USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘numbers’
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.

Customs

Eastern Age

Eastern Age

This folklore was told to me by my father. He immigrated to America 40 years prior to this date. Having grown up in Korea and then having moved to the United States, he had experienced a slight culture shock. In living here for so long, he essentially gave up a part of his culture as a Korean-American because it was just so unused. I had asked him how I old I was in Korea because they had told me while I was there that I couldn’t drink yet because I was off by a couple of months. In America, I’m off by 3 years. So I asked him what system people used to measure age in Korea, and this was the answer he gave me. I just sat there and listened as he recounted the traditions that he used to follow in an older generation.

Eastern age is different from western age. It’s counted differently. Asian people actually count the 9 months in the womb as 1 year, so when a baby is born, it is already called 1 year old. After that, the birthday is no longer really important. It is still celebrated as a legal day of when your age increases, but that is not the traditional way of measuring age. Actually, you gain one year on the New Year’s Day every year starting from when you are born. As a result, ages can be quite varied. Children who were born on February 9th this year were considered one. However, as soon as it became February 10th, which was when Seollal was, they were considered 2. They are only a few days old legally, but in the Asian culture, they are two. As a result, two standards of measuring age are used. One is used in everyday life in terms of people interactions and fortune telling, which is a part of Asian life. It is rare that people will ask for your legal age, unless you are doing things that involve the government and whatnot. In terms of trivial matters, then it is only your eastern age that matters. The other method utilizes the Western way of measuring age, which is you turn one a full year after you leave your mother’s womb, and is used for legal purposes. This tradition is actually starting to die out in Asia when people no longer recognize the lunar calendar as well. Some people still do celebrate their age on the New Years, however, so it does have some people who still practice this. This tradition only really applies in Asia, however. In coming to the United States, everybody had to rethink about how old they were because non Asians don’t utilize the same system to count age as we do. All of a sudden, everybody’s age dropped by one to two years because they were no longer considered one at birth, and they gained age on their literal birthday rather than the coming of the new lunar year.

I thought that this system was very interesting. It uses a system ultimately very different from the Gregorian calendar that is currently in place. It is not so applicable to me because I live in America, where we use the western way of counting age. However, when I talk to fellow Asian students, they often ask for my Asian age rather than my real age. That is really the only chance that I have to embrace my Korean culture in terms of time. So in a sense, it is important to me because it is something that I can do. However, in the broadest sense, this is an interesting practice that seems to have stemmed from a different origin entirely in comparison to the system that non Asians use to measure time.

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