Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
general
Material
Protection

Greek Evil Eye (Object)

The informant showed me a piece of jewelry that she recently obtained from an expedition to Greece. It is strung on a very simple rope necklace. The pendant is what is called an “evil eye”. It is a vivid sapphire blue and in the shape of a circle. There is a smaller white circle within the blue stone. Finally, there’s a black dot. It looks like a bullseye target. The stone appears to be made out of some sort of glass, and the blue and white circles within it appear to be paint or a glaze. My informant told me that when she bought it, there were various sizes available – pendants, earrings, rings, and even large versions that you could hang on your door or as room decor.

My informant says that she picked up the item when she was on a cruise in the Mediterranean. She got it at the port in Mykonos at a street vendor, however she recalls seeing the exact same “evil eye” jewelry in Turkey. The store vendor in Turkey claimed it was a Turkish artifact, which may have to do with “Romantic Nationalism”.

My informant tells me that the store vendor says it’s to ward off bad luck.

Analysis: According to Dundes, the evil eye was thought to be the eye of envy – where a person giving someone else a look of envy could put a curse on that person. In Greek superstition, it is said that if someone felt like they were nauseous and had a sense of foreboding, like something bad was going to happen, it had to do with the evil eye curse. In the majority of the research, the curse was thought to be unintentional, and the result of an envious stare. A common practice is Greece and Turkey is to pin an evil eye pendant onto a newborn or a baby in order to protect them from harm. This artifact is actually found in many cities across the Mediterranean, making it hard to pinpoint a specific origin, however the general consensus among researchers is that it started in Greece.

Dundes concludes that the evil eye has to do with fish’s eyes, because they are always moisturized. The evil stare and effects of the evil eye curse come with withering, dehydration, etc, and the blue of the glass symbolizes water and moisture. Therefore it is a way to counteract the evil eye. Another theory that has received research is the theory that you “fight fire with fire”, so you wear an evil eye to neutralize the effects of the evil eye.

Annotation: Dundes, Alan. The Evil Eye: A Casebook. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1992. Print.

http://iscte.pt/~fgvs/Dundes%20Wet.pdf

general
Proverbs

Three Monks, No Water

My informant told me that his mother used to tell him this story when he was younger, around the age of 6. The proverb goes “One monk will get two buckets of water, two monks will share a load of water, three monks will have no water.” The original proverb is here: “一个和尚挑水喝,两个和尚抬水喝,三个和尚没水喝。” (Yi ge he shang tiao shui he, liang ge he shang tai shui he, sang ge he shang mei shui he.)

Informant: “One monk lived on a mountain, and every day he went down the mountain with a stick with two buckets to haul water. However one day, another monk came to visit. The first monk made him help carry the stick, but the stick could only hold one bucket now. When the third monk came along, they all fought over who should go get the water. In the process, they knocked over a candle, and there was a fire in the temple. Finally, with a combined effort, they manage to put out the fire. Through this realization, they joined hands in fetching the water and the temple never lacked it again.”

Me: “What does the proverb mean to you?”

Informant: “Umm… hmmm…. I guess it means that you should always try to work together no matter what. But it’s weird… it suggests that people can’t work together. So I guess you need to stop being selfish and take responsibility?”

Analysis: The proverb suggests that with many people, no one wants to take the major responsibility. It can be related to the American proverb: “Too many cooks in the kitchen.” With too many people, it’s hard to divide responsibility because no one would feel right with someone resting. Like the story, with only two buckets it is impossible for all three monks to fetch water at the same time, but none of them were okay with one person resting. However with the story, it also shows that “many hands make light work”, or that unity can be harmonious and advantageous. In fact, after research, I discovered this story is often used as an anecdote or reference in books about people management.

This story was made into an animation in 1980 that contains no dialogue. Near the end of the animation, you see that the fat monk stays at the bottom to fill the buckets. The short monk then pulls the buckets upwards with a rope that has a hook attached to the end, and passes it to the tall monk. The tall monk then dumps it into the giant urn. This suggests dividing responsibilities up based on a person’s strength. The fat monk is not fast at running up a hill, so therefore it makes more sense that he stays at the bottom.

Annotation: Three Monks No Water. Perf. N/A. YouTube. YouTube, 21 Jan. 2012. Web. 02 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rolBiHfWokY>.

Three Monks, No Water animated short

 

Humor

Two Priests on a Plane Joke

(Warning: Content may be offensive)

Informant: “Ok, so two priests are flying with a bunch of kids to meet the Pope. And they get halfway across the Atlantic… and um… the pilot tells them, “The plane is going to crash! We only have two parachutes!” One priest turns to the other and says, “Get the parachutes, and we’ll jump!”

“What about the children?” replies the other priest.

“Fuck the children!” yells the older priest.

The younger one says, “Do you think we have time?”

Me: “Do you find the joke funny?”

Informant: “Yeah! I think it’s like a ‘punny’ play on words, and I know it’s about a sensitive issue but, like I think the fact that there has been so much media coverage on the situation, people are bound to make fun of it. Like… it’s not that we’re trivializing the situation… I mean it’s a bad situation, but people… people make fun of everything, you know?”

Analysis: I certainly had to hold back a chuckle when hearing this joke. The reason why this joke is humorous is because it deals with current events. Many sex scandals involving the Catholic church and other religious institutions have recently been uncovered and the whole situation is under intense scrutiny. The child molestation cases within church and religious institutions has been largely blown up by the media. At the same time, child molestation is an issue that people are uncomfortable with and is one of the taboos. In order to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable, people often try to turn the atmosphere around by making a joke out of it.

My informant was Korean-American, he was born in Kansas, TN.

Digital
general
Narrative

Japanese girl’s suicide drawing

My informant tells me this story of a teenage girl in Japan who drew a drawing Japan shortly before she committed suicide. The story and drawing went viral in Asia. In the forums online, it is said that you can see the girl’s sadness in the eyes of the girl in the picture. Forums warn against staring into the girls eyes for longer than 5 minutes, telling me that people have committed suicide after doing it. According to my informant, people say the picture changes,as you view it there is a hint of a growing taunting smirk appearing on the girls lips or a dark ring grows around the girl or her eyes.

Me: “Have you looked into the picture for five minutes?”

Informant: “No! I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s really scary when you actually try it! I can’t meet the girl’s eyes for more than a few seconds because I’m afraid of what I will see!”

Me: “Do you believe that people have committed suicide from looking at the picture?”

Informant: Not really… I don’t think they did. But it’s a freaky story, so I don’t know.

Analysis: Through my research, I could not find any solid news articles to support the claim that people have committed suicide after looking at this drawing, though many people claim there are hundreds. Furthermore, I found some forum posts that claim a video-game designer in Japan was the real artist of the portrait and that he was still alive and well. Some forum posts claim that because the image has a blurry quality to it, if you stare at it for too long, your vision will get blurry as well and you are under the illusion that the picture is changing before your eyes. This also has to do with the image being seen on a digital screen.

Because of the context of the story and the atmosphere in which it is often read, this will help induce fear and influence a person’s response. This most likely is an elaborate internet hoax, much like a chain email letter. People enjoy being scared because it provides an adrenaline rush which can be extremely addicting.

My informant is 23, Korean-American, and currently studying at USC (expected graduation 2013). She first saw the picture and heard the story when she was in high school, approximately 16 years of age.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Game
general

Hold your breath through a tunnel

The informant explained this game they often play on road trips: “Whenever I go driving with my  family, we all hold our breaths whenever we reach a tunnel. Though it often turns into a competition for them, it has become a tradition.”

Me: “When’s the first time you heard this game?”

Informant: “I don’t remember exactly… I just remember someone said, “There’s a tunnel, hold your breath!” and somehow we all started doing it. I think you were supposed to make a wish, but in the end we just saw who could last the longest! I remember my little brother would just puff out his cheeks so it looked like he was holding his breath when he was just breathing through his nose (laughs).”

Analysis: This game is common-practice, however it is hard to pinpoint the exact origin online. In the 1980s, it was thought that tunnel air would cure whopping cough, so mothers would bring their children to tunnels to cure them. In order to keep from contracting the respiratory disease, the people with the infected children would have to hold their breaths when accompanying them into the tunnel.

Another interpretation is that the air pressure may change when one goes through a tunnel at fast speeds, and holding your breath cures the pain in your ears. It’s is interesting that such a practice to prevent pain has developed into a superstition or game.

Annotation: This cure for whopping cough is mentioned in Arthur Beavan’s book “Tube, Tram, Train, Car” in the chapter about the London Railway.

“Tube, Tram, Train, and Car” by Arthur Beavan

 

general
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Fraternity Bid

The informant told me a story very recently after a fraternity on campus offered him a bid to join their organization.

He was told to get into the car with two of the brothers and blindfolded. They dropped him along side of sidewalk. One of the brothers got out of the car with him and removed the blindfold. He raises both hands towards the informant, one with a red M&M and the other with a blue M&M. The brother said to him, “you can take the red pill and join us, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Or you can take the blue pill and go on with life without us.” The informant took the red M&M, and the brother nodded solemnly. Then he said, “This never happened,” and drove off, leaving my informant on the ground next to the sidewalk.

Analysis: This is clearly a reference to a popular movie called The Matrix (1999). Whether all fraternities have bid rituals referencing pop culture or if this was a one-off would take more research and collection. The reference may make the ritual more approachable to the new potential initiate, or give the fraternity a sense of coolness and make them seem hip and popular. The blindfold symbolizes the fact that the new member was blind to the world before he found the brotherhood.

Most fraternities are founded on history and tradition, so it is interesting to find this ritual that goes slightly against the grain, as it is a very current reference.

Annotation: “The Matrix”Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved June 24, 2009.

general

Yeh-Shen, A Chinese Cinderella

My informant was a kindergarten teacher for a Chinese school me that she has presented this story many times before. It was therefore very rehearsed and unusually eloquent.

Informant: “Yeh-Shen was born to Chief Wu and his wife. However soon a sickness overtook them both, so she was reared by her stepmother. The stepmother didn’t like Yeh-Shen for she was more beautiful and kinder than her own daughter so she treated her poorly by giving her the worst chores.

She only had one friend at that was a fish with golden eyes in the pond. Each day the fish came out of the water onto the bank to be fed by Yeh-Shen. Yen-Shen had little food for herself but she still shared with the fish. Her stepmother hearing about the fish put on Yeh-Shen’s coat and went to the pond. The fish swam up thinking it was to be fed, and she stabbed it with a dagger, and cooked the fish for dinner.

Yeh-Shen was upset over the death of the fish and sat crying next to the river. Suddenly and old spirit appeared and told her that the bones of the fish were filled with a powerful spirit, and that when she was in serious need she was to kneel before the bones and wish on them with her heart’s desires. Yeh-Shen retrieved the bones and hid them.

Spring came and with it, the spring festival. Yeh-Shen was forbidden from going to the spring festival. After the stepmother and sister left, she went to the bones wishing for clothes to wear to the festival. She got a beautiful gown and cloak and golden slippers with a pattern of scaled fish. She went to the festival and everyone was dazzled by her beauty. However her stepmom and sister moved closer and she feared being caught, so she ran, leaving behind one slipper. When she arrived home she was dressed again in her rags. She spoke again to the bones, but they were now silent. Saddened she put the one golden slipper in her bedstraw. After a time a merchant found the lost slipper, and seeing the value in the golden slipper sold it to the King.

The king wanted to find the owner of this tiny beautiful slipper. He sent his people to search the kingdom but no ones foot would fit in the tiny golden slipper. He put it on display in an area near where it was found. All the women came to try on the shoe but it didn’t fit. Until one night Yeh-Shen slipped quietly across the pavilion, took the tiny golden slipper and turned to leave, but the king’s men rushed out and arrested her. She was taken to the king who was furious for he couldn’t believe that any one in rags could possibly own a golden slipper. As he looked closer at her face he was struck by her beauty and he noticed she had the tiniest feet.

The king and his men returned home with her where she produced the other slipper. As she slipped on the two slippers her rags turned into the beautiful gown and cloak she had worn to the festival. The king realized that she was the one for him. They married and lived happily ever after. However, the stepmother and daughter were never allowed to visit Yeh-Shen and were forced to continue to live in their cave.

Informant: “It’s my favorite story. I know it by heart and I’ve told it so many times I can’t count.”

Me: “What do you think the moral of the story is?”

Informant: “Be a kind-hearted soul and you’ll be rewarded! I mean, fish are lucky symbols in China, and there’s the whole Buddhist thing too about not taking another life.”

Analysis: This story is a variation of what was thought to be the original Cinderella story. My informant was correct when she assumed that the story had certain Buddhist influences – it is against the religion to take another life, regardless of what it is. Thus the stepmother is ultimately punished for killing the fish.

In Chinese culture, there will often be more fish symbols around Chinese New Year. That’s because the word for fish “Yu” sounds like the word for ‘extra’. Fish are therefore a symbol of wealth and prosperity, so we can see that this cultural aspect was included as a symbol within the story.

The motif of the tiny golden slipper relates to the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, and how women with smaller feet are thought to be more attractive. As we can see, the King is eager to find the owner of the slipper, but he has not met her beforehand. All he knows is the size of her foot.

The Grimm tale had the evil stepsister chop off a part of her foot to try to fit it into the small glass slipper, so it is interesting to note that this very unique cultural part of the tale (tiny feet equivalent to beauty) made it into the Western adaptations of Cinderella.

Annotation: Cinderella, Grimm Brothers

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm021.html

Folk speech
general
Humor
Proverbs

C’est La Vie

My informant tells me that the first time he heard the phrase, he was seven and complaining about the rain on a beach day. His mother then sighed, and said “C’est la vie”, which translated roughly into “Such is life.”

Me: “What does this saying mean to you?”

Informant: “It means that some times you can’t change things and just have to accept life as it is.”

Analysis: This proverb may also have to do with dealing with bad luck, as sometimes the world may seem to intentionally mess with your plans. It is a phrase often said when life isn’t fair, but one has to deal with life. Similar American sayings are, “That’s the way the ball bounces”, or the more slang term, “Shit happens.”

In modern American culture, a popular response to “C’est la vie” is, “la vie”, a pun on the pronunciation of the words. (C’est la vie = Say ‘la vie’). This joke was present in the romantic comedy film, Easy A, featuring Emma Stone and Penn Badgley.

Annotation: “Easy A (2010)”Box Office MojoAmazon.com. Retrieved January 27, 2011.

My informant was born in France, but currently goes to school at UC Irvine.

general
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Burning money at Chinese funerals

Informant: “When someone passes away you burn money so that they can spend it in the afterlife. My grandma recently passed, so my mom burned money on specific days. It happens three times I think, it’s very structured. That way, they can use it in the afterlife.”

Me: “Is it real money?”

Informant: “I don’t think so… I’m pretty sure it’s paper with money numbers written on it. It looks like old money. But basically they believe that the spirits can still walk the earth and influence people and have an impact on us, so you want them to be happy. It’s a respect thing. That way you can ask them for favors later. I know they also burn mini fake wooden TVs.”

Analysis: Upon hearing the story from my informant, the first thing that came to mind was the ancient Greek tradition of putting a coin underneath the tongue of a person so they could be ferried over the River in their journey to the underworld.

This fake money is actually called “Joss Paper”, and resembles money used in ancient times by the Emperor. It is usually made of bamboo paper or rice paper. Some of it is wrapped up like gold bars, and it is commonly burned with incense. In more modern folklore, it is believed that this money will go into a bank account that the deceased can access in heaven.

Often, the money must be folded before it is burnt. This is in order to distinguish it from regular money, for burning regular money is considered unlucky in most countries in Asia. The origin of this practice comes from regional folklore in China, and may have evolved from leaving food and incense at the Buddhist altars. However, Buddhism typically discourages burning money as they believe to deceased travels to the “Pure Land”, where there is no need for material things.

general
Musical

Xue Shan Chun Xiao (musical performance)

Analysis/Observation: The song is played on a traditional Chinese instrument called a “zither”. It is a Chinese folk instrument that is plucked as a harp. Like most Chinese instruments, it is either played in D or G major, and usually consists of five notes: Do, Re, Mi, So, La. There are 21 strings, and the sounds get lower as strings get thicker. The green strings symbolize the note “So”. It is made of wood, and usually has traditional art carvings along the side of the instrument, and is hollow inside.

The song is called “Xue Shan Chun Xiao”. Translated roughly, it means “Spring on the Mountain.”

The song started out very slow and sweet. The informant performed it with slow, exaggerated motions in her arms. She seemed very peaceful. In the middle, the song suddenly picked up pace and there was a very intense section where her fingers are moving very fast. She has an intense expression on her face, although it also looks like she’s concentrating very hard on plucking the right notes. The song ends with a “bang” like effect.

Informant (translated) : “The song is a minority dance song that is supposed to mimic the flow of water when it is spring. When the snow melts from a mountain, it starts slow, then suddenly goes faster and faster as more ice melts.”

Me: “When is this song normally performed?”

Informant: “It’s a more modern song that comes from the Dai minority. However it’s not a dance song. In traditional fol music, you have dance songs, and then you have solo songs. It’s actually used a lot in music exams because of the technique you need.”

Analysis: The Dai people reside in the province of Yunnan, where there is a mountain called the Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The mountain is approximately half the height of Mount Everest. The piece of music is most likely referring to this mountain and the flow of water into the river come spring. The Dai minority is commonly known for their festive dances that they do at the spring festival, so the song is not commonly played during the festival as it is not a dance piece. It is more often played during concerts or as a prelude to a show.

Annotation: Due to the large file of the original recording, it could not be uploaded. A link to the same piece (played by someone other than the informant) has been attached.

Xue Shan Chun Xiao

A variation of the GuZheng appeared the popular film “Gong Fu” or “Kung Fu Hustle”, which opened in 2004.

Recently, using Chinese traditional folk instruments to play pop music has become a trend. A girl playing Adele’s Rolling in the Deep on the zither went viral in Chinese forums.

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