USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘China’
Adulthood
Customs
Digital
Folk Beliefs
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

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.

 

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection

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.

Legends
Narrative

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.

Legends
Narrative

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.

Festival
Rituals, festivals, holidays

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.

Holidays

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.

Legends

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.

Legends
Narrative

Cheng Miao and the Clerical Script

[Translated from Mandarin]

The clerical script, or lìshū (隸書), is a form of Chinese calligraphy that is said to have been invented by Chéng Miǎo (程邈), who had somehow offended the emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng (秦始皇) of the Qin dynasty. Qín Shǐ Huáng threw Chéng Miǎo into prison. However, during his time in prison, Chéng Miǎo was able to simplify Chinese script. You see, before the clerical script was invented, Chinese characters were written in seal script, or zhuànshū, which had many curving strokes that were complicated to write.

The prison guards discovered that Chéng Miǎo’s clerical script was much more efficient to write than seal script, and they showed Qín Shǐ Huáng. Qín Shǐ Huáng was very pleased with Chéng Miǎo’s new script and decided to change the Chinese kingdom’s writing to clerical script. Because of this, Chéng Miǎo was released from prison and rewarded with a high governmental position.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Though Chéng Miǎo’s feats sound realistic, there are people who doubt that Qín Shǐ Huáng would be so lenient on someone who changed a writing system that the emperor had just unified shortly before. Recent evidence has also suggested that clerical script may have been invented by a team of people, as opposed to one single person. It is interesting that even the development of Chinese calligraphy has such debatable folklore.

Legends
Narrative

Cāng Jié and the Origin of the Chinese Writing System

[Translated from Mandarin]

Back in the early years of Chinese history, a four-eyed man named Cāng Jié (倉頡) was the historiographer of the Yellow Emperor. To record things, Cāng Jié used the rope-tying method, the only form of documentation around during that time. After a while, the more Cāng Jié stared at his repetitive knots, the less he remembered what they stood for. He was frustrated.

One day he passed by a group of quarreling old men at an intersection. Each of them was arguing which road led to his home. One claimed a pair of tigers lived on his road. Another said that some deer lived on his road. The last one stated that goats lived on his road. The dispute was eventually settled when they discovered that the trails of animal prints on the ground told them which way each should go. Cāng Jié was inspired by this—if every animal has its own prints to distinguish its identity, every object in the world should have its own symbol too.

Cāng Jié then proceeded to simplify the shapes and essences of objects in the world into characters composed of simple lines. Soon he developed a whole system of written characters that each imitated what they represented. When Cāng Jié completed the writing system, the skies started raining millet, and ghosts in the ground cried at night.

In the end, both Cāng Jié and the Yellow Emperor were pleased, and Cāng Jié’s writing system was used as the standard writing system in the emperor’s unification of the kingdom.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Cāng Jié is an interesting character because his role in Chinese history is realistic though the details of his deeds and his appearance may have very well been exaggerated. 

Myths
Narrative

The Monkey God

Item:

“Ok so the story is called, I think like the English translation is called, like the Monkey God, or like the Monkey King or something. Basically it’s about this, uh, this like monkey character in like Chinese mythology, who uh, like he’s born basically with godlike characteristics. Um and he proves himself like a very strong warrior, uh like very smart, things like that. Um, but he greatly angers the gods, like in heaven, in this, it’s set in like a Buddhist context, kind of. He greatly angers the gods, so, he’s kind of like uh, he’s not exactly a full-fledged god in their eyes. Um so he greatly angers them so he’s basically punished for I think like 500 years, he’s punished um to like basically like have this like giant mountain, be on top of him for 500 years and that’s his punishment. Um and he is basically set free when this Buddhist monk um comes by and decides to accept him as his disciple, um and basically the rest of the story is about this monk as he, he gathers two more disciples, each of them have sin in their own way, and basically it’s about his journey to India to, I dunno, achieve some sort of salvation of some sort. Um, and basically like his disciples greatly help him along the way, and the whole myth is about their misadventures, facing adversities and stuff, and overcoming it. Um and basically about how this monkey god sort of redeems himself for all of the sin that he’s committed.”

Context:

The informant said that “it’s like a really popular Chinese folklore. Like I used to watch cartoons of it when I was little. Yeah so like um, it’s a really long myth so like basically it’s like broken up into a ton of episodes. Um yeah so I used to just watch it as a kid. They had a lot of different versions of it, animated and live action.” She also would hear parts of the story while attending Chinese school as a child.

Analysis:

My research revealed that the story, as most people know it, stems from Wu Cheng’en’s 1592 novel, Journey to the West. The novel itself is a fictionalized account of the pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, already a legendary figure by the 16th century. That this story about a Buddhist monk is so popular says a lot about Chinese culture, mainly that the ascetic life of a monk is something that all people can learn valuable lessons from.

Here is a link to the USC library page on the book, where it’s call number can be found, as I could not find the full text online: https://library.usc.edu/uhtbin/cgisirsi/x/0/0/5?searchdata1=4023263{CKEY}

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