USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Mandarin’
Customs
Folk Beliefs

Clock and Watch

Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.

 

In Chinese you can’t say the word clock because in Chinese the word clock sounds the same as death. People usually point at the clock instead of saying it or called it “big watch,” “time,” “the time thing,” etc. If you end up saying the word then you have to apologize to the people around them for giving them bad luck.

The informant lives in the United States but still speak Chinese. She was taught about this ever since she can speak the language. It was emphasizing in the family and she found out it is practiced among her relatives and her friend’s family as well.

 

I think this is similar practice to the reason Chinese people avoid saying the word four because it sounds like they are saying death. Death, which is the unknown, is feared and avoided in everyday life. The idea of death is only mentioned and emphasized at funeral. The clock, in this case, has a nickname to avoid saying the actual word. Certain words that have overlapping sound are then muted for everyday life. The same way funeral rituals occur as a special event, words surrounding that particular event are prohibited to occur at any other time otherwise bad luck will enter your life. It is also similar to Western culture’s belief around the number thirteen where in a tall building floor 13 are eliminated.

I always find it peculiar that many everyday word and objects can have bad luck connotation through the way it sounds; also having to apologize for saying those words by mistake. This reinforces the idea of belief and how the truth value of it is irrelevant to whether or not it is practiced. Saying the word “four” or “clock” in Chinese would not bring bad luck but it would bring the belief of bad luck. I think that these traditions are carried through as accepted practice rather than the actual fear of the consequences.

Folk speech
general
Humor
Riddle

Zhao

Shine

一个日本人,

yi ge ri ben ren

One Japanese Man

站在门口,

zhan zai men kou

Standing at the doorway

拿着一把刀,

na zhe yi ba dao

Holding a knife

杀了四个人。

sha le si ge ren

He kills four people

 

This was learned by my informant when she was growing up in Singapore in school, when she was about ten or eleven years of age. While she can’t quite recall who she learnt it from, she said it was rather useful for learning characters in Chinese.  It is in essence a word riddle, in which the bottom four lines would be told to the other person and the other person would try to guess what the word was.

Even though there is supposedly nothing meant by the content (morbid as it is), it is just there because it fits the word. However, when my informant was growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Singapore there was a great deal of resentment against the Japanese for WWII. The words of this riddle could originate as a subtle form of anti-Japanese rebellion or statement for the brutal acts that they performed in Singapore and most of South East and East Asia.

During World War II, it was very common for Japanese soldiers to enter houses indiscriminately and slaughter whole families for numerous trumped up charges, like being Chinese, or having a wife that the soldier found mildly attractive or even looking at them wrong. Therefore this might be a reflection of not only this anti-Japanese sentiment but also oppositional culture.

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