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: So for like the Chinese culture there is so many, like it’s so crazy, but I guess, like the most popular ones, like would wearing red for like a birthday count as folklore?
Me: Yeah. But why wold you wear red for a birthday?
S: So like, so it’s the belief of the Chinese that red is like the ultimate like color for luckiness, and just like power and everything, so for your birthday you want everyone to be wearing red. And if anyone comes in wearing black, like that’s a big no no, ’cause black would mean like death or just like negative things, and like wearing black to a birthday or like any happy celebration would be like, it’s a sign of like disrespect and like wish that person like that bad luck. so never do that.
Me: Is it something that you do even now that you’re here? Like now that you live in the U.S.?
S: Um, no, not here, but if I’m with like family, or if I know that it’s a Chinese family, it’s like a more common known thing. So like even all around the world, you know. Yeah, so, but like you can wear other colors actually, as long as it’s not black though.
S talks about the Chinese culture in which it is customary to wear red on birthdays because the color red symbolizes luckiness, power, and in general just has good connotations. She says that it is okay to wear other colors as well, though it isn’t the same thing as wearing red, as long as you don’t wear black. Black symbolizes death and has other bad connotations so black is not to be worn on happy occasions, and it is considered disrespectful if people do wear black on happy occasions. Though she does not follow the practice so much now that she lives in Los Angeles, she still does when she is with family or other Chinese people.
“If you go to the western wall in Israel there’s always people who are there—like around there and basically, like, they give you, um, like you’ll give them money, like, if they’re like begging and then they give you a red string and then they make a blessing on it and then you can’t take the red string, like you can’t remove it until it falls off. And that’s to keep the evil eye away. Like Jews are super into that, about keeping the evil eye away.”
The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition and related practices within her family. When I asked the informant to further explain this practice, she said, “Lot of times there’s this thing—have you ever seen, like, the hand? Like the image? So it’s called a ‘hamsa’ in Hebrew and like it’s the same thing, it’s to keep the evil eye away.”
The informant had seen this practice occur a lot during her travels to Israel and says she first learned about it from her grandmother who “would [do that] right before she died, she was super into that.” However, at the end of the interview she told me, “I don’t do that, I don’t do evil eyes and I don’t do the hamsa . . . I don’t like it because I feel like it’s idolatry, and I don’t . . . I’m not into that. But I would do the red string ‘cause it’s kind of a cultural thing.”
I found this practice to be fascinating because it seems like the greater religious/spiritual meaning of it has become somewhat divorced from the physical act. Something that started as a way to “keep the evil eye away” is still done for that purpose, but also because it has become a cultural thing that someone just does. This is revealed in the fact that an informant who is quick to assure me that she does not believe in the hamsa or the evil eye on the basis of her seeing them as idolatry would still willingly participate in this practice. In addition to it being performed for the previously stated spiritual purpose, I also think there is something to the fact that someone is given these red strings by people who are begging. Because it is now considered a normal cultural practice, it has become an expected social interaction between two people of differing class status in this part of Israel. Essentially, while giving a red string and a blessing might have been an organic way of thanking someone before, it is now almost a required act of gratitude by beggars near the western wall.
Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major. She is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. Her family is from China but she has lived in Southern California for nearly all of her life. Her dad spends lots of time working in Shenzhen. She speaks fluent Mandarin and English.
Context: I was talking with the informant about traditions and rituals her family has.
Item: “For Chinese New Year my family usually gets together. Traditionally, ever since I can remember, the adults have given kids red envelopes filled with money, and, we always have specific foods that translate to specific proverbs like good fortune and good health. An example would be, having, um fish, because “Nian nian you yu” means abundance throughout the years, but the last word ‘yu’ means abundance but also means fish. They are two completely different words but have the same pronunciation. And, a couple of other things we would say is, “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means ‘congratulations for your wealth’, “Wan Shu Ru Yi” which means ‘may all your wishes be fulfilled’.
Sometimes our family does follow this tradition but we don’t follow it too strictly, but there should be a placing order in how you bring the different foods to the tables. You’re also supposed to say phrases with the addition of each ingredient such as pepper or lime or oil. Uh, some of the themes touch upon wealth, luck, youth and business success or advancement. That’s basically one specific dish but there are other flourless cakes that basically expands as you cook it. It kind of symbolizes growth for kids especially. Our family also hangs specific square red banners that has the word “Chūn” meaning ‘spring’. We’d flip it upside down because when you flip it it means ‘dao’, or ‘it is here’ like ‘spring is here’. We also do that with ‘fu’ which means prosperity, so prosperity it is here”.
Analysis: Chinese New Year really seems to revolve around luck, prosperity and happiness for the new year. The props used – which vary from clothing to food eaten to the number of dishes served all are meant to be congruent with Chinese lore and beliefs. The number 8 means good luck so things are done in eights, the color red is lucky so red is shown often and new, clean things are seen as ushering in good luck for the coming year. There is a cyclical nature in Chinese/Eastern thought that we do not have here in the West. The coming of the new year, though celebrated here, doesn’t truly entail the “reset” that it does in China. This may be in part due to the fact that the Chinese civilization has been around for over four millenia (most of which they were relatively isolated), so they’ve seen a much longer time span of existence than most other cultures. As such they’ve seen empires rise and fall, other warring worlds, and geographies change but still remain, which may contribute to their more cyclical way of thinking as opposed to the U.S. There also seems to be very set things that are done in a precise process each new year celebration. This is in contrast to many of the U.S. informants I interviewed who admitted a much more diverse and relaxed understanding of rituals and traditions.
“In China, there’s this thing called your ben ming nian, which is pretty much the year–for example, I am the year of the ram. So when it is year of the ram, so every twelve years–so when I’m twelve, twenty four, thirty six…every day of that year, you should wear red. For example, my mom’s ben ming nian was last year. She wore red underwear every single day. Red is not a normal color in her normal wardrobe, but she was just like, ‘I have to wear red every day somehow,’ so she went to Victoria’s Secret and bought seven pairs of red underwear. Red is just a good luck color in China, and especially when it’s your zodiac year.”
The zodiac is a powerful belief in Chinese culture; many Chinese people believe that the year of your birth strongly influences your personality. As told by my informant, wearing the lucky color red during your zodiac year, or ben ming nian, makes the luck stronger and gives you a good year. The belief is so strong that her mother, who normally never wears the color red, went out and bought enough underwear so she could wear the lucky color year-round.
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“So the background story for Chinese new year is usually told to all Asian American children. Basically there was a monster called ‘Nian’ which means ‘year’ and he would prey on the villagers and eat small children and so he came every year basically. The old wise man in the village said that if everyone in the village made a lot of noise it would scare Nian away. And Nian was also apparently afraid of the color red. So that’s why every year on Chinese New Year Chinese people celebrate with a lot of firecrackers because they are very very noisy and their favorite color to string up on houses is the color red.”
In many other tellings (told to me in my youth by Chinese teachers and parents) of this piece of folklore, the monster is called the “Nianguai” most literally meaning “year monster”. Additionally, the old wise man is not a villager, but a passing god thanking the villagers for their hospitality. There are often more details about how the passing god is treated by the villagers and the sorts of celebrations that go on with the banishment of the Nianguai, but the purpose of the story stays the same: the narrative explains why Chinese people celebrate the lunar new year using copious amounts of red decorations and firecrackers.
Firecrackers and all manner of fireworks are lit during Chinese New Year because they have the elements of cleansing fire while being ostentatious and festive. Red adds to the boldness of New Year celebrations as its the most visible color. Additionally, we might place significance in the color red because it is the color our our blood. Blood gives us life, but when its visible, we are hurt or dying. Due to this association, it is fitting for the celebration of a New Year. In a New Year’s celebration, we celebrate the death of an old year and the birth of a New Year.
Yuan, Haiwang. The magic lotus lantern and other tales from the Han Chinese. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2006. Print. 168-169
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“I’ve heard that if you get Asian glow that if you drink pepto bismol before you drink, you won’t turn red, but I don’t get Asian glow so I guess I would never find out first hand. Unfortunately.”
“Asian glow” describes when a person of Asian descent consumes alcohol and experiences flushing of the face, neck, and chest. This is often considered unattractive and embarrassing. This phenomenon stems from a single mutation in the aldehyde dehydrogenase gene, which ultimately prevents the breakdown of alcohol. Because acetaldehyde builds up in the body, creating the symptoms characteristic of Asian glow, the condition is commonly thought of as an allergic reaction. I have definitely heard of drinking Pepto Bismol to quell Asian glow because it contains common digestive enzymes that prevent other conditions, but recommended dosages vary from a capful to an entire bottle. This advice is a modern folk remedy.
Impraim C., Wang G., and A. Yoshida. (1982) “Structural mutation in a major human aldehyde dehydrogenase gene results in loss of enzyme activity.” American Journal of Human Genetics 34(6):837-841.
Informant: “So during Chinese New Year, there’s a fear of the evil beast coming. It’s called ‘Nian,’ which actually literally means ‘new year,’ so you’d say ‘oh new year is coming, the evil beast is coming!’ And um, he’s afraid of the color red, and he’s afraid loud noises. So then that’s why people use firecrackers, to scare off the evil beast. And the firecrackers are the kind that have a rope on one end and you light it, and then you have to hold it away from you and turn away like this (informant demonstrates) so it doesn’t blow up your face…And it’s really loud, and it’s really scary! It explodes and there’s like all these pieces of paper flying everywhere, and I hated them when I was younger. They were so scary.”
Me: “But I guess it was an important tradition, so you still had to do it and light the firecrackers?”
Informant: “Yeah, I did. And my parents would always try to take pictures of me while I was lighting one, but I really hated it. In modern times, though, they do have some where you just throw them on the ground, and it’s like a smaller explosion. It’s still loud though, so I don’t really like those either. And also, I hate them because boys, like teenagers, will throw them at girls’ feet, and like it would blow up and lift their skirts, and yeah, ugh, I hated it.”
This is a tradition that emphasizes red and noise as modes of protection. The color red is usually linked to dynamic tendencies and human vitality, while noise is an indicator of live presence. Both elements assert human life and agency, which is combined in the firecracker, thus enabling it to easily frighten off the evil beast or spirit, or anything nonhuman.
My informant did not particularly enjoy this aspect of the Chinese New Year, yet she was surrounded constantly by firecrackers during the celebration, showing that they are an extremely vital and crucial part of the holiday. Even if people do not necessarily believe in Nian, they will engage in the firecracker experience to demonstrate their excitement, or in the case of my informant, cultural and familial duty as her parents try to take pictures of her with the firecracker.
What was most intriguing in her narrative was the fact that boys would use the firecrackers to intimidate and possibly flirt with girls. This shows that the folklore is adapted in unique ways, depending on who is performing it, and has evolved. While it may not be polite or even safe to shoot the firecrackers at girls, it gives another dimension to the Nian-scaring tools and demonstrates that many elements of the Chinese New Year are being used in slightly different ways. The traditions may still be very strong and they way in which they are used can remain unchanged, but the same cannot be said for their meaning. My informant is proof of this, as she herself seems to cringe at the very word “Firecracker” and is likely not to use the original form, but a rather smaller and quieter firecracker in her future New Year celebrations.
Informant: So like, so like say, so like say I’m born in the year of the monkey for example, so in the year of the monkey on Chinese New Year, I have to wear all red, like red clothes, red underwear even. I think it’s because when it’s your year that you were born in, you’re supposed to have bad luck, but wearing red counters that so you’re safe.”
Me: “So have you ever dressed up all in red then?”
Informant: “No, no. We always, my family and I, we always say we’re gonna do it, but we never do.”
Me: “Do a lot of people in China do it?”
Informant: “I don’t know. I hear a lot about it in dramas, but I don’t actually know anyone that dresses up.”
Naturally, just because it is one’s birthday month or zodiac year, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will bring good fortune, but after celebrating the anniversary of birthdays so much, I did not expect that it would be bad luck to be in the zodiac year you were born in. I would have thought that it’d be the opposite, that if it’s the same year you were born in, that it would have been a lucky year for you. Yet, it’s just the contrary. Perhaps it can be because one’s personal zodiac sign has completed a whole cycle and is somehow vulnerable to bad luck entering the new cycle. Hence, protection is needed to ward off the negative energy or demons that can get in. One would envelope him or herself in red, used commonly in Chinese culture to ward off evil.
My informant does not live in China currently, so presumably, even when she is with her family, she feels no cultural mandate to follow this tradition. It appears to still be in vogue however, especially if television shows are referring to it. At the same, it can be somewhat difficult to find clothing and garments all in red, so while her family means to follow through with custom, it is understandable why they wouldn’t.
The color red itself is used extensively in Chinese culture, as a color of celebration and also protection. It is the color of the New Year celebration, and throughout the many facets of the holiday, red is always stressed. Coming from a European background where red symbolizes blood and usually has a negative connotation, it is fascinating to understand the different meanings the color can take, and the great cultural meaning it has as well.
There was once a village that was terrorized by a monster at the same time every year. The monster targeted children. The townspeople could not defeat the monster and the monster would not leave them alone. One day, a young man with a red pouch went to battle the monster, but the monster ran from him. The man returned to the village, telling the townspeople that the monster was frightened by the color red. So, everyone in the village dressed their children in red. When the monster came to the village, it quickly fled, fearful of the color red. The villagers took the color red as a symbol of luck and gave the children red envelopes every year to ward away the monster and to bring good fortune to the child.
My informant has known this story as long as he can remember. His parents would tell it to he and his cousins around Chinese New Years. The monster described serves as a form of boogeyman, and the fact that the red envelopes given by the parents are needed to ward him away the monster allow for a form of black mail to make the children behave as the new year approaches, much as Santa does around Christmas time for Christians. It would be interesting to know if these traditions developed independently or if one inspired the other.
The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She says that she has always performed this piece of folklore ever since she could remember, as her family is Chinese and they participate in the tradition. This belief causes the Chinese to wear red and decorate everything in red. They also set off firecrackers based off of this superstition. She says that this tradition is based off of a Chinese myth where a monster came to attack the villagers a long time ago. To appease the monster, the villagers would offer up food in front of their houses to the monster every year. One year though, they noticed that the monster was scared off by a person wearing red, so the villagers started wearing red and covering the village in red so that the monster would never come back. It is believed that because every year on New Year’s, everybody in the community wears red, the monster doesn’t come back anymore.This folk belief also related to magic superstition, where by participating in the ritual of scaring off the monster by wearing red, one will not have bad luck for the rest of the year. When everybody participates in the ritual, it causes a sense of community as well, strengthening the relationship of the common group that participates in the piece of folklore amongst themselves.