The Main Piece
“I never gave another person shoes for any sort of present, then they’ll run away from you.” There is a common belief that by giving a person shoes it will later lead them to leave your life. Although this is simply a superstition, it has caused many people to second guess what kind of gift they want to give anyone who’s relationship they hold valuable. After all, it is a simple act to get the person another gift that could potentially save them from leaving your life.
My informant is my roommate, Sarah Kwan, a current undergraduate student at USC. She had heard about this unspoken rule from her friends back in China. The word for pair in Chinese also means “the splitting of two,” this definition lead to the belief that if one was to give a person a “pair” of shoes, then it was as if they were splitting apart as well. She told me that at first she questioned this because people were technically giving the pair together, thereby not actually splitting the two, but as time went on she began to simply accept the superstition. “I didn’t want to chance anything, it wasn’t like the world was going to end if I never got my friends shoes. I could always get them something else.”
My informant is Sarah Kwan, my roommate and personal friend. Sarah gave me this piece of advice as we were shopping for my friends present. I thought shoes would be a great idea to give my friend because this way he could use it every day. She was shocked to hear that I had never heard this superstition before and strongly recommended that I also not chance anything with my friends.
I personally am not too superstitious, but I can understand why obeying such a simple task is accepted and performed. Friendship is highly valued, not monetarily, but on an emotional level so why would anyone want to put something like that at risk. I thought the shoe superstition sounded unnecessary at first, but I can see where it highlights values such as friendship.
“Legend says that there is a Zhi Nv star and a Qian Niu star and they fell in love; but the law of heaven (chinese heaven) forbids man and woman to fall in love, so as a punishment, Qian Niu star was stripped of his “heaven” status and forced to descend to the human world, while Zhi Nv star was forced to make clouds out of the spinning wheel indefinitely. After Qian Niu star was sent to the human world, he was “born” into a farm family and being named “Niu (cow) Lang.” After his family passed away, he went to live with his uncle and aunt who treated him terribly, and casted him out of the house with nothing but a broken cart and a cow. Niu Lang managed to make a living with himself with just that but his life is still very poor and terrible, and then one day the cow told Niu Lang to go to Bi Lian Chi (green lotus pool) and that if he hid the red clothes of the fairy, he can have that fairy as his wife. Niu Lang did that, and so when it’s time to leave, all the other fairies flew away with their clothes, but Zhi Nv, having her clothes hidden, could not leave. Zhi Nv was very embarrassed but Niu Lang told her that he will not give her her clothes back unless she marries her. Zhi Nv looked at Niu Lang once again and realized that he is the reincarnation of the Qian Niu Star that she loved so much so then she said yes to marrying him.
The two then are happily married and had one daughter and one son. Just when they thought they could be together forever, the queen of heaven Wang Mu (direct translation: King Mom) found out about this and sent for heaven guards to go and capture her. At the same time, Niu Lang comes crying to Zhi Nv telling her that the cow has died and that before it died it told Niu Lang that if he skins him, he can use his cow skin to fly to the sky.
The guards came to capture Zhi Nv and thus Niu Lang followed with their children and the cow skin. Just as they are about to reach each other, Wang Mu came and created a sky river that rushed between the two and they can never cross it. Niu Lang and the children cried so hard that eventually Wang Mu was touched by their love and thus allowed the two to meet once on the 7th of July every year. Since then, the two lives up in the sky with a river in between them where they stand on each side and try to look for each other, and the 7th of July became the Chinese Valentine’s day that people celebrate.”
CM says that based on geographic location apparently the stars are actually located that way. Everyone learned this tale as a kid and would celebrate Chinese Valentine’s day, which is very similar to western valentines day. It’s an excuse for people to give presents to each other and go on dates, etc. In Chinese movies they prohibit western holidays so they often use this as valentines day. It’s interesting that it is based on forbidden love, similar but a much less gory story than the western St. Valentine.
“During the Qin dynasty China, there was a kind and beautiful woman named Meng Jiang Nv. One day, she discovered a young man hidden between the grapevines in her backyard–turned out that his name is Fan Xi Liang, and he is hiding from Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di’s guards, for they are going everywhere, capturing people to go build the Great Wall where many starved and died of exhaustion. Meng Jiang Nv saved him and sheltered him and eventually the two fell in love.
On their wedding night, when everything was going so well, guards suddenly barged inside their house and took Fan Xi Liang away to go be labor for the Great Wall. Meng Jiang Nv was so sad and angry that she decided she is going to go to the Great Wall herself and to find her husband. She spent many days, going through steep mountains and rivers, suffering through terrible conditions with no complaint till she reached the Great Wall.
She asked everywhere for her husband, but no one seemed to have seen him till finally, someone told Meng Jiang Nv that her husband’s been long dead and that his bone are buried at the bottom of the Great Wall. Under great pain, Meng Jiang Nv started to cry for 3 days and nights and she cried so much that eventually part of the Great Wall collapsed, exposing the bloody bones of her husband. She finally got to see her beloved husband again, but he will never get to see her again, due to the tyrannical request of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di.”
CM learned this folktale growing up in China. It expresses the problems in everyday life under the horrible conditions when ruled by the tyrant. The tale shows corruption and the people’s frustration with the Qin dynasty. It also relies on a national landmark, the great wall, and is a very country-specific folktale.
“A long long time ago when sky and earth were still one and everything was in chaos sleeps a giant named Pan Gu, and he has slept there for 10 million years.
One day, Pan Gu suddenly woke up. He sees that it is all dark around him, so he picks up a huge axe and swung towards the darkness, and with a loud bang, he divided land and the sky. But Pan Gu was fearful that they are going to stick together again, so everyday he keeps his head up towards the sky and face against the land to make sure that they stay apart. After countless amount of time when the sky and land finally stuck to its shape, PanGu is so exhausted that he fell and died of exhaustion.
Since then, his breath turned into the wind and cloud of the four seasons; his voice turned into the sound of rolling thunder and his eyes turned into the sun and the moon and his limbs turned into the four directions, where his skins turned into land, and his blood turned into running river.”
CM learned this as a child, growing up in China. It’s similar to the Greek myth of the titans. It’s a creation myth, with his body turning into different parts and explaining why they came to be. This includes the seasons and weather and the directions of the earth.
14) Jing Wei tried to fill up the sea
Legend has it that Yan Di (the ruler back then) had a smaller daughter named Nv Wa. She was really smart and pretty, and Yan Di loved her very much.
One day she went out to play, and saw a bigger kid riding on a smaller kid; she got mad and yelled at the bigger kid, saying that bullying the weaker ones are shameful; if he was really powerful he’d go hunt down bears and wolves.
The older kid saw that she was a little girl so he didn’t take her for anything. Turned out that the older kid was the son of the Sea Dragon King, and he was very full of himself. Him and Nv Wa got into a fight, but Nv Wa learnt a lot from her father and is very agile; she managed to win the fight against the son of the Sea Dragon King, and the Sea Dragon King had no choice but to back-off, swearing that he will get her back one day.
Sometimes later, Nv Wa goes into the ocean to swim; the son of the Sea Dragon King comes to her and asks her to apologize to him for what happened on land the other time. Nv Wa refuses, so the son of the Sea Dragon King turned waves against her, and ended up drowning her.
After she died, Nv Wa could not accept her death. Her spirit turned into a bird named “Jing Wei.” Everyday, Jing Wei flies to the west mountain to get pebbles, throws it into the sea, hoping to fill it up. She goes everyday, never ending.
I remember reading about this folklore in grade school and being very unsatisfied about the sad ending. Having my mom remind me of it and perform it to me again, I got to know more details of the folklore that I didn’t know before, yet I still feel very very sad about this story. I wish it wsa a happy ending.
11) Hou Yi shoots the Sun
Once upon a time, there were a total of ten suns; they were the sons of the king of the eastern sky and his wife. Everyday they’d rotate positions and each shine its rays of sunshine on earth. That was a time where everything was peaceful and nice; no one had to worry about other people stealing from them, and animals did not have to worry about people hurting them. Crops are always thriving and there were always enough food and drink for all lives on earth.
One day, the ten suns thought that it would be fun and interesting if they all rose and went out together. Together, they marched across different lands, and thus burned everything; everything dried up, and all lives were dying under the heat. Suddenly everything was changed. The good life was gone, and nothing is thriving anymore.
A young man named Hou Yi, famous for his shooting skills, decided that he will try to save mankind. Thus, he spent many days and nights marching through mountains till he got to the highest point–he shot at the suns. The first 3 arrows took down 3 suns, but there were still 7 other songs that were glaring at Hou Yi. Hou Yi’s next shot took down 4 suns in a row, and the 3 that were left were now really scared. Hou Yi took down two more suns and now only one is left. That one remaining sun was so scared that it hid into the ocean.
Now there were no more sun burning the earth, but without the sun nothing grows; people started praying to the king of “heaven” for the one sun, and thus the next day a gleaming sun rose from the east sea, restoring all life and peace to earth.
Hou Yi was awarded to be a general or his bravery to save the people.
My mother told me this tale, but I’ve known this lore since I was little because every chinese kids know these; if not already told my parents, we read and learnt these in grade school. My mother’s performance really wasn’t anything spectacular since we both already know the tale so well. It’s funny to me that when I tried to think of chinese folklores I couldn’t really think of anything, but with people naming a few, I could remember all the rest.
12) Chang E goes to the moon
Chang E was the wife of Hou Yi. They were a loving couple that was praised and respected by everyone around him. One day, an old monk that really admired Hou Yi’s power and bravery gave him a pill that can make him immortal and go up to the sky. Unwilling to leave the villagers and his wife however, Hou Yi told Chang E to hide the pill.
Peng Meng–a servant of Hou Yi–was bad natured and greedy and wanted to take the pill for himself so that he can become immortal. Thus, on the 15th of August one year, Peng Meng made an excuse to not go hunting with the rest of the man. He went to Chang E’s house, cornered her and forced her to give him the pill.
Worried and scared, Chang E did not know what to do, so she ended up just taking the pill herself. She then started rising to the sky, but because she loved her husband Hou Yi so much, she decided to land on somewhere that is the closest to earth–the moon.
Hou Yi came back home and when he found out about this, he was heart-broken. He kept chasing the moon, but whenever he moved forward, the moon mover forward, and whenever he moved backward, the moon moved with him also. He was so desperate but all he could do was to just stare up at the moon with his eyes to try to see if Chang E is there.
Thus, on the 15th of August of the second year, Chang E steps out from her moon palace and watches her husband and families. And the 15th of August became the mid-autumn festival/moon festival where all the families came back home and celebrated together (kinda like thanksgiving).
My mother also told me this tale when I was really little, and every kid just knew because when one attends an event for the moon festivals, there are poster boards that explain the origin of the festival. Unrequited love seem to be a very common theme in chinese stories throughout history. It seems that separation of distance between two lovers are used quite often in chinese folklores.
13) Kua Fu chases the sun
A long long time ago, there were a tribe of titans. These titans were big and tall, and very hardworking. However, it was not a good time then. There were vicious animals everywhere and the land was not very good and thus caused many crop failures. The sun is often so harsh that it killed most of the crops and food that the titans planted.
Kua Fu was the leader of his tribe, and he was tired of seeing his tribe people suffer due to the sun, he decided that he was going to do something about it. Many people told Kua fu that he will fail, that he will never reach the sun or that he will burn to death. These words only made Kua Fu more determined, and so he made up his mind to go on the journey to capture the sun.
Kua Fu marched thousands and thousands of miles, using rocks as his pillows and dirt as his bed; he kept going and going, and the he was getting closer and closer, feeling more and more confident. However, the closer he gets to the sun, the thirstier he got. It got to the point where the one drink from the river can’t even hold his thirst anymore.
After nine days and nine nights, Kua Fu finally reached the sun; he stood right under the sun. But his thirst was so bad that he drank two whole river dry, and that still did not help. He needed to run north; there lies a plain named Da Ze that holds enough water that can solve his thirst. However, Da Ze was simply too far away, and half way there, he just couldn’t do it anymore; Kua Fu fell down and died.
Right before he died, still thinking about the people of his tribe, he threw his cane to the side and it turned into a forest of peach trees. Since then, it has provided people with food and helped with their thirst.
My mother told me this story once again, and this one I also learnt as a kid but couldn’t quite remember the details. When I was little I never really comprehended the meaning of it, but thinking back now it really seems more proverbial, telling people that the more you acquire, the more you want, and the harder it is to get it. Unfortunately, when my mother performed this story to me through videochat it was glitching quite awhile due to the terrible wifi, thus reducing the effect of this story. I never realized that Kua fu is actually a relatively kind character.
Tradition: An adult male, half Chinese half Texan, brings mac and cheese to his family Thanksgiving dinner every year. The family is a mix of ethnicities: Japanese, Chinese, and Caucasian.
The informant is a half Japanese half Chinese female, age 20.
Informant: For Thanksgiving, we have one cousin (Eric) whose sole responsibility is to bring the mac and cheese. And every year, our aunt asks everyone what they want to bring, and on the list, she’ll write “Eric-Mac and Cheese.” Apparently it’s the best mac and cheese.
Collector: Do you like it? Does your family like it?
Informant: It’s pretty good, I’ve eaten it. I assume that my family likes it. Because he’s demanded to bring it every year. I’m just waiting to see what happens when he doesn’t bring it.
Collector: Where did he learn to make it from?
Informant: I asked him about it, and he said he pulled the recipe off the internet. And he proceeded to forward it to me, so I can make it for myself.
Collector: What do you think it means to you or to your family?
Informant: I think it’s funny that my aunt assumes that that’s the only thing he can make and that we can eat. This has been going on for five years now. So whenever it’s Thanksgiving, I know that there’s something that I can eat–there’s gonna be mac and cheese!
Even though the family has a mix of different ethnic backgrounds, it’s interesting to see that every year, they demand and designated for one family member to bring the mac and cheese to Thanksgiving dinner. I think that this family tradition is reflective of the “melting pot” culture of America, where families come together and share their food cultures with one another.
The informant is a 67-year-old Mexican-American woman who is a reverend. She is known for tailoring wedding receptions to couples from different cultural backgrounds, and in her words “taking old traditions and giving them new meaning.” Many consider her to be the “guru of new wedding traditions.”
While out to breakfast while the informant was visiting me in Los Angeles, I asked her if there were any particular rituals or traditions drawn from Asian cultures that she has incorporated into weddings in the past. She responded by describing tea ceremonies, which she has commonly incorporated in the weddings of individual’s having a Chinese cultural background.
“In a tea ceremony, the parents of the bride and groom are called up to the altar. Together, the bride and groom prepare a cup of tea for each parent. The mothers and fathers then each take three sips of the tea, after which they sit back down. I’m not entirely sure why it is important that they take only three sips, but traditionally that is how it’s done.”
My first question after hearing of this tradition was, “How do they boil water at the altar?” To which the informant responded, “Typically a kettle has been heated somewhere behind the scenes, and it is brought out for the bride and groom. Really all they have to do is pour the tea into a cup and serve it to their parents.” This ceremony seems to represent the newlyweds demonstrating their gratitude to their parents for all that they have done, as a wedding marks the transition at which an individual’s spouse now has more responsibility for taking care of that person than do his or her parents. It is also a way for the bride and groom to let the parents know that they will take care of them in the future as old age approaches. While the informant was unsure of the reason that the parents take only three sips of the tea, examining this tradition with a comparative lens that takes into account a broad range of folklore shows that many folk traditions come in repetitions of threes. This often dates back to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity defined by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It also removes the awkwardness that would arise if one of the parents took a great deal of time to finish drinking the entire cup of tea while the entire audience had to sit and wait for them to be done, as three sips can be taken much more quickly and at the same speed by all parents.