USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘taboo’
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.

 

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection

Why You Can’t Split a Pear

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, and the informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people can’t split pears when they eat them.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 luck.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). In this conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as S.

 

Text:

S: Um, so, um, Chinese people have a lot of traditions that determine what you can and cannot do. So, in my family, my grandparents told us that two people can’t share one pear. In Chinese, the pear is pronounced “li,” but it has another meaning as well, which, when translated to English, means “separate.” So if a couple shares one pear, that means that they’ll eventually separate and can’t keep their marriage. If a mother and daughter split one pear, they have to separate– just, two people can never share one pear. But, for some reason, three or more people can share a pear; it’s just that two people can’t share a single pear or else they’re destined to separate.

 

K: Do you take this seriously?

 

S: I take this VERY seriously. When I cut a pear, only I eat it, only my daughter eats it, or only my daughter eats it. If my husband and daughter unknowingly eat slices of the same pear, then I will make sure to grab a slice for myself and eat it.

 

Thoughts:

Just like my informant, I also grew up with my grandparents telling me of this taboo that I can’t share a pear with someone. Frankly, I agree with it—as a Chinese person, I’m quite superstitious, and even when I think some of the traditions I follow are a bit ridiculous, it never hurts to abide by them just to be safe. The fear about sharing a pear makes sense— “sharing a pear” in Chinese is 分梨(fēn lí), which is a homophone of 分离(fēn lí), which means “to divorce” or “to separate.” This taboo seems to have elements of sympathetic magic, otherwise known as “like produces like.” “Sharing a pear” sounds just like “separate” in Chinese, so by sharing a pear with someone, it’s the equivalent action to separating with them.

In a cultural context, family in China is so important. We are raised to be extremely loyal to our elders; everything we have, from our knowledge to our place of privilege, is because of them. So why would you run the risk of being separated from them? This type of folklore is performed because we like to feel that we have control over processes like relationships. As humans, we have this feeling where we can’t control the bad things that occur over the people we love, so we attach this fear we have to rituals. These rituals, which include taboos and prohibitions are practiced to protect our social bonds.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Game
Homeopathic
Magic
Proverbs

Step on a crack, and you will break your mother’s back.

Context
The informant is a Chinese American. We were discussing interesting superstitions in Chinese or American cultures when she brought out this item.

Content
You’re not supposed to step on cracks in the floor. If you step on it, you’re going to break your mother’s back. And I think kids kinda play for fun with it when they’re little. There are very few kids who actually believe it. Obviously, because kids step on it all the time, and no one’s mother dies of that. It’s mostly just for fun.
Interviewer: And how do they play with it? Like in what situations?
Informant: Someone would say, don’t step on the cracks or you would break your mother’s back. And all the kids have to avoid stepping on cracks. They just have to all walk around like to avoid cracks,
Interviewer: And they just do it for fun?
Informant: Yeah, they just do it for fun.
Interviewer: Like, they laugh and walk around it?
Informant: Kind of. It’s more like if someone does accidentally step on a crack, they would point it out and like, ‘haha, you stepped on a crack; you broke your mother’s back!’ kind of thing. It’s obviously rude and stupid.

Analysis
First, the saying itself includes a rhyming between “back” and “crack”. This is probably how the crack in the road is connected with the mother’s back.
Second, the saying involves homeopathic magic. Stepping on a crack is likened to actually stepping on mother’s back.
Third, the kids make fun of the saying, because they don’t believe in it. There is a counter-hegemonic feeling involved. The kids are supposed to follow the saying even they don’t believe it, so they follow the saying in an exaggerated way: for example, they intentionally avoid all the crack, and make fun of the kid who accidentally steps on a crack instead of feeling worried for the kid’s mom.
My informant doesn’t believe in the saying. She thinks the saying is stupid. She also cannot understand the doings of the kids.

Childhood
Humor
Narrative

Boy Named Butt Itches (Children’s Joke)

[The subject is CB. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

Context: CB is one of my friends, and a sophomore student in college. Both of her parents are lawyers in the military, so she was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but has also lived in Germany, Kansas, and Oregon. The following is a joke that she heard from a friend around third grade, but has remembered to this day.

CB: Um, there’s a boy named Butt Itches. And his mom named him Butt Itches, yeah. And, uh, he’s about to start school, and he goes to school for the first day, and his teacher’s like, “What’s your name?” And he’s like, “My name is Butt Itches.” And the teacher’s like, “That’s not really your name, like, that’s a fake name,” and he’s like, “No, really, that’s my name.” And she’s like, “You know what, if you don’t tell me your real name, I’m going to send you to the principal’s office,” and he’s like, “No, my name is Butt Itches,” and she’s like, “Go to the principal’s office.”

So, then he goes to the principal, and the principal’s like, “What’s your name?” And he’s like, “My name’s Butt Itches.” And, um, the principal’s like, “No way is that your name, like, tell me your real name,” and, uh, he’s like, “No, really, my name is Butt Itches.” And the principal says, “Okay. If you don’t tell me your real name, I’m gonna call the police.” And, um, he’s like, “My name’s Butt Itches,” and so he calls the police, and the police come, and they hold a gun up to him. And they’re like, “Tell me your name!” and he’s like, “My name’s Butt Itches!” And they’re like, “That’s not your real name! Tell me your name!” And, uh, he says, “No, my name’s really Butt Itches,” and they say, they say, “If you don’t tell me your name, we’re gonna shoot you,” and he’s like, “My name’s Butt Itches,” so they shoot him, and he dies, and right at that moment, his mom is walking by, and she runs up to him and she says, “Oh, my poor Butt Itches!” And the police officer says, “Would you like me to scratch it for you?”

Thoughts: This joke is very clearly a children’s joke, and one of the most obvious signs of this is that it uses tabooistic vocabulary, which is popular in children’s folklore. Beyond that, though, it reveals more about how children look at the world: the antagonists in the joke are all authority figures, and the child, who is the protagonist, is not really doing anything wrong by telling them his name, but he is punished by them anyway, which is how children may feel when they are punished. It also displays a childlike idea of how levels of authority work in society, with the teacher ranking under the principal, who ranks under the police, which are the ultimate authority because they have the power to punish children the most severely, which, in a child’s mind, would be by killing them. The punchline of the joke is also a kind of dirty tabooistic humor which would understandably make the joke more enjoyable for children, and in addition to all this, I can tell that the joke is from a Western culture because it is told in three levels, with Butt Itches having to defend himself to three different audiences before something happens.

Folk speech

I Need to Go Relax- Euphemism

Subject: Folk speech. The taboo.

Collection:

“Interviewer: So… growing up with your mom, if she had to go to the bathroom, what would she say?

Interviewee: I need to go relax.

Interviewer: And what do you say… now that you’re an adult with me, what do you say?

Interviewee: I need to go relax.”

Background Information: C. Taylor grew up in Southern California. She had a close relationship with her mother and paternal grandmother who first introduced her to this phrase. She currently lives in San Clemente, CA with her husband and one daughter.

Context: This was shared over dinner with my mother and father after my dad shared the history behind the phrase him and his buddies use when urinating in nature. My mother then contributed a phrase she learned from her mother and uses frequently in her day to day life with close family and mere acquaintances.

Analysis: This phrase epitomizes the idea that bodily functions are taboo and not to be discussed openly, even with one’s own family. The phrase is intended to mask the actual action that is being performed, communicating that going to the bathroom is something to be ashamed of or is otherwise unsuitable to be shared. It allows for the speaker to excuse themselves from a social situation in a dignified way that is vague enough to leave room for interpretation and discretion.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Chinese Homonyms

  1. The main piece: Chinese Homonyms

“Oh, okay, so homonyms. The way the Chinese language works, there’s four ways you can say every sound, basically.

“So. I feel like all the sayings I do know, they’re homonyms, and the reason they’re prominent is because they sound like other words that are either good or bad. So like, the number 4 sounds like the word for death, and that’s why the number 4 in China is like the number 13 in America. Like in China, a lot of buildings don’t have a fourth floor. They don’t like having 4 in their phone number, license plate, things like that. On the other hand, the number 8 is lucky because it sounds like the word for treasure. And the word for red sounds like fortune or treasure or something like that, so that’s why we use those red envelopes.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

“I’ve only been to China once, for a class trip over spring break. My parents and grandparents don’t know much Chinese, but we know most of these…homonym rule things because they’ve kinda been, like, the little bit of Chinese that has been passed down from, like, my grandparents’ grandparents. So it’s cool, I always feel a little more, like, Chinese when I follow these rules because they’re some of the Chinese things I actually do know.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

Because the word for the number 4 sounds like the word for death, it seems that this number has become a taboo in Chinese culture. The extent to which it is a taboo shows just how much folk beliefs that are not backed by any science are still extremely believed in by the people, so much that it has been removed from daily life as extensively as possible—building floors, airplane rows, phone numbers, and license plate numbers all try to exclude the number 4. The extent to which nonscientific folk beliefs are valued in society is also shown in the positive connotations of the color red and the number 8. Just like the number 4 is removed everywhere, the incorporation of red and the number 8 as much as possible show that these folk beliefs are rooted in the people from the time that they grow up.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is an 18-year old female of Japanese and Chinese descent. She grew up in Oahu, Hawaii in a family that had moved there five generations earlier, and explained how none of her parents or grandparents knew any Japanese or Chinese. Celebrating Japanese and Chinese cultural traditions helped her feel more connected to her heritage growing up, because she felt that her parents and grandparents were very disconnected from the culture other than with these traditions.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The White Foul Line

Baseball is rife with superstitions, my informant is a long-time player and as a pitcher he describes to me the longest-stranding baseball taboo.

“You don’t step on the white foul line when taking the field, ever, not just pitchers, but all players, but especially pitchers. When I go out to the mound I jump over it with my right foot, and always my right foot. It’s bad juju if you step on the line, nobody steps on the line, it just isn’t done. It’s bad luck. It’s always been that way. I don’t know who I learned it from, it’s just always been done as long as I can remember.”

Analysis:

Baseball superstitions, rituals, charms, and taboos usually are surrounding those circumstances which are not totally in the player’s control, that is pitching and hitting usually. This particular superstition is not stepping on the foul line when taking the field. It is quite an old superstition that has no particular origin with a certain player, but one players of all caliber pay attention to. It is supposed to prevent bad luck in a game when one play can change the entire game. Because it is so old and established as a taboo, players simply adhere because all those players before them have done so, so it must work, and the players will do anything that works. One bad pitch or one great hit and the game could turn for the worse. A pitcher can do all he can to play perfectly, but he cannot control the batter’s actions, therefore this leaves a lot of room for superstitions. It is human nature to want to control one’s surroundings and this is just a little taboo that allows a player in his mind to control the outcome however small.

 

general

Taboo Against the Big Stall?

The informant says he’s had very little experience with taboos but that one experience in particular stands out to him:

When he was at the Mexico City airport, waiting for a connecting flight, he stepped into a mostly empty bathroom and went for the big stall because he likes the extra space.

Someone in the bathroom, a random stranger, stepped in his way and accosted him in Spanish, shaking his head in regards to the big bathroom. The informant was a bit surprised by the reaction and didn’t respond, choosing another stall entirely.

The respondent doesn’t know whether to attribute the taboo of using the big stall to the individual of that particular incident or to Mexican culture as a whole. In any case, since he’s spent such a short time in Mexico, he has nonetheless attributed that taboo to the whole of Mexican culture. He concedes that the big stall is important and necessary for those with disabilities, but affirms that in his experience it is the most popular stall.

Analysis:

This one is an interesting and minor piece of folklore. Because we don’t know whether it does describe Mexican culture or not, I won’t make any projections. I do think it is very important that we leave the large stalls alone if other ones are available, and leave them for those whom they’ve been designed.

Folk Beliefs
general

Hawaiian Folk Belief on Whistling

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 mother’s mother’s mother and even from before her are from Hawaii but some England roots are interjected into the bloodline as well. My mother’s father’s father’s father hails half from Hawaii and the other half from China and Portugal. But what is funny about most Hawaiians, is that they are not only Hawaiian. They are also Caucasian, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, Samoan, Japanese, Korean, e.t.c…….Plantation workers were brought in to work the sugar and pineapple fields and they brought their culture with them.

Piece:

In Hawaiian we call it (taboo) Kapu, which means sacred, don’t touch or you die, just don’t do it. Hawaiians of ancient Hawaii had many taboo, thank goodness which no longer exist, as most kapu broken would end with death. When I was little, my Tutu, my mother’s mother forbid us to whistle after sunset. Whistling after sunset was kapu because whistling at night would summons evil spirits. To this day 35 years later, I don’t dare whistle after sunset……

Piece Background Information:

Informant already mentioned within their piece that they learned about this taboo through her grandmother.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Context of Performance:

Via email.

Thoughts on Piece: 
If you google “whistling at night”, there are plenty of accounts, mostly from Japanese, Native American, and Hawaiian cultures, of how whistling at night can invite evil. And in relation to the legend of the Night Marchers, shared with me by the same informant, apparently there are Hawaiian accounts that whistling at night will summon these legendary figures. While there can be no scientific or evidential basis for how whistling at night could summon spirits, perhaps this is also a method for parents to get their children to behave as whistling, or making noise, at night can be disturbing.
[geolocation]