Tag Archives: Chinese

Chinese Enigmatic Folk Similes

Background: A friend and I were talking about the COVID-19 situation in the US. She mentioned that at late February, when COVID started to spread in the US, some people bought masks and sent them to Wuhan, China to support the medical workers there. She brought up this common saying:

Main piece: 

泥菩萨过河——自身难保

Pinyin: ni pu sa duo he——zi shen nan bao

Transliteration: A mud Bodhisattva crosses the river——She can’t even save herself.

Context: This piece of folk speech is often used to describe people who are well-intentioned to help others, but are themselves in dangerous or unstable situations. In the context of COVID, the informant means that it is kind for those people to send masks to Wuhan, but their very own lives are at stake in the US already.

Analysis: This is an example of a particular genre of folk speech in Chinese, 歇后语 (xie hou yu), which has been translated as “Chinese enigmatic folk similes” or “quiz-cracks”. Different from proverbs, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t directly offer a conclusion or an advice. Different from riddles, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t propose an explicit question and doesn’t have an answer. Enigmatic folk similes often contain multiple meanings. Its form is often separated into two parts. The first part succinctly tells a story, often alluding to historical or religious instances, and the second part provides a proverbial conclusion that is in line with the context created by the first part, but often with deeper connotations. In this case, the story, “a mud Bodhisattva crosses the river”, requires the audience to imagine and suppose that mud dissembles in water, and therefore a mud Bodhisattva in a river, no matter what good intention she has, might perish before she is able to help others. The deeper connotation is that regardless of good intention, one must first be responsible for themselves before considering others, or else no one is benefitted. 

For different versions of enigmatic folk similes, see 

Rohsenow, John Snowden. A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (xiēhòuyǔ) = Han Ying xie hou yu ci dian. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

Chinese High School Military Training

Context: All across China students join a mandatory military training for two weeks to a month before officially entering a public high school. The training usually takes place in the school. Students live in their dormitories together, and parents are not allowed to visit. Trainings are conducted by soldiers and head teachers. 30 to 50 students in the same class are trained together to learn basic marching techniques and military formalities. Trainings also include disciplinary housekeeping, for instance, military standards for making the bed are enforced. However, actual combat techniques are not taught.

The interviewer and the informant went to two different high schools in Qingdao, China.

Interviewer: Did you guys sing or chant during the military training?

Informant: Yeah, yeah, that was probably the only fun thing during the two weeks. It was kinda intense though.

Interviewer: Yeah, I’m wondering if it’s the same for your school.

Informant: Did you do the 1234567 one? hahaha that’s the only one I remember. I feel like they’re all the same no matter which school you go to…because the officers are all from the same troop hahaha.

Interviewer: Yeah that’s the one! Can you do it for me? Was it between two groups of students?

Informant: Yeah, yeah, but I think you do it with the officer, it’s like a “imaginary enemy” situation. So the officer yells things at you, the goal is to get you excited, then you guys [the students] yell back at him.

Interviewer: So you yell back at the officer, but you’re actually talking shit to another groups of people that are not there?

Informant: Yep. It’s basically shit talking. It’s called “pull the song” (拉歌,la ge), but it’s actually not a song. ok, here we go.

original script: 

officer: 对面唱得好不好?students: 好!

officer: 再来一个要不要?students: 要!

officer: 让你唱! students: 你就唱!

officer: 扭扭捏捏! students: 不像样!

officer: 像什么? students: 像大姑娘!

officer: 一二! students: 快快!

officer: 一二三! students: 快快快!

officer: 一二三四五? students: 我们等的好辛苦!

officer: 一二三四五六七? students: 我们等的好着急!

officer: 一二三四五六七八九? students: 你们到底有没有!

Phonetic (pinyin) script:

officer: dui mian chang de hao bu hao?

students: hao!

officer: zai lai yi ge yao bu yao?

students: yao!

officer: rang ni chang!

students: ni jiu chang!

officer: niu niu nie nie!

students: bu xiang yang!

officer: xiang shen me?

students: xiang da gu niang!

officer: yi er!

students: kuai kuai!

officer: yi er san!

students: kuai kuai kuai!

officer:  yi er san si wu?

students: wo men deng de hao xin ku!

officer: yi er san si wu liu qi?

students: wo men deng de hao zhao ji!

officer: yi er san si wu liu qi ba jiu?

students: ni men dao di you mei you!

Transliteration:

officer: Opposite singing good or not?

students: Good!

officer: Another one yes or no?

students: Yes!

officer: Make you sing!

students: You should sing!

officer: Looking coy!

students: Not like anything!

officer: Look like what?

students: Like a girl!

officer: One Two!

students: Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three!

students: Quick Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three Four Five!

students: We are waiting very hard!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven!

students: We are waiting anxiously!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine!

students: Do you have it or not!

Translation:

officer: Is our opponent’s singing good?

students: Good!

officer: Do you want another one?

students: Yes!

officer: Make you sing!

students: You should sing!

officer: Coy and sissy!

students: Not like other things!

officer: Like a what?

students: Like a girl!

officer: One Two!

students: Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three!

students: Quick Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three Four Five!

students: We are waiting very hard!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven!

students: We are waiting anxiously!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine!

students: Do you have it or not!

Analysis: The chant is taught by the training officer to students. It’s performed often during breaks, when officers and students from different classes can mingle with each other. It softens the training atmosphere and boosts morale in a lighter tone. The chant is fairly rhythmic and easy to follow. The fact that it’s chanted between a class and their officer implies that the chant is performed to show aggression, but rather to foster the unity and identity of the class itself. It does not specify who the opponent is, and in fact the identity of the opponent does not matter. The pure existence of an opponent framed in the chant leads to emphasize that the class is an entity and it might face obstacles from the outside environment. 

“Like a what—Like a girl!” This detail shows another element of identity formation in teenage students. The military training happens at the liminal point of when a child is separated from their parents and absorbed into a completely new, pre-adulthood collective. The format of the military training, with the hyper-emphasis on order, obedience, and aggression, reinforces the patriarchal social order. Thus the liminal period of adolescence is enforced with patriarchal social expectations. 

The one being emasculated becomes the weak and the oppressed, and emasculation then becomes an act of aggression.

黄历 – The Yellow Calendar

Main piece:

You have to get married on a certain date, and it depends on your birth time, your birth year, your birth hour. There’s a thing called a “huang li,” which literally translates to yellow calendar, and it details for each zodiac person. You research it, and it’s a book that’s like a quarter inch thick and you look up your birth time and dates and you figure out which day is the most auspicious to get married. And it also tells you who to get married to––like, which zodiac animals. And that’s why I got married to to my husband on Saint Patrick’s day.

Background:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. She now lives in texas.

Context:

HK now lives in Texas––I collected this story over a Zoom call. She has been one of my mother’s closest friends since college, and often, they would commiserate together with all of my other Chinese aunties about certain things their Chinese parents would make them do, or general annoyance over Chinese tradition. This was one of those calls.

Thoughts:

I had never heard of the huang li before, and I think it’s interesting because the day which you get married can be so nebulous in American culture––people generally want to get married in June (which we talked about in class), but sometimes it takes years for people to finally work up the energy to get married. I think it goes to show how much more relaxed people are in America not just about the actual wedding day, but just about marriage in general. The divorce rate in this country is something near 50%, whereas when my dad’s parents got divorced (both from China) it was a really big deal and most people couldn’t even believe it. In Chinese culture, usually even if you don’t like the person you’re with, you’re supposed to just stick it out (or at least, that used to be the rhetoric). The huang li is just one example of the traditions that make Chinese marriage more rigid, maybe even more of a commitment, thand American marriage.

Naming your children with things like water for good personalities

HK: Chinese people are really superstitious about how you name your child––so all the Chinese children have like, names that are made up of Chinese characters, right? And within those characters, there are characters that mean certain things.

MW: What’s your name?

HK: Well, let’s just say that basically my name has a lot of fire character in it. Too much probably, that’s probably why I’m such a bitch.

MW: Haha. So then what did you name your kids?

HK: All my kids, we decided, had to have water in their names. In Chinese you know it as the part of the character, the “radical,” known as san dian shui. It’s basically three dots at the edge of some characters that denotate that the character is related to water. We did that so they would balance me out. Cause now I’m such a bitch, by my kids are pretty cool. Keeps the family balanced.

MW: And how does this make you feel?

HK: Well, again, it’s that superstition feeling where you feel like you should just do it because if you don’t you worry about what might happen, and then otherwise your mother in law can blame everything bad that happens on you because you didn’t name your kids water or whatever. But they all have nice names. I like them.

Background:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. 

Context

HK now lives in Texas––I collected this story over a Zoom call. She has been one of my mother’s closest friends since college, and often, they would commiserate together with all of my other Chinese aunties about certain things their Chinese parents would make them do, or general annoyance over Chinese tradition. This was one of those calls.

Thoughts:

With a lot of other superstitions from any culture, you do it to avoid a consequence; but with names, it’s more fun, especially if you’re born in America. American names generally don’t have any meaning, or at least any meaning that everyone knows. In Chinese, every name means something, and generally, everyone knows that meaning. So of course there will be superstitions surrounding names because the meanings are so clear, but it adds a lot of beauty to the literal title of your identity. It’s something that I feel like a lot of Americans might miss out on.

Chinese Red Eggs

Piece
H: Because the infant death rate was so high, people used to celebrate the baby’s birth after one month, so one month is actually their birthday. If they can, there is a big party and everyone gets red eggs. Ah-ma’s family was too poor to have a big party, but they give red eggs to the neighbors instead.
J: Why red eggs?
H: They’re a symbol of good luck and fortune. Also chicken eggs and chicken are a special treat in Taiwan. So the eggs are chicken eggs and red is for good things. [pause] You give them to people for other birthdays too, particularly for older people. Grandparents. Parents. Like 50 or 60. You give them red eggs too. You make red rice cakes stuffed with red bean. Anything with red bean paste. Mold it and make it the shape of, umm, the word doesn’t come out, a, a turtle! The rice cake in the shape of a turtle to symbolize long life. And if the person is older than you, you bow to them. When it’s their birthday, you bow to them.

Context
The informant learned this traditon from their mother who was born in Taiwan where this was a practice in their village and aided in throwing the red egg party for their neice.
This story was shared upon request by the collector when asking about various cultural traditions.

My Thoughts
I vaguely remember a red egg party for one of my first cousins. We dressed in red, fancy clothes and brought gifts. We ate red eggs and many other delicious foods and treats. Everything was red from the paper banners to the tablecloths to the food.
While red being a good color in Chinese culture is nothing new to me, I was surprised to hear at least some of the reasoning behind the eggs. In America, chicken is pretty cheap and easily available. Yet, for the informant, having chicken or chicken eggs was special and for celebratory occasions only.

Penny for a Clock

Piece
“You cannot give time”
Context
In Chinese culture, you cannot give someone a clock, watch, or any other time-keeping device as it is seen as giving the person time or highlighting how much time they have left on earth. It is especially insulting if given to someone older than you. So instead of giving someone a clock or other time-keeping device, you sell it to them. The person you are “gifting” the clock to will then give you a penny (or the lowest form of currency of that region) so that they are instead purchasing it from you.
My Thoughts
Death is terrifying for most people and thus their culture will reflect that fear of the uncertainty. This practice shows the desire to ignore the passing time, or at least not acknowledge that there time may be coming to close. It also showcases a level of respect shown to ones elders in Asian culture that is not seen in American culture.
Scholar Annamma Joy writes about this in Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties where on page 250, she reports on a field study where a participant said, “I did buy a clock for a friend, but in Chinese culture clocks are never given as gifts because they are associated with death. But before I gave the gift, I asked her for a small amount of money, so that it appeared as if she had bought it for herself.”
Joy, Annamma. “Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 239–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/322900. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Dragon Boats Legend

Piece
It was originally a native tribe holiday. A dragon boat competition. Rowboat? Like rowboats competition, in the beginning of summer and you had lots of special food. After the festival, the weather stays warm.
In the old days, China was always a kingdom. This was before China unified to one kingdom. At that time, there were several kingdoms and there was always war, it was not very peaceful. There was a king, back before… it was called the three kingdom era. There were more than three kingdoms but that must have been the three major ones. There was a test to see who had the most knowledge, every year, and the winner would get to advise the king. The poets were very knowledgeable in literature, and there was one poet, Qu Yuan, who was very loyal to his king, but another king was trying to lure him with his daughter to marry. Qu Yuan was a very good advisor, but his king did not listen to him, so Qu Yuan worried that his kingdom would be swallowed by the others. So at the end, he gives up on the king and was so sad that he jumped into the river and die. The people of the kingdom tried to find his body and that is where the dragon boat competition started. They also made a lot of bout-zons and threw them in the river in hope that the fishes would not eat him.
Context
The informant heard this story from their mother during a childhood celebration. The informant does not practice any of the described activities nor celebrate the holiday as an adult with a family.
This story was shared during a family gathering as it related to another story told that specifically focused on the tradition of throwing bout-zons into a river after a person has died in those waters.
My Thoughts
This story highlights a lot of the attributes important to Taiwanese culture: Chiyan is loyal to his king, even when he is not heard. He cares for his people and works for their benefit. And he is honored after his death by the people that he served. He is not tempted away from his duty by the offer of a princess’ hand in marriage, but instead seeks knowledge and to do what is good for the people of his kingdom. This idea of self-sacrifice and the pursuit of knowledge is perpetuated in many Asian cultures even now. While Americans may find his death pointless, the intended audience of Taiwanese people see his death as a statement of his care for the kingdom and its people.
Scholar Huang Zheng wrote that the Dragon Boat Festival was to commemorate two individuals: Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu, and that the festival sought to exorcise evil. This version introduces another character and attempts to explain the dragon figureheads of the boats.
Zheng, Huang. “A Review and the Expectation of the Dragon Boat Festival Culture.” Journal of Hunan Agricultural University, 2010.

Bah-tzan Legend

Piece
During celebrations, we eat bah-tzans. The reason we eat bah-tzan is because there was a story. There were two friends, they were very good friends. Normally you stay in your town, but these two friends were in different towns, so they said they would meet by the river. One would wait by the river and the other would come. The story is that the friends are so loyal that even when there was a flood, he waited. But he died in the flood but the friend want to remember him so he made so many bah-tzan sand threw them in the river so that the fish would eat them instead of his friends’ body.
Context
A bah-tzan is sticky, glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. It is more commonly called zongi in China. There are many different types of this type of dumpling depending on the region as different foods are mixed in with the rice such as meats, egg, peanuts, and mushrooms.
The informant learned of this story from their mother during a celebration in her childhood. The story was interesting, however when asked about how they felt about it, the informant responded with, “wasteful” and while an entertaining story, not significant to their personal cultural identity.
The family was eating a different kind of bah-tzan than normal and so one member asked about the different types and if there was a story behind bah-tzans.
My Thoughts
My initials thoughts were in line with my informant, it seems wasteful to throw so much food into the river. And while I admire the friends’ loyalty to one another, I feel that one must have a certain amount of discernment in dangerous weather and trust that the friendship can stand a missed meeting. This story says a lot about Taiwanese culture which heavily values loyalty, family, and friendships. Self-sacrifice for others is highly praised in Taiwanese culture, thus this story has appeal to them. Furthermore, the story shares the importance of the body when honoring a deceased individual.

Chinese Children’s-Made Tops

Piece
You put a nail into a piece of wood to make a top. A round piece of wood. You need it to be a little circle. And then use a piece of thread to kind of… circle… around the wood. Then you twist, and twist and then do this throwing thing [mimes a light toss] so it would unspin and shoot off so it would spin away. I didn’t get to make tops though, boys did that kind of thing.
Context
The informant watched the boys in her poor neighborhood in Taiwan make these tops and play with them. The older boys would teach the younger ones to keep the activity going. The girls would watch or play other games instead.
This story was shared when the informant was asked what they used to do as children by the informant’s grandchildren looking for something to do or play.
My Thoughts
This toy reminded me of Beyblades, small, customizable plastic tops that you could attach to a little launcher which, when pulled, would set the top spinning extremely quickly into a “stadium”. I have seen a number of young boys do battle to see who’s tops would keep spinning the longest. The informant’s description of how boys in her childhood town would use string to create the same effect amazes me as it is a much cheaper method!

The Woman on the Moon

Background: My informant is a friend of mine of Chinese heritage, though she grew up in the United States. They are currently attending Duke University. The purpose of the call was specifically so that I could gather folklore from my informant, and they were aware about that as well. 

Context: This conversation was recorded on a zoom meeting that we had on a Wednesday night. 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 about the finals that she had coming up. Thus, this conversation was relatively casual. The main piece is made up of a transcription of our call.

Main Piece: Uhm..The archer… it’s too hot on…like in China I guess. Because there’s 10 suns so the archer shoots down 9 suns. So there’s only one sun left. But then that sun is mad for is mad at the archer for killing all the brothers. And he…uhm…the sun god poisons his..uhm watchamacallit…his girlfriend, or like his lover or something. 

And she can’t recover from it. So then he like travels really far or something and gets medicine for it. And the medicine sends her to the moon.

Me: OK, so like how did you hear about this story?

It was in my elementary Chinese school. 

Thoughts: I found this really interesting because most individuals who are connected to Chinese folklore and culture hear about the archer shooting down ten suns, but do not learn about how the last sun is angry and poison’s the archer’s lover. I also find this item of folklore interesting because it was taught at a Chinese afterschool, and probably fits in with the folk stories that are taught in culture curriculums in high school language classes. In that way, it is distributed in formal outlets, though there is still multiplicity and variation.