USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’
Folk medicine

Chinese folk medicine for sty

Main piece:

Me: So what are some other folklore that you have?

B: so, when you have sty, we usually don’t put on anointment, but we usually use a small part of our cloth, clutch the cloth by your hand, and pat your eyes with it.

Me: wow, a new form of cure! Have you ever tried it? Does it work?

B: well, I never got sty, and I don’t think it work.

Me: ok.

Analysis and context:

My friend is a lowkey superstitious person, partly because her hometown is a very small city near Nanjing. She wears special bracelets everyday which work as traditional Chinese amulets. Also, when she performs the folklore, she acts like it’s a very serious tradition. It’s fascinating that she knows way more folklore than I do.

So this is a folk cure. There are many folk cures in China, especially from smaller cities. There are many Chinese mystiques about sty. For example, they used to say that if you see someone naked, you will get a sty.

Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Chinese Restaurant Clapping Game

“So we had a clapping game that my friends and I used to do that involved this one song that I always thought was a little bit weird:

“I went to a Chinese restaurant, to buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread.

They asked me what my name was, and this is what I said, said, said:

‘My name is….choo choo Charlie, I can do karate, punch ‘em in the stomach,

Oops, I’m sorry! Please don’t tell my mommy!

Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Freeze!'”

Context: The informant, ER, is an Asian-American student. She really enjoyed playing games with her friends when she was growing up in California; some of these included clapping games like this, along with making lip-sync dance videos. ER is a very popular girl, and wanted to fit in with the other girls, which includes participating in this game. ER explains that she uncomfortable with singing along with this song. Being an Asian-American, she felt that this song was quite racist and drew from various stereotypes in order create a catchy song to sing along to.

Analysis: This song follows other types of children’s songs that are common and widespread. It has catchy, simple rhythm with equally catchy lyrics. In this case, it involves repetition of certain lyrics that are necessary for clapping games. Towards the end of song, the lyrics become a bit nonsensical, and do not really provide any real connection with the original theme of the song. Even the first line of the song make no real sense since no one would normally go to a Chinese restaurant to purchase a loaf of bread. However, rational lyrics are not the main purpose of children songs, but rather about parodying other songs, or making fun of strict components of society.

However, probably the more telling part of this song is the slight racial insensitiveness of the lyrics. In this case, the lyrics are playing on stereotypes of Chinese people, and also equating them with other Asians, including Japanese people and Indian people. For many children, it is common for them to not be able to differentiate between different groups of East Asians, or can tend to be more racially insensitive. Due to this, it means that when these children come up with these rhymes and games, they will be less inhibited by potentially insensitive lyrics when trying to find rhyming words and catchy lyrics.

For ER, calling out her friends because of a racist song had too many consequences. From the social side, ER did not want to say that she did not want to participate in the game, which would create a rift between herself and her friends due to a mere song. Children’s social structures and relationships tend to be very fragile and complex, and due to this, telling your friends that you do not want to participate in a favorite game would be seen as an insult. Due to this fear, many kids will not tell their friends about something that bothers them personally in order to maintain their friendships and keep their social standing.

Folk Beliefs

Chinese God of War and Wealth

“Ok, there is this famous general during the 3 kingdom of Chinese History, his name is Guan Yu, but he is more commonly known as Guan Gong–it’s a more respectful way of referring to him–and he was a king’s sworn brother, and he was famous for his courage, character, and integrity, and loved by both his enemies and friends. He did not succeed in bringing back his king’s empire, but he was worshiped as this god of war and also the god of wealth.

Nowadays, whenever you go into an old-fashioned–especially Hong Kong–restaurant you will probably see him sitting there in this green robe, holding his knife. His knife has a name, it is called the knife with which he slayed the dragon under the moonlight, yeah that is his knife. And the restaurant’s owner will have apples and oranges and candles under his portrait or statue so that he could watch over the restaurant and guarantee their business to profitable and stuff like that. He is also the god of war and courage, and is worshiped by the police and gangs the same way. If you see a group of people worshiping a Guan Gong with his knife in his left hand, then it would probably a gang member, while people worshiping a Guan Gong in his right hand would be a police officer.”

Context: The informant is one of my roommates, and we were discussing strange and absurd traditions from our respective cultures. She told me this story about a god that restaurants have an “altar” for because of his unique powers. The story is significant, according to the informant, because it shows that the line between folklore and religion is quite blurry. There are many, many gods of wealth in China that are all quite distinct and discrete. However, there is one thing in common: they all were real people. These real people became part of the folklore as their stories were passed down; people thus begin to see these historical figures as gods. There are plenty of people that see them as just role models or icons, but many do begin to worship them as if they were deities. She says that in this way, many historical figures enter folklore, and then cross-over in to more of a religious realm.

Analysis:  I disagree with this, as it seems that Guan Gong moved from a historical and legendary icon to a mythological figure. Based on this story, Guan Gong entered into the legendary realm following the spreading of his story throughout the Chinese public. His actions have spawned various stories–that may or may not be true. However, with the worship of this figure, Guan Gong also became a mythological figure that people saw as a deity. In many cultures, many people will see national heroes or cultural icons as someone that they look up to and eventually this respect can turn into worship. For example, Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who did prolific charity work in India, was not only canonized as Saint of the Church, but is also seen as a goddess in certain regions of Kolkata, a region in India. This shift was due to the fact that Saint Teresa was one of the few people to deal directly with those with “untouchable diseases” like HIV/AIDS and leprosy, and proved to society the importance of showing compassion to all. While this is different from the story of Guan Gong as Saint Teresa was not a legendary figure, there is a common theme; the actions of Guan Gong and Saint Theresa have become the icons that they are because the things that they did in their lifetime.

This is similar to the story of Zhang Lang, who was cursed to be blind and resorted to beg following his adultering behavior. While begging, he stumbled across his former wife; after she restores his eyesight, Zhang Lang, overcome by guilt, self-immolated in the hearth. This story was told over many generations, eventually becoming one of the “kitchen gods” that protect the home and the hearth. For me, the significance of this story is that it shows how a person or story can move between disciplines in folklore, as both legends and myths are genres of narrative folklore.

Folk Beliefs

The Luck of Red – Chinese Superstition

“So there is a kind of tradition in China, that for example, I was born in the Year of Rabbit, so when it is the Year of Rabbit again, I need to wear red underwears again for the entire year to ensure luck and happiness.”

Context: The informant, YT, is a student at USC originally from Shanghai, China, and is one of my roommates. We were discussing weird superstitions involving luck that our families abide by, and she brought up these superstitions that involve the color red. According the the informant, red is very influential in Chinese culture, and is largely associated with China on a global scale. YT, though not very superstitious, is still impacted by the widespread folk belief, and ends up abiding by this superstitions partially.

Analysis: Color is an incredibly important component of many cultures around the world. Specific colors can be seen as lucky, unlucky, beautiful, or cursed; the way that a culture sees these colors greatly impacts the superstitions of that nation. For China, red holds several meanings. First off, red was seen as bringing good fortune and luck, which is showcased in the initial red underwear superstition. Another component of this superstition is its reliance on the importance of Chinese zodiac. Chinese zodiac is assigned to each person based on the year that the individual was born in, in a 12 year cycle. It is also believed that when the year of your Chinese zodiac returns, that year will be an unlucky one; therefore, this superstition is an attempt to counteract this unluckiness. Masking the unlucky year with an article of clothing is there was of restoring joy and luck into the world.

It is also important to comment on the importance and proliferation of superstitions even in the modern era. Most of the Chinese superstitions have persisted in the culture for many years, so it could be thought that the folk beliefs would slowly die off as time went on, but such is not the case. YT is not superstitious, however, she continue to follow the folk beliefs because of the influence of those superstitions. For many members of the younger generation, they follow the folk beliefs because they think “what is the worst that could happen?” and that any potential luck that they obtained would be beneficial. Due to this mindset, young members of the Chinese culture continue to abide by this folk belief.

Folk Beliefs
Old age

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief


Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.



I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.



This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.


Game for Summoning Ghosts

The informant is currently a Chinese college student. She heard this piece when she was in Junior High School. We were talking about ghost stories when she brought out this piece.

Informant: You need to find a rectangular room. 4 people each stand in 4 corners. A person starts to walk along the wall. S/he touches the next person, who starts to walk. This person touches the next person who then starts to walk. And there are 4 people who had played the game for the whole night until they realized that when the fourth people walked towards the first people, s/he should’ve not touched the first person, so there was 1 extra person.

Interviewers: Wait, why the fourth person should not touch the first person when s/he walks back?

Informant: Because the first person is not yet back. He stayed where he touched the second person.

Interviewer: Oh f**k. What’s next?

Informant: The story just ends.

Interviewer: I felt a chill just ran down my spine.

Informant: I just remembered that this is a ghost-summoning game. You basically follow the rule to see if you can resume it.

Interviewer: OMG. Are there any requirements like turning off all the lights?

Informant: Yes. Make sure that no one can see the person in front of him/her.

Interviewer: By the way, what do you mean by ghost-summoning?

Informant: Basically, if you can keep on with the game, then there is a real ghost coming out.

The informant told me that this had been her childhood shadow.
This story is most frightening if the audience imagines the occasion carefully. Many people would get stuck, not understanding why the first people should not be touched by the fourth people. But the scenario is fully understood with a little effort, the story turned out very scary. The story doesn’t describe many details, which invites the audience to draw their most frightening imaginations on what is the ghost and what would happen to the 4 people trapped in the game.

Folk speech

Guang Hua has 30 floors; a jump solves a thousand troubles.

The informant is a freshman at Fudan University. We were talking about our lives as college students when she brought up this item.

Roman form: Guang Hua san shi lou, yi yue jie qian chou.
Transliteration: Guang Hua thirty floors, a jump solves a thousand troubles.
Full translation: All trouble will be solved if you jump from the top of the 30-story-tall Guanghua Building.

According to my informant, Guanghua Building is 2 strangely tall buildings at Fudan University. They are 30-story tall, while most other buildings are only 4-5 story tall. Facilities in the buildings are mainly offices.
Besides, this is a parody of a Chinese line from an old book called Zeng Guang Wen Xian

Roman form: San bei tong da dao, yi zui jie qian chou.
Transliteraition: 3 cups to big road, a drunk solves a thousand trouble.
Full translation: A few shots of alcohol delight people, while being drunk solves all the trouble.

The original line explained how alcohol kills all the bad mood. In the parodic version, suicide is likened to alcohol, because once you are dead, you wouldn’t need to worry about anything else. As a parody, this item sounds like it should be dealt with seriously, which adds to its funniness. For the students, they are aware of and even empathetic with college students who commit suicide, especially as a result of academic anxiety. By expressing this possible outcome in a funny way, the students find a solution to solve a cognitive disagreement: a) to kill off anxiety in an extreme way; b) to never think about extreme conducts such as committing suicide.

Old age

An apartment is found haunted by reflection on the window

The informant grew up in Beijing. We were discussing ghost stories when she brought out this story.

A man bought a new apartment. It was on the first floor. Outside the window is the garden, a small grassland in a residential district. He said that when the apartment was being furnished, he often saw an old man staring at him strangely from the window. When he walked outdoors to find the old man, the old man disappeared. When he moved into the house, a friend of his came to visit him. He told his friend that he often saw an old man. He asked his friend to go out and take a look, while he stood indoors to see whether the old man disappeared from the window. The friend went out, and then ran in hurriedly, brought him out and said, “You could not live in the apartment. The old man is a reflection on the window.”

Because the old man is a reflection on the window, he is a ghost in the house. The main motif of the story is that mirrors or mirror-like object (window in this story) can show the reflection of ghosts, even though ghosts cannot be seen directly. Notice that the ghost is an old man. The old man must have some unfulfilled wishes that connect with the apartment – he probably lives in the apartment. To me, the story reflects the anxiety of the working force who fail to pay enough attention to their aging parents.


Supernatual event at Lu Xun Middle School

The informant grows up in Beijing. The story happened in a middle school in Beijing. We were talking about ghost stories when she brought up this legend.

Informant: In our city, there is a school called Lu Xun Middle School. Because it is Lu Xun Middle School, it has a statue of Lu Xun. I don’t know in what position, but the statue is pointing at a direction, I think it’s left. Then, a student for some reason goes into the school at midnight. He says that when he goes in the school, the statue looks as if it’s pointing to the right, but the statue is still facing the same direction. Then, he goes into the building to fetch his things. After that, his hand was dirty, so he washes his hand. When he comes out, the Lu Xun statue is still pointing to the right. So he goes home. But the next day, he is told that someone is killed. He goes back to see the statue. It’s still pointing to the left. He finds out that the sink where he washed his hands the night before is filled with the blood of the victim.

I did some research online. It turns out that the Lu Xun Middle School is furnished in a traditional style. It was built in 1901 and 2 of its alumni were killed in the March 18 Massacre. The violence was taken by Bei Yang Governments, who tried to suppress a demonstration that asked the government to stop signing inequal treaties to western countries. The famous writer Lu Xun called it “the darkest day in the history of the Republic of China”.
The school was named after the influential Chinese writer Lu Xun, who was honored for attacking conservative forces relentlessly by his writings at that time.

Folk Beliefs

4 Will Bring Death

The informant shares how the number four is a connotation for bad luck in Chinese culture. She shared this in a group environment, where another member of the group, ‘Support,’ provided additional information to what the Informant was sharing:


Informant: We also don’t like the number 4

Me: What’s the number 4?

Informant: Like the number, four. We don’t like it. It means death. It’s associated with death

Support: Because when you say four in mandarin it sounds like the same word as death in mandarin.

Informant: So literally in my building there is no fourth floor, it’s the fifth floor.

Support: It’s kinda like how sometimes in America in buildings there’s no 13thfloor. It’s the same way… they just skip the number 4 when doing floors.

Informant: Yeah theres no 14th, 24th, they just skp the number.

Support: Oh really?!  I remember seeing the 4thskipped,but I don’t remember seeing 14th.

Informant: Like in my building there’s nothing floor.


Support: yeah because you don’t wanna live on the death floor… its kind of a pun.


Informant: But then lucky numbers are six or eight for a similar reason. Eight is associated with wealth, like you’re getting more money.



I was talking with a group of friends while we were working on a class project and some of the group members wanted to share pieces of their traditions with me. It was a very casual setting and the performance took place in front of three other individuals.


The informant is from Hong Kong, China, but attends school at USC. She has experienced the stigma of the number four first hand, because there is no floor containing ‘4’ in her apartment building in Hong Kong.


I love learning about how different cultures have similar superstitions to the United States, but while similar there is a different reasoning. While the US may view 13 as unlucky, it is not that way in China.