USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Chinese culture’
Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks Straight Into Your Rice

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never stick their chopsticks straight up and down in their bowl of food. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone, and I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad. The informant told me the she learned this from her parents, and that this taboo is highly integrated into Chinese culture—“no Chinese person would ever be found doing this…” Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 Text:

“Especially in the countryside, when they bury a person, they stick a stick on top of the section of land that they use to bury a person. On the stick, they tie little white strip of cloth to the stick, and this serves as the gravestone.

Because chopsticks are quite literally sticks, we can’t stick them straight up and down into our food because it too closely resembles the gravestone. Doing this is essentially a call to bad luck, because if you do it, you’ll bring death to both you and your family.

I honestly don’t know if I fully believe in this custom, but because it’s been so ingrained in my culture, seeing people do it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it just seems safer to not do it and to teach my own friends, family, and kids to not do it.”

 

Thoughts:

This is a taboo that I grew up knowing, but never understood why it wasn’t allowed. I remember my grandmother scolding me when I was around seven years old for sticking my chopsticks straight up and down in my bowl of rice, but when I asked her I couldn’t do it, she told me that it would give me indigestion. It actually wasn’t until this year, in college, when one of my friends that I made here (who also happens to be Chinese) and I were talking about the weird taboos we had grown up, and she mentioned that the chopstick one seemed to be a stretch because it was supposed to resemble a gravestone. Surprised, I decided to ask my informant about this taboo to clarify the reason for its existence.

I did some further research after my conversation with the informant, and I found out that there is more than one way that sticking your chopsticks straight into your food brings death: apparently, Chinese people stick burning incense into rice to honor the dead. Breaking this taboo can bring bad luck to you because no one is dead, so it’s as if you’re summoning death by honoring yourself. This is an example of sympathetic magic: the Chinese believe that if you make a gesture that resembles something bad in the world, you’re making a calling to it. I also noticed that this is not limited to only Chinese culture—in Japan, sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl is also considered taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of the person who has just died either at their deathbed or in front of the photograph.

 

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection
Signs

Why You Can’t Write Your Name in Red

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 

Text: 

“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.

In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written.  Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).

So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.

Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.

This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.  

 

To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:

Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2

June 2016,

www.visiontimes.com/2016/06/02/a-chinese-taboo-never-write-other-peoples-names-using-red-ink.html.

 

Holidays
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Tales /märchen

The Story Behind Chinese Valentine’s Day

The story is as follows: On the 7th Day of the 7th Lunar Year, two lovers, who can only see each other on that day (once a year), meet through the help of magpie pigeons. The pigeons form a bridge across the skies, heavens, and earth to enable the man and woman to meet and spend the day together in-love. The woman lived in the heavens and the man was a cowherd. They could only meet once a year because the woman’s father, an emperor, did not approve of the relationship. Magpies made it possible for them to meet once a year, a condition that the emperor father agreed to. Legend has it that you don’t see magpies in China on this day because they would be too busy building, or acting, as the bridge between the emperor’s daughter and the cowherd.

Background information: “I heard this story while I was in Beijing. It interested me because I heard the story during the actual Chinese Valentine’s Day itself, and I saw quite a few couples on the streets that day (more so than on Valentine’s Day anywhere else). My Chinese colleagues teased with me and asked if I had a girlfriend to go on a date with in China, and whether or not she was Chinese. It was a fun day with lots of learning and lots of laughs.

“At that day’s evening, my Chinese teacher, named Boya Lin, shared the story with me and my classmates. It was by far one of the most entrancing and beautiful tales I had ever listened to, though it might be thanks to Boya’s great storytelling skills.”

Context: The informant told me this story in a conversation about folklore.

Thoughts: It is interesting to see a story that connects to a legend – two categories of folklore helping to create one piece of folklore. It is a sad, romantic story, one of two lovers who cannot be together all the time due to parental interference. I especially like how it connects itself to the present with the legend about the magpies.

Folk Beliefs
general
Material

Fung Shui

S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.

S: Have you heard of fung shui?

Me: I have.

S: Ok. So my mom like follows that a lot. But I don’t. But the whole thing is like, um, there are just like different spirits or energies like around us, and like you have to follow that, like I don’t know, that belief. For example, like if you buy a house, oh this is like common tradition though, like if you want to purchase land and or like a house, you want to like consult with like a fung shui person. And like make sure it’s facing like the east or like facing the north sun. Like something like that. Like facing the North Star, that way like when you wake up that’s the first thing you see and things like that. And like, if you’re in a bedroom, your bed has to be against a wall where you can see the door instead of like against the door wall. It’s just like, I don’t know…

Me: So my room is off it’s fung shui.

S: Yeah, probably. But, and then like there’d be things also like if you put certain amulets like in corners of rooms, it’s supposed to like enhance the good energy in the area or like if you have like a medical issue, like that would help it. Like there are just several things, um, people actually study it a lot. Um, it’s like a serious form of, see it’s different from like palm reading or like the tarrot cards, it’s totally different from that, this is like a wildly popular belief from like the Chinese culture.

Me: And it’s like very specific, like there’s like an actual study.

S: Yes, Like people actually study it and there are like experts and they’re like known as masters and things like that. It’s like, it gets pretty crazy, yeah.

Me: But your mom’s into that?

S: Yes, she is.

S discusses how her mom is very into fung shui which is a common design technique used nowadays which was started by the Chinese. Fung shui has to do a lot with placement and following a feel of where things should be so that the energy can flow well in each room and throughout the house. There is a science behind it, and people gain titles by studying the art of fung shui. It is unlike premonition, such as tarrot cards and palm reading or even horoscopes. Fung shui deals more with energy and spirits and positioning, it does not predict one’s future, though some believe that if the fung shui is off, it can influence one’s life negatively.

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