Author Archives: Mintra Maneepairoj

How to name babies

Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.

 

Babies are named as dogs, cat, rock, or owl as a pet name so that they would not be thought of as human because the parents are not sure if the baby will survive. If the baby survives the first year then the baby will get human name. Chinese parents who want boys would name their daughter to sound like “asking for a son,” “praying for a son,” or boy’s name so that their next baby will be a boy.

The informant said she learned this she was growing up in China. She said that nowadays it is less practiced. But sometimes the child will be given an official name but the parents will still call their baby using the pet name. The practice of naming daughters to “pray for a son” has lessens as well. The informant said she personally knows some girls whose names are homonym of the word son.

 

This shows the importance of why some people celebrate first birthday for their baby even though the baby will not remember the event. It is evident that the celebration is for the family and the community to celebrate the survival and the integration of a new member. This is also similar to some Western culture the belief that children are not yet human unless they survive the first year or two. This also shows the fear of the fragility of newborns, especially in the past where there was no advanced medical practice to ensure the baby’s survival. Parents do not want to give babies human names with fear of the babies dying while the connection is already established. Parents then want to make sure their child would survive before they become an official part of the family. Otherwise if the baby did not survive they would lose an “official” member of family (and society). Giving the baby an official name and last name is to integrate the baby as a new member/individual to the community. Not making that official until the survival of the child is guaranteed can prevent that community from constantly losing their members due to death at a young age. This also shows how the individual identity within society is not established until after the first year of survival.

The naming of baby girls to “pray” or “ask” for a son seems very strange but yet understandable since Chinese culture is a patrimonial society. The particular way of naming of baby girls is the direct reflection of how Chinese culture preference in male and how male is the dominant gender. Daughters are then perceived as the stage before the baby boy is born. The parents then use the daughters to pray for a son. Naming their daughters to sound like they are saying “praying for a son” forces them to say it constantly in hope that it would come true.

This shows again how an individual is integrated into a community through different methods; also when the individual is integrated.

 

Hate Ritual

Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”

 

This is something you do if you have someone you really really hate. You can draw a picture of that person, then write his/her name on the paper…The paper is the special kind that people use to burn during funerals…Then you can take that piece of paper to a tree and put it down above the root. Then take of your shoes and hit the paper on the drawing as hard as you can. Just hold the shoe in your hand and go ta-ta-ta-ta…Oh, and it has to be your shoes. Then you shout stuff you want to say to that person like: “go die,” “die,” “I hate you,” etc. Then hopefully the stuff you said would happen to the person you drew on the paper.

The informant said she learned about this while she was growing up in Hong Kong. She heard it from her classmates. It is something children would do when they dislike their classmates or friends.

 

I think this shows how while both Eastern and Western culture perceive children as a separate group from society where they are always represented as innocence beings. In contrary to many beliefs children has anger and hatred that adult does. Though many society tries to have a separate category for children where they are thought of as innocence creatures, children do understand the concept of hatred and violence. This ritual shows anger and repression of anger among children. This ritual shows that children can be violent and ill-meaning, the opposite of the ideal angelic image of children.

This ritual is an example of homeopathic magic where “like” creates   “like;” idea that the drawing of the person on the paper. It also has element of contagious magic through the use of one’s own shoes. It appears that this ritual is a metaphor how you will stomp the person you dislike into the ground with your own feet. Similar to sticking pins into voodoo dolls.

The use of funeral paper reflects how you wish bad thing for the person because funeral rituals and objects are reserved for that event, and not everyday life. Using funeral paper is to foreshadow the misfortune that individual. The chanting of bad omens while stomping the paper with your own shoes reflects the idea of homeopathic magic how you wish the words you said will translate into that person’s life. This is similar to the idea of the voodoo doll how the image of the target is created on an object and the rituals performed will reflect on the target.

This ritual not only shows anger as emotions but also as action. It is both violent in force and words through both the hitting of the paper and the shouting of ill-intention phrases.

Mother Daughter wedding traditions in Hong Kong

Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”

 

On the wedding day, before the wedding, the bride’s mother will comb the bride’s hair three times… I think the first time is so that the couple will love each other forever. Then second is so the bride can have one child per year… And third is that the bride and groom will grow old together.

The informant learned about this through her aunt and observations of the weddings she attended in Hong Kong. According to the informant this is a common Chinese wedding ritual. She said it is usually a time shared privately by mother and daughter only.

 

I think this tradition clearly reflects how wedding is more than about the bride and the groom coming together but also their relative and other people in their lives. In this case it is the ties between the mother and the daughter. This is similar to Western traditions where the mother would help the bride get ready for the ceremony in a separate room hidden from the crowd.

The bride’s mother is passing down the knowledge and wisdom. The first blessing is so that the bride and groom will have the unconditional love as her family. The second reflects how the older generation wants the next generation to keep continuing the bloodline through children. It also reflects how marriage is about celebrating reproduction through different metaphors. The third is for the bride and groom to grow old with grey hair together. I think the combing of the hair reflects this idea of beauty since women tends to grow their hair longer than men. Hair color also reflects a person’s age through color. This tradition has the element of the number three which occurs in many cultures through different rituals.

Wedding ritual is a way to always strengthen the ties between the older and younger generation, and younger generation to the next generation. This tradition then keep the mother involve before losing her daughter to the other family. The combing of the hair is also an act a mother would perform when the daughter was younger; this is a way of bringing closure before they say their goodbyes.

Yes/No Pencil Ritual

Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”

 

Many grade school children play this game with a pencil. You can only use pencil. No mechanical pencils or pen. So first you would write on a piece of paper: “yes” and “no.” Then you put the paper on the table and then put the pencil in the middle of the paper. There are usually four people at each corner of the table. Then you call on the spirit into the pencil…After that you can ask the spirit questions about your life…you know something like: does he like me, will we be together, how long will we be together, am I going to pass this test, etc… But you can be cursed to die if you ask about how the spirit died or who the spirit is. It is okay to ask about their past life but never ask for the name or how he/she became a spirit. Sometimes more specific things can be written on the paper for different situations…I heard some news in Chinese newspaper where people die from this game because they ask the question they shouldn’t.

The informant stated that she played with her friends in middle school in Hong Kong, though she said that many adults play this game as well. She said she did it when she played the game nothing happened but she and her friends got very scared that she tore the paper into many pieces, broke the pencil, and ran away from the room as fast as they could.

 

I think this game challenges the idea of beliefs and the origin of ghosts and spirits. As seen by many other ghost stories, spirits usually arises from untraditional death or improper burial. In this case it is taboo and deathly to find the origin of the spirit. This game also reflects how people are unsure about the status of their lives; also trying to find answer to unanswerable questions in life. Not being able to ask how the spirit came to be also reflects the unknown origin of how ghost came to be.

The use of the pencil shows how the idea of ghost is most of the time associated with objects with no modern technology; how they are paused in certain time period.

The paper and the pencil reflect the idea of contagious magic how an object can possess power after certain rituals. In this case the informant and her friends destroyed those objects because they perceived those objects as having power after the rituals performed.

This dare is also similar to the idea of children folklore where there are underlying meanings, in the case the fear of the unknown. Similar to how female children conduct their Bloody Mary dare in groups as a bonding experience, this dare has a similar underlying purpose. It is a group bonding experience under the shared fearful experience, or bonded under the same curse. Similar to the Bloody Mary dare, the truth value is not as significant as the actions performed.

The dare as a ritual then turned into a legend through unofficial and official storytelling. The news about death from this game is then a memorate for the legend and keeps the ritual as an existing and ongoing legend.

The Wife-Beater Vegetable

Informant Background: The informant was born in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Taiwan. He grew up with his parents and grandparents who still speak Chinese, he does too. Many of his relatives are in Los Angeles so they all still practice a lot of Taiwanese/Chinese traditions and celebrate all the Chinese holiday such as: Chinese New Year, Ancestry day, Chinese Ghost day, etc. He said his family still hold many Chinese folk-beliefs and superstitions. He also travels back once in a while to visit his other relatives who are still back in Taiwan.

 

A farmer grows a garden of this very puffy vegetable. He would harvest and give to his wife for cooking. After his wife cooked the vegetable he observed that when he gets to eat the vegetable, it is much smaller after cooked than when harvested. The farmer realized every time he brings his wife the vegetable, he sees less at the dinner table. He thought his wife was stealing from him and beat her for not cooking what he harvested.

In actuality this particular kind of vegetable shrinks once cooked. So the wife did not steal, the vegetable got smaller just because it shrunk down under hot water.

This kind of vegetable has a proper name but also called “the wife-beater vegetable” as a nickname.

The informant stated that the name “wife-beater-vegetable” is a common name for this particular kind of vegetable in China among Mandarin speaker. He said that his parents told the story when they were eating this particular kind of vegetable. It is unknown if the legend is true. According to the informant the name has spread around enough that the name is common and known by many.

 

I think this particular story shows a lot of principles and beliefs in Chinese culture, whether it exists today or not. First, the husband farming and the wife cooking show how male is the dominant gender in that culture. It also shows how women are associated to household chores and the kitchen through cooking. The husband beating the wife because of the misunderstood disloyalty clearly reflects the female submissive role in the culture. It also shows how the kitchen space is a separate female space.

The story also has a dark humor element to it. The misunderstanding made me laugh a little but to think about a small misunderstanding leading to beating is quite harsh.

How to hold a chopstick

Informant Background: The informant was born in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Taiwan. He grew up with his parents and grandparents who still speak Chinese, he does too. Many of his relatives are in Los Angeles so they all still practice a lot of Taiwanese/Chinese traditions and celebrate all the Chinese holiday such as: Chinese New Year, Ancestry day, Chinese Ghost day, etc. He said his family still hold many Chinese folk-beliefs and superstitions. He also travels back once in a while to visit his other relatives who are still back in Taiwan.

 

If you hold your chopstick close to the tip, you will never leave your family and stay at home with your parents forever. If you hold toward the end, you will probably run away from your family and never see them again. If you hold toward the middle, you will have a happy medium between creating your own life and your original family.

The informant stated that is one of many Chinese folk-beliefs around the dining table. The informant learned about this through his parents. This is meant as a way to teach children to hold their chopsticks properly.

 

 

I believe Chinese culture value and respect their ancestor and older generation greatly. The value and respect can also become overpowering to some. To stay at home forever is fear by many because it hints that they would never get married and start their own life. To not have any ties left is unconventional in Chinese culture and sometimes can be seen as undesirable when your family ties are weak or non-existence. To hold the chopstick at the middle is to have, as the informant said, a happy medium of both older wisdom and new knowledge.

This belief shows the important of marriage as a life transitional period. Marriage changes a person’s identity of him/herself, identity within the community, and identity with his/her own family. In this case it is either a presence or absence of marriage that dictates the person’s faith.

This folk belief reminds me of Goldilocks and the three bears where in the three options lies a happy medium between the two undesirable extremes. It also resonates with the idea of the number three: in this case three option of too much, too little, and just enough.

I do agree with the informant that this can be a way for parents to teach their children proper table manner through these folk-beliefs. Chopsticks are use in every meal in a Chinese cuisine so it is an important everyday habit to hold it properly. This also shows how folklore can exist in everyday life through association to common everyday activities.

The Bot Chon Ghost Story

Informant Background: The informant is a student in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Indonesia. His parents moved to the United States and they now live in New Orleans. He speaks only English but he said his family still practice many Indonesian traditions especially folk-beliefs. He travels back once in a while to Indonesia to visit his relatives.

 

This is a story of a famous Indonesian ghost called Bot-Chon. In Indonesia when someone die you would wrap them with cloth. Before the burial the cloth is tied around the body. Once in the grave the body is covered with planks of woods. Soil is then put into the cloth to symbolizing the body going back into the earth, or like the body going back nature. Before the body is buried the cloth you are supposed to untie the cloth so the cloth kind of sit loose in the grave so the spirit can flow out after the burial. The ghost is then from people who forgot to untie the ghost…you know it’s like their spirit is trapped inside the cloth…So the ghost will haunt the family and friend until the cloth can be untied. It is kind of funny because  the cloth is tied around the body so this ghost just kind of hop around like a statue.

The informant learned about this tradition when he visits his family back in Indonesia. The untying of the cloth also is a way family and relatives can have the final moment of closure with the deceased. To not untie the cloth represents how the living family did not have a proper farewell moment. The ghost haunts as a way to seek their last goodbyes. To get rid of the ghost is to go back to the original burial site and untie the cloth to release the spirit.

 

 

I agree that the appearance of the spirit has a humorous quality. Since the body is wrapped in cloth the spirit would appear almost as a mummy who could not walk. I think this ghost story shows the importance of funeral as a life event. Funeral is one of the biggest life event that is ritualized and celebrated. In this case the mistake or neglect at the funeral turns the person into a ghost, similar to a lot of ghost stories where ghosts are lingering spirits or souls that did not get proper burial tradition after death. Ghost in many culture are result of a bad funeral; ones that neglect the traditions or did not follow the rules. This case is the same how the ghost is the spirit asking to be released.

The burial and putting soil into the cloth is similar to Western funeral traditions where the family would through dirt on top of the coffin before the actual burial. It is only a symbolic gesture of the last goodbye and putting the body back to nature. Unlike western traditions this tradition from the informant does not put the body in the coffin. So the body will decompose with the soil, the wood planks, and the clothes, all into the ground.

Do not respond to voices

Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.

 

In the countryside of China the bathroom is not part of the house. It is small hut or room separate from the house. Sometimes people have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night through a dark area surrounded by trees. And…Sometimes you will hear noises from wind and trees. My grandparents told me that if you hear a voice calling you, or calling your name, you should ignore it. You are not supposed to look or respond to the voice even though the voice might sound like your parents or somebody you know. If you answer, the ghost that created the voice will take you away and you will disappear.

The informant said this story was told to her by her grandparents every time she visits them in the countryside. When somebody said they need to use the bathroom, her grandparents will say “if you hear a voice, don’t answer.”This is a warning for people of all ages to be careful of strange and familiar voices at night time because these voices can be ghosts and spirits calling your name. To respond to those voices is the same as responding and acknowledging the spirits. Acknowledging the spirit makes you a target.

 

I heard of a similar folk belief from my friend where you cannot respond to unfamiliar sounds especially at night time because it means that you can hear the spirits. If you can hear it then that means they can come and take you away. If you ignore and pretend you do not to hear it then you are safe. This folk-belief shows the fear of night and darkness which occurs in many culture. In this case it is the fear of the unknown and the unseen.

This warning also shows the danger in acknowledging something from the other realm that by acknowledging the voice makes you a target. It reminds me of the Sirens from Greek mythology how sound is used as a target luring device.

It is similar to other ghost story how ghosts and spirits emulate living things to lure in their target. This belief is a warning to be careful of the surrounding when you are alone at night time even though it still in the area of your own house.

I think it could also be that those voices are a murderer who calls out and the disappearance and death is done by a person rather than spirit.  This legend could be another form of disappearance crime done by humans rather than spirits.But then again as a legend the truth value fluctuates. Similar to most legends this story/warning challenges the concept of believe. It also shows that belief is very contextual. Even when the informant was telling me this story, both she and I were a little scared because our surrounding was very quiet. In this case, the truth value of the legend does not need to be proven for the story to have an effect.

When you flip the fish say “neighbor”

Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”

 

A lot of Hong Kong people used to be fishermen back in the day. So you know when you eat a whole fish on a plate, you have the flip the fish when you finish one side to eat the other…So…when you flip you are supposed to say “neighbor” or “other boat” because the fish is like your own boat and it is bad luck if you flip it you know ‘cause it’s like you’re flipping your own boat. That is why you put the curse on someone else’s boat so your boat is safe and the bad luck will go to other people.

This was taught to the individual by her mother as a common table-side manner. According to the informant, this is still a common table side manner among many fisherman and people who operate at sea. She said it still practiced in her family as well.

 

I think this practice or folk belief is similar to how people “knock on wood” to feel better about what they said even though it will not create change. It shows the effect on belief as an idea where it does not have to be proven but it is done so the individual can “feel better.”

This folk belief is also similar to the idea of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like.” Similar to how whistling while you are at sea is bad because it will create strong wind; in this case the magic is in the action of flipping the fish where it would be similar to a boat flipping at sea.

This superstition reflects how folklore can be geographically and culturally tied to its context. In this case the tie is occupation. This belief would exist in different form if the people in Hong Kong used to be farmer or miner. It also shows how belief is contextual. If one is not eating near the ocean or on a boat, the fear would be much less in comparison to eating and flipping the fish on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

Feng Shui

Informant Background: The informant was born in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Taiwan. He grew up with his parents and grandparents who still speak Chinese, he does too. Many of his relatives are in Los Angeles so they all still practice a lot of Taiwanese/Chinese traditions and celebrate all the Chinese holiday such as: Chinese New Year, Ancestry day, Chinese Ghost day, etc. He said his family still hold many Chinese folk-beliefs and superstitions. He also travels back once in a while to visit his other relatives who are still back in Taiwan.

 

Do not live at the end of a street because all the bad energy of that street will gather at your house and never leave. It is also ideal if you can live with the mountains behind your house, and a steam in front. The mountain represents your family wealth. The stream represents the flow of energy renewing and also cash flows into your house.

The informant said this is a rule many Taiwanese people follow as a rule of thumb when they move into a new house or looking for a temporary place to live. Feng-shui is a tradition in Chinese culture that deals with the flow of natural and spiritual energy in spaces. The end of the street not only collect all the energy and not leave, it also is perceive as a “dead-end” where there is no other direction to go. These natural and man-made representations mostly have to do with wealth, which then leads to the well-being of the family.

 

I observed from my own traveling experience that this belief of Feng-Shui is widely spread and practiced in many countries. Throughout the years I observed that many who originated from China is aware of the concept of Feng-Shui. It is often practice at an older generation. The younger generations then seek advice on the subject matter from the older generation, using it as a rule of thumb before moving to a new place of residence. It also has influences in large developments where the developer will orient his project according to the belief thinking that his project will succeed.

This shows the importance of belief regardless of the truth and practicality in the folk-belief. Believing that wealth will come to your household will create an evidently better outlook in life than believing that your house collects all the bad energy of your street. Similar to how some people “knock-on-wood” because it makes them feel better, living in a proper Feng-Shui oriented house give the household a positive feel that at least their place of living is “correct.”

There have been many books in different languages about principle of Feng Shui. Some written by Chinese Feng Shui Masters, some are translations from collection of principles learned from the masters themselves. There are books written by non-Chinese about the subject matter. An example of that would be Feng Shui Your Life by Jayme Barrett and Jonn Coolidge where they illustrate how the practice of Feng Shui through design can better a home in term of spirits and energies. The author explore similar rules as the informant of the folklore stated above and also some in details to even where in the room to place a plant or to put a coffee table.

Feng-Shui is a belief that affects different scale of things. As mentioned by the informant it can effect a family’s well being through placement and orientation of the house. From the book mentioned above, Feng Shui can have an effect to an individual through placement of small objects within the room. It also reflects how folklore is tangled with everyday life.

Having these rules published challenges the notion of folklore vs. authored literature, even though it is clearly stated in the book that the authors do not claim these rules and theirs. It also challenges the idea of originality and authenticity since these authors are not from China but have studied under Chinese Feng Shui Master.

Annotation:

Barrett, Jayme, and Jonn Coolidge. Feng Shui Your Life. New York: Sterling Pub., 2003. Print