USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Old age
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese Funerals (Taiwan)

This is a Chinese thing. After someone passes away, like Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, whoever, it’s like a very long two-week, three-week ordeal where there’s a ton of praying, there’s a funeral where you go to a funeral home and then you pray for hours. You have to do like a special thing where you like put your hands together and bow and nod your head, it’s very, just….culture. Culture.

 

Do you say things? Is it silent prayer?

 

Yeah you have to say like, I don’t know, my mom told me I forgot. Sorry. But okay so for the death thing, they’ll…I cant remember exactly but they take the body to like a temple where it gets burned…

 

Is this after the praying?

 

Yeah, there’s praying for like a week, not like a straight week, but like – get up, go pray, get up, go pray, get up, go pray. So yeah you pray for a week while everything’s being prepared, like all the ceremonies are being prepared. So then you go to the temple, and while the body’s actually burning in the furnace you keep praying, a ton of people are there, even the grandchildren. You keep praying while it’s burning, and then afterwards my mom told me that they took out the tray, or whatever he was on… There were still some bones left, because bones don’t burn unless they’re cracked, unless the heat from the fire cracks them open or something. So apparently my grandpa’s femur bone and like tibia or something was still left there, so the grandkids have to go and pick those up…and then I forgot what she said they did with them! Um, I’m pretty sure they burned them or somehow like, crushed them. So they eventually burn all of them. And then they put him in this little box, his ashes. And actually there might be some other traditional things in there, sorry I don’t know. So, I mean this is for my family, I’m sure if you’re richer I’m sure you get like a special temple somewhere like really nice, but he was actually a veteran, so he was buried in the veteran cemetery. And it’s way different than our cemeteries, it’s like green grass, it’s taken care of by caretakers every single day, it’s beautiful, it’s up in the hills kind of, it’s really nice. So the whole family was there, my cousin, uncle, aunt, grandma, and other family members, and one of my cousins put the box on his back, they strap it on so they actually carry it up the mountain, all the way up to where his gravesite is. And then you bury the box in the ground. Also I don’t think you wanna like, take pictures of this because it’s kinda like, you’re capturing the soul, and you don’t wanna do that cause then the soul wont be able to go up to heaven. Or like the Chinese heaven. So I mean they didn’t take pictures of the box directly, but they took pictures of like the hills and stuff. And then they just pray some more, like say their goodbyes at the grave.

 

ANALYSIS:

This is a funeral ritual which involves a very lengthy and specific process for proper mourning, treatment and burial of the body and ashes, and symbolic acts. There is a specific time period of mourning, and even poses and physical actions in mourning; there are specific roles that different family member play in the ritual according to their ages; there are superstitions and beliefs regarding how the deceased’s spirit or soul gets to heaven, and how to do everything correctly so as not to interfere with that transition. The whole process seems to be both in support of the dead family member’s transition to the after life, as well as the family members remembering, honoring, and making sacred that person and their life.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Protection
Signs

A Grave of Rice

It’s bad luck to stick chopsticks into a bowl of rice, burying the tip. Supposedly this is because the chopsticks resemble the headstone placed on a grave, and reminders death are extremely inauspicious in Chinese society.

The correct way to set a table, and to place chopsticks on a bowl of rice, is to lay them across the rim of the bowl with the tip pointing toward the center of the table. This is because it is also rude to point the tip at anyone sitting at the table, but usually the people across the table are too far away for the sign to take effect.

I was made aware of this taboo when I stuck a pair of chopsticks into a bowl of rice when I was young, and JL, my mother, caught me in the act. I was setting the table for my family at the age of 8, and was allowed to begin eating first. I stuck the chopsticks in the rice to see if it would stay secure, and my mother caught me before anyone else could see, and she said it would have been very rude for my grandparents to see, and that they would have been a lot harder on me than she was.

She had actually found out about the taboo the same way when she was a child. This is a fairly obscure taboo in Chinese dining etiquette, so most people don’t find out about it until they’ve broken it once. When etiquette is broken in a public setting, it is also rude to mention the offense except in private, between two parties who trust each other, usually parents to children.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Protection
Signs

Fire and water must never meet

A feng shui master once told my informant that when fire and water meet within a household, conflict would arise. By fire, he refers to stoves, fireplaces, and other sources of heat, while by water he refers to faucets and pot spouts.

A few years ago, my informant lived in a house with poorly laid out kitchen, as the sink and kitchen counter each faced the stove and fireplace. Since she had a rotating faucet, the master warned her to never directly face fire and water toward each other, because it would lead to conflict. My informant really took this to heart, but her husband always dismissed her insistence on doing things exactly the way she was told to. One of the worst fights that they had had actually sparked from my informant noticing that the faucet was pointed toward the stove, which she took it as proof that her husband didn’t care if there was conflict in the family, while her husband, who prided himself on being logical, resented how she wanted him to subscribe to superstitious rituals and actively rebelled against her wishes.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it only reaffirmed my informant’s belief in feng shui.

 

Digital
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Singles Day

Context: My informant first told me about Singles Day while we were walking home together after an outing with anime club that took place close to Black Friday. He introduced Singles Day, which takes place on November 11th (11/11), as both the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday and an anti-Valentine’s Day celebration for single people. I interviewed the informant about the holiday at an anime club meeting to obtain a transcript for collection purposes.

Interview Transcript:

Informant: Okay. So… What exactly do you want to know from the Singles Day?

Me: Well like… The way that it’s celebrated. How it came to be. What it means. Stuff like that.

Informant: Okay. So first of all, it’s called “Singles Day” only because the eleventh of November is all “ones,” and it’s single. It actually started probably like two or three years ago. Like there was a guy in a Chinese website. It was just on the Internet, and he made fun of this day. And he was the Amazon of China. It was called Taobao. And they found that this… That they can actually make money from this. Make it some kind of festival. And so they just decided to call it “Singles Day.” And for Singles Day they made it the Black Friday of China.

Me: What type of stuff do people buy?

Informant: Just everything!

Me: Like off the Internet? Or in stores?

Informant: No. Just mainly on the Internet. But… But one thing that’s pretty interesting about it is that the Chinese government doesn’t actually like the term “Singles Day.” So they banned websites who use that name. So now when… We still call it “Singles Day,” but all those Chinese websites and stores, when they are celebrating it, they have to use the term “Double 11.” And so they call it “Double 11 Shopping Festival.” But it’s mainly only like selling things. Last year it went really crazy. Like it even has some, like, some stores are even giving like free mailing between nations. Like because, like they are just earning that much from that single day. And, yeah. It’s pretty crazy.

Me: Um, like who usually participates?

Informant: Well, ironically… Most of them are, um, people in relationships. Like they… Well, basically just everybody, mainly young people. And though it’s called “Singles Day,” there are actually a lot of couples just buy things online, because, you know, discounts. Great discounts.

Analysis:

Singles Day is an example of a holiday that came into existence to mock another holiday. It is popular among the citizens of China despite its being censored by the government. Its celebration is also heavily dependent on Internet usage, as most of the shopping done on this day takes place online. The holiday has become so popular that, ironically, even people in relationships participate in it. The use of the term “Double 11″ after websites got banned from using the term “Singles Day” is an example of a people’s continuing to observe a tradition despite interference from authorities.

Myths
Narrative

The Origin of Chinese Valentine’s Day

Context:

The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant said that she knew the story that inspired the movie. I asked her to share that story as well as other Chinese or Taiwanese stories she knew and recorded the conversation for collection purposes.

Transcript:

Informant: Okay, so in ancient China they believed, um, that stars are actually gods, just like, um, ancient Greek people. So there are, I think, these two stars that are especially bright. One is from the constellation of Altair, and in Chinese they call it like the “cow star,” “the coy boy.” Like the “boy who farms cows.” Okay, I’m going to call it “cow boy,” but it’s not that type of cowboy. The “cow boy star.”  And there’s this other star that’s called the “weaver star.” The “weaver girl star.” And that star’s from the constellation of Vega. A very bright star too. But these two stars are located across from the milky way. There’s this vertical milky way, and then the stars are on the two sides. Yeah, and so there was this story that the cow boy and the weaver girl, they fell in love with each other, but love is not allowed in the holy court of the Chinese gods. Like the highest god mother. So the highest god mother discovered that her granddaughter, the weaver girl, actually fell in love with another god, like a boy. And then she was angry, so she like kind of put the cow boy into exile, and she like abandoned, made him become a human, so instead of a god. So he reincarnated or something, he became a human, and his job was farming cows, so he’s still a cow boy. Um, but he had a friend who was also a god. And then this friend… Okay, his friend was Taurus, which is like the “golden cow” or something in Chinese. His friend golden cow spoke for him and then the god mother got angry with the golden cow as well, so she abandoned, she exiles Taurus as well. So Taurus became cow boy’s cow in the, in the human world. But Taurus knew what was going on, but the cow boy forgot everything that happened when he was a god. And then, um, so one day the weaver girl was very unhappy, so she tried to work very hard in her job in the hopes that her grandmother would let the cow boy come back again, and her job was to weave clouds. So she weaved some very beautiful clouds. Um… And then one day, I think the goddesses wanted to come down to the world of the humans to take a shower because apparently there was this really beautiful pool that they wanted to take a shower in. Or river. I don’t know. So they came down and took a shower. And when they came down, the Taurus who morphed into a cow spoke to the cow boy and said, “If  you go now to this poolside you will find a lot of women’s clothes, and you should go and take the one that is red. And if you take that one you will find a wife.” And then so the cow boy listened to his cow and went to the poolside and took the red clothes. So when the goddesses, or like fairies… Yeah. Maybe fairies is a more apt, uh, description. So when the fairies were done taking showers, they went back, but because the weaver girl, because she didn’t have her clothes on, she wasn’t able to return. And then the cow boy appeared with her clothes and asked if she would marry him. And, um, she was actually… She was at first very angry with him. But when she looked at the cow boy again, she discovered this was her… her lover from the past. She was really happy, so she agreed, and so they married, and then lived as a family in the human world and her job was to weave. His job was to farm cows. And then they were really happy together. Until the god mother discovers that her, the god mother’s granddaughter, the weaver girl, was with this guy again in the human world! So she was utterly angry. And then she came down and wanted to take, um, the weaver girl back to the world of the gods. And then the cow boy and their two children were very sad. They were horrified to be separated from the weaver girl. And so they were crying, and they were like begging. And um… Apparently the god mother was a little moved by this, so she allowed the cow boy and their two children to return. But she manually separated the cow boy and the weaver girl with like a river. I think she tore up the sky or something, and that’s how apparently the milky way formed. The milky way was there to separate these, the pair of lovers. And um… And said the cow boy and the weaver girl could only meet for one day in a whole year, and I believe that’s on July the 7th? I don’t know if the two stars actually converge on July the 7th. Maybe they do. Maybe they do like go into the milky way on July the 7th. I don’t know. But um, so reputedly, on July the 7th a bunch of birds, um… holy birds. Let’s see… Cranes! Okay. Cranes that signify happiness and love, right? A bunch of cranes would come and form a bridge so that the weaver girl and her husband and their two children can meet on the bridge for one day in a whole year. And… yeah. So that became the origin of the Chinese Valentine’s Day. And then these two stars would be just on the night sky.

Analysis:

This story provides an explanation for the Chinese celebration of Valentine’s Day. It has an elaborate exposition, and the actual basis for the holiday does not get revealed until the very end of the story. It tells the story of two lovers who a divine entity tried to separate and their eventual being allowed to have a relationship, but only on one day out of the entire year. The story sends the message that love cannot be mitigated by distance and by the efforts of outside parties if the couple’s feelings are strong enough.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Story of the White Snake and Her Lover

Context:

The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant said that she knew the story that inspired the movie. I asked her to share that story as well as other Chinese or Taiwanese stories she knew and recorded the conversation for collection purposes.

Interview Transcript:

Informant: A long time ago, there was this monk that was really proficient in his Buddhist studies. So, people who are proficient in the Buddhist studies, in Chinese culture they believe these people will reincarnate carrying the knowledge of the previous life with them. So this monk, one day he went to the market and saw that a butcher was about to kill a white snake. And white snakes in Chinese culture usually symbolize, I’m not sure, but they symbolize something… not bad. Maybe luck. So he saved the white snake from the butcher and released the snake. And in traditional Chinese folklore, they believed that if something lived for a long time, like even a tree or a grass or an animal, if they lived for a long time, they eventually developed intelligence, like a human. So this white snake lived a long time and, um, was able to, like… It became intelligent. And so she wanted to, it was a female, she wanted to return the kindness that this monk bestowed on her in saving her life. So she followed the monk, and the monk had a student. And she fell in love with the monk’s student. So she morphed into a human, a woman, and the student fell in love with her. And she also loved the student. So they married, but they married after the monk died. So the monk already died when they married. And they had a child, and they were really happy, until the monk reincarnated. Um, so he came back to find his student, only to find out that his student was married to, um, the white snake, the human form of the white snake. So, um… We can call it a phantom, though “phantom” usually implies that there isn’t a material form. So um… The actual term is “yaoguai,” which is like a phantom, but with actual form, physical. So he found out that his student married this phantom, and he was worried that the phantom might be a bad phantom, because there are bad and good phantoms. And so he told his student that his wife was actually not a human, but a huge white snake. And so, and then he told him… I think he gave him a tool, that if he used the tool to look at his wife at night, he would see that his wife was… He would see the girl’s original form. So the guy went back and saw that his wife was actually a huge white snake, and he was like terrified! So I think he went back with his son, and he abandoned his wife and his child and went back with his teacher, with the monk. But I think they were still in love with each other. And then, um, the white snake wanted to save… Well… She wanted to retrieve her husband, so she kind of flooded the temple where the monk was, and so the monk thought she was a really bad phantom. And the monk was stronger than the white snake, so in the end he defeated her and kind of entrapped her under a tower, um, and said that she couldn’t ever come out again unless this tree before her tower bloomed with flowers. But, um, that tree never bloomed, so it’s like impossible. You’ll never come out again. But! Time passed, and, um, their child went… He studied really hard, and he went to take this national test, in which he got number one. And then if you scored the top, then you get a flower, like a fake flower, from the emperor. So this child got the fake flower and then went back to the tower to visit his mom and hung the fake flower on the tree. And, um, and then this was kind of like the tree bloomed with a flower. And so his mom got released, and the family reunited happily ever after.

Me: So where did you hear this story for the first time?

Informant: I don’t know. I think this was just a really old folklore that, like, people just generally tell each other. Like maybe in kindergarten story time. Or maybe my parents told me as a bed time story, or something like that.

Me: And what, like, do you think is like the message behind the story?

Informant: Message?

Me: Or is there one?

Informant: Maybe be good. There are good phantoms who try to save people’s lives. Or it might be that like, um, life living as a monk without a wife might not be, uh, the happiest thing to do. Like you maybe want a wife or a child or a family, instead of keeping on studying, studying, studying for lives after lives after lives.

*laughter*

Me: Oh my god… Studying for lives after lives after lives…

Analysis:

In this story, the pair of lovers, the snake and the monk’s student, only meet accidentally when the snake tries to find the monk for saving her life. The monk, who earlier saves the snake, later opposes her when she enters a relationship with his student. The story shows interesting changes in relations between people through this case. The phantom’s getting released from the area under the tower despite its improbability demonstrates the futility of trying to keep lovers apart when their feelings for one another are strong. Her release also furthers the theme of chance, as she had to depend on her son receiving a flower as a gift and hanging it on the tree to be released.

Legends
Narrative

The Story of Mulan

Context:

The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant told me that she knew the story the movie was based on. We later met to talk about it and other Chinese stories, and I recorded the conversation for collection purposes.

Transcript:

Informant: The setting is a very very long time ago, in the dynasty of which the name I do not know. There was, um, this family, Mulan’s family, and she doesn’t have a brother, or, um, an older brother or a younger brother. The only man in her family was her father. And… The dynasty went to war with another country. So the emperor gave out a draft for all the laymen to come to the army. And since Mulan’s family did not have any, uh, males other than her father, her father was kind of like required to go to the army. But, um, Mulan’s father was very old, and Mulan was worried that if her father went, he wouldn’t be able to, like, he would never come back. So instead, she disguised as a man and went into the army by herself. And this is actually a very, uh, rare act in ancient China, because women at that time were expected to be gentle and soft and weak. But, um, she did this, and then, um, joined the army, and I don’t think anybody discovered that she was actually a woman. And she fought the war, and reputedly she got safely back home. So that was nice. And you would think that in ancient China, those who worshiped gentleness and kindness would criticize her actions, but she actually wasn’t criticized. And that’s because this brave act of hers displayed, um, filial piety and a lot of love for her father, and that was like a more important value for women, to be loyal and pious to their family. So, that’s the end of the story.

Analysis:

“The Story of Mulan” upholds loyalty to one’s family as a more important priority than staying consistent with societal expectations regarding one’s behavior. The story also focuses on a female character who defies gender roles and portrays her positively. It also includes elements of identity concealment and deception through Mulan’s disguising herself as a man. The poem Ballad of Mulan is regarded as the first instance the character appeared in print. Mulan also appears in modern works such as the 1998 film Mulan by Walt Disney Pictures and the television show Once Upon a Time, which airs on ABC. Mulan’s character has remained popular for centuries, and knowledge of her story has spread far beyond its origins in China.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

Chinese Version of Robin Hood and His Merry Men

“So, this is actually a very famous story, and I am going to give you the 20 seconds version of it. Basically, there are a bunch of guys, they are like Robin Hood, right? Basically they, they, they rob the rich, give to the poor, stuff like that. There are actually a bunch of them, 108 of them. Um, then, you know, their plans grow bigger because, you know, the government at that time was very weak, uh, but then they decide to join the government because there are some uh other nations, people from other ethnicities, whatever, trying to invade China, so they decide to join the government to help the government fight and most of them die in that fight, that’s basically it.”

 

The informant is a 19 year old, undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, studying accounting. He was born and lived in Shanghai, China for most of his life. He spent his high school years at a boarding school in Connecticut, before coming to college in California. He still spends his summers back in China, where he likes writing music and working on potential future business projects.

 

The informant provided this story after being asked what is an urban legend of China, something that sounds like history but may not entirely be true. He has heard this story a number of times from friends or family members, and it has had a few books written based on it.

 

The informant, being well-versed in Western urban legends, immediately compares this story to Robin Hood, the whole idea of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This idea is very popular in urban legends and even contemporary popular culture. There is Robin Hood, an outlaw, often previous lord, goes on daring pursuits to retaliate against the high taxes of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin Hood is often described as charming, witty, good with the ladies, everything a man should be. There have been many Western spinoffs and movies made based off of his story. There is also the Tv Show Leverage, which brings the practice of stealing from the rich to give to help the poor to modern situations. This idea is clearly just as popular in Chinese culture as in many other cultures, because of its ideals of stopping corruption and even the stratification of the classes. The stratification between classes is an incredibly important in China, as the government is largely based in the ideals of communism.

In the Chinese story, the members of this group are willing to give up their valiant goals aside when China itself is threatened. This adds another layer to the ideals of China. It is alright to fight the government during peacetime and when it is in the wrong, but if the entire nation is threatened, then it is important to put aside differences for the good of the nation and the people. This demonstrates some of China’s strong feelings of nationalism, and even some of its militaristic pursuits. Even the way the informant tells the story, describing the enemy as “people from other ethnicities” shows the “us vs. them” attitude of many Chinese people. Asian people in general differentiate themselves very clearly from one nation to another, sometimes even getting offended if someone thinks they are from a different country.This story supports that.

Why 108 members? It turns out that 108 is an important number for Buddhism and Hinduism, as that is the number of beads on a traditional mala, or prayer beads. In Hinduism, there is also the belief that there are 108 sacred sites in India and 108 sacred places of the body. Having 108 members of a group adds a sacred justification to their actions, which would allow them to be more accepted in their—generally illegal—actions.

Like many noble battles, many die in the end. If the members of this group had not died in the end, they would have continued to disrupt the government’s plans once the war was over and little would have changed. Because they died, especially because they died in support of the government, the final message is to support the government. They get to die a noble death instead of being executed. This story is definitely folklore, but it might as well be propaganda for the ideals it supports.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
general
Proverbs

One hundred steps

“Basically, yeah, one of our common sayings is that if you, you know, walk, like, a hundred steps after you eat your food, it helps you live longer.”

 

The informant is a 19 year old, undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, studying accounting. He was born and lived in Shanghai, China for most of his life. He spent his high school years at a boarding school in Connecticut, before coming to college in California. He still spends his summers back in China, where he likes writing music and working on potential future business projects.

 

The informant was asked if there were any common sayings that he heard in China. He had heard this saying from his family, often after meals.

 

The Chinese are renowned for their medicine practices. They are largely responsible for what many call “holistic medicine” today—acupressure, acupuncture, and herbal remedies. They are very interested in health and have many folklore remedies, as a result. This particular one, of walking a hundred steps after one eats, is just another of such remedies. Exercise is always a good thing, and walking after a meal can help circulate the blood in the body.

Why 100 steps? Well, 100 is an important number in Chinese culture. On a baby’s 100th day, there is a large celebration. A hundred is also ten times ten. Ten is a holy number, as it is the sum of the first four numbers (1+2+3+4), and people have 10 fingers and 10 toes. Ten would be too few of steps to walk, so the Chinese say 100  to maintain the holiness of the numerical symbolism, while still making it a practical way to maintain health.

It is interesting that the Chinese, with this saying, have people exercise after they eat. In America, there is the saying that you should wait to swim until an hour after you have eaten. This is thought to protect from cramps, and therefore drowning. The Chinese would likely disagree with this way of thinking.

general
Protection

The Laziest Boy in China

My informant for this is my mother, JL. The following is a recollection from when I was younger and she used to try to scare me into doing things right with stories with a moral. I went back and interviewed her for her experiences for this project afterward.

Once there was a boy who was very lazy. His parents did everything for him, and he never had to lift a finger. One day, his parents had to go on a trip for a weekend. They made him a very big pancake and cut a hole in the center to hang it around his neck so he wouldn’t go hungry.

When they came back 3 days later, the boy had starved to death in the house, with the back half of the pancake still hanging behind his head, because he was too lazy to turn the pancake around when he finished the front half.

I just translated the food item to “pancake” for ease of storytelling, as the actual type of food doesn’t matter in a story about someone starving to death for being too lazy to rotate something around his neck. The actual food is a type of flat wheat-based food, like a tortilla or the crust of a pizza, generally referred to in Chinese as “bing.”

This story, while morbid, is actually meant to be humorous when told to a child. It warns off the child from being lazy themselves because the death that occurs within the story is so unlikely and easily avoidable. A child told this story is encouraged to not want to embarrass themselves by letting themselves sink so low.

[geolocation]