Author Archive
Customs
Folk Beliefs

Haircut in the First Lunar Month Kills Your Uncle??

正月剪头死舅舅

Zhèng Yuè Jǐan Tóu Sǐ Jìu Jìu

This is a Chinese saying that literally means “If you get hair cut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar, your uncle (your mother’s brother) will die”.

 

Context: The collector and the informant were talking about weird Chinese sayings and customs heard from parents. The informant is a USC student from Beijing.

The informant heard this saying from his mother. Once he planned to get a haircut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar. His mother stopped him by telling him this saying. However, he forgot his mother’s word and went to get a haircut anyway. Then his mother asked him to text his uncle new year greetings and whish his uncle a year of great health. The informant found it funny and that is why he always remember this saying.

Even though the informant’s mother didn’t necessary believe that her brother would die because her son got a haircut, she didn’t think that was a good sign.

The informant doesn’t believe the saying.

The informant doesn’t know why there is this saying. He guesses it is only because it is in rhyme (“Tóu” and “Jìu”).

 

Collector’s thoughts:

I have also heard of this saying, but only with little impression. I thought it was a very weird saying or custom. Maybe it’s because Chinese people view renewable body parts such as hair and finger nails also as important part of body granted from parents, so it is an ominous sign to cut hair in the first month, a meaningful period of time that is supposed to pave the way for good luck of the entire year.

However, I did some research online and found an explanation: After the Manchus overthrown the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu government enforced a policy on Han people that all Han men should shave their hair and have the required hairstyle like the Manchus. Han people valued hair very much. Hair being shaved was considered humiliating. Many Han men refused to follow the policy as well as other oppression, which led to some massacres. The result was Han people passive resisted by not getting haircut in the first month of the year to express their longing for the lost Ming dynasty as “思旧 (Sī Jìu [Literally: Longing for the past])”. However, as the saying was spread, “Sī Jìu” turned into “Sǐ Jìu Jìu (Literally: Uncle dies)”.

Reference: http://www.sohu.com/a/59020978_349043

Customs
general
Material

Future Son-in-law and Poached Eggs

Context: The collector asked the informant (as MD) for some Shanghainese folklores. The informant is the mother of the collector.

 

MD: You know, when a couple in relationship want to make sure parents from each side agree with their marriage, they will visit the woman’s mother. When it is the first visit for the man, he should bring gifts, such as liquor or cakes or whatever, while the future mother-in-law is supposed to serve him a bowl of 水潽蛋 (Shanghainese in IPA: /sɻ̩ pú de/  Chinese Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ pū dàn/  Literally: water boiled egg, specifically poached egg in Shanghainese), 水煮蛋 (Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ zhǔ dàn/, literally: water boiled egg). The kind of water boiled egg that you break the shell first and then boil it. (The informant was emphasizing the difference between hard boiled eggs and poached eggs)

Collector: Yes, I got it. But why?

MD: I have no idea. It’s just a custom! If the woman’s mother does serve the man a poached egg, that means she recognizes the man as her future son-in-law.

Collector: Is there anything special with poached eggs? Aren’t they just daily matters?

MD: Well you know, life in the past wasn’t like now. Eggs weren’t something you could afford every day!

Collector: But you told me your family had hens when you were young… Okay, okay, I got it. Did Grandma serve Dad poached eggs when he first went to visit?

MD: She did.

Collector: Did she just give him the egg or she told him what that meant? Dad mustn’t know the custom. (The collector’s father is not from Shanghai)

MD: Well, she just served him the egg. Your dad is an outlander. He didn’t know.

Collector: Then did you tell dad what the egg meant?

MD: Yeah after the visit.

Collector: But wasn’t that meaningless for Grandma to do so? Because Dad couldn’t know what she implied.

MD: That doesn’t matter. It was the purpose and the feeling of the mother-in-law that mattered.

Collector: Alright. If CH (the collector’s elder sister) brings her boyfriend to you and you think he is a good man to marry, will you also serve him poached eggs?

MD: Yes, I will, if I like him.

Collector: Even if he is a foreigner?

MD: Yeah. That doesn’t matter.

 

Collector’s thought:

In the past, eggs were valuable food for ordinary people. Even if they had hens, they would probably rather sell eggs for money than consume eggs frequently. Thus, serving future son-in-law eggs is sharing something highly valued with that person, meaning that the man is viewed as a trustworthy husband and is welcomed as a new family member.

It is interesting that the informant values this custom and intends to actively carry it on even though she didn’t really know the background of the custom and in fact, the social context has already changed a lot, which to a certain extent reduces the special value of poached eggs and the meaning of the custom.

The custom might only be a practice in Shanghai, but it’s also possible that the custom is practiced in a larger region, for example, the Yangtze River region.

Customs
Festival
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Eggs on Dragon Boat Festival

Context: The collector was interviewing the informant (as MD, the collector’s mother) for folklores. After she told the collector a folklore about eggs, the informant came up with another folklore about eggs. This is a custom the informant practiced in her childhood.

 

MD: When I was a kid, we (she and her peers) would have hard boiled eggs on Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival). We would weave nets to hang an egg on our neck. (Collector’s note: The nets were made of colored thick thread which was thinner thread intertwined together, according to a follow-up interview). Ah, that was really interesting. Every girl at that time could weave nets.

Collector: Is there something to do with good luck or stuff?

MD: I don’t know. We just followed what adults told us.

Collector: So what did the custom mean to you?

MD: That meant we could eat (eggs)! Those were eggs! It was just, like, whenever it was Duanwu, we could have eggs. (Collector’s note: eggs were not food that could be served every day for most ordinary Chinese families in the 1960s and 1970s.) After we hung the eggs in the day, we could eat them.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Festivals are time to have foods that are not available all the time.

The interview also indicates the social environment and the financial status of ordinary families in 20th century China.

During the interview, the collector recalled a prose written by a Chinese writer, Zengqi Wang, that was exactly about eggs on Duanwu. Wang’s hometown is Gaoyou, a city in Jiangsu Province, which is also in the Yangtze River region like Shanghai. However, the eggs mentioned in that prose was duck eggs. See:

Wang, Zengqi. Shidouyinshuizhai Xianbi [食豆饮水斋闲笔,Literally: Journals from a studio of eating beans and drinking water], Huacheng Citry Press, ver.1, June 2015, pp 23-26.

(It is in Chinese)

Narrative
Tales /märchen

Bear Granny

Bear Granny

Context: The informant is a Chinese student in USC. The collector interviewed the informant (as GL) for tales. The informant then presented a creepy story in English told by his grandfather as a bedtime story. His grandfather is from Chongqing, an inland city in China.

 

 

GL: Okay so, there were two kids. They wandered in the woods. And then they met their granny in the woods for some reason I can’t remember. So they came back home with their granny. And their granny was like, “Okay. You two should take a bath and then we can sleep together.”

Somewhere late at night, the elder sister woke up. She heard some cracking sounds. It came from their granny. So she asked, “Granny, what are you eating?”

Granny said: “I am eating candies.”

And then, you know, some ray of moonlight shone in. The girl saw a lot of bloody intestines and flesh and stuff laying on the bed.  It’s a creepy story. She figured out that her granny was eating her little sister.

So she asked: “Granny, do you want some candies of different flavor?”

Granny was like, “Sure.”

So the girl took a heated, some sort of claws (Collector’s note: he probably meant tongs) from the fire place. (Collector’s note: he probably meant that the girl used the tongs to attack her granny)

And then the girl was like, “Granny, do you want some water to cool down?” and Granny was like “Yeah Sure”. And the girl took some boiling water and killed the Bear Granny.

 

GL: I think it is a pretty prevalence story from where I came from to scare the kids.

Collector: What do you think is this story trying to tell kids? To respect their granny? (in a joking tone)

GL: I had really complicated feelings when I first heard the story. I guess the purpose my grandparents told this story was, you know, I kept asking for bedtime stories before going to sleep, so they wanted to scare me off so they could do their own stuff.

Collector: Do you think it is a typical Chinese story or just a story in Chongqing?

GL: I think it is not typically Chinese but a lot of people from that area (Chongqing) have heard of that story.

Collector: Have you ever told this story to other people before?

GL: Yeah, I told this story to one of the kids in elementary school because he thought I was weird.

Collector: How was the effect?

GL: He was freaked out. (laughing) Yeah, he was freaked out.

 

Collector’s thought:

It is weird that adults tell kids creepy stories as bedtime stories.

I think the story involves an archetype of evil old ladies. But unlike those evil witches in Western tales, this demonic old lady is the grandmother of the protagonist, a dear one in the family. The Bear Granny reminds me of what Professor Thompson said in class that there is a belief in Japan that old people in the family will turn into ghosts (monsters) when they are too old. Maybe this is something common in East Asia. But the tale also resembles the Little Red Riding Hood.

I searched for Bear Granny in Chinese, and saw some articles saying that Bear Granny is popular in Chongqing and Sichuan area. It is called “熊嘎婆 [Mandarin in pinyin: xíong gā pó, literally: Bear Granny]”

Folk Beliefs

No Mirror Facing You When You Sleep

Context: The collector interviewed the informant (as XZ) for superstitions. The informant is a USC student from Los Angeles. Her parents are from China. The conversation was in the collector’s dorm room When the informant saw a mirror on the collector’s bookshelf, she came up with the following folk belief.

 

 

Main Piece:

Never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep.

 

XZ: My parents told me never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep. Because when you are sleeping, your soul, this is so funny, I don’t really believe it, is above your body and moves around. So if you have a mirror facing you when you are sleeping, your soul will look into the mirror and get confused. So it will, like, not go back to your body.

XZ: My parents just told me the story. They think it’s funny. But some people really believe in this. They never put mirrors where mirrors reflect their bed.

 

The informant doesn’t think it is an Asian folk belief but rather an American one. She said that she didn’t believe the saying, but when asked about whether she would put a mirror against her bed, she answered no.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Reflection of the real world in the mirror is a common topic of folk belief. There seem to be an underlying fear of the other self in the reflection, which threatens the exclusivity of self in the real world.

This folk belief also involves the topic of body and soul separation, and the process of sleeping. In this folklore, the connection between the soul and the body is unstable. The soul can get lost easily.

Legends
Narrative

The Legend of the Fenzhong Temple

Context: the collector interviewed the informant (as GL) for legends in Beijing. The informant is a USC student from Beijing. The informant answered in English.

 

Main piece: There was a bell in the Fenzhong Temple in Beijing. Different people would hear different sounds when the bell rang. It was like the bell was talking to them.

 

GL: Have you ever heard of the Fenzhong Temple?

Collector: No.

GL: So Fenzhong stands for “minute”(分钟) in Chinese. The Fenzhong Temple is a very famous temple in the city of Beijing. There is a legend that in the 20th century, when people who worked in the temple rang the bell, everybody around the temple would hear a different sound. People were saying that the bell was saying something.

For example, if a kid has just finished school and then hear the bell, he would hear something like “school is finished”. When it is time to sleep, people would hear the bell saying “it’s time to go to bed”.

Collector: Have you ever heard the bell? Is it still there?

GL: I never heard of it by myself. The bell is still there, but it’s more like a tourist site now. It’s no longer a real temple.

Collector: So how did you learn this story?

GL: I think I heard of it from friends. Because I live in Beijing, you know, so people are telling this story.

Collector: From your peers or parents?

GL: From my peers, probably.

Collector: Do you think it’s real?

GL: It’s definitely not real, come on. But I think it’s a good story to tell kids.

Collector: Have you visited the temple?

GL: I haven’t visited the temple, but I used to take a tutor class around that place. I’ve never been inside the temple.

Collector: Do you think young kids in Beijing nowadays still believe in this?

GL: I don’t think they do. It’s more like a legend. I don’t think people really believe in this.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

This legend makes me think about the relationship between actual existence of a subject and the legend(s) of it. If the bell in that temple is still being rung today, the legend is much less likely to exist and continued to be passed down, as it is (almost) impossible for a bell to talk to people. The legend thrives on the fact that the subject does not exist anymore so the truth of the subject can no longer be testified. Also, the legend can serve as a tool to attract tourists to the place.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

What Trees Not To Plant in Your Yard

Context:

The collector interviewed the informant for Chinese folklores. The informant is the mother of the collector. She lives in Shanghai. She learned some of the following folk beliefs about twenty years ago from a seller, when she was buying trees for a new house she bought. Another time she learned the superstition about peach tree because she saw her new neighbors cutting down a peach tree in their front yard and asked them why.

 

Main piece:

  • Peach tree

Peach trees should not be planted in front of the house.

The first reason is related to a Chinese folk speech: 桃花运 (In Pinyin: Táo Huā Yùn, Literally: Peach Flower Luck), which means good luck of encountering love relationships. If people in the family frequently see peach flowers as they step out the door, that might bring extramarital affairs to this family, which should be avoided.

Another reason is that in Chinese folklores, weapons or charms made of peach wood are used as tools in exorcism. So peach wood is considered to be related with evil things and people don’t want them to grow near their house.

 

  • Mulberry tree

Mulberry trees should not be planted in front of the house. The Chinese name for mulberry tree is 桑树 (In Pinyin: Sāng Shù, literally: Mulberry Tree) . Meanwhile, another character with the same pronunciation, 丧 (In Pinyin: Sāng), means funerals and mourning. Thus it is not a good sign to plant mulberry trees in front of one’s house.

 

  • Willow tree

Willow trees should not be planted in the back yard. Because willow trees do not bear fruits, willow trees in the back yard are believed to signify a family without offspring. Also, because willow trees often appear in Chinese grave yards (Collector’s note: which the informant doesn’t know why), they seem ominous.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

There are a lot of Chinese folk beliefs based on homophony or puns, probably because there are numerous Chinese characters with the same pronunciation. The belief about mulberry trees is a very good example. Chinese people also care a lot about arrangement, decoration and surroundings of their home.

Even though people do not necessarily believe in any cause-and-effect relation stated in these folk beliefs, they always think it’s better not to violate these taboos.

The folk belief about peach trees might count as a meta-folklore because it is derived from a folk speech and belief in magic.

Customs

Direction of knots on clothing

Context: The informant is the kendo teacher in a kendo club that the collector joins. Kendo is a traditional Japanese martial art and sport. Players use bamboo swords and protective armors. The informant and the collector were at a club party. The collector asked the informant about folk beliefs in Kendo. The informant is Japanese American. He has practiced kendo for thirty years.

 

Main piece:

In kendo, clothing is in traditional Japanese style. There are no buttons. All parts are tied around the body. When players are fastening their clothing, they should keep the knots (結び, In Roman: Musubi ) horizontal. The knots must not be vertical, because that is only for clothing of deceased people on their funerals, according to Japanese culture.

 

Collector’s thought:

It is probably common in customs that something about dead people is treated opposite from how it is supposed to be for living people. This may be an attempt to make a clear division between living people and the dead. An example of similar practices: in East Asian culture, for clothing that has two parts of collars, the collar on the left side should always be on the top for living people. Right collar on the top is only for dead people.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Witch in Georgia

Context: The collector is interviewing the informant for tales. The informant (as GL) is a Chinese USC student who went to high school in Georgia. His classmates told him this story in a history class, the content of which was related with witch hunts.

 

GL: The story happened when there was witch hunting.

Collector: In the US?

GL: Yeah probably. So there were too many hares and they ate up all the crops. So hunters wanted to hunt them down. There was one particular hare that was gigantic, very huge. And so they go consult the witch. They cannot catch the hare so they go to the witch for help. The witch is like, “Okay you guys should just go to this place to find it (the giant hare) and don’t let the giant black dog lose and just let it chase after the hare.” The hunters don’t know what that means. They keep that in mind and they find the giant hare. During the process (of pursuing the hare), a giant black dog jumps out of nowhere and takes a bite on the giant hare’s hind leg. The hare ran off. The giant black dog also ran off. The hunters went back to the witch and was like, “We found the hare, but sorry that we couldn’t keep track with the black dog coming out of nowhere.” But what they figured out was, you know, on the hip of the witch, there was a bite mark like where the dog bit the hare. I don’t remember what happened to the witch later. Sorry.

Collector: Do you think this story happens in Georgia?

GL: Yeah I guess so. You know, there was a time in the 17th or 18th century where there were witch trials and people were suspicious about witches causing misfortunes, you know.

Collector: Do you think people view the story as a legend or just a fairy tale?

GL: Apparently witches are not real. They were just unfortunate women accused as witches. I guess it has some sort of authenticity with it. Well it also can be completely made up by people.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

As the informant has mentioned, the legend is probably developed in the time of witch hunt. People of that period of time blamed natural factors that had negative impact on their daily production on witches and transferred their anger to innocent women. I think the tale is interesting, and it makes people remember the dark time of witch hunt.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

God’s Tour

Context:

The collector interviewed the informant for Taiwanese folklores. The informant is the father of the collector. He was born and raised in a town by Kaohsiung, a city in the southern part of Taiwan.

 

Main piece:

绕境  In Pinyin: rào jìng

Literally: tour around the region

Rao Jing is the practice of a particular god enshrined in one shrine going out for a tour to visit other shrines or temples that enshrine the same god. The most common Rao Jing is Rao Jing of Mazu.

Taiwanese people, just like people living in other coastal regions in Southern China and some parts of Southeast Asia, have strong belief in the folk goddess Mazu. She is the major god who protects fishermen on the sea. There are countless shrines for Mazu in Taiwan.

Exchange activities are held among different shrines. When clergies in the shrines ask for the will of the goddess and it is revealed that she want to go on a tour, they will carry the goddess (the idol) outside to visit other Mazu shrines. The goddess usually visits multiple shrines during one tour.

When a guest god arrives at another shrine, the clergies at the local shrine and the believers living around the shrine prepare welcome banquets. Banquets are for the god and also for the people. The guest god will be worshiped by locals, and all the party accompanying the guest god will be served, including the clergies, the workers such as the bearers of the god’s litter (the chair vehicle) and the believers who follow the god from the original place.

 

The informant never participates such practice. He has only witnessed it.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

I witnessed once or twice such practice in my hometown when I was little, but I didn’t know the name of it until the informant (my father) told me this time. It is an interesting practice in folk religious system that facilitates communication between regional communities.

It is also important to note that in the vernacular religious system in Taiwan (or maybe say in Chinese culture), even though different shrines worship the same god, there is a distinction between the individuals of that particular god enshrined in different places.

[geolocation]