Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Kinesthetic

Pointing at the Moon

If you point your finger at the moon, you would anger the moon, and the deity living on the moon will slice off your ear when you sleep.

The informant is not sure why this is so or who the deity living on the moon is. However, this superstition may be rooted in respecting the deities, and could possibly be linked to the myth of Cháng’é (嫦娥), the Chinese goddess of the moon. She lives on the moon because she had swallowed the elixir of life and became light, floating away from the earth. Her husband Hòu Yì (后羿) was a mortal archer known for shooting down nine of ten suns that were scorching the earth. Cháng’é lives on the moon with a jade rabbit.

It is interesting to note that pointing is disrespectful in cultures all around the world.

Folk Beliefs

The Sitting Ghost

Informant was teaching and boarding at a high school in the mountains, a three-hour bus ride away from the city. The dorm was a foreign environment that frightened her. When she finally fell asleep, she was awoken by a strange presence that she sensed at the foot of her bed. She was unable to move, feeling as though something were pressing down on her, though nothing was above her. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed a man standing at the foot of her bed, fully clad in an ancient Chinese military costume. Since he was watching her peacefully, she assumed that it was an acquaintance from a past life or simply a passing spirit and fell back to sleep in peace, believing that he was there to protect her.

In Western cultures this phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis, and psychologists have come up with scientific explanations. In Taiwan, however, the cause is attributed to ghosts. The phenomenon is known as “鬼壓床” (gǔi yā chuáng), which literally means “ghost pressing the bed,” and the symptoms are strikingly similar. Author Maxine Hong Kingston describes this phenomenon as the “sitting ghost” in her memoir The Woman Warrior.

Due to the prevalence of Taoism and Buddhism in Taiwan, the vast majority of the population—regardless of religion—believes in ghosts. Ghosts are not necessarily evil, as anyone could potentially become a ghost after they die. 

Folk Beliefs
Magic

Possessed by an Old Friend

This is the story [translated from Mandarin] of what happened to a childhood friend of mine (who will henceforth be referred to as ‘L’) in the Bay Area, relayed through his mother and then my mother.

It started during L’s freshman year of high school, when he started hearing a voice in his head. L refused to leave the house and also refused to sleep. His mother thought it was a phase, but when the symptoms persisted and worsened, she brought him to a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist ran some tests but was unable to diagnose any psychotic disorder or prescribe treatment. After more psychiatrists, more doctors, more hospitals, they were still unable to figure out what was wrong. One of the doctors, however, told L’s mother, “You know, I’ve heard of cases like this before. You should go consult a spirit medium.” The mother, being non-religious and rather distant from her Taiwanese roots, was skeptical, but desperate to cure her son.

When the spirit medium heard their situation, she asked, “Does L’s room have a wide window that is always closed because it wouldn’t let light in anyway?” Upon confirmation from the astonished mother, the spirit medium said that a ghost had entered L’s room through the window, which was considered very yin (i.e. dark; negative) in fengshui. According to the spirit medium, this ghost had been looking for L for a very long time (i.e. many reincarnations on L’s part). They had been best friends many lives ago—possibly even brothers through a blood oath, because the ghost never stopped looking after they were separated. Now that the ghost found him, he did not want to leave and wanted to keep L all to himself in his room.

Conversations with other spirit mediums wielded the same results. Though skeptic at first, L’s mother began to believe in these spiritual beliefs in order to cure her son. With the ghost in his mind, however, it was difficult for L to accept the practices of spiritual cleansing (exorcism).

The first step that the spiritual mediums suggested was to leave the yin house. After many struggles, L was finally able to live at a relative’s house and began to feel better. Talismans and Buddhist chants were used to cleanse his house, but because L’s family only halfheartedly believed in the spiritual powers, L relapsed when he returned. The second time he was able to leave the house, he went travelling around California with friends, and felt better again. Spiritual mediums then suggested to L to travel to Taiwan, where more experienced spiritual mediums (i.e. Buddhist monks) could help him. He has been better since.

It was interesting to me how this all happened in the United States, with Caucasian spirit mediums believing in ghosts more than the Taiwanese family did. The vast majority of the people in Taiwan believe in ghosts due to the prevalence of Taoism and Buddhism there.

Digital
Game

SCP: Containment Breach

SCP: Containment Breach is a horror computer game that is based on user-generated stories on the wiki/website SCP Foundation. SCP stands for “Secure, Contain, Protect”. The game takes place in a facility that hunts, tracks down, and categorizes supernatural objects, or SCPs, that are either safe, euclid, or keter. You can come into contact with safe SCPs without getting harmed. SCPs that are euclid are unpredictable, and keter SCPs will kill you.

The main types of characters in the game are scientists with code names, the SCPs, and finally the D-class personnel. There is a seemingly infinite amount of D-class personnel, and you play as one of them. They are prisoners sent to the facility for experimentation purposes, and they die off very easily because they’re always dealing with the SCPs.

The first SCP you meet is this giant baby that’s facing the wall. You have a blink meter, and every time you are forced to blink, the baby moves closer to you. When it’s right in front of you, it kills you. [Informant's] favorite is the butler. It can do anything you want it to do, as long as it is reasonable. He would ask,” What can I do for you?” in a very butler-like manner. You can ask him to kill a D-class personnel in the neighboring room, and he would point at a surveillance camera, saying, “Is that camera on? I can’t do it if it’s on.” And once you turn it off, he would disappear and then come back, having accomplished the goal. If you ask him to get a bar of gold of, say, 99.99% purity, he would say no, but ask if a a lower purity were okay. There are also inanimate SCPs like a train ticket SCP, which would affect the train that the ticket-holder takes.

Anyone who passes the test to be a writer on the website can create an SCP. The SCP Foundation website is a wiki that is open for comment. If people see a bad SCP, they’ll mark it down, and if enough people dislike it, they’ll remove it. There are rules, like no using clichés, and no SCPs that can be described in two words (like “basically Wolverine”). The game developers then take these user-created SCPs and put them into the game.

I found it very innovative for a video game to be based on user-generated content. It throws into question the idea of authorship but it is also somewhat reminiscent of the way folklore was spread / the way people told stories before the institutionalization of writing/publishing/etc.

Folk Dance
Kinesthetic
Musical

Kamigami-sama Eisa Dance

Eisa is a traditional Okinawan folk dance, and it uses small handheld drums called paranku. People used to dance eisa during traditional festivals, but now it is just performed for cultural entertainment. It is closely related to taiko.

Our taiko group dances eisa to a song called “Kamigami-sama”. It’s from the soundtrack of Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away, and it incorporates many elements of traditional Japanese music. The song’s title means “The Gods”, and it’s actually a silly song about all sorts of gods needing to take all sorts of baths. But people who don’t understand Japanese can’t really tell.

This song has been in our repertoire for quite a number of years now, and we basically just have older members teach the new members every year. Sometimes we might change a bit of the movements or formation, depending on the Artistic Director or on the dancers’ opinions, so each performance is a little different.

Kamigami-sama

The informant is the Executive Director of her taiko group, so she is knowledgeable about the group’s repertoire and the stories behind most songs.

It is interesting that this piece is never performed the exact same way more than once, since the performances are never written / made “sacred”. With this more fluid nature, performances of “Kamigami-sama” could potentially take big changes as the years accumulate.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Tales /märchen

Pontianak

Pontianak is a female ghost, or the Southeast Asian equivalent of the vampire. A woman could become a pontianak by committing suicide upon discovering that her husband is cheating on her, or if the woman dies during pregnancy. They live on banana trees, and there are many banana plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. When I was a kid, my grandmother would warn me not to get too close to banana trees. Or don’t look up when you’re near a banana tree. They like to hang upside down too. I’ve never seen one and I haven’t known anyone who’s seen a pontianak, but they’re usually seen by village folks. Pontianak have long black hair, long fangs, and a white dress, and they usually haunt only men. They don’t suck blood like Western vampires do, but they suck out your organs.

The informant grew up hearing stories about the pontianak. The legend of this creature could be a reflection of expected gender roles in Malaysian and Indonesian societies, and also fertility and faithfulness.

Folk Beliefs
general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Story of Hǔ Gū Pó

[Translated from Mandarin Chinese]

Once upon a time, the hǔ gū pó (虎姑婆; a tiger spirit) lived atop a mountain. She wanted to become human, but the only way to do so was to eat children. From time to time she left her mountain to visit the village below, where she would sneak up on children from behind and eat them. After a while, the villagers discovered that wearing a mask on the backs of their heads would confuse the hǔ gū pó and prevent her from eating them. She was starting to look very human, but she still had a tiger’s tail to hide. With no more children to catch, the hǔ gū pó wandered down to the houses.

In one house lived a girl, her younger brother, and their parents, but the parents were out of town for the day. The tiger spirit tucked her tail within her pants and disguised herself as the children’s aunt.
“Your parents asked me to look after you today,” she said, and the children let her in.

In the middle of the night, the little girl woke up to a strange crunching sound.
“What are you eating?” she asked the hǔ gū pó.
“I am eating peanuts,” came the reply. “Would you like some?”
The hǔ gū pó handed over one of the little boy’s fingers.
Understanding that the tiger spirit had already eaten her brother, the little girl escaped from the house, pretending that she needed to use the bathroom.

The next morning the tiger spirit found the little girl hiding atop a tree.
“Come down,” the hǔ gū pó demanded, hungry.
“Fine,” the girl said. “But you should prepare a vat of boiling oil first, so I’ll taste better.”
The hǔ gū pó did just that.
“Now, hoist up the vat to me. I will cook myself and then jump into your mouth. Close your eyes and open your mouth.”
The tiger spirit did just that. The little girl poured the oil into the hǔ gū pó’s mouth and therefore killed her.

The story of hǔ gū pó is a well-known children’s folktale in Taiwan, and this is one of the many versions. It has been compared to the western tales of the Little Red Riding Hood, and “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats”. It has been adapted into a less violent nursery rhyme telling children to stop crying and to go to sleep. The informant (my father) had learned the story from his parents and in turn told it to me many times as a kid. 

When I first heard it, I did not think much of the plot points—upon retrospect, however, the story seemed unusually gruesome for a children’s tale. While “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats” has a similar premise, it is not as violent. The wolf deceives the goats and gobbles them up, but the youngest goat is able to cut open the wolf and save his siblings from its stomach, replacing the weight with rocks, which eventually drown the wolf. In the story of hǔ gū pó, the brother is not only eaten, but the sister receives the dismembered finger as food. She also kills the tiger spirit quite directly/actively. This may be a reflection on the differing cultural contexts of these two tales, in terms of ethics, etc.

Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Kappa, the River Child

Kappa (河童) is a creepy child-like, frog-like creature that has a bowl of water in its head. They also have a shell and a beak and webbed fingers and toes. They’re very mischievous and they’re excellent swimmers becuase they live in the rivers and lakes. They always have to have water in their bowl though, because the water gives them strength. It’s like their blood.

They like playing pranks on people, and sometimes they do worse things too, like drowning people. But if you can somehow get it to spill the water on its head by making it bow down to you or otherwise, you can make the kappa subservient to you.

They love eating cucumbers. Some people say that if you eat cucumbers before you go swimming, you’ll get attacked by a kappa, but others say it could prevent that from happening.

Informant had studied abroad in Japan and considers herself more Japanese than Chinese or American. She learned such folklore from her Japanese friends. The story of the kappa may be used as a cautionary tale in Japan to keep children from playing in water without supervision.

Legends
Narrative

Cheng Miao and the Clerical Script

[Translated from Mandarin]

The clerical script, or lìshū (隸書), is a form of Chinese calligraphy that is said to have been invented by Chéng Miǎo (程邈), who had somehow offended the emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng (秦始皇) of the Qin dynasty. Qín Shǐ Huáng threw Chéng Miǎo into prison. However, during his time in prison, Chéng Miǎo was able to simplify Chinese script. You see, before the clerical script was invented, Chinese characters were written in seal script, or zhuànshū, which had many curving strokes that were complicated to write.

The prison guards discovered that Chéng Miǎo’s clerical script was much more efficient to write than seal script, and they showed Qín Shǐ Huáng. Qín Shǐ Huáng was very pleased with Chéng Miǎo’s new script and decided to change the Chinese kingdom’s writing to clerical script. Because of this, Chéng Miǎo was released from prison and rewarded with a high governmental position.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Though Chéng Miǎo’s feats sound realistic, there are people who doubt that Qín Shǐ Huáng would be so lenient on someone who changed a writing system that the emperor had just unified shortly before. Recent evidence has also suggested that clerical script may have been invented by a team of people, as opposed to one single person. It is interesting that even the development of Chinese calligraphy has such debatable folklore.

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Musical

Whistles in the Night

You cannot whistle or play any wind instrument after sundown, or you would end up summoning a ghost, because ghosts sound like whistles when they move swiftly through the air.

This is an interesting superstition because it plays upon the fear of  ghosts, yet it also plays on contagious magic—how making a sound summons something that sounds just like it. This could be a more magical/convincing way for parents to tell children to not disturb neighbors at night.

[geolocation]