USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’
Narrative

Quiet Night Thoughts Poem

“Do I have a poem… This is a classic, man. I learned this in Chinese school when I was younger. [Recites the poem in Chinese]

I’ll go line by line. Poems usually are like, same number of words each time, and only the last word rhymes, you know, you know, poetry.

And it’s umm… ‘I sit in front of the bed, looking at the moon,’ So it’s already a morose kind of tone. It’s night time, you’re sitting on your bed, no one else around you, it’s like praying, but they don’t do that in China. ‘Looking at the moon…’ I don’t remember what the second line means, forget the second line! [laughs]

And then he raises his head, looks at the moon, and then he lowers his head in sadness. And at some point, some of these words are about, like, he’s thinking of his family. I’m not sure which ones. So the fourth line, end of the fourth line or the second line is about thinking of his family.

And this poem was taught to me to teach me that, uhh… when you get into real life, you’ll be lonely [laughs], and you’ll think of your parents, and you’ll think of your home, and you’ll be like, ‘Man, I had it great!’

So this was a poem [laughs] to teach a spoiled brat to appreciate what he has. [laughs]

At least, that’s how it was presented to me when I was younger.

[Laughs]

This is like the classic Chinese, like everyone knows this one. If people memorize one poem, it’s like this poem, usually.”

Note: For a published version of this poem, see “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai, found easily on many online webpages and in: John Milford and Joseph Lau, Classical Chinese Literature – Volume 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Analysis: This poem is a memorized version of a very famous piece of Chinese authored literature from over a millennium ago. However, like the informant’s Chinese Zodiac performance, this somewhat original performance was also delivered with active animation, emphasis on humor, and mental translation into English. As such, some of the detail of the poem is lost, but the meaning conveyed by the poem remains, since that is what stuck with the informant over everything else. Versions of this poem are often used in  order to instill traditional values in Chinese schoolchildren at an early age, and it seems to have done that job very well with this informant in particular (who could not recall the whole poem, but definitely remembered its purpose, origin, and spread).

Folk speech
Game
Riddle

Pair of Chinese Number Riddles

“A riddle… This one, this one’s uhh, a good riddle, because it also translates to English. So it’s umm, there’s a fisherman, oh, umm…

So you know how there’s Chinese New Year, right? And fifteen days after Chinese New Year, because Chinese New Year is a two-week celebration, fifteen day celebration, and the last day is the lantern festival. And at a traditional lantern festival, you uhh, you have a parade with a bunch of lanterns, you eat, like, a specific food, which is called like… Literal translation is, like, ‘soup balls,’ but it’s like, uhh, kinda like mochi kinda thing, it’s rice, rice balls, and like, sugar water… and then, umm, you also do riddles, that’s like also part of the festival.

So I learned this riddle when I was participating in that holiday, we had like… something… umm… and the riddle is:

‘A fisherman went out one day, and, umm… so first he caught… 6 fish without the head, then 9 fish without the tail, then 8 fish except these fish were only half a fish each. How many fish did he catch in total?’ ”

Like… whole fish?

“It’s a riddle! [laughs]

Okay, the answer is zero. And you’re like, ‘What the, what the heck?’ Because umm, if you take the number 6, and write it in Arabic numerals, and you take off the top half, it becomes 0. Same with the 9, if you take the bottom half it becomes 0. If you take 8 and you cut it in half, then it’s 0. So you have 0+0+0! [laughs]

It’s some trickery! Yeah!”

Why Arabic numerals?

“Umm, well, this isn’t, this isn’t like a really old one, but like, I just learned this one in the context of this Chinese event. And like, Chinese people like numbers, too, you know? [laughs]

It’s part of it, So like, I dunno if this part is a trick. There’s a version where… Is there a version? No, I don’t remember any other specific riddles, but I know there were a lot that had to deal with, like, what the actual Chinese numbers were written as in Chinese. I don’t remember any of those riddles. But I remember there was like a series of them…

Oh! There’s one… umm… it’s uhh… what is… you take half of six and round down, what is it. And you need to know how six is written in Chinese. It’s written like… dot on top, straight line, and then two dashes that are like kinda sloped into each other on the bottom. And you take half of six and round down, the actual meaning of the riddle is: You look at the bottom half of six, and that’s what eight is written as.

So then the question would be like half of six, round down. And all the little kids would be like ‘three!’ And you’d be like ‘no!!! It’s eight!’ And then they circle it on the board, and you go ‘wooooooow!’ [laughs]

Yeah, so that was like, basic level riddles.

Folk Beliefs
general
Signs

Chinese Folk Belief on Big Noses

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My parents and I are from Central China, but I grew up in Kentucky.

Piece:

So my parents would tell me another thing… compared to my mom and dad, I have the biggest nose in my family. My parents would make me feel good about it by telling me that people with big noses tend to be more fortunate in the future.

Piece Background Information:

I guess that’s like a superstition they have, but it made me feel good about myself. They would just point out my big nose and tell me I would be successful in the future, because that’s how it goes. I think it’s a Chinese culture thing.

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Context of Performance: 

In person, during the day at Ground Zero, a milkshake shop and cafe on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

While I did not find any specific accounts of Chinese folk beliefs associating a large nose with success, there are many accounts observing that Jewish people tend to have large noses and also tend to be successful. While I do not quite know where this belief that a big nose could symbolize good fortune came from, it is safe to assume that the informant’s parents probably were trying to make him or perhaps even themselves feel good about what they believed was a big nose. For the record, I do not think the informant’s nose is large.

Folk Beliefs
general
Signs

Folk Belief on Red Ears

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My parents and I are from Central China, but I grew up in Kentucky.

Piece:

My mom would say… sometimes my ears would get really hot and red and uncomfortable. I think that’s a normal thing for people for whatever reason. When I would tell my mom, she’d tell me that it just meant somebody was missing me.

Piece Background Information:

I think it was just a way of making me feel good in an uncomfortable situation. I think her mom told her that, and she passed it down to me. I don’t know if it’s like a Chinese culture thing or something passed down within my family, but that’s just something she would tell me.

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Context of Performance:

In person, during the day at Ground Zero, a milkshake shop and cafe on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

The folk belief that itching, ringing, or burning (red) ears means someone is talking about you or thinking about you dates back very, very far and is definitely not limited to Chinese folk belief. Some further variations claim that ringing in your right ear means someone is thinking or saying something good about you, while ringing in your left ear means someone is thinking or saying something bad about you. While this of course is not based in scientific fact, it is most likely a sentiment that parents pass along to their children in order to explain an unknown phenomena of ear pain (and possibly even tinnitus) or feelings of embarrassment or overheating.

Folk speech
general
Humor
Proverbs

Chinese Proverb/ Chengyu

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My parents and I are from Central China, but I grew up in Kentucky.

Piece and Full Translation Scheme of Folk Speech:

Original Script: 蜻蜓点水

Transliteration: qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ

Translation: “The dragonfly touches the water lightly” or “superficial contact”

Piece Background Information:

We have a saying in my family that goes like “qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ”.

You know how when dragonflies fly around a pond and when they touch the water, they gently touch it and keep flying along? Well that’s just another way of describing someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. They say he’s just “qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ”. And that just means like they don’t go deep, they don’t go all the way into the water, they just touch it.

My mom would use this to describe my dad, for example when he would say he was going to clean the kitchen and like only clean half the dishes and leave everything else to be done. So I would hear that phrase used a lot.

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Context of Performance: 

In person, during the day at Ground Zero, a milkshake shop and cafe on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

The comparison of half-way cleaning to a dragonfly who skims the water is quite a romanticized outlook and allows for the conversation of “well… you really only cleaned a little bit” to be more easily had, as there is a funny context added to it. I can definitely relate to needing to somehow calmly and casually bring up to a roommate that they aren’t pulling their share.

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic

Chinese Folk Belief on Leg Shaking

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My mom was born in Hong Kong and lived there up until she was 19 before moving here, and I was born here (in America).

Piece:

My mom would not let me or my brother shake our legs. You know how some people have that nervous tick where they shake their legs? Well she thought that it symbolized shaking money off a tree, so if we did it we wouldn’t be rich in the future. So she would tell us “we were shaking the money off the trees” so now me and my brother don’t shake our legs anymore, although we used to a lot when we were kids. 

Piece Background Information:

She probably got that from her parents as well.

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Context of Performance:

In person, during the day, in the informant’s apartment adjacent to USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

This is clearly an instance of homeopathic magic, where the mimicking of shaking a sort of trunk (legs seen as the foundation for which the body depends) has affects in reality and in this case negative effects of losing money or fortune. I could not find other similar accounts so it is pretty likely that the informant’s mother, and possibly the informant’s mother’s parents (and so on), have shared this with their children in order to stop them from shaking their legs and groom them into proper adults. Leg shakers are the worst.

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic

Chinese Folk Belief on White Headdress

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My mom was born in Hong Kong and lived there up until she was 19 before moving here, and I was born here (in America).

Piece:

So my mom would not let me wear anything white on my head because she said that it meant like death in Chinese, or in China. So when I would try to wear like a white headband (I used to wear headbands) or put anything like a white hat on my head, she told me not to because it was death basically. 

Piece Background Information: 

Maybe when they bury someone, they put a white sash around their heads or something. It’s probably something her mom told her.

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Context of Performance:

In person, during the day, in the informant’s apartment adjacent to USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

Although the informant was not too sure on the origins behind this practice, the informant still holds to it to this day.Although I could not find anything supporting the informant’s belief that a white sash is placed upon the heads of the deceased when being buried, which would have been in a sense homeopathic magic (magic of similarity), there are clear associations between white and death, and it comes to no surprise that the informant’s mother would choose to see a white headdress as symbolizing death. Upon further research, apparently white is typically symbolic of the dead in Chinese funeral rituals – it is common in practice to place a white banner over the door of a household to signify that a death has occurred.

Folk Beliefs

Splitting the Pair

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.
Background Information
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.”
Context
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.
Personal Thoughts
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.

Myths
Narrative

Pan Gu opens up sky and earth

“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.

general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Zhi nv and Niu Lang

“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.

[geolocation]