USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’
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
Myths
Narrative

Chinese Zodiac Origin Story

So I understand that you’re going to tell me a story?

“Yeah, I got you a story. This story’s about, umm… why the Chinese Zodiac’s in the order it is. So you know the Chinese Zodiac, right? It’s like, 12 years, it’s a 12 year cycle, there’s 12 animals, and it’s, umm… Rat, uhh, Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat… Chicken… Wait, Monkey, Chicken…? I think it’s Monkey, Chicken… It’s either Monkey Chicken or Chicken Monkey, [laughs] and then it’s Dog and Pig [laughs].”

We’re off to a great start!

“It’s Monkey, Chicken. It’s Monkey, Chicken. Cuz’ I have to translate from Chinese to… yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay so the order that… so then, once upon a time, back in the old days, some god was like, ‘hey, we, uhh, there’s a lot of animals-‘ ”

Do you remember this in Chinese?

“Do you want me to say it all in Chinese?”

Yeah, if you can.

“You want me to, like, say this story, well I mean it’s, like, it’s a folk story, it’s just a story… Saying it in Chinese would be harder for me, because I remember the contents of the story, and my Chinese is worse than my English.”

Okay, then we’ll go on in English.

“Yeah.”

Who’d you learn it from? Let’s start there.

“Probably my grandma? Or my mom or dad? This was told to me when I was really young.

It was a race, the gods were deciding which 12 animals to deify, kind of, or like make into a calendar, or something, some sort of race. So it, so… yeah, so something was happening, but they were like, ‘Hey, alert all the animals, we’re gonna have a race to determine who’s the dankest- Oh, I’m sorry, who’s gonna be deified, who’s gonna be chosen, right- [laughs] Asian-American…

But yeah, so then, they told the rat to go alert everyone. So the rat was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’

And the rat does go and tells everyone, but he tells everyone that the race starts a little bit later than it actually did, and then… the rat also specifically does not go to the cat, because the rat hates the cat.

So then, umm, then the day of the race comes, the rat’s there on time, and a few are early, or the ones that happen to be nearby, so then, umm, the race starts, and then the animals start running, and then some of them show up late, and some of them are on time. And then, umm, so you think, oh, it’s a race, how the heck is the rat first place then?

Well, the rat’s real smart. So he told the ox to show up on time, because the ox is a real strong, dependable guy, and the rat was like, ‘I’ll navigate for you, and you run, and together, we’ll be a great team.’

So the rat sits on the ox’s back, and he navigates, and they get a head start and ox is a strong, sturdy partner, and then they get to the end first, and right before the finish line,  the rat jumps off the ox’s head to be first place.

And that’s why the rat has this reputation of being like, really shrewd, and somewhat manipulative, and the ox is sturdy, solid.

The reason the tiger came in after, and so is the rabbit, but in the middle of the race. There’s also a river, so like, those animals weren’t as adept, so the ox could walk straight through no problem, because he didn’t mind it as much, and everyone else starts trickling in.

And normally the dragon would be like, number one, even more so than the ox, but uhh… the dragon and the phoenix were having a uhh, uhh, like a tussle. They were, they started the race, and then they, like, started arguing with each other, cuz’, historically dragons and phoenixes are, like, real bad to each other, they don’t like each other, fight a lot, they’re both like kings of the sky, but theyre like very different kinds of king, and they’re both very prideful animals. So then they started fighting, and the dragon won the fight, and then managed to end up fifth. [laughs]

And everyone else starts trickling in, monkey, dog, and the pig actually ends up making it.

Umm, yeah, and the cat woke up too late, cuz it didn’t know, cuz the rat didn’t, like, alert the cat, and then the cat’s basically like, oh, well I guess I dont, oh, [laughs]

So the cat’s not in it, even though there were a bunch of cats back then. That’s that story.”

Analysis: This is a very unique take on the Chinese Zodiac origin story, as told from memory and in constant mental translation. Yet, with the occasional bit of American slang, all of the animations that the informant was making use of, and the constant changes in pitch and inflection to emphasize humor, it was a very fun and unique experience to listen to.

Like many myths, the Zodiac origin story probably has a slew of moral wisdom packed into it. The full story, therefore, likely has more lessons for the audience from each animal’s experience. Knowing the informant personally, however, it is evident why he recalled the rat’s cleverness most clearly, as that part of the story was likely the most relatable to him.

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.

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.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

Meng Jiang Nv

“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.

[geolocation]