USC Digital Folklore Archives / Riddle
Folk speech

Pair of Chinese Number Riddles

“A riddle… This one, this one’s uhh, a good riddle, because it also translates to English. So it’s umm, there’s a fisherman, oh, umm…

So you know how there’s Chinese New Year, right? And fifteen days after Chinese New Year, because Chinese New Year is a two-week celebration, fifteen day celebration, and the last day is the lantern festival. And at a traditional lantern festival, you uhh, you have a parade with a bunch of lanterns, you eat, like, a specific food, which is called like… Literal translation is, like, ‘soup balls,’ but it’s like, uhh, kinda like mochi kinda thing, it’s rice, rice balls, and like, sugar water… and then, umm, you also do riddles, that’s like also part of the festival.

So I learned this riddle when I was participating in that holiday, we had like… something… umm… and the riddle is:

‘A fisherman went out one day, and, umm… so first he caught… 6 fish without the head, then 9 fish without the tail, then 8 fish except these fish were only half a fish each. How many fish did he catch in total?’ ”

Like… whole fish?

“It’s a riddle! [laughs]

Okay, the answer is zero. And you’re like, ‘What the, what the heck?’ Because umm, if you take the number 6, and write it in Arabic numerals, and you take off the top half, it becomes 0. Same with the 9, if you take the bottom half it becomes 0. If you take 8 and you cut it in half, then it’s 0. So you have 0+0+0! [laughs]

It’s some trickery! Yeah!”

Why Arabic numerals?

“Umm, well, this isn’t, this isn’t like a really old one, but like, I just learned this one in the context of this Chinese event. And like, Chinese people like numbers, too, you know? [laughs]

It’s part of it, So like, I dunno if this part is a trick. There’s a version where… Is there a version? No, I don’t remember any other specific riddles, but I know there were a lot that had to deal with, like, what the actual Chinese numbers were written as in Chinese. I don’t remember any of those riddles. But I remember there was like a series of them…

Oh! There’s one… umm… it’s uhh… what is… you take half of six and round down, what is it. And you need to know how six is written in Chinese. It’s written like… dot on top, straight line, and then two dashes that are like kinda sloped into each other on the bottom. And you take half of six and round down, the actual meaning of the riddle is: You look at the bottom half of six, and that’s what eight is written as.

So then the question would be like half of six, round down. And all the little kids would be like ‘three!’ And you’d be like ‘no!!! It’s eight!’ And then they circle it on the board, and you go ‘wooooooow!’ [laughs]

Yeah, so that was like, basic level riddles.

Folk speech

American Proverb.

Subject: Proverb.


Brandon grew up in Sacramento California to a practicing Jewish family. He is an only child and works as a financial advisor at a back in New York City.

Original script: This too shall pass.My grandmother on my mothers side always said it, she literally said it for everything.
Happy or sad, she always said this too shall pass, it to me is a reminder to enjoy every moment because nothing lasts forever, sorrow fades as much as the happiness does. To me it’s not negative, it is grounding, and a reminder that change is constant.”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: The informant had a tattoo of the proverb on his foot. He got it to remind him to always live in the moment.

Context of the Performance: No context.

Thoughts about the piece: Like most proverbs, this one is used to guide someone in times of hardship. I can also relate it to the American Future Worldview that Dundes wrote about in his article “Thinking Ahead”.


O Que É, O Que É?

Informant was a 45 year old female who was born in Brazil and currently lives in Brazil. I talked to her over Skype.

Informant: So this is a game of riddle. It’s like a riddle, but it’s also a game. It’s called “O que é o que é,” which is “What is it What is it.” You come up with the riddles at school with friends. It’s something that you need to make people think and have fun. It’s our popular culture. It’s very used with kids, kids play with that a lot. You give clues to what a thing is by describing it, and then the other people have to guess what it is.

Collector: Can you maybe give me an example?

Informant: Ok, for example

O que é o que é

It is deaf and mute but tells everything?

Collector: I don’t know.

Informant: A book. (Laughs)

O que é o que é

That is always broken when it’s spoken?

Collector: Promises?

Informant: Secrets, but close. Last one,

O que é o que é

Is extremely thin, has teeth, but never eats, and even without having money gives food to whoever is hungry?

Collector: What?

Informant: The fork. These are just some examples. I remember a lot of them because they were a really big part of my childhood.

Collector: Why do you like this particular piece of folklore?

Informant: I like it because we used to have a lot of fun we used to play with it all the time, everyone used to have one of these riddles and we used to play all the time, it makes you think and it’s funny. Everytime we were with friends and we were talking or even with family we used to play, but mainly with friends, we used to read books about this to tell friends. It’s just a happy time, we used to play a lot and it was funny.

I remember hearing these riddles when I was a kid. Every time I would go on a road trip, my parents would say these riddles to me about things that would pass by our windows, and it was a fun way to pass the time. It’s really cool to learn that this was also a part of my mother’s childhood, and that she would often play this riddle game with her friends – something I never did. Although it’s mostly a children’s thing, any Brazilian will recognize the famous phrase “o que é o que é” as a riddle. A lot of the riddles are actually quite silly, such as the ones that my mother told me, but it is because they are so silly that they make people laugh.

Folk speech

Trapped in a Room (Riddle)

My informant is Natalie Aroeste. Natalie is a 19-year-old female student at USC. She is half-Mexican, half-white, speaks fluent Spanish and English and grew up in San Diego.


Natalie: “So you are in a room with no windows and no doors, all that’s there is a piano and a mirror, how do you get out?”

Umm I’m not sure you teleport?

Natalie: “No. you’re not going to get it it doesn’t make sense”

Ok then tell me how do you get out?

Natalie: “To get out you look in the mirror, you see what you saw, you take the saw, you cut the piano in half, two halves make a whole, and you climb out the hole, I know it’s dumb”

Where did you first hear this riddle?

Natalie: “Just when I was younger from a friend, we used to think it was the funniest thing, probably around ten years-old”

Was this a well known riddle?

Natalie: “No no one I told knew it”

Is there any meaning to this riddle for you?

Natalie: “No it’s just a riddle but it makes me think of all the dumb stuff I thought was hilarious when I was younger”

To be honest I wasn’t sure whether to make this a riddle or a joke. Its posed in the form of a riddle where a problem is prompted and you have to figure out how to solve it. In this case there is a problem but the solution is a play on words more than a real answer. It’s funny but also frustrates those who spend time trying to solve

Folk speech

The Hung Man (Riddle)

My informant is Natalie. Natalie is a 19-year-old female student at USC. She is half-Mexican, half-white, speaks fluent Spanish and English and grew up in San Diego.


Natalie: “There was a man who was found dead in a room. He had hung himself from the ceiling but all that was in the room was the rope, the dead man, and a puddle of water on the floor. How did the man kill himself?”

I don’t know, how?

Natalie: “The answer is that the men used a block of ice to reach the ceiling and tie the noose and when the ice melted he was left hanging there to die”

Where did you hear this riddle?

Natalie: “I heard this one on a field trip. We were hiking and the guide knew a bunch but that’s just one of the ones I remember”

Does this riddle mean anything to you?

Natalie: “It’s just a riddle I guess it just reminds me of that trip”


When dealing with riddles as folklore, we are dealing with a form that most would never consider folklore and do not pay attention to it being a performance that they are sharing. Riddles are especially good for folklore as well because the language can change so much but in the end the answer has to be the same. However, with riddles it is also precision of language that is sometimes most important for the riddle to make sense. In this case it was just a riddle that you had to think about to solve. It was just a fun one to get your mind thinking and to Natalie it is just a regular riddle however one that reminds her of the past like so much other folklore does.

Folk speech

Where’s that Polar Bear Going?

Folk Piece

Question: You’re standing in a room which is centered perfectly on the south pole. You see a polar bear walk by the window. In what cardinal direction is the polar bear?

Answer: North. It can be northeast or northwest.


Background information

“I don’t even know where I heard this. Probably when I was in middle school? I don’t know, I definitely remember telling it to people in high school – it’s one of my favorite riddles. It’s just like, simple, but sort of like fucks with your mind a bit? You can almost, like, feel your head spinning as you think about it”



“I usually tell this story only when other people bring riddles up. I don’t, like, just casually whip out some riddles because I want to. But they are fun and entertaining, I guess.”



This, along with “A Dog Walks into a Forest” and “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…” were part of an exchange between two informants that went back and forth with riddles they knew. While the first informant had familial connections to the riddles he was telling, this informant seemed to have less attachment to his riddles. Still, however, it was a point of pride for him when no one could answer. For more analysis on what this competitive aspect of riddling might mean, reference my post “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…”

As for the piece itself, I think it’s interesting that this riddle would probably have been easier in years past. As we become more removed from our transportation and travel around our world, so too does our sense of direction become lost. I know many people who do not know the difference between East and West. While that is certainly not standard, and not a good thing in any way, it was still interesting for me to have to mentally orient myself on a map on the South Pole, spinning my head around trying to make sense of it all.


Folk speech

Three Lightbulbs, Two Rooms, One Answer…

Folk Piece

Question: There are two rooms, one room has nothing but three switches. The other room has nothing but three light bulbs. You can only enter each room once. How do you determine which switch corresponds to which light bulb? Also: the walls aren’t transparent.

Answer: Flip one on, wait a couple minutes, repeat. Feel the heat of the bulbs in the other room.


Background information

The participant likes this riddle because it’s a bit longer than most of the ones he tells. I talked a little about his story in my post ‘A Dog Walks into a Forest…’ But essentially, he likes these riddles because they remind him of him and his dad growing up telling them to one another. He also said “Usually I’d ask riddles that have more to do with word play, I don’t know. But this one is just like a fun variation on that and makes the person think a little bit harder.



I actually guessed this one right, and he was pretty impressed. He asked, “You hadn’t heard that one before?” It was originally being told in a battle of wits between him and a friend of mine, who were asking riddles to one another trying to out-riddle the other. He usually will tell it if someone else will tell one first, or he might do it just to break the ice between he and someone he knows.



Just like the other riddles, this one was told as a back-and-forth exchange between two informants. What I find to be most interesting is the competitive aspect of this folk telling. The informant actually seemed to be legitimately surprised, and even almost a bit annoyed, that I had known the answer. As with traditional riddles, like this one is, there are traditional answers. Typically, those answers are not supposed to be easy to think of; they wouldn’t be considered good riddles if they were. Riddles almost give the person telling them the power to drive the conversation; only they know the answer, or other people who may have heard it.


Also intriguing is the competitive aspect between the two participants. I asked for different riddles, or jokes, but it seemed that just as one ended, another began. I didn’t say that the best one won some sort of prize, or that the most clever would be included. However, it seemed that they were more interested in telling one another these riddles than to me. Why might this be?

I would argue that these participants had learned these riddles throughout their childhood and early adulthood; to them, they own their histories and the memories of them. These riddles, actionable to recall at any time, act as a way to show the history of their wits. Whoever is able to stump the other repeatedly, or has more clever riddles, is the one that has had superior intellectual exposure to riddles. It’s common after someone tells a riddle to say “Ooooh, that’s a good one!” This qualification of which riddles are the most clever can act as an actual social agent in determining the wits of an individual.

Folk speech

A Dog Walks into a Forest…

Folk Piece:

Who far could a dog walk into a forest?

Halfway because after that he’s walking out.

Background information

“Well, this is the first riddle my dad ever gave me. Uh, you know, I enjoy word play and I think it’s just a light switch that makes people’s heads really turn a bit. Riddles are just a fun way to get a conversation started sometimes, and yeah, I don’t know, it’s just fun seeing people try and figure it out”


“Well, uh, like I said it’s the first riddle my dad ever gave me. We’d often toss riddles at each other back and forth – well, like, once I was older. And uh, yeah, I’m not sure where this one came from before my Dad, but I know my Grandfather also enjoyed word play, so if I had to guess it would be from him. Now I have a bunch of them I ask people if they ever come up. ” Sure enough, this riddle came up when exactly that was happening. I’d asked a group of friends if they had any good riddles or jokes, and two of my friends went back and forth with them. This was the first one that was mentioned.


When I first heard the informant tell this riddle in the group, I had no idea it was an actually important riddle to him. At the time, I was just jotting the riddles down as they were told back and forth between this participant and another. I guess it would make sense, though, that his favorite riddle would come first.

This would be an example of a true riddle as are most of the riddles the informant would be talking about. Those that have a traditional question and answer, that can be guess based on clues hidden in the riddle itself. I believe this participant does it, however, to test an acquaintances intelligence. Not that he expects the other person to guess it correctly, but I think he expects them to enjoy it because of how clever it is. This participant definitely values his intellect and the intellect of his friends, so that would make sense.



Indian Riddle- Big and little Indian

Indian Riddle


Primary Language- English

Occupation- Head of Marketing Department

Residence- Los Angeles, California

Date of Performance- 4/25/16

Riddle- There are two Indians: a big Indian, and a little Indian. the little Indian is the big Indian’s son but the big Indian is not the little Indian’s father. How is this possible?

Answer- the big Indian is the little Indian’s mother

Elizabeth learned this riddle when she was a child. Her parents were waiting in line with her and they decided to kill time with a riddle. They asked her this riddle and she simply could not figure it out. She spent the whole time in line and the trip back home trying to figure out the riddle. There was no internet when she was a kid so she could not just ask google. It took her two days to finally realize that the riddle was very simple and the big indian was the little indians’ mother. She will always remember the riddle because of how long it took her to find an easy answer and for her, it will always remain an indian riddle.

The riddle can be used anywhere anytime. There are many publications of this riddle all over the internet. There are used to pass by time or test someone’s brain power.

Riddles like these can provide a great time. They are really simple but some people think they are very complex. I had actually asked one of my roommates the same riddle and it took him a good 15 minutes to figure it out! Although the riddle says big Indian and small Indian, all you have to do is change Indian for something like Italian and it people automatically will associate the riddle with Italian and perhaps believe it originated from there. It is an example of how a small change in the documentation of folklore can change its meaning and peoples perspective.


Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

“And the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea”

Alexey Sinyagin


Proverb:  “Волга впадает в Каспийское море”

Phonetic: “Volga vpadayet v Kaspiyskoye morye”

“Yeah, and the Volga empties out into the Caspian Sea”


Meaning: This proverb is used in a sarcastic way, as a way to signify that you are stating the obvious.


Background: This is used between any people in Russia, and references their formal geographic education, which is very strong in Russia and is sometimes mocked because it often lacks practical uses. In addition, Russian formal education often focuses on rote memorization of facts, and knowledge like this would be an example of pointless information that nonetheless everybody knew.


Analysis: This mockery of the redundant brings attention to the Russian value of brevity and modesty: at least in respect to not showing off useless facts. Russian humour is often wry and employs irony, so overstated or over-important people will often find themselves mocked. At the same time, the fact that everybody knows a fact like this is a reference to the fact that Russia is such a huge land that learning all of its geography is something many students resent. Comparing such unwanted knowledge, which is also commonly known, is more likely to make the person stating a different obvious fact feel ashamed, and likely feel like a teacher or authority figure. These figures are not usually seen favorably in Russian society on the part of those who they teach or are supposed to control.