Author Archives: Mu Fan Shih

Chinese Religious Folk Belief on Life after Death and Spirits

This folk belief was collected from my Father. My father was born as a farmer’s son into a veteran’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. His father and mother ran away from China to Taipei during the Chinese Civil War. Many of his cultural practices and beliefs are taken from mainland Chinese culture. Because of his background, he is considered a “mainlander” in Taiwan (Chinese in Taiwan are divided into Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese or indigenous). My father graduated from Iowa University with an MBA. His B.A was obtained in Taiwan.

When we were having our regular telephone session, he told me the the following recollection on the phone (in Chinese):

(This is not a direct transcription or translation. It’s based off what I remember him saying)

“I was at your grandmother’s house the other day and during the course of our conversations she remarked how Grandpa’s spirit hadn’t visited the family at all after his death. Because of this, she began wondering if Grandpa was doing okay in the spirit world. I chatted with her a bit more and she then told this story:

‘Your great grandmother used lived in a province called Fujien in China. She was married into the Lian family at around 8 or 9 and stayed at the Lian household to be raised into an ideal wife. At the Lian’s household, your great grandmother was one your great great grandmother’s favorites (your great grandmother’s mother-in-law). They were so close, they even slept in the same bed together–like mother and daughter. So in your great great grandmother’s old age, when she felt death looming, she told your great grandmother that after her death, she would come back as a spirit and protect your great grandmother. Thus, she told your great grandmother not to be afraid if she heard or saw things at night when her spirit came to visit. Now, when the time came and your great great grandmother passed away, supernatural occurrences actually began to happen in the Lian household. Late at night the drawers would rattle, floorboards would creak and places your great great grandmother frequented would shake–your great great grandmother’s spirit had, as she promised, come back as a spirit to visit the house she was so used to and to say her final goodbyes before moving on. Naturally, all this supernatural activity scared the wits out of your great grandmother’s aunt. She would be so scared she wouldn’t go to the bathroom at night and resort to peeing on the bed! But, knowing that it was only your great great grandmother’s spirit coming to visit, your great grandmother continued her late night activities with indifference and she was happy to know that her great great grandmother was doing well in the afterlife.’

Later, I asked her why Grandpa’s spirit hasn’t visited, to which she replied that it was probably because a) in a modern cityscape, it’s not dark enough. There are too many lights, which scare the ghosts away. And b) they had moved too much and Grandpa couldn’t find their new homes.”

When I asked my father what the significance of this family legend was, my father said that he said the pre-dominant belief (even to this day) in Chinese culture was that the spirit or the soul of a person stays on earth for a week before it moves on to heaven. And during this week, the spirit often visits loved ones and goes to places he or she was used to going when they were living.

While my father said the significance of this legend was the folk belief that “a spirit stays on earth for a week after death”, I want to point out a few other folk beliefs and practices revealed in his story. First of all, we can see a sexist or patriarchal society structure in China about four generations ago. My great great grandmother was married around the age of 8 to be raised as an ideal wife. From this tidbit, it would seem that the only role a woman had in life was to be a wife. Second, we see a firm belief in the supernatural. My great grandmother and my grandmother never questioned the supernatural occurrences in this family legend–to them it was normal and commonly accepted that there were spirits living around them. Adding to that, the recollection implies that this belief in the supernatural is passed from generation to generation through word of mouth. Because of this, my father believes in the supernatural and even I, being an atheist, believe in these folk beliefs about the supernatural as well. Also, similar to other folk beliefs, this family legend reinforces the idea that ghosts only come out at night (in this case, the reason provided is that ghosts fear the light).

Most importantly, in this legend, a great significance is given to the family. Where in the folklore of other cultures, ghosts and spirits may come out to scare or devour humans, in this legend, the spirit returns to give condolences to its family–giving spirits a much more homely feeling than other folk legends and superstitions do. This emphasis on family reinforces the importance placed on the values of family and community that so many of our contemporary scholars have found in Chinese culture.

Fork Bending Trick

This folk item is a folk trick where the performer manipulates a fork to make it seem as if he or she bent a fork. Two people perform the trick in the video. The first person is my original informant. He then taught the second person how to do it. Watch the following video: Fork Trick

After my informant (the one in the green stripes) performed the trick, I interviewed him on the trick (my informant is a Caucasian American who grew up in Los Altos, California):

“Collector: So, who taught you that?

Informant: My grandpa.

Collector: When and how did he teach you?

Informant: When I was like eight, at a restarant, he did it to me and I was scared and I was wondering how he did it and he showed me.

Collector: Why were you scared?

Informant: ‘Cause I thought he was a magician. beat [laughter]

Collector: When do you usually perform this trick?

Informant: When I’m bored during dinner.

Collector: Have you seen others perform this trick?

Informant: My uncle…’cause he learned it from my Grandpa when he was younger too. My uncle was scared that my Grandpa was a magician too. [laughter]”

While at first glance, this seems just like a simple folk trick performed to entertain others at dinner, there seems to be a certain quality of coming of age. My informant learned this trick from his Grandpa when he was eight. He states that he was scared at first because he thought his Grandpa was a magician. After learning the trick himself, which was shortly after, he calmed down. Furthermore, his uncle who learned the trick in the same way was scared by my informant’s Grandpa too. In a way, this trick dispels a belief in magic and what is supernatural– the trick relies on a childlike belief in magic, but revealing the trick, which seems to be part of the folk trick (as my informant immediately taught us how to do the trick after), dispels that belief in magic. Hence, I consider this a sort of coming of age trick.

This trick is quite communal–one learns it from the active bearer immediately after he or she performs it.

Searching “bending fork trick” on google gives 1,020,000 results. And also the following video result:

The video shows variations on the fork bending trick and similarly, the “magician” reveals his trick right after.

Four Twenty – Folk Holiday

On 4.20.2011, I heard many students around me mention a celebration of something known as Four Twenty or 420. Investigating into it, I found that it was a folk holiday where people celebrated the use of marijuana. Interviewing one informant on the holiday, he said the following:

“Collector: So, what is four twenty?

Informant: Four twenty is when people go out and they smoke the dope… a lot.

Collector: What’s the dope?

Informant: Weed.

Collector: So where does four twenty come from?

Informant: I’ve always heard it as the police code for possession of marijuana is like Four Twenty…I’m not sure, it’s just what it’s called.

Collector: So do you know anybody that has celebrated Four Twenty?

Informant: Well, on Four Twenty, my friends would go out and smoke at like 4:20 p.m, ideally.

Collector: So on Four Twenty, everybody would be smoking weed?

Informant: Yep.

Collector: Where did you learn this?

Informant: Just at school, all my friends did it.

Collector: Where did they learn it from?

Informant: Well one of friends is notoriously bad and he spread it to us.

Collector: Ok, well, what do you think the importance of four twenty is?

Informant: I don’t think it has any significance, it’s just an excuse for people to go out and smoke weed–but it’s widely celebrated.”

My informant is a Caucasian American who grew up in Los Altos, California. In his interview, he considers Four Twenty a somewhat real and legitimatized holiday that one celebrates with one’s friends–a holiday where he and his friends would go out and smoke marijuana. It is interesting to note that while much marijuana related activity is illegal in America, this sort of folk holiday is still prevalent among the teenage youth culture (especially when California Proposition 19 was not passed). The focus of Four Twenty seems not on the day or the holiday but the a sort of bond or camaraderie between smoking partners, such as friends.

I, the collector, when walking around the college dormitory, was actually invited to smoke marijuana with acquaintances I met or knew throughout the school year. Thus, I am sure the emphasis of the holiday is not on the act of smoking marijuana, but on a certain joy in knowing one shares a culture with another–a marijuana culture.

In addition, as my informant mentioned, the origin of 4.20 could perhaps be a police code for the possession of marijuana. No matter if it is true or not, this suggests Four Twenty as a part of a rebel culture, where one breaks the law or the rules that govern one’s actions.

Swim Team Initiation

My informant is a third generation Chinese American male  student. He grew up in Irvine, California. He was on the swim team for one year on his high school. During a casual interview (with other friends around), when asked about any sort of tricks members of the swim team would play on each other, he said:

Informant: Like with the thing where you reach out for someone’s dick and if they flinch…then you put out your hands and uh…give them a titty scoop, which is basically you, you flick their man boobs [lots of laughter]. No really, if someone flinches, when you’re gonna hit them in the balls, it shows that uh…inhibitions…I don’t know what’s a good word…their…their doubtful of their manliness, they think they don’t have balls of steel that could withstand like a simple hand tap. So you have to, uh, flick their male breast to remind them that their not as manly as they might think they are.

Interviewer (me): Is it like an initiation ritual? Do you do it to newcomers or what?

Informant: Well, the more experienced people kinda know the routine, so they don’t flinch. No one actually hits another speedo-ed man’s balls [lots of laughter]. I guess everyone has to accept that no one is going to touch another in the balls so if you flinch it’s kinda saying you don’t trust your teammates.

Interviewer: So uh, what do you think is the importance of this…uh…

Informant: It builds trust among teammates, ’cause you know, if you’re all giddy and you flinch all the time everyone is going to always flick you in the tits [laughter], you’re going to have to learn to accept your teammates or you know, your tits are going to be like jiggling all over the place and you’ll be known for not having balls of steel.

Interviewer: Ok, uh, did you have this done to yourself, or?

Informant: No, I’m a man, I have balls of steel.

Interviewer: So uh, nobody ever touched you [laughter] in the balls?

Informant: No, uh, they tried to do it, but I wouldn’t flinch…I learned fast.

While the informant makes this sound like a folk game (prank) that tests one’s masculinity, I would consider this item occupational folklore because it is an initiation or team bonding ritual for a swim team. While the game itself tests what my informant calls “manliness”, throughout the interview, my informant made it sound as if this prank was something the experienced members of the swim team pulled on new members. As suggested by my informant, new members would most likely flinch when the experienced members reached to hit them in the testicles and therefore would have to undergo the “titty scoop” punishment. But, experienced members (such as my informant) knowing the game, would stop themselves from flinching and therefore escape the “titty scoop” punishment. Thus, this prank becomes a initiation ritual where new members gradually learn what it is to be an experienced member of the swim team. In another way, it is also a trust building exercise, as my informant points out, where new members learn to trust that their teammates won’t hit them in the testicles.

However, interestingly, as my informant shows, the swim team has an emphasis on masculinity and what it means to be “manly”. This implies that the male gender identity continues to hold significance in terms of power and strength for the swim team and perhaps, because of this, the swim team thinks that to be successful (a powerful and strong swimmer), one must be masculine.

Supersitions from New Orleans and Variants from East Asia

I was interviewing my informant about superstitions he had at home and this is the transcription of that interview:

Informant: Well, I’m Glenn and I’m from New Orleans and I’ve been there since I was a toddler. I guess a story that I know of, back home uh, whenever, there are certain things, nerves that go off and if they do, you’re supposed to know what that means something like if your ear itches, that means that someone has been talking about you and if your hand itches that means that you are going to get money soon and uh, it’s just a bunch of things…if you, uh, bite your lip or your tongue, it means you’ve been lying a lot lately. It’s not true, but it’s what you’re suppose to believe

Collector: Where did you hear this?

Informant: You hear this all over the place, it changes from time to time, like sometimes you hear that if your eye twitches, someone you know had died and you’ll be like–no, that’s not true, no, if your eye itches, no, I don’t quite remember.

Collector: But who did you learn this from? Your parents?

Informant: No, I didn’t–Well, I guess, yes, uh, my stepmother would say if your hand itches that means you’ve got money coming your way.

Collector: So, why do you think these are important?

Informant: It’s definitely something you tell kids, it’s something like if you’re not sure what’s the real medical reason is, you could always just use one of these, and I’m not sure exactly why your hand itches sometimes to this day…I believe money’s just coming your way [smile].”

This interview reveals many of the superstitions concerning body parts from New Orleans. I believe my informant has elaborated enough about many of these beliefs, but it’s easy to see where these beliefs come from. For example, “your ear itches because someone has been talking about you” clearly comes from the fact that talking and ears go together. Similarly, hand passes through money and the itching must have to do with that fact. Moreover, you use your mouth to lie, so of course, lying must be related to the mouth–you bite your tongue when you lie. These are just many of the superstitions that parents pass down to their children in different cultures and like my informant said, most likely originated before there was a medical explanation for everything. With a lack of medical or scientific information, people turned to superstition for explanation.

Just a few variations from different cultures I’ve heard. Before that, here’s a bit of my background for reference: I’m a third generation Chinese Taiwanese male student who was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I speak English and Chinese. I lived in Taipei for two years before moving to New Jersey, where I lived for seven years. After that, I returned to Taipei where I finished high school.

Returning to the subject, in Chinese culture, if your ear is hot, then that means someone misses you. If your hand is stubby and thick, then that means you will be good at making money. In Japanese culture, you sneeze suddenly when someone is talking behind your back. While I don’t know why some of the same reasons are attributed to different body parts, it is quite interesting to note that each culture places the same sort of significance on things like coming into money and people talking behind your back.

Nazi Deathcamp Catch Joke

My informant is a Caucasian American who grew up in Los Altos, California. He performed this catch joke on me when we were casually talking in the suite of my college dormitory:

“Collector: It’s weird how hilarious holocaust death camp jokes are…I mean, they’re terrible!

Informant: Hey, don’t make fun of that. My grandfather died in a camp like that.

Collector: Wait–what? What? I’m sorry.

Informant: Yeah, you dick, he died–he fell off a watch tower. [Laughter]”

This is a catch joke in the style where the performer catches his target and then subverts his expectations. In this case, the catch was making the target (me) feel bad for making a Holocaust joke and insulting the memory of his grandfather. The subversion was telling me that his grandfather fell off a watch tower and implying that his grandfather was a Nazi.

The fact that this joke was performed suggests the de-sensitization of the taboo surrounding atrocities of the Holocaust among the younger generation.