Tag Archives: China

Ghost Story in Primary School

Background: The interviewer and the informant went to the same primary school together in Qingdao, China. Interview asks the informant to retell a horror story that was very popular in their primary school. 

Informant: So next to the gate there was this statue of a woman, she’s playing a harp. And a long time ago there was this girl who stayed in school for longer than usual, cuz you know, she was on duty to clean the common areas in the hall. She was about to leave and she’s the only one left, and when she passed by that statue, she saw the statue woman blink. Then all of a sudden she really wanted to pee, so she went back into the building, to pee of course. Ok she didn’t go into the building, she went to that small restroom near the playground, you know where that is. She got in there, saw a janitor, and that person was wearing a hat and cleaning the floor. She didn’t bother and went in to pee. Then when she’s finished, she couldn’t get out! There was an air wall that blocked her way. Then… she never got out.

Context: This story was really popular in this particular primary school. Almost every student who went there has heard of the story. The interviewer and the informant first heard of the story when they were in second or third grade. Some people heard it from their classmates, and a few heard it from the older fifth and sixth graders. 

Analysis: The statue mentioned in the story was situated near the school gate and near a small school garden. There is a very shallow pool in the garden, and first and second graders are usually prohibited from going into the garden. I think this story serves as a cautionary tale masked with a mysterious, horror element. The physical location of the statue is at a liminal point—beyond the statue is prohibited and possibly dangerous. The girl in the story is in danger when she sees the statue, and when the impact of this terror is translated into real life, young school kids may be deterred by the statue and areas around it. This explains why the story was popular especially among younger kids. For the fifth and sixth graders, the garden and the school gate are no longer dangerous to them. The mystery and threats in the garden lose their attractions, and subsequently the tale is no longer scary. 

Ghosts and Murderers on a Bus

Background: The interviewer and the informant recall a ghost story that circulated in their primary school in Qingdao, China. 

Interviewer: Can you retell that Beijing bus story?

Informant: Yep. There’s umm there’s a guy, and he went on a bus. umm and then the bus got to a station, and then several people came onto the bus, and then suddenly there’s an old grandma walking towards him. And she sort of forced him to get off the bus. He said, this isn’t my station yet. That grandma didn’t give a damn and was like, pulling him off of the bus. And then after they got off, she said to him, those guys that just got on, they were ghosts, you see, they don’t have feet……and then the next day he picked up a newspaper, he found that the bus rushed into a mountain valley, and everyone on that bus died. He felt like he passed the gate of hell ‘cause that grandma literally saved his life.

Interview: Ohh I remember those guys wore Qing Dynasty robes too, like the ones Qing zombies wore on TV!

Informant: Yep yep yep, and oh yeah then the next day when the police found the bus, they opened the gas tank and it was filled with blood…

Interviewer: whooo I still get chills listening to this story…

Informant: Yeah and I heard it was adapted from a true crime story. 

Interviewer: Oh really? I think xxx told me that story the first time, but then two years later I saw something very similar on Baidu Tieba [note: a popular blog site, the Chinese equivalence of Reddit]. 

Informant: Yeah yeah I saw the post too. It really blew up everywhere hahaha. I forgot where I heard about the true crime version, but it was actually a murder case. I think it was a guy, he also was taking a bus ride, and then a few other guys went onto the bus too, and then it was still an old woman who pulled him off of that bus. It was like she saw blood on those guys, and they probably just killed somebody, and they were trying to ditch the body or something like that. Anyways the next day the bus rushed into a valley too. Basically they controlled the bus driver and hijacked the bus, but it lost control and fell down the road.

Analysis: This was a very popular story among fourth and fifth graders in this primary school. I think the reason its horror works particularly well for this demographics is because that bus was the most common form of transportation for students at that age. It serves as a metaphorical cautionary tale to alert the young students of the danger with riding the bus alone. 

This is also interesting, because the ghost story is created on the basis of an urban legend. The two versions are essentially the same story, but with slightly different elements. This shows that folk tales are very prone to variation and multiplicity.

Chinese Chopstick God

Background: My informant is a friend of mine of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese heritage. His parents are both from Taiwan and are mixed between Chinese, indigenous Taiwanese, and Japanese. The purpose of the call was specifically so that I could gather folklore from my informant, and they were aware about that as well. The entire main piece is a transcription of our call.

Context: This conversation was recorded on a zoom meeting that we had on a Wednesday afternoon. My informant is a friend of mine, and the conversation occurred in both of our rooms. The purpose of the call was specifically so that I could gather folklore from my informant, and they were aware about that as well. During the call and in between our discussions of different folklore items, we talked socially about how we were acclimating. Thus, this conversation was more casual than the rest of my interviews. My informant’s dad, who is the source of this piece, is mixed between Taiwanese native and Chinese from the Hunan province.

Main Piece:

This was the first one I thought about right now when you were listing stuff out…uhm let’s see… the first thing I remember was when I was younger like when I was in elementary school I was told that I could not play with my chopsticks at dinner, like I couldn’t make them into like I couldn’t use them to pretend to be drumsticks or couldn’t use them to pretend to be like standing up in the rice. And I thought it was kind of odd because I saw everyone else around me doing it. Like, why can I do this, his belief or rationale behind it was that Ancient Chinese people believe that the chopsticks, where the tools of ….I believe it’s like the word God or something like that. And so by playing around with them, you’re disrespecting the wood God and children who played with. I’m not kidding. I swear, you looking back on it, it seems pretty ridiculous but you know for a kid who doesn’t know any better, like, you know, you’re just like enthralled by this. Anyhow, so as a kid. If you played with the chopsticks, and like, you know, use them as drumsticks or whatever you make the word God angry and then in the middle of the night. The word God will come and spank in the middle of the night with the chopsticks

Me: ahahahaha. What if you sleep on your back?

Too bad. I don’t know how much I believe that at the time. But I can tell you after day, to this day, I still don’t really play with my chopsticks. I’m very Utilitarian with them.

Me: So, so, like, how old were you when when this story was told to you.

I would say like five or six ish. I was like the beginning of elementary school.

Thoughts: I found this very interesting because my parents are Chinese and I have never heard of a wood god that spanks people. Like many folk stories/tales/beliefs, this folk belief is probably told to children to make sure that they behave.

Determining Marriages from the Chinese Zodiac Calendar

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening, and the informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains the significance behind the Chinese Zodiac calendar in relation how marriages or compatible partners are determined. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I know the Chinese zodiac calendar holds a lot of importance to the informant, for she has discussed it a lot with me in the past. She told me that she doesn’t remember how exactly she learned all of this; rather, it’s so integrated into Chinese culture and talked about so often that it almost seems like common knowledge that everyone will learn one way or another. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me (while still trying to stay true to her performance), because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription). In this conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as S.

 Text:

S: “In China, we have these zodiacs to, um, see what type of animal you are. For example, this year is the Year of the Pig, so everyone born this year will… have the Pig as their zodiac animal. I don’t remember exactly how it works, but, um, like, the Zodiac calendar lines up with the lunar year—everything we do and believe is connected to what point of the lunar year we’re at. So you can see why this zodiac calendar is so important. We even use it to, um, determine marriages. For example, if a person’s zodiac animal is a Chicken, they can’t marry someone who’s a Dog because chickens and dogs always fight in real life; symbolically, this means that these two, if they get married, will fight for the rest of their lives. Eventually, all of this fighting will break their marriage. Basically we turn to the zodiac calendar to look at, uhh, compatibility. Before Chinese people couples get married, they want to look at each others zodiacs and then look at this other thing called a ‘huang li,’ which determines which years and days they should get married.”

 

K: “Who else can’t get married?”

 

S: “I know that Pigs are considered perfect matches with Tigers, but, um, though I honestly can’t tell you why. I do know that Pigs, in Chinese culture, represent wealth, riches, and, like, will bring lots of happiness, so most people want to marry someone who’s zodiac animal is the year the Pig. People also want to get married the Year of the Pig, and especially want to have children the Year of the Pig.

 

Thoughts:

When I was a kid, my parents would always talk about our zodiac animals—my father is a sheep and my mother and I are rabbits. They would always talk about how their love was meant to be because, in the Chinese Zodiac calendar, sheeps and rabbits are considered perfect matches. Because it was so integrated into my childhood, I think I started to take on the characteristics and personality traits that were expected of a “Rabbit.”

After being told this folklore, I looked up what the expected traits of a Rabbit were, and the weaknesses include “timid” and “hesitant”—though I’ve grown out of it now, as I child, I rarely spoke to anyone because I was too nervous. Strengths of a Rabbit include being polite, generous, and responsible, which were all things that I was (and still am) known for among my family, friends, and peers. Because these traits of our Zodiac animals are so true to who we really are, it’s hard not to take these animals so seriously. As I’m getting older, the concept of marriage is becoming more and more relevant, so it’s natural that my Chinese parents, relatives, and the informant (who is also a Chinese relative) are starting to talk about my Zodiac in the context of marriage. Rabbits are apparently extremely compatible with most other Zodiac animals, according to my family, so perhaps that’s why they’re so confused as to why I’m not in a relationship yet/ thinking about marriage yet.

 

Why You Can’t Split a Pear

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening, and the informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people can’t split pears when they eat them.I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad luck.Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription). In this conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as S.

 

Text:

S: Um, so, um, Chinese people have a lot of traditions that determine what you can and cannot do. So, in my family, my grandparents told us that two people can’t share one pear. In Chinese, the pear is pronounced “li,” but it has another meaning as well, which, when translated to English, means “separate.” So if a couple shares one pear, that means that they’ll eventually separate and can’t keep their marriage. If a mother and daughter split one pear, they have to separate– just, two people can never share one pear. But, for some reason, three or more people can share a pear; it’s just that two people can’t share a single pear or else they’re destined to separate.

 

K: Do you take this seriously?

 

S: I take this VERY seriously. When I cut a pear, only I eat it, only my daughter eats it, or only my daughter eats it. If my husband and daughter unknowingly eat slices of the same pear, then I will make sure to grab a slice for myself and eat it.

 

Thoughts:

Just like my informant, I also grew up with my grandparents telling me of this taboo that I can’t share a pear with someone. Frankly, I agree with it—as a Chinese person, I’m quite superstitious, and even when I think some of the traditions I follow are a bit ridiculous, it never hurts to abide by them just to be safe. The fear about sharing a pear makes sense— “sharing a pear” in Chinese is 分梨(fēn lí), which is a homophone of 分离(fēn lí), which means “to divorce” or “to separate.” This taboo seems to have elements of sympathetic magic, otherwise known as “like produces like.” “Sharing a pear” sounds just like “separate” in Chinese, so by sharing a pear with someone, it’s the equivalent action to separating with them.

In a cultural context, family in China is so important. We are raised to be extremely loyal to our elders; everything we have, from our knowledge to our place of privilege, is because of them. So why would you run the risk of being separated from them? This type of folklore is performed because we like to feel that we have control over processes like relationships. As humans, we have this feeling where we can’t control the bad things that occur over the people we love, so we attach this fear we have to rituals. These rituals, which include taboos and prohibitions are practiced to protect our social bonds.

Qu Yuan

Sophie is an international student from Taiwan. She is pursuing a B.S. in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. She hopes to find a career in computer security and plans to stay in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, to work. She enjoys watching anime and learning; from USC-sponsored workshops, she has learned how to code and create chat bots.

Original Script

So, in ancient Chinese times, there’s this poet whose name is Qū Yuán. And he wrote these really great poems and he’s also this really successful government official but then the emperor died. The new emperor doesn’t like him, so the emperor banished Qū Yuán. And then he got to this river and he was really sad and he just wrote his last poem and then jumped into the river and died. But the people around that area were really sad because he was this really good government official and then they just threw all this zòngzi, which means “rice dumplings,” and threw them into the river so that the fish would just eat the rice dumplings and not Qū Yuán’s body so he doesn’t get eaten. So yeah, and uh, Duān Wǔ Jié, which is Mid-Summer Festival, we eat rice dumplings to remember this great poet.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant hears this story every time she attends the Dragon Boat Festival near the summer solstice. At the festival, people re-enact the tragic life of the poet and minister, Qū Yuán, up to his death. It is a folk legend that the informant grew up hearing as a child, and it holds heavy historical importance to her.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in a study room at Parkside IRC.

Qū Yuán is a famed and respected Chinese poet and minister from the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. Known for his contributions to classical poetry and verses, he served as a role model for scholars and officials during the Han Dynasty; the public admired him for staying true to his principles unto death. In certain regions of China and Taiwan, people commemorate the death of Qū Yuán in the Dragon Boat Festival. They believed that the locals rowed through the Miluo River on dragon boats to retrieve Qū Yuán and tossed zòngzi, or balls of sticky rice, into the river to save the poet’s body from being consumed by the fish.

My Thoughts about the Performance

While I have read about Qū Yuán in history books, I did not realize his legend was also considered the origins of dragon boat races and zòngzi. It was fascinating to hear about this famed historical figure, who is still celebrated today, and the legacy he left behind. I also find it interesting that he is commemorated only in certain parts of China during the Dragon Boat Festival. In other parts of China, such as southeast Jiangsu, people celebrate Wǔ Zǐxū at the festival; in northeastern Zhejiang, they celebrate Cao E.

The Persian King and the Plate

“Uhh, I am going to tell you about the, one of the, Iran’s king. That… umm… He loved France and he used to travel over there. And so finally they send a salesperson to his castle to sell, sell him some china from France. And they bring their best china and say, ‘Oh, you need this, you know, for when you have a party and this.’

And he just picked it up, and look at it, and he says ‘Okay, let’s go outside.’

And the guy just look at him and say, ‘Why do we have to go outside?’ [laughs]

He says, ‘Well, we just, let’s just go outside.’

So he goes outside and he tells one of the, uhh, uhh, person that it was was selling him, go get some of the, umm… the plate we use. So he goes and bring the, the plate they were using that time, it was, uhh, made from, umm, copper. And they would put the, umm, zinc over it, they would make it really hot, and put the zinc over it, umm… with a cloth they would just go all over, and it turns white, just like a silver. And they had to do that every year.

So he, they go and bring a set of that, and then, he’s sitting on the horse, and going around, and then, he just picked up the china, and keeps throwing them, and then they would break. And then he gets the, the, umm… copper one, and he keeps throwing it, and it doesn’t break.

And he says, ‘Why do you think I’m gonna pay all that money for the things you throw it, it breaks, and I have this, I’ve been using it for years, and it still looks the same?’

And then, the, the salesperson just look at him, and he just leave the uhh… umm… castle, and he just goes and never comes back. So that’s the story of the Persian king that he didn’t want to spend his money for something is not good. It just, like, to him, it was like wasting money. If it can use those plate instead of that. [Tells story in Farsi].”

Analysis: This legend is told in order to teach people the value of thrift and tradition. Its central moral is similar to the English phrase, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” The King of Iran, as the protagonist of the story, attempts to illustrate that traditions exist for good reason, and that just because somebody else thinks something is nice, it doesn’t mean that you should, too. While a nationalistic tale of sorts, the story is used to impart important lessons to the audience.

Qingming – Tomb Sweeping Festival

Text (I is the informant, M is the collector)

I: There’s this festival called “Qingming” or, like, tomb sweeping festival. And, basically, it’s where we go to a cemetery, or.. Um… what do you call those other thing?

M: A graveyard? I’m not sure

I: Just cause cemetery and graveyard sounds like too dark and gloomy, but like, it’s on a grassy hill with flowers, it’s chill. Anyways, we kind of just cleaned up the graves… and the tombstones — hence tomb sweeping day. And, I — I think it’s supposed to be like a family reunion type of thing, because that’s how it was, where all my aunts and uncles and stuff would come and clean up the graves and eat some pork and stuff. But, now it’s just been like two — yeah, two families at a time or something.  I missed it, ‘cause I was at school this year, but yeah…. Um, oh yeah. And during the festival week, we kind of sweep the other tombs around — like the neighbors of my ancestors grave. Out of respect, I think. And, I think my mom told me, so we don’t piss off the neighbors. Also, during that time, we kind of burn these…. Patterned paper? It’s cut into shapes of like shoes and clothes and stuff for, um, my great-grandpa. And there’s also, like, fake money called hell money and then… these two other similar hell currency

Thoughts

The informant seemed to focus mainly on the social/familial aspect of this tradition. This makes sense as the informant’s parents are from China, but she is herself American and has never visited China. She says that she views Chinese traditions as similar to family reunions, as they are times where her family gets together to celebrate. It seems that the meaning of this festival for her has less to do with the traditions themselves, and more to do with the people she performs them with.

Chinese Moon Festival – A Perspective

About the Interviewed: Jared is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, studying Finance. At the time of this interview, he is also my roommate. His ethnic background is distinctively Chinese, and his parents are first-generation American immigrants. He is 20 years old.

Jared: “My family celebrates unique traditions. We celebrate Chinese New Year, and we celebrate the Moon Festival.”

I ask him to explain the Moon Festival to me in greater detail.

Jared: “It’s pretty festive. My family decorates the place up. It’s a festival that’s centered around the moon, so you get a lot of festive stuff like that. The moon is symbolic of things like harvest and prosperity, so that’s where I guess it comes from. It happens around August – September, whenever the full moon is.”

I asked Jared about his experiences with the Festival. I ask him about any special foods he might eat.

Jared: Yeah, there are snacks. There’s this thing called mooncake, it’s kind of chewy – like mochi [japanese chewy sweet], it’s good, I like it. I have a lot of good memories of the Moon Festival. I’d say it’s nostalgic. As for other things, we sometimes play games. Like most things in Chinese culture, it’s pretty much centered around the family, so we spend a lot of time together.”

I tell Jared that I’m aware that Korea celebrates the Moon Festival as well. I was curious if he knew of any specific differences between the two.

Jared: I’m not entirely sure about all the differences, but I think they’re pretty similar. My Korean friends seem to know what I’m talking about when I talk about when I mention it.

Summary:

As a Chinese-American, Jared celebrates a holiday known as “The Moon Festival”, which celebrates a general coming of the moon and the harvests that follow. He recounts nostalgic experiences with food, games, and family.

My roommate’s experience with the Moon Festival is not unlike the nostalgia most people associate with Western holidays like Halloween or Christmas. The use of the “festival” in different cultures holds a great significance to the individual. It’s “nostalgia” that in part motivates tradition to spread from one generation to the next.

Xuanzang and Journey to the West

Item:

“I remember my grandma always talking about some Chinese monk and I never really pieced together until like… until I was much older that the show I watched was exactly that.”

The legend of Xuanzang, a Chinese buddhist monk who traveled from China to India on a pilgrimage, lead to many stories, authored works, and even some anthropomorphic tales that became prominent in popular culture. The informant grew up watching a TV show, Journey to the West, based on the legend. It covered the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who was an anthropomorphized version of Xuanzang who went on a journey similar to that of the monk, but with obvious fictionalization for the purpose of the show.

 

Context:

For the informant, watching the show was a big deal. Being born in America but having only Chinese roots created a bit of a clash between cultures, especially at a young age. Hearing the story of Xuanzang from parents and grandparents, and then watching the show provided for her an entertaining connection to her culture. Beyond that, it was also a opportunity to talk to other 2nd generation kids about something they had in common outside of being just that.

 

Analysis:

It’s perhaps appropriate that the popularization and fictionalization of an authored work based on folklore is what it takes to connect some kids to the actual folklore in the first place. A TV show can captivate kids really easily, and then through curiosity they go about connecting with the actual folklore at the same time. Also, a lot of this comes from the 16th century novelization (also called Journey to the West) which can be found here.