Folk Beliefs

Chinese Superstition about Rice

“When you eat rice—when you eat a bowl of rice—you’re not supposed to leave any bits of rice left in the bowl when you’re finished. So, if you leave one, it’s said that your future wife or future husband would have pimples on his face, or on her face.

“You can have leftover fish, in fact it’s good manners to have leftover fish or meat. It indicates that you have enough to eat. During Chinese New Year, one thing that we will do is eat fish, and leave some on the plate. And that will be a good sign that we’re going to have more for next year.”

Q. Why do you think that this superstition exists?

A. Rice is like a very basic farmer’s food, I guess. It’s something that everybody eats. And for somebody to not finish their rice—you’re wasting sort of a staple food product. That’s bad.

If you can eat meat—if you can eat fish—that means that to begin with, your family is very wealthy, or if you’re not wealthy, it has to be a special occasion, and you want to honor the rituals more than you bother about the fish. But rice is a daily thing, and prudence is something that we are taught.

Q. If you’re eating rice now, will you eat all of it?

A. If I’m eating rice, I will eat all of it. I no longer believe in it, but it’s a habit that got passed on when I was a kid. So, when I was a kid, my mother would stand over me and say, “You have to finish your rice.” Did I really believe that my wife would have pimples? I don’t know, I can’t remember. But I know that since my mother was watching over me, I ate my rice properly. And to this day, when I’m eating out anywhere, in the cafeteria, I still make an effort to finish all the rice. I try to finish my food all the time, but rice is special.

Analysis: This superstition illumines the dependence of the Chinese diet upon rice, while also reflecting that the majority of China’s population did not historically possess much wealth. The belief seems geared toward teaching children—if you fail to finish your rice, then your future husband or wife will have pimples. Thus, the superstition seems intended to teach children not to waste food, an important value in a society in which most people own little.

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