USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’
Folk speech
Proverbs

“The Value of Hard Work”

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about any traditions or sayings he remembers from his family. The subject told me he doesn’t have a strong connection with his parents, but that in particular, his parents have always emphasized the value of hard work. The subject stated that the proverb is a traditional Chinese proverb, but provided me with a rough summary as he remembered his parents telling him. After doing some research, the story comes from a Chinese idiom, “Shòu zhū dài tù”, or “Watching a tree stump, waiting for rabbits” (visiontimes.com). Additionally, the original idiom does not mention the farmer himself dying, so this could possibly be an alternative ending that the subject’s parents told him for extra emphasis. This seems like a rather graphic story to tell to a young child, but the proverb and the idiom it originates from highlights the reliability of hard work instead of luck. (Source url: http://www.visiontimes.com/2013/11/18/the-chinese-idiom-watching-a-tree-stump-waiting-for-rabbits.html)

Main Piece

“The jist of the proverb is about a farmer who one day luckily manages to catch a rabbit that runs head first into a tree. So instead of farming or working hard, he decides to sit by the tree every day and wait for more rabbits to run into the tree. Of course that never happens because that’s only a really lucky occurrence, so he starves and dies.”   

Festival
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Dragon Boat Festival Story

Item (direct transcription):

A long, long time ago, there was a minister that really, really loved his king, very much. But his king wouldn’t listen to him. He’s like, “King, the ministers you just hired are bad people. You really have to listen to me.” And the king’s like, “I will not listen to you. You know why? Because the new ministers I hired think you’re a liar.”

With that, the minister was so heartbroken; he wrote a suicide note. He wrote the suicide note that said: “King, I love you too much. You’re a very good king. You must not listen to them. These two new hire-ees are bad people. If you don’t believe me, then maybe in death you will understand.” With that, he jumped inside a pond, or a lake, or a large body of water, so he could get the job done. And then he drowned—he let himself drown—and he died.

The king saw the letter—the suicide letter—and said, “Oh my god. He would commit suicide just to warn me? Get those two hire-ees out of my palace!” And then, this minister was actually a beloved minister, so a lot of people were like, “Shoot, his body is in the water. He’s probably being eaten by fishes right now.” So, they made some meats and vegetables, wrapped it in rice, and wrapped it in bamboo leaves, and then they threw it into the water so that the fish would eat the bamboos—I mean, rice that are wrapped in bamboo leaves—instead of the body. And to this day, whenever we celebrate Dragon Boat Festival we eat that in remembrance for that man.

Background Information:

The informant was taught this story by his “elders” in the Chinese community. He has heard the story many times from many different people.

The informant thinks that the story might be true, since it seems plausible to him.

Interestingly, the informant does not believe that there is any meaning or moral to the story. When his elders taught him the story, it was presented as important not due to its truthfulness or meaning, but due to its ancientness. For that reason, he believes that the story is told simply for the sake of perpetuating a tradition from generation to generation.

Contextual Information:

This story is only told on the day of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, ostensibly to honor the minister’s sacrifice. The informant didn’t know why the story was associated with that particular festival.

Analysis:

I find it interesting that the informant does not find any moral in the story. To me, several morals (e.g. you can only know who your real friends are in hindsight) are apparent. It seems that because of the context in which the story was related to the informant, it never occurred to him to search for a moral. He simply took it for granted that the story is told only due to its ancientness.

Perhaps, over-stressing the traditional weight of a story can actually reduce its effectiveness by distracting the recipient from the interesting qualities of the story itself.

Festival
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Tales /märchen

The Moon Festival Story

Item (direct transcription):

So a long time ago… long, long time ago… very long time ago… there were twelve suns. When I say “suns,” I mean S-U-N-S, not S-O-N-S. So there were twelve glaringly hot suns a long time ago. So it was very hard to grow things for farmers. They were like, “Shoot, it’s so hot, we can’t grow anything.” So a fierce warrior came amongst them and then shot down eleven of those suns. With the eleven suns gone, he left one sun up there, so now there was only one sun. So you think that’s the end of the story, but it’s not the end of the story!

The fierce warrior was very loved by the people, because now they could grow food, and now people could live not-so-miserable lives. So they made him king. But that started a very bad regime. He was a very bad king. Because he could do anything. And then, one day—he had a girlfriend—and he was chatting with his girlfriend and was like, “You know, I wanna live forever.” So he asked his prime minister: “Find me the medicine that makes me live forever.” So the prime minister knew he had to find it, or else he would die.

So he goes and he scourges and he finds the medicine. It’s two pills. He goes back to the king, and he says, “Okay, here’s how it works. There’s two pills. If you eat one pill, you live forever, but if you eat two pills, you float to the moon.” And the king’s like, “Sounds good. You know, I could eat this pill now, but for the sake of the story, I won’t.” So then he goes to bed.

So he goes to bed, and his girlfriend overhears about these two pills and their qualities. And she knew in that moment that she could not let this man live forever, because there’ll be a bad king that lives forever. So she does the unspeakable. She eats two of the pills—stuffs them into her mouth—and immediately she starts floating towards the window. Before she left, she knew she needed company as she went to the moon, [clap] so she grabbed a bunny, and they floated to the sky. So the king started looking, like, “Where are you going?” And she said [in fading voice], “Try to be a good king.” And then the king’s girlfriend floated to the moon, and legend has it—because she lived forever—she’s still on the moon… with her bunny. And the king heard his girlfriend’s words and decided: “You know what? I should be a good king.” And that’s the end of the story.

Background Information:

The informant was taught this story by his “elders” in the Chinese community. He has heard the story many times from many different people.

The informant made it clear that he does not believe the story is true, and that he does not think the people who told it to him believed it was true. Thus, though it resembles a legend, to this informant the story is in fact a tale.

Interestingly, the informant does not believe that there is any meaning or moral to the story. When his elders taught him the story, it was presented as important not due to its truthfulness or meaning, but due to its ancientness. For that reason, he believes that the story is told simply for the sake of perpetuating a tradition from generation to generation.

Contextual Information:

This story is only told on the day of the Chinese Moon Festival, ostensibly to honor the king’s girlfriend’s sacrifice.

Analysis:

The tale serves as an interesting example of how a story can have different significances to different people at different times. Presumably, this story was at one time believed to be true or at least plausible. It is likely that some active and passive bearers of the story somewhere in the world still believe that it is true. For them, the story is a legend, or perhaps even a myth. However, due to the context in which the story was related to the informant, for him it is merely a tale.

Folk speech

Four

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the performer (HH) and I (ZM).

HH: We don’t like the number four. Four means um, in Cantonese, like translates to “die.” So, um… Fourteen is like um, “You will die.”

ZM: Oh noo

HH: Yeah, it’s really bad. So, we don’t like that number.

 

Context: This is from a conversation I started with HH about her Chinese culture.

 

Background: HH was born in China and raised in Oakland, CA. Both of her parents are Chinese, and they speak limited English. She is a sophomore studying at the University of Southern California.

 

Analysis: I have heard that four is similar to the word for death in Chinese, but I had not heard about fourteen. It makes me wonder about all other numbers that include “four.” I previously thought it was just the “four” by itself that was negative, but now I am not sure.

 

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Chinese New Year

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the performer (HH) and I (ZM).

ZM: What do you do for Chinese New Year?

HH: Umm… In terms of when I’m here in college or when I’m back home?

ZM: When you’re at home.

HH: When I’m home um my parents would clean the house, like um frantically because we need to be clean for the new year and we also can’t wash our hair on the first day of New Year’s too because if you wash your hair, you’re washing your luck. Yeah. Very interesting. Um, it’s nothing really special, it’s just being with your family, um… The whole day you um… Do you know what Yum ta is?

ZM: No.

HH: Like going out for morning tea, like with dim sum…

ZM: I’ve never heard of that. I don’t, I don’t know.

HH: Okay um so uh we do yum ta, which is like going to um a local, um a nearby restaurant around our house and inviting all of our relatives and…

ZM: Is that New Year’s day?

HH: New Year’s day yeah. Um, and all of our relatives will come and we exchange um red envelopes with money inside and um its umm… If you’re married you give, you give a red envelope to the kids so…As long as I’m not married I can still receive them.

ZM: But you don’t give any?

HH: I don’t give any until I’m married. Yeah it’s a perk. (laughs) Uhhh yeah and then um on the day, or like… Chinese New Year goes for like a few days like up to fifteen days. It depends on how long you want to celebrate it. Umm, like the first few days um either relatives and friends come to your house or you can go to their house and you bring gifts like oranges or like crackers or whatever to uh to bring to their house and you get to exchange gifts, and you guys talk and drink tea and all of that.

ZM: Do the oranges have any significance? Like why oranges or…?

HH: Umm… I feel like they do, but I don’t know (laughs) Uh that’s pretty much what we do. And um we eat chicken. It’s for a reason, but I don’t know why also. But, chicken is like a good kind of meat like… Um you always want um, like for dinner you always, for like the first few days, my brother’s in-laws and us we all eat together as a big family. Like a sign of um, a union. Um, so we have like up to ten dishes for like not even ten people. Like, um it’s very lavish dinner with like chicken, umm duck, fish, all kind of veggies, noodles, noodles really important as a sign of longetivity in life. So, yeah.

 

Context: This is from a conversation I started with HH about her Chinese culture.

Background: HH was born in China and raised in Oakland, CA. Both of her parents are Chinese, and they speak limited English. She is a sophomore studying at the University of Southern California.

 

Analysis: I thought it was interesting that you only begin giving red envelopes when you are married. Even if you are an adult and you are not married, you do not have to give the envelopes, you only receive them. But, if they’re married and they don’t have kids to give envelopes to they exchange red envelopes between husband and wife. While marriage and adulthood would’ve previously been equivalent, in today’s society they can be very separate, and this changes the tradition a little bit.

 

Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

August 15th

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the performer (HH) and I (ZM).

ZM: Are there any other large Chinese holidays that you don’t really see celebrated…?

HH: Um we also celebrate, um August 15th. That’s Lunar New Year Calendar. Um Lunar Year Calendar. Um it’s to celebrate… I…um it’s the, the Mooncake Festival. That’s the English name.

ZM: Mooncake?

HH: Yeah. We eat mooncakes during that time to signify the round shape of the moon, that’s when it’s supposed to be the roundest, that month. And um… There’s a story behind it, you have to um google it. It’s about um these ancient, this ancient couple. I learned it in my Chinese class when…in high school, but I forget. It’s a love story. And we just watch the moon and eat mooncakes um and we um we go to relative’s house to exchange um boxes of mooncakes. Yeah.

ZM: And the mooncakes are like the store mooncakes, right? Or are they like, a different…?

HH: Store mooncakes yeah. Rarely people uh make it themselves. Um yeah they come in squares and then there’s like eggs…um egg yolks inside. They’re pretty good. You should try them.

ZM: But not like…They’re not like the Hostess like moon pies…Are they different? What are the moon… Like can you… What are the mooncakes? Are they the like chocolate covered like…

HH: NOoOo they’re not chocolate. They’re not that. (laughs) They’re a lot more traditional you’re gonna have to search it up. Um it comes in squares and there’s egg yolks inside and then like…I don’t know how to describe it…

ZM: Is it sweet?

HH: Umm… Yeah. It depends on what flavor it is. It comes in different flavors.

ZM: Okay, what are the different flavors?

HH: Like, red beans, and some other nuts. (laughs) I don’t… A lot of these things are meant to be said in Chinese.

 

Context: This is from a conversation I started with HH about her Chinese culture.

 

Background: HH was born in China and raised in Oakland, CA. Both of her parents are Chinese, and they speak limited English. She is a sophomore studying at the University of Southern California.

 

Analysis: This holiday in particular was difficult for HH to explain because it is often discussed in Chinese and the translation is not always clear. I think my confusion with the American Moon Pies also confused me. If I had never heard of a Moon Pie there would have been less confusion about the Chinese mooncakes.

 

general
Legends
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Niu Lang Zhi Nu

Folklore:  

This folktale is titled Niu Lang Zhi Nu and is focused on a man who is a poor, ordinary cow herder and a woman who is a daughter of a goddess. In the story the man and the woman fall in love but their love is forbidden because of their different social statues. To prevent their relationship the woman’s father banishes both to opposites sides of the planet. However the bugs feel pity for the lovers and once every year build a bridge across the planet so they can meet. The day they meet every year is considered the origin of Chinese Valentine’s Day.

Background & Context:

This story was collected in a casual lunch setting. The informant was a 21 year old junior at USC. She is ethnically Chinese but has grown up in New York her entire life. The way she found about this folktale was by watching a popular Chinese drama from several years ago, that is a remake of the tale with the same name.

Final Thoughts:

My thoughts on this tale is that it is tragic and romantic origin story for the Chinese Valentine’s Day. This tale is also similar to other East Asian folktales I have collected. What I also found interesting is how the informant originally heard about the folktale through mass media. I think it is unique and good how the media is teaching the newer generation of old traditional folktales that in the past were passed down through other methods.

Annotation:

For another version of this piece of folklore, see the Chinese television series Niu Lang Zhi Nu.

general
Legends

Chinese Romeo and Juliet

Folklore:

This is a chinese folktale that focuses on a forbidden love, between two people from rival families. One day the man is killed and the woman comes to visit his funeral, when she sees him in his coffin she is so struck by grief she climbs into his coffin. In the coffin the woman commits suicide to join her lover. However after she dies both man and woman turn into butterflies and fly out of the coffin together.

Background & Context:

This story was collected in a casual lunch setting. The informant was a 21 year old junior at USC. She is ethnically Chinese but has grown up in New York her entire life. The way she found about this folktale was by watching a popular Chinese from several years ago, that is a remake of this traditional tale. She also compares the tale as the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

Final Thoughts:

My thoughts on this tale is that it is a very romantic story. Thoughts I had from my informant’s comment on how the story is similar to Romeo and Juliet is that this story as traditional Chinese folktale is most likely older than the play. There also might be folklore similar to this story from other regions that Shakespeare took inspiration from. What I also found interesting was how the informant originally heard about this folktale through mass media. I think it is unique and good how the media is teaching the newer generation of old traditional folktales that was previously passed down through other methods.

general
Legends

Nezha

Folklore:

The next folktale is titled Nezha and is originally from China. The tale tells the story of a man names Nezha who was the son of a military commander. Before he was born his mother was pregnant with him for three years and three months. Immediately after birth Nezha was able to walk and talk having skipped infancy. As he was born under unusual circumstances his father believed he was a demon and attempted to murder him at birth but failed. One day Nezha and and his friends were playing by the ocean when the Underworld King kidnapped one of his friends. Enraged Nezha searched for his friend and fought with the Underworld King’s son severely injuring him. When the Underworld King hear of Nezha injuring his son he went to the emperor and threatened to dishonor Nezha’s family. To not bring dishonor to his family Nezha dismembered himself. Later his mother build a temple for Nezha, which became well known for granting miracles and wishes to its visitors.

Background & Context:

This story was collected in a casual lunch setting. The informant was a 21 year old junior at USC. She is ethnically Chinese but has grown up in New York her entire life. The way she found about this folktale was by watching a popular Chinese from several years ago, that is a remake of this traditional tale.

Final Thoughts:

I thought this story was interesting because it could be conveying a message about someone who might not fit into the standards set by society and be considered abnormal. Like Nezha someone could suffer discrimination from others only based on their differences from the norm. The story’s message  focuses on how someone who does not fit societal norms can be more severely punished for their mistakes than others and is consequently more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts and depression. However an aspect I found interesting is how the informant originally heard about this folktale. As she learned about it through mass media. I think learning about folklore through media is unique and good way to teach the newer generation about old traditional folktales.  

 

Folk Beliefs
Magic

Wasting rice leads to acne on your future spouse’s face

“I’ve heard this from some of my other friends, too, but if you have leftover rice, what my mom told my sister and I is that each grain of leftover rice is going to be acne on your future significant other’s face. When we were younger, she used to tell us that. I wasn’t sure if it was to scare us or if it was a joke, but it definitely got us to not waste rice.”

Background Information and Context:

As the informant said above, this is something that her mother would tell her to warn her against not finishing her rice. The superstition comes from China, and she has heard from other Chinese friends that their mothers have said the same thing.

Collector’s Notes:

This is an example of a superstition that is connected to a people’s way of life. In China and South East Asia, rice is a culinary and economic staple and – especially for poorer families – wasting rice is highly frowned upon. For an example of multiplicity and variation, I recall that my own Vietnamese mother always told me that a wasted grain of rice means that you’re going to hell. It is not hard to see how the same sentiment of not wasting food can be taught in a grave manner (like my mother’s warning) or a much less severe warning for young girls (like the informant’s version).

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