potentially fatal affliction but also as a turning point of life. Once they safely passed through the point, they were no longer bothered by smallpox and reached their maturity.

(If anyone wants a PDF of this paper, email me.  It’s 153k.)

All of the words discussed here are Chinese words, which of course the Manchus used, but looking at the Manchu words is interesting as well.

Via (Online Manchu-English dictionary)

[x sounds like sh, everything else is more or less like you might guess]

  • erxembi – 1. to serve, to wait on, to attend 2. to take care of (children) 3. to get smallpox
  • mama erxembi – for pocks to appear, to get smallpox
  • sure – 1. wise, intelligent 2. prajna, wisdom (Buddhism) 3. chilled (of fruit)
  • sure mama – the goddess of smallpox
  • surgi – a smallpox pustule

mama is the second element in many Manchu goddesses’ appellations.  Here we can see the Manchu phrase meaning “to get smallpox” also means “the goddess takes care of you”.

Some other important points: 1) surgi is not a Chinese import word.  2) There is another Chinese word for pox (which until smallpox was eradicated I would guess usually referred to smallpox), 痘 (dòu).  Assuming this word was already around, this gives more credence to the idea that the Manchus invented the word 天花 (tiānhuā) (pertaining to smallpox pustules, not ceilings). 3) sure means “wise” — the Manchus certainly had a heck of a lot of respect for (or fear of) smallpox to name their goddess of smallpox “wise goddess”, and even to have a goddess of smallpox in the first place.

[After I posted this on ADS-L, I emailed Victor Mair, who had been alerted of the ADS-L discussion and had seen my name there and emailed me, telling me he was planning on writing something about this.  He responded, saying he was just about to post his results on Language Log.  A short while later, he posted this amazing treatment of the issue, casting a much wider net.  Victor Mair’s breadth and depth of knowledge of the history of China has few peers.]

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