Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Magic

Succineers

These creatures are typically females who have sold their souls to the devil in exchange for power and earthly rewards. They shed their human skins at night and fly around as balls of fire. Often, they practice various forms of black magic and are generally evil beings. However, they are not immortal, and during the day cannot be distinguished between you and me. A way to kill them would be to find their human skins late at night, and put copious amounts of salt in them. The logic in this is that the salt would burn their flesh, and since they cannot exist as balls of fire in the day, the act of putting their skins back on would cause so much pain that they’d die as a result.

                  My informant heard this from her grandmother and her mother, who were both first generation immigrants from Trinidad. According to her grandmother, their neighbor in Trinidad was one of these creatures. One time, she told my informant’s grandmother that she had red roses from the Queen of England’s garden and then proceeded to produce to two red roses. While this might not be strange by itself, roses were not native to Trinidad and could not be found anywhere during that period of time. Additionally, when my informant’s grandmother was pregnant, she saw one in her room, trying to suck on her blood. However, they could not stand people who were associated with God and spat the blood out and left.

                  There are many things that skirt the edge of belief and this is one of them. This is an example of binary opposition in more agricultural/hunting cultures that exists in those islands. Note the Christian influences in this story. As learned in class, the idea of God and the Devil spawned from the missionaries that came to the various places that they spread the word of God. The missionaries tended to place a God vs. Satan spin on most of the folklore and culture that they touched and is evident here.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Magic

僵尸 (Jiang Shi)

These are more commonly known as Chinese Zombies. Unlike the western concept of Zombies, these do not go around looking for human flesh. Instead, these are often the minions of magicians or sorcerers that do their bidding. However, like their western counterparts, they have no will of their own. Jiang shi tend not to be able to walk, but hop with their arms outstretched perpendicular from their bodies.  For cadavers to become jiang shi, the magician needs to paste a talisman with a spell on the forehead of the corpse. No one knows how these talismans are created. Supposedly, there are two ways to ‘kill’ these creatures, one of which is to destroy the talisman pasted on their foreheads, but this is excruciatingly difficult as these creature are more than twice as strong as a normal human and impervious to most weapons. The other way to destroy them is to kill their creators. It is recommended, instead, to throw glutinous rice at them. The rice is known to hurt them and therefore slow them down. It is not known why this happens but it does.

                  This creature was made known to my informant when he was growing up in China. He does not quite recall where he heard it from. However, these creatures are not just confined to China, as my informant has heard a version of these creatures when he arrived in Singapore as well. It is assumed that most countries with Chinese would have these creatures as they are made from corpses, and all you’d need to know is the talisman making ritual.

The magicians that create these are usually from the Taoist traditions. Strangely enough, there is no devil in this situation. Unlike most western and Latin American ghouls and creatures, no hint of Christianity has appeared in this particular piece of folklore. In fact, this black magic is based in the dark-side of things and the unnatural.

Chinese mythology does have demons and the devil, but they just balance each other out. A binary opposition because of the yin-yang, light-dark, everything has an opposite in nature. There are good magicians as well, but they draw on a different source of power in nature.

Earth cycle
general
Legends
Narrative

Why the rat is the first animal in the Chinese Zodiac (为什么老鼠在十二生肖里排第一)

从前,玉皇大帝举行一个比赛来决定十二生肖的顺序排列, 那天早上谁先到皇宫就排那位。 每一个年会有一个不同的动物。消息宣布的时候,第一个听到的是老鼠。老鼠知道自己个子小,没机会用自己的体量来赢,所以他就想出一个能赢得办法。

比赛那天早上,他就到牛的家问他,可不可以坐在他的背上载他到皇宫去。牛答应了,老鼠就爬到他的头顶上。但,因为牛虽然大,不是世界最聪明的动物,过了不久,牛忘记老鼠坐在他的头顶上。

一到皇宫前,老鼠就跳下牛的头, 成为第一个动物来到皇宫。牛果然不开心,但没别的办法,只能默默的接受第二位。

A long time ago, the Jade emperor decided to have a race to see who was going to be the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac. The first twelve who reached the Jade Emperor’s place would be the members of the Chinese zodiac in that order. The first person to hear about the news was the Rat. Since the Rat was small, he knew that there was no way he would win without outside help and began to formulate a plan.

On the day of the competition, he went to the house of the Bull, because firstly, most creatures were scared of the Bull and it wasn’t smart like the tiger, horse or dragon, who would know what it was thinking and the Bull lived nearest the Place. He asked the Bull, if he could hitch a ride to the palace and the Bull agreed. Since the Bull wasn’t the brightest of animals, he forgot that the rat was riding on his head halfway through the race.

Once at the palace, the rat jumped through the air and was the first animal to enter the palace and won the race. Naturally, the Bull was not pleased with this development, but he had no other choice than to accept his place at number two.

 

This was told to my informant during a Chinese New Year celebration when she was in primary school during the year of the Rat. It tends to be a story to tell children about the reasons behind the placements of the Chinese zodiac and why such a small animals is placed first. Like most legends, there are multiple versions floating around the world. Some are because the Rat defeated the elephant by going into its ear and other stories discuss the reasons why the Cat is not in the Chinese Zodiac

Unlike the western zodiac where it follows the signs in the sky, the Chinese zodiac rotates every twelve years with an animal representing each year. Each year is supposed to be prosperous for doing different things, luckier years for having children or getting married are the Dragon and Pig years. The Dragon because it is a symbol for intelligence and strength, while the Pig is a sign of wealth and prosperity in the Chinese culture. On the other hand, the rat is supposed to be a cunning and quick witted animal

This is an example also, to teach children that might does not always win, but the smart and the cunning usually end up on the top. Teaching children not to underestimate things because of their size, but evaluate carefully and not be rash.

general
Legends
Myths
Narrative

Guan Yu and Hua Tuo (关羽和华佗)

在三国年代,关羽,一位蜀国将军在大战时候, 被一个沾满了毒的箭被射在左臂,无药可救。原因是关羽不限离开战场半步,毒已经流入骨头吸不出来。但那时都有一位神医, 名叫华佗。没其他办法,蜀国的将军请华佗来救关羽的一臂和一命。

华佗一看伤口就便告诉关羽必须开手术要开肉刮骨。华佗问他要不要把他麻醉一下。 关羽说他不怕痛,这样就可以开始了。

华佗来自前关羽跟一位官,马良, 下棋。动手术的时候,旁边的观众听到刀刮骨头的时候都受不了。但关羽不停的下棋,喝酒,有时候还笑, 好像不痛的样子。几分钟之后,刮完了。华佗就便缝关伤口,缝完了,关羽称华佗的医术无比,臂也不痛了。工作做完了,华佗就默默离开。

During the period of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu, a prominent general in the Shu army was poisoned by a poisoned arrow in his left arm during battle. The army doctors could find no way to treat it, in part due to the fact that Guan Yu refused to leave the battlefield and the poisoned had seeped into the bone. However, there was also a very famous physician that lived during that time by the name of Hua Tuo. Left with no other recourse, the other generals invited Hua Tuo to look at Guan Yu’s arm.

After examining his arm, Hua Tuo told Guan Yu that he needed to operate and asked if he needed or wanted to be anesthetized during this operation as it was very painful. The operation included scraping the poison off the bone and this was unbearable for most people. Guan Yu just laughed and told Hua Tuo to just go ahead because he was not scared of a little pain.

While this was going on, Guan Yu was playing chess with another official from the country of Shu by the name of Ma Liang. During the whole operation, not once did Guan Yu complain of the pain, even though everyone around him cringed at the sound of the knife scraping bone. Moments later, the operation was over and Guan Yu praised Hua Tuo’s skills, but Hua Tuo refused to accept any reward and left as suddenly as he came.

 

This story was told to my informant by his father when he was a young child growing up in China during the 1950s. According to my informant, this story is part of a very famous saga about a time of discord in history. However, he says that this particular legend is most likely not true because, while Guan Yu did receive an arm wound such as this, it was the right arm and not the left. Additionally, by the time this injury occurred, the doctor mentioned in this tale was killed twelve years prior due to the paranoia of the ruler of another kingdom.

The period that this is set in is very real. There were three countries that were warring over control of China after the Han dynasty. Guan Yu was part of the Kingdom of Shu and the other two countries were Wei and Wu. The stories of these times were eventually written down and compiled in a book called, Romance of the Three Kingdoms or 三国演义。

However, this story is still very interesting and is still passed down from generation to generation. Firstly, because it is an interesting story, but also to prove to toughness of the Chinese people and how wonderful Chinese medicine was before Hua Tuo was killed and all his works burnt. Hua Tuo was actually (after his death) known as the “God of Medicine” and his name is used to call brilliant doctors these days.

 

Annotation: Can be found in羅貫中. 三国演义 . China: 中华书局: 2005

Folk Beliefs
general
Myths
Narrative

How Singapore was Founded

A long time ago, before much of history was recorded down, there lived a young prince of Sumatra. His name was Sang Nila Utama. He was searching for a place that would be suitable for a new city, however to no avail. Sang Nila Utama set sail for the Riau Islands and was welcomed by their Queen.

One day while out hunting, he spotted a deer, but it disappeared far too quickly for him to catch. He climbed up a large rock in hopes of finding more game, but instead he spotted another island nearby. Never seeing the island before, he asked one of his advisors what the island was called. The advisor told him that it was the island of Temasek. Always seeking new places to explore, Sang Nila Utama decided to venture out to that new found isle.

However, while out at sea, the boat they were in started filling up with water! They were sinking fast. To delay this, they started throwing everything heavy overboard, but still, no success. Until, one of his closest friends told him to throw his crown overboard as well. Seeing that there was no other recourse, he did so. And the storm stopped.

Landing safely as what is now known as the Singapore River, he started to hunt, as this was a new place with (hopefully)more game. During this time, a quick flash ran past him and he decided to give chase. After a while, it stopped and looked at him. It was nothing like the Prince had ever seen before.  Asking his friends what it was, he was told that it was most likely a lion.

Taking this as a sign, Sang Nila Utama set up a city at this spot. He declared that this island was not named Temasek any longer. But it was to be called Singapura (Singa is the word for lion and pura is the word for city) or Lion City for the great sight that he saw. He ruled this land for many years and is supposedly buried at present day Fort Canning Park.

 

 

My informant first heard this story when he was around the age of eight from his tuition teacher during the school holidays. He really did not think very much of this story and was one of the few folklore tales that he had recalled from his youth.  However, he felt that, like all tales, there was probably a grain of truth in it, as Malay annals do recall a King named Sri Tri Buana, also called Sang Nila Utama that ruled Singapore or Singapura for a few decades.

However, it is rather unlikely that the prince had seen an actual lion in Singapore, because Singapore is located in the tropics, and the natural habitats of lions tend not to be in tropical rainforests. It was more likely that the animal the prince saw was a tiger because until the early nineteen hundreds, Singapore was home to many tigers. They became extinct due to overhunting as the British offered rewards for every tiger killed, and that quickly decimated the Singaporean tiger population.

Like most legends, most of this story is likely to be embellishment that was tacked on later in time as it sounded better.  It is highly unlikely that there was a sudden storm that arose that threatened to sink the ship or that he threw his crown overboard. The most likely occurrence was either it was added on later in time or his crown dropped overboard and they needed to fabricate a ‘good’ omen to make it sound better.

However, due to this story, the lion is Singapore’s national animal and is a large symbol for most of the people who live and visit the island country.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

井底之蛙,不知天高地厚

Jing di zhi wa, bu zhi tian gao di hou

Well bottom’s frog, no know sky high earth thick

The frog at the bottom of the well, has no comprehension of the vastness of the world.

My informant learned this particular proverb in the 1960’s. During this time, my informant was a ten year old child growing up in the village of Putian, in the Fujian county in Mainland China. He was taught this as a child while in school, and their teacher told this to their entire class. This proverb means that those that grow comfortable and cocky with their little place on Earth really shouldn’t because there are so many things that they do not know out there.

As with most Chinese proverbs, there is a story that goes with it. However, my informant could not recall most of it off the top of his head other than the fact that it involved a frog living in a well talking to a sea turtle that was looking down the well at it.

In Chinese culture, animals often embody values or have values that are normally associated with them. My informant did not elaborate on the qualities of the frog, but sea turtles and turtles in general, are held in much esteem by the ancient Chinese.  The sea turtle in particular embodies wisdom, patience and longevity. All of which are qualities that the Chinese prize.  Therefore, from this, we can assume that the frog is supposed to embody bluster and ignorance. This proverb then, not only implies the limited nature of human knowledge but also the fact that that is nothing to be proud about.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

守株待兔, 不劳而获

Shou zhu dai tu, bu lao er huo

Protect tree wait rabbit, no work and gain

Don’t wait for the rabbit to dash its head against a tree, to gain without work

This was first learnt by my informant when he was a young boy in Putian, a small village in the province of Fujian. He assumes that this is to teach children that there are no rewards without hard work as the likely hood of a rabbit dashing its head against a tree is very small. This discourages laziness in the hopes that the child would work hard and accomplish great things in the future.

In fact, according to my informant, there was a back story involved with this proverb as well. While he did not tell me the whole story, the gist of it was that a farmer was out one day looking for food, when suddenly, a rabbit ran into the tree in front of him and died. The farmer was so happy to have food that night that he kept venturing out to the same tree in the hope that another rabbit would perform the same feat. Day after day, the farmer kept going out and the rabbit never came. Eventually, this happy tale ends with the farmer starving to death.

In the past, much of the Chinese economy was agricultural based, and even now, most of China is very dependent on farming and fishing. To many of them, to follow a blind hope such as this, instead of cultivating the crops that they had at home is just foolishness. The Chinese also prize hard work and just rewards a lot more than luck. For example, from the Tang dynasty onward, hardworking scholars could become court officials if they did well at the examinations in the capital. Therefore, it can be inferred that this proverb was to encourage young children that there are no rewards in slacking and the results of laziness can often be dire.

Annotation: Huaxia.com.  http://www.huaxia.com/wh/jdgs/cydg/00096705.html 24 April 2007

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

泥菩萨过江, 自身难保

Ni pu sa guo jiang, zi shen nan bao

Mud [Buddha] cross river,  self body hard protect

 When the mud Buddha crosses the river, it can’t protect itself.

My informant learnt this during her middle school years in Singapore. As every proverb has a lesson behind it, this proverb was to teach children not to try and help people while themselves are drowning because they’ll only make matters worse.

This is an example of how religious symbols integrate themselves into the culture of the Chinese. While China is a very diverse country, in contexts of food, religion and language, there is still a mainstream culture that is still prevalent and relevant to most Chinese.

Most Chinese follow the Buddhist tradition and that tradition preaches being helpful and charitable to the poor and those less fortunate than you are. However, no matter how helpful the ’Buddha’ is attempting to be, a statue made out of mud tries to go through a river, it’ll only manage to self destruct. This brings the other part of the proverb into light, as even something like if Buddha cannot protect itself, it should not try and help other people.

Folk speech
general
Humor
Riddle

Zhao

Shine

一个日本人,

yi ge ri ben ren

One Japanese Man

站在门口,

zhan zai men kou

Standing at the doorway

拿着一把刀,

na zhe yi ba dao

Holding a knife

杀了四个人。

sha le si ge ren

He kills four people

 

This was learned by my informant when she was growing up in Singapore in school, when she was about ten or eleven years of age. While she can’t quite recall who she learnt it from, she said it was rather useful for learning characters in Chinese.  It is in essence a word riddle, in which the bottom four lines would be told to the other person and the other person would try to guess what the word was.

Even though there is supposedly nothing meant by the content (morbid as it is), it is just there because it fits the word. However, when my informant was growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Singapore there was a great deal of resentment against the Japanese for WWII. The words of this riddle could originate as a subtle form of anti-Japanese rebellion or statement for the brutal acts that they performed in Singapore and most of South East and East Asia.

During World War II, it was very common for Japanese soldiers to enter houses indiscriminately and slaughter whole families for numerous trumped up charges, like being Chinese, or having a wife that the soldier found mildly attractive or even looking at them wrong. Therefore this might be a reflection of not only this anti-Japanese sentiment but also oppositional culture.

general
Legends
Myths
Narrative
Tales /märchen

How Red Hill (Bukit Merah) Got its Name

A long time ago, in the annals of Malayan history, when Singapore was merely a little sleepy fishing village, there was a bloody event that stained the soil of the (present day) Red Hill red with blood. In these early years, fish that had sharp, sword like mouths used to swim up to the shore and attack fishermen, making it unable for them to venture out and fish. Nobody had any idea what to do, the Sultan tried ordering soldiers to attack, but these attempts only made attacks more frequent and causing the soldiers themselves more harm than the fish.

Then one day, a young boy,  who lived on the hill came up with a solution. He advised the Sultan to use banana tree trunks as a wall to ward off the attacks, as the fishes mouth would get stuck in the tree and they can kill the fish more easily.  This plan worked very well, and the fish eventually stopped attacking.

However, the boy became a hero in the eyes of the villages and the Sultan became threatened by him, growing paranoid that the villagers might want this young boy to become the next ruler and overthrow him. His paranoia increased day by day, until one day, he ordered a small squad of his elite guards to assassinate the boy in his sleep. That night, the head of the this team took out his kris (wavy blade dagger) and stabbed the boy in the heart. Killing him instantly.

The blood that flowed out would not stop gushing out of the wound, this scared the soldiers and they ran away as fast as possible. This young boy’s blood coated the hill that he lived. None of the villagers knew who ordered the boy kill, but that it was a tragic event, and to commemorate this event, they called the hill Bukit Merah (Red Hill) to remember this boy by.

My informant was informed of this legend when he was a boy in Singapore during the 1990s. This was told to him by one of his older cousins at a family reunion, when they were watching a TV special on the origin of place names in Singapore. He suspected it was partially to scare the living daylights out of him, but nevertheless, it stuck. Because of the story though, he went to look up the actual reason what made the soil on that hill red, and it was because of the soil type on that hill tended to have a reddish hue to it.

Fishermen in rural villages are not the most rational or scientific of people, and the most likely reason for the name would be that as the soil, without any plants or crops growing on it would look like blood soaked soil to these uneducated villagers in the early part of the last millennium. Therefore naming the place, Red Hill or Bukit Merah.

There are many versions of this story. In some versions, like this one, the species of fish attacking the village is unknown, others name it as swordfish and some call it Gar fish. In another version of this story, the boy does not die and it the blood coming out was the blood of the earth from a homunculus which, a witch created to throw off the guards from actually killing the boy.

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