Author Archives: Anita Chen

Carp and Dragons in Vietnam

There’s a story in Vietnamese mythology that’s similar to the Chinese or Japanese story about the koi fish becoming a dragon.

There was an emperor who wanted to create new dragons because dragons bring rain, which helps crops grow. So many animals in the ocean were summoned to have a competition, where they had to jump over three gates of rain. The first animal that could jump over all three would get to be transformed into a dragon.

First, a fish—I think it was a tilapia?—tried, but only got past the first gate. The second to try was a catfish, but it hit its head on the second, so its head got flattened. The emperor rewarded it with dragon whiskers for effort. Next came the shrimp, but it only got past the second, so the emperor made it look like a miniature dragon. Lastly the carp tried, and it got past all three, so the emperor transformed it into a dragon.

Because of this, dragons symbolize success and wealth, and education in Vietnam is compared to the three gates.

Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning about Vietnamese culture.

The carp’s transformation into a dragon is a common motif in Asian mythologies, with slight variations in each culture’s telling. It is also interesting to note that this myth has parallels to social function.

Mothman

Mothman is a large creature that’s a cross between a man and a giant moth, and he supposedly lives somewhere on the East Coast. He has glowing red eyes and likes to fly at people’s car windshields when they’re driving. People claim that he was the cause of a collapsed bridge. Some news reports attribute Mothman sightings to large flying birds, however.

Informant is not American but knows a lot about contemporary American culture. He frequents Reddit, a “social network” very concerned with current events and urban legends. Mothman is an interesting piece of folklore because many have claimed to have seen it, like sightings of UFOs or Nessie, and the legends surrounding this creature are abound.

Flopped Atari Game Buried in New Mexico

There was an urban legend where Atari had made this game called E.T. in like the ’80s, based on Steven Spielberg’s movie, but it was very bad and no one wanted to buy it, and that was when Atari was very successful for all their other games. Rumor was that Atari decided to take back all the E.T. cartridges in the market and even the ones they didn’t sell, and then they buried it somewhere in the desert in New Mexico. People would go there just to look for the cartridges, but they couldn’t find anything.

But very recently people did find something, and after a long excavation, they uncovered the cartridges!

Informant frequents Reddit, a very up-to-date “social network”, from where he first heard the rumor of the buried cartridges. This is one of the less common instances in which an urban legend is later revealed to be true. It in a way reflects the question of how urban legends arise—perhaps first with leaked but vague information, later growing due to exaggerations and variations in telling.

Momotarō

One day an old woman was washing her clothes by a stream and a giant peach floats down the water. When she took it home to show her husband and to share the peach, a boy popped out, claiming to be their son sent from the gods. Because he came out of a peach, the couple decided to name him Momotarō (桃太郎).

When Momotarō grew up he decided to go on an adventure, and he befriends a monkey, a rooster, and a bear. Together they fought oni (鬼; ghosts) on an island and claimed their treasures, which Momotarō then took home to his parents. They lived happily ever after.

Informant had studied abroad in Japan and considers herself more Japanese than Chinese or American. She learned such folklore from her Japanese friends.

Yuki-Onna the Snow Lady

One day two pair of woodcutters Minokichi and Mosaku go out into the mountains to gather wood, but a snowstorm prevents them from getting home. Mosaku—the father of Minokichi—suggests that they should find a cabin in the mountains to stay in to hide from the storm, and they do just that. When Minokichi wakes up the next morning though, he sees that Mosaku has been frozen to death, and a beautiful lady in white—that’s Yuki-Onna (雪女; lit. “snow woman”)—is standing over him. She finds Mosaku very handsome so she does not kill him and lets him go, but she says, “You must promise you will never tell anyone about me, or else I must kill you,” and then she disappears.

Years later Mosaku falls in love with a woman, and they get married and have children and everything. But the wife doesn’t age. One night Mosaku tells his wife, “You know, you are so beautiful in such a magical way. Every time I look at you, I remember this one time I met a snow lady just as beautiful as you, and she spared my life.”

Mosaku’s wife becomes angry, exclaiming, “That Yuki-Onna was me!” She wants to kill Mosaku but she didn’t want to hurt her children too, so she spared his life once again, and disappears.

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 Yuki-Onna seems to have been adapted into a number of fictional materials, possibly because of the motif of the evil but beautiful white-clad woman that kills men, but also possibly because of the plot twist.

The Introduction of the Watermelon

Many many years ago Vietnam was ruled by a king who was known for his kindness. He only had one daughter so he adopted a son, who he loved as his own. Eventually the boy, An Tiêm, married the daughter, and they all lived happily together.

The king’s men, however, were jealous of the king’s kindness to An Tiêm, so they started spreading bad rumors about An Tiêm, saying he had plans to overthrow the king. When the king himself heard, he was distraught and decided that exiling An Tiêm would be the best solution, because he believed An Tiêm was able to survive outside the kingdom.

So An Tiêm and his family were sent away to a remote island where they had to farm and hunt their own food. One day though, An Tiêm noticed a flock of birds pecking on black seeds. He was curious what they were, so he took some seeds home. Eventually these seeds grew into plants that bore green fruits as large as people’s heads. The fruits had bright red insides that were very juicy and sweet, so An Tiêm called it dưa đỏ, or red melon. But later when the birds came to eat the fruit, they seemed to be calling “tây qua”, so they decided to call it that.

The watermelons sustained An Tiêm’s family, but after a while, the king started to really miss his children. One day An Tiêm decided to carve a letter onto a watermelon and cast it into the ocean, and the king finds the watermelon back at the kingdom. Discovering that his family was still alive and discovering the new fruit, the king was overjoyed and proud of his son. Because of that, the king sent for An Tiêm and they all lived back at the kingdom, happily ever after.

Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning a lot about Vietnamese culture at home and at school. 

Cāng Jié and the Origin of the Chinese Writing System

[Translated from Mandarin]

Back in the early years of Chinese history, a four-eyed man named Cāng Jié (倉頡) was the historiographer of the Yellow Emperor. To record things, Cāng Jié used the rope-tying method, the only form of documentation around during that time. After a while, the more Cāng Jié stared at his repetitive knots, the less he remembered what they stood for. He was frustrated.

One day he passed by a group of quarreling old men at an intersection. Each of them was arguing which road led to his home. One claimed a pair of tigers lived on his road. Another said that some deer lived on his road. The last one stated that goats lived on his road. The dispute was eventually settled when they discovered that the trails of animal prints on the ground told them which way each should go. Cāng Jié was inspired by this—if every animal has its own prints to distinguish its identity, every object in the world should have its own symbol too.

Cāng Jié then proceeded to simplify the shapes and essences of objects in the world into characters composed of simple lines. Soon he developed a whole system of written characters that each imitated what they represented. When Cāng Jié completed the writing system, the skies started raining millet, and ghosts in the ground cried at night.

In the end, both Cāng Jié and the Yellow Emperor were pleased, and Cāng Jié’s writing system was used as the standard writing system in the emperor’s unification of the kingdom.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Cāng Jié is an interesting character because his role in Chinese history is realistic though the details of his deeds and his appearance may have very well been exaggerated. 

New Year’s, New Things

In China, there is a superstition where you cannot start a [Chinese] new year without new clothes and a clean house. Whatever you do on the first day of the year will be an indication of how your fortunes would be for the rest of the year. So people would try to look their best on the first day. They would make sure they get haircuts before the year ends because they don’t want to cut anything at the start of the year.

The practices the informant mentioned are traditional customs that are practiced every year during the Chinese New Year festival (which some may argue is a misnomer, because several places celebrate the same holiday). Having grown up in China, the informant practices this every year.

The Nián Monster

Every year on the eve of the Chinese New Year, the nian monster (年獸; nián shòu) comes out from hiding and eats people. I was told as a child to behave, or the nian monster would catch you and eat you. It has the head of a lion but the body of an ox. After all the chaos it causes, the people find out that the nian monster is afraid of loud noises and the color red. That is why we set off firecrackers every new year, because the firecrackers are red and the explosions scare the monster away. For the same reason, we wear red too, and give out red envelopes of money. If we put the red envelopes under our pillows, then we would avoid the nian monster and we would have good fortune for the rest of the year.

The practices the informant mentioned are traditional customs that are practiced every year during the Chinese New Year festival (which some may argue is a misnomer, because several places celebrate the same holiday). It is interesting to note that the nian monster is named after the Chinese term for “year”, as if the coming of a new year could be something symbolically destructive or at least menacing.

Seijun Suzuki 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.

An old member of our taiko group is now with L.A. Shisa, a local eisa group, and she recently came back to teach us this song. She danced to it and had us follow step by step, and eventually we performed “Seijun Suzuki” in our annual Spring Concert for the first time.

The funny thing about this song is that it is based on a hip-hop song by Blue Scholars that is named after a famous Japanese movie director called Seijun Suzuki. Another alumni of our taiko group remixed the song “Seijun Suzuki” to combine local Angeleno culture and taiko’s Japanese roots.

Seijun Suzuki Eisa

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.

Not only is this contemporary eisa piece similar to the pop-culture mashups that are the craze on YouTube, the way the informant’s taiko group learned Seijin Suzuki was also very performative too, since the L.A. Shisa member had taught them through performance.