The fowl’s vibrant plumage recalls the dress of government bureaucrats centuries ago, called mandarins in the West. The same connection applied to the dialect those officials used. Even mandarin oranges got the linguistic overlay.
But mandarin is not a Chinese word. Its etymology is disputed.
Some say that during the Qing dynasty, visiting Westerners heard people calling government officials of the ruling class “mǎn dàrén” (满大人): Manchu for “big man” or “boss.”
Others say that the term comes from “menteri,” the Malay for “court councilor” or “minister,” and that the 16th-century Portuguese who used Malaysia as a stepping stone into China wrote it as “mandarin.”
The little duck in Central Park has been solo, but in China, its cousins are believed to be lifelong couples. There is a saying: A pair of Mandarin ducks is more enviable than an immortal.
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