February 27, 2009

Chinese meaning of hulu in hulu.com

Today I came across a reference in Newsweek to the website hulu.com, in which the author described hulu as meaning "named after a Chinese word that means 'holder of precious things.'" After doing a search, I found that this definition was parroted all over the web. That definition isn't far off base, but it's also not quite right, so I wrote this post to clarify things.

According to hulu.com, the primary meaning of their name is the Chinese word hulu (葫蘆), which is a calabash, which is a kind of gourd.

...it is used in an ancient Chinese proverb that describes the hulu as the holder of precious things. It literally translates to "gourd," and in ancient times, the Hulu was hollowed out and used to hold precious things.

There are many stories, legends, and religious beliefs in Chinese that make use of the hulu. It was used by doctors to carry medicine and Taoists believed it had magical properties. So, carrying precious things is definitely within its scope, and I agree this is a good image for a website that is a content provider, but I want to clarify the meaning by stating that the hulu is not necessarily a signifier for carrying precious things. The most common image of the hulu is a container for alcohol, like a hip-flask.

As for whether there is a more specific allusion for the word hulu, things are not as clear. There are many expressions in Chinese that use the word hulu. Hulu.com mentions a "Chinese proverb that describes the hulu as the holder of precious things." I haven't seen any sites in English or Chinese that can identify which "proverb" this is referring to. In fact, the Chinese version of the Wikipedia entry for hulu.com leaves out the claim of referring to a proverb, and instead states that hulu is an allusion to a baohulu (寶葫蘆), which literally means a "precious hulu." You could say a hulu is precious because it contains something precious, but the literal meaning is that the hulu itself is precious.

Why is there a specific term in Chinese for a "precious hulu"? There are legends and folk stories about magic gourds. In the Disney movie The Secret of the Magic Gourd, "magic gourd" is a good translation of the term baohulu. In the movie, like the story it is based on, which I believe is based on folk stories, the magic gourd is like Aladdin's lamp--it will give you whatever you ask for (although in the movie the gourd is an animated character). I can't say that there is a single definitive image of a baohulu, but this seems to be the most popular one.

Hulu.com also mentions a secondary meaning for hulu:

The secondary meaning is "interactive recording."

I don't agree that "interactive recording" (which would be 互錄 in Chinese) is relevant to hulu.com's mission. The website is used for playback of video, not for recording videos or uploading your own videos. The word "recording" in "interactive recording" refers to act of recording, not to the recorded media, so this cannot refer to the interactive playback of a recording.

Monk Ji Gong is often depicted with a hulu

Jackie Chan with hulu in The Forbidden Kingdom

Actor Yuan Xiaotian in the original Drunken Master

Jackie Chan is awarded a hulu

Chow Yun-Fat enjoys his hulu

Leave a comment if you have any thoughts on hulus, whether precious, magical or conventional.



  • hey just discovered your blog. you either are fairly young or you fake it pretty well, and you appear fluent in mandarin. a really nice change from all the other expat blogs out there (though i'm not saying i don't enjoy some of them from time to time).

    possibly taiwanese american?

    anyways, enough stabs in the dark. interesting stuff.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 02, 2009 1:55 AM  

  • you used to live in hsinchu?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 02, 2009 1:57 AM  

  • Thanks for the comment. If I sound young, it's not because I'm faking it, but if it sounds like I know what I'm talking about, then I'm probably faking it. I'm not Taiwanese American. Yeah, I've lived in Hsinchu for a few years.

    By Blogger Taiwanonymous, at March 03, 2009 8:41 PM  

  • I have been reading Chinese mythology, some Minoan and Peruvian. The Minoan 'Lady' in surviving murals have a standard which is described as "double-ax", I disagree. It looks like a megaphone on a pole to me, and it is always topped with a black bird in silhouette. Black bird being the producer of the Sheng dynasty. Very interesting. Although a copper ax is claimed to be used to behead the uncooperative in the Sheng, no such claim is made for the Minoans. The black bird is so obvious on the top of the standard. As for the Tree of Life, is this not reminiscent of a grape vine trained to a trellis?

    Of course, all this is ideafied in Star Trek Atlantis, where the Ancients who knew all are gone and we are left stumbling around in the dark.

    That out of the way, I was curious that the mythology, paintings and weavings, and carvings show bats, and bats seem not to be a biggie in mythology, except for Wind. They are unusual as they are just BATS, not combo of other animals. The Minoan 'Lady' had as a pictured pet, and four legged, tailed, winged, beaked dog-sized creature that seemed to be supremely domesticated at her side.

    I am also taken by the fact that Crete is not volcanic in the midst of volcanic islands, and therefore was not as fertile, as say-Thera. Another statement said life expectancy was 25-30 which really took me back. Why? Minoans were the epitome of capitalism. Let's trade. They had goats, olives, almonds, sheep, famously beef, why did they die so early?

    More info is desired on the contemporaneous Sanxingdui of southern China. Fascinating masks that seems a combo of ear flaps to protect fighting men in the Med and projectile eyes for which an analogy has not yet occured to me. Tree of life--grave vine. With the earliest civilizations, with the layers of gods, worships, ect peeled off what remains is trade. When looking as far back as the earliest, one finds inexplicably organized groups dedicated to trade goods. The KISS principle at work.

    By Blogger kathleen, at October 17, 2009 1:55 AM  

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