The Big Apple, the Big Easy, Motor City, Sin City, Forest City. Nicknames like these are crystallizations of stories about a city. Sometimes, they’re the story a city tells itself; sometimes, the story other people tell about a city.
Nicknames are as historically layered as the cities they represent. Meanings change over time, becoming murkier the further back you go. Case in point: Chicago, the Windy City. Most today think the nickname came about because of the bracing winter winds blowing in from Lake Michigan. I certainly thought so, some six years ago, as I chattered my teeth atop the Blue Line “L” stop at Western. But the earliest uses of the nickname attest to multiple meanings. It could indeed refer to the literal wind (as an 1858 Chicago Tribune article has it). Or to its “windbags” (as in the Milwaukee Sentinel‘s 1860 article). Or to Chicago’s buildings, which “were so heavily weighed down with mortgages that no whirlwind could affect them” (Cincinnati Enquirer, 1876). Or…
I bring up Chicago as an illustration of how confusing even a recent origin story becomes when you look at it closely. If these are the kinds of contradictions that emerge within 150 years, how many more should we find over 2000 years?
Guangzhou has been called by many names. Earliest is Pānyú 番禺. The eighth-century compendium Chūxué jì 初學記, quoting an earlier gazetteer, says this comes from the names of two mountains in the area. In the second century BC, it was the capital of the Nányuè 南越 kingdom, which was later incorporated into the Hàn dynasty. When Europeans arrived in the 16th century, they called the city “Canton,” an adaptation of the Cantonese name for its surrounding province, Gwong2 Dung1 廣東 (Mandarin: Guǎngdōng).
One of its most cherished nicknames of Guangzhou is Wǔyángchěng 五羊城, or “City of Five Rams.” Even today, at the top of one of the hills in Yuèxiù Park 越秀公園, you can find a statue of five rams.
There are two origin stories for this nickname, both of which have been preserved in the massive compendium Imperial Readings of the Tàipíng Era 太平御覽 (compiled 983). The first comes from an unspecified “gazetteer of prefectures and states” 郡國志, which one scholar suggests is from the Táng dynasty (618–907). It is the version of the story which has been repeated and told most frequently over time:
Sūn Hào of Wú (242–284 AD) once employed Téng Xiū as his Regional Chief. Before Téng had reached the region, there appeared five transcendents riding five-colored rams which carried the five grains. After he received them, they left. Today, on the beams in the prefectural hall there are paintings of the five transcendents riding five-colored rams to serve as their auspicious sign.
In this version, several supernatural beings greet the newly-appointed local ruler on his journey to assume his post in Guangzhou. The rams on which they rode become the symbol of the city, emblazoned on beams in a governmental building, a symbol of their good fortune.
The second version, which may be older, can be found in the Records of Guangzhou 廣州記, attributed to Péi Yuān 裴淵 of the Jìn dynasty (265–420):
On the beams in the prefectural hall in Guǎngzhōu are depicted five rams with five grain bags dangling after them. This tells us how in the past, when Gāo Gǔ served as Minister of Chǔ, five rams carried stalks of grain in the Chǔ court, and their pictures were subsequently drawn up. Guǎngzhōu, being part of the region* of Chǔ, took this image as their auspicious sign.
Here we find rams, without their supernatural riders, simply wandering into a center of governance with the grain bags (symbols of prosperity) in their mouths. Still, it has the ring of legend: for example, we don’t know when Gāo Gǔ lived (scholars have suggested a variety of dates ranging from the 9th to the 3rd century BC).
What’s most striking is that it all centers around Chǔ. Guangzhou is an afterthought. The implied story is that many cities Chǔ adopted the five rams as their symbol of good luck, and only Guangzhou held on to it after the unification of the empire. It’s tempting to see this version as more authentic for this very reason: it rings truer because it’s located outside of Guangzhou, and if you were just making up a tale about a city’s nickname, why put the story in that city?
But if you look carefully, the first version of the story is not located in Guangzhou, either. It’s definitively outside of the city, since the official meets the transcendents when he “had not yet reached the region” 未至州. Whereas the second story takes place in a hall of governance, this version takes place in the wilderness. It is the official himself who is blessed by the auspicious sign (not the city); for the city to receive the good omen’s benefits, the official must pass it on to them. The official must become the conduit of the sign.
So which version is right? Hard to say, but since the Táng dynasty, the version with the supernatural riders has held greater influence. It shows up in a number of poems from this time, most clearly in the opening of “Climbing Two Cliffs Behind Pújiàn Temple: 1 of 3” 登蒲澗寺後二岩三首其一 by Lǐ Qúnyù 李群玉 (c. 813–860):
五仙騎五羊 Five transcendents riding five rams:
何代降茲鄉 In what era did they descend to this land?
By the early Sòng dynasty (960–1279), a shrine had been erected to the five transcendents, and a Daoist “Five Transcendents Abbey” 五仙觀 had been built. Rulers offered sacrifices to these beings, people prayed to them. They had, in short, become the local gods.
In the modern era, all of this has been labeled “superstition” and is either banned outright or sneered upon by the elites. But vestiges of such practice are hard to stamp out. The ram statues, rebuilt and rechristened as part of “tradition,” stand strong on a hill in the center of the city.
The nicknames of our cities capture stories, become stories, and produce more stories. They’re born, they die, they change, they come back. Such narratives are more than just a matter of “branding.” They belie a set of practices and beliefs which undergird them and grow out of them.
*Note: “Region” here more literally translates to “allotted countryside,” one of the twelve classical regions which corresponded to the twelve stations of Jupiter and the twenty-eight lunar lodgings.