USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Taiwanese’
Customs
Festival
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Taiwanese Ghost Month

Informant:

E, a 22-year-old Chinese-Taiwanese female who was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is currently a senior at the University of Southern California.

Background info:

E’s first language was English, but because her parents were immigrants, she quickly learned Mandarin as well. Her parents are proud of their culture, and thus they often participated in many Taiwan and Chinese traditions, and believed many of the superstitions, as well. This is one of the superstitions E’s mother believed.

Context:

Late at night, a lot of weird conversations happen. Because E is on a project with me, we were working together at around 2:00am when we started discussing superstitions. When she knocked on wood, it brought this conversation up. The following is a transcript of the conversation I had with E. (I will be represented with a J.)

Main piece:

J: “Are there any other superstitions that you experienced growing up? With your family or friends? School, even?

E: “I’m not sure that this would count as a superstition, it’s more of a tradition centered around various superstitions… In Taiwan, there is this thing called Ghost Month. It’s in August, but basically there are just things you aren’t supposed to do during this month that could cause you to become haunted by a spirit.”

J: “What kind of things?”

E: “Well… For one, you aren’t supposed to have like… major life events during this month. Like if a child is born during this month, then it means that the child is cursed in some way. Or you aren’t supposed to get married or else ghosts will haunt you and try to break the marriage apart… Swimming and bathing are discouraged otherwise a ghost will try to drown you? Ghosts just don’t like people doing things during this month…”

J: “Do you know when this started? Or when your family started to avoid these things?”

E: “My brother was born in August, so clearly my parents didn’t care haha… But no, it’s mostly like my grandparents and other family still in Taiwan that observe this. My cousins, for example, have like… ghost-themed things in school to sort of like honor the dead. The only thing my dad warned us not to do was get married during August because he believes that’s why his sister got divorced… Otherwise, I think there are just too many things that are considered ‘unlucky’, or bad, during this time to take the tradition seriously.”

Thoughts:

There is a lot to break down with this tradition. It is filled with a multitude of superstitions, but they all sort of revolve around ghosts haunting you for doing things like whistling, swimming, etc. This is very reminiscent of Halloween in the United States; ghosts just roam around looking to haunt people. From E’s recount, it seemed to me like most of these “offenses” were just actions that some would consider unruly. Whistling can become annoying, swimming in places other than a pool could be frowned upon, flying commercially could be supporting corporations, etc. However, I was interested in the abstaining from major life events – specifically the example of her father believing his sister got divorced because she was married in August. A common thread in the folklore I have seen or experienced is that people use it to explain something bad happening. “Oh, it wasn’t that the two people were not meant to be together, it was just the ghosts messing with their marriage.” Or when bad things happen on Friday the 13th, people do not see them as logical events, they blame it all on bad luck.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Legends
Material
Narrative

How to get kids to finish their meal (Taiwanese)

Background information:

My friend introduced me to a piece of folklore about how one can effectively get children to finish their meals. He is of Taiwanese descent, as he was born in San Francisco, California and both of his parents were born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family moved to California since before he was born and have assimilated into the American lifestyle but still stay very true to their Taiwanese roots.

 

Main piece:

My friend explained to me a saying that is often used in Taiwan to get children to finish their meals and not leave any food on the plate. The saying goes that if one wants a child to finish their meal and eat everything on the plate, they tell the child that if he or she does not finish their meal, they will marry someone with facial blemishes growing up. He said that his interpretation of this as a child was that he always thought of the remaining food pieces on his plate as signifying the multitude of blemishes that would be on the future spouse’s face when he grew up. Therefore, in order not to risk this, he would always quickly finish his food.

 

Personal thoughts:

I think that this piece of folklore is quite comical because there is no way that there could possibly be any correlation between finishing a plate of food and one’s future partner having acne. I enjoyed that this was a very different saying than what I was used to hearing in the culture that I am immersed in today, as it is refreshing to hear something that I have not heard before. I did find it a bit strange, however, that it would be considered a fear factor to have a partner with acne or facial blemishes because I do not think that this is what one should focus on when considering potential future partners.

Customs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tomb visiting day in Taiwan

Background information:

My friend introduced me to a practice that he and his relatives often perform surrounding the celebration of his ancestors. He is of Taiwanese descent, as he was born in San Francisco, California and both of his parents were born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family moved to California since before he was born and have assimilated into the American lifestyle but still stay very true to their Taiwanese roots and take great pride in their Taiwanese culture.

 

Main piece:

My friend said that throughout his childhood and growing up, he would always celebrate his ancestors with his relatives. He explained that there is a special day in Taiwan where family members all get together and visit the tombs or graves of their ancestors. When they visit their ancestors, they do everything from pray to bring a large amount of food for both them as well as their ancestors to enjoy. He explained this as not being an event of sadness, but rather a celebration where family members are able to reconnect and bond over their unity in their family and eat traditional Taiwanese foods. He said that his family members come from all over Taiwan and therefore all of his family members travel to the location where their ancestors are buried, when they are celebrating this day, showing the importance that people place on this event and how crucial it is that everyone attends.

When I asked if there was any dish in particular that was popular for this event, he responded that fruit is very common to bring, along with other desserts such as red bean desserts and rice cakes, emphasizing that sweets are often preferred in his experience.

 

Personal thoughts:

Upon hearing this tradition, I felt that this was a fantastic way to celebrate relatives that have passed away because everyone in the family is joining in on this event, unifying the family a great deal. In addition to the unifying and memorable factors of this celebration, I feel that the great amounts of food definitely make this event even more successful, as I have always experienced that having food at events usually makes them vastly more successful and memorable.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle

Taiwanese Death Practices

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MW.


MW: If a person dies, we have to not eat meat. Because our religion is Buddhism. They believe that you have to clarify yourself, as a family, so that your family member that died will go to heaven.

BD: You can’t eat meat for how long?

MW: I think for at least 30 days.

BD: Does only your family do this?

MW: It’s not only just my family. I think all Taiwanese families, and probably Chinese families too. For seven days we will turn on the lights, after they died, we believe that their spirit will come back. The light needs to be on so they can see. We also have to clean the front doorway, like with no shoes, so that they can walk into the house. Another thing we do is put coins at the door because we believe there is a God controlling the money, and he can walk in. But this one we do all the time.

BD: Not just after someone died?

MW: No, all the time for good luck.


 

Analysis:
This conversation had quite a few folk beliefs, some regarding death, some about good luck. It is rooted in Buddhism, according to the informant, and it is interesting how food is related to death in this way. The Providence Zen Center.  says the time period should be 49 days, for people to “check their consciousness and digest their karma,” http://providencezen.org/49-day-funeral-ceremony.

Narrative

Quiet Night Thoughts Poem

“Do I have a poem… This is a classic, man. I learned this in Chinese school when I was younger. [Recites the poem in Chinese]

I’ll go line by line. Poems usually are like, same number of words each time, and only the last word rhymes, you know, you know, poetry.

And it’s umm… ‘I sit in front of the bed, looking at the moon,’ So it’s already a morose kind of tone. It’s night time, you’re sitting on your bed, no one else around you, it’s like praying, but they don’t do that in China. ‘Looking at the moon…’ I don’t remember what the second line means, forget the second line! [laughs]

And then he raises his head, looks at the moon, and then he lowers his head in sadness. And at some point, some of these words are about, like, he’s thinking of his family. I’m not sure which ones. So the fourth line, end of the fourth line or the second line is about thinking of his family.

And this poem was taught to me to teach me that, uhh… when you get into real life, you’ll be lonely [laughs], and you’ll think of your parents, and you’ll think of your home, and you’ll be like, ‘Man, I had it great!’

So this was a poem [laughs] to teach a spoiled brat to appreciate what he has. [laughs]

At least, that’s how it was presented to me when I was younger.

[Laughs]

This is like the classic Chinese, like everyone knows this one. If people memorize one poem, it’s like this poem, usually.”

Note: For a published version of this poem, see “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai, found easily on many online webpages and in: John Milford and Joseph Lau, Classical Chinese Literature – Volume 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Analysis: This poem is a memorized version of a very famous piece of Chinese authored literature from over a millennium ago. However, like the informant’s Chinese Zodiac performance, this somewhat original performance was also delivered with active animation, emphasis on humor, and mental translation into English. As such, some of the detail of the poem is lost, but the meaning conveyed by the poem remains, since that is what stuck with the informant over everything else. Versions of this poem are often used in  order to instill traditional values in Chinese schoolchildren at an early age, and it seems to have done that job very well with this informant in particular (who could not recall the whole poem, but definitely remembered its purpose, origin, and spread).

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.

Folk speech

Taiwanese Idiom– Eating Tofu

“I’ve never heard a mainlander say it. And the phrase is, ‘Sou doufu.’ Literally translated that is, ‘eat tofu.’ And then, umm, this is something said when… if you say ‘I’m gonna go eat tofu,’ that means ‘I’m gonna go out and try to find some girls.’ ”

 

So that’s like, uhh, hunting, uhh not hunting tail, uhh, ‘chasing tail’ in the United States.

 

“Yeah, it’s like chasing tail. But it also, but if you say someone ‘eats tofu,’ that could also mean he’s very promiscuous, so, but it, it’s not, its definitely not like positively connotated. It’s more negative, cuz’ promiscuity is negatively connotated. Yeah.

 

And the reason is it’s ‘eat tofu,’ is because tofu’s like, white, silky smooth, very nice, fragile, gentle, and in Chinese culture, girls are often viewed in this way, traditionally, like pale skin is a very idealized thing and girls are very fragile. Like they weren’t allowed to have their own opinions and all that stuff back in the day. So I think that’s why it is ‘eat tofu.’ Because girls are basically tofu. [laughs]”

 

Where’d you learn that from?

 

“Umm… This was like… you just hang out with your friends and they say these things. Yeah, I have Taiwanese friends, and then like, cuz all, in Chinese school, all my friends had Taiwanese parents too, so, like, they had Taiwanese friends and it just like, propagates. I dunno when I picked it up, but I did. Culture. [laughs]”

Analysis: This idiom is quite interesting, despite its brevity, because of the cultural values that it exposes. The informant implied that this was a phrase used only to refer to the activities of men. Therefore, at once, Taiwanese culture is revealed to somewhat objectify women, but also to commodify them. As the informant notes, the idiom harkens back to a time when women were expected to be docile and pretty to look at rather than the equality present in modern society. It is interesting to note that this phrase is being spread amongst Taiwanese youth in the United States, despite its applicability to Taiwan and Taiwanese values.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Story of the White Snake and Her Lover

Context:

The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant said that she knew the story that inspired the movie. I asked her to share that story as well as other Chinese or Taiwanese stories she knew and recorded the conversation for collection purposes.

Interview Transcript:

Informant: A long time ago, there was this monk that was really proficient in his Buddhist studies. So, people who are proficient in the Buddhist studies, in Chinese culture they believe these people will reincarnate carrying the knowledge of the previous life with them. So this monk, one day he went to the market and saw that a butcher was about to kill a white snake. And white snakes in Chinese culture usually symbolize, I’m not sure, but they symbolize something… not bad. Maybe luck. So he saved the white snake from the butcher and released the snake. And in traditional Chinese folklore, they believed that if something lived for a long time, like even a tree or a grass or an animal, if they lived for a long time, they eventually developed intelligence, like a human. So this white snake lived a long time and, um, was able to, like… It became intelligent. And so she wanted to, it was a female, she wanted to return the kindness that this monk bestowed on her in saving her life. So she followed the monk, and the monk had a student. And she fell in love with the monk’s student. So she morphed into a human, a woman, and the student fell in love with her. And she also loved the student. So they married, but they married after the monk died. So the monk already died when they married. And they had a child, and they were really happy, until the monk reincarnated. Um, so he came back to find his student, only to find out that his student was married to, um, the white snake, the human form of the white snake. So, um… We can call it a phantom, though “phantom” usually implies that there isn’t a material form. So um… The actual term is “yaoguai,” which is like a phantom, but with actual form, physical. So he found out that his student married this phantom, and he was worried that the phantom might be a bad phantom, because there are bad and good phantoms. And so he told his student that his wife was actually not a human, but a huge white snake. And so, and then he told him… I think he gave him a tool, that if he used the tool to look at his wife at night, he would see that his wife was… He would see the girl’s original form. So the guy went back and saw that his wife was actually a huge white snake, and he was like terrified! So I think he went back with his son, and he abandoned his wife and his child and went back with his teacher, with the monk. But I think they were still in love with each other. And then, um, the white snake wanted to save… Well… She wanted to retrieve her husband, so she kind of flooded the temple where the monk was, and so the monk thought she was a really bad phantom. And the monk was stronger than the white snake, so in the end he defeated her and kind of entrapped her under a tower, um, and said that she couldn’t ever come out again unless this tree before her tower bloomed with flowers. But, um, that tree never bloomed, so it’s like impossible. You’ll never come out again. But! Time passed, and, um, their child went… He studied really hard, and he went to take this national test, in which he got number one. And then if you scored the top, then you get a flower, like a fake flower, from the emperor. So this child got the fake flower and then went back to the tower to visit his mom and hung the fake flower on the tree. And, um, and then this was kind of like the tree bloomed with a flower. And so his mom got released, and the family reunited happily ever after.

Me: So where did you hear this story for the first time?

Informant: I don’t know. I think this was just a really old folklore that, like, people just generally tell each other. Like maybe in kindergarten story time. Or maybe my parents told me as a bed time story, or something like that.

Me: And what, like, do you think is like the message behind the story?

Informant: Message?

Me: Or is there one?

Informant: Maybe be good. There are good phantoms who try to save people’s lives. Or it might be that like, um, life living as a monk without a wife might not be, uh, the happiest thing to do. Like you maybe want a wife or a child or a family, instead of keeping on studying, studying, studying for lives after lives after lives.

*laughter*

Me: Oh my god… Studying for lives after lives after lives…

Analysis:

In this story, the pair of lovers, the snake and the monk’s student, only meet accidentally when the snake tries to find the monk for saving her life. The monk, who earlier saves the snake, later opposes her when she enters a relationship with his student. The story shows interesting changes in relations between people through this case. The phantom’s getting released from the area under the tower despite its improbability demonstrates the futility of trying to keep lovers apart when their feelings for one another are strong. Her release also furthers the theme of chance, as she had to depend on her son receiving a flower as a gift and hanging it on the tree to be released.

Legends
Narrative

The Story of Mulan

Context:

The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant told me that she knew the story the movie was based on. We later met to talk about it and other Chinese stories, and I recorded the conversation for collection purposes.

Transcript:

Informant: The setting is a very very long time ago, in the dynasty of which the name I do not know. There was, um, this family, Mulan’s family, and she doesn’t have a brother, or, um, an older brother or a younger brother. The only man in her family was her father. And… The dynasty went to war with another country. So the emperor gave out a draft for all the laymen to come to the army. And since Mulan’s family did not have any, uh, males other than her father, her father was kind of like required to go to the army. But, um, Mulan’s father was very old, and Mulan was worried that if her father went, he wouldn’t be able to, like, he would never come back. So instead, she disguised as a man and went into the army by herself. And this is actually a very, uh, rare act in ancient China, because women at that time were expected to be gentle and soft and weak. But, um, she did this, and then, um, joined the army, and I don’t think anybody discovered that she was actually a woman. And she fought the war, and reputedly she got safely back home. So that was nice. And you would think that in ancient China, those who worshiped gentleness and kindness would criticize her actions, but she actually wasn’t criticized. And that’s because this brave act of hers displayed, um, filial piety and a lot of love for her father, and that was like a more important value for women, to be loyal and pious to their family. So, that’s the end of the story.

Analysis:

“The Story of Mulan” upholds loyalty to one’s family as a more important priority than staying consistent with societal expectations regarding one’s behavior. The story also focuses on a female character who defies gender roles and portrays her positively. It also includes elements of identity concealment and deception through Mulan’s disguising herself as a man. The poem Ballad of Mulan is regarded as the first instance the character appeared in print. Mulan also appears in modern works such as the 1998 film Mulan by Walt Disney Pictures and the television show Once Upon a Time, which airs on ABC. Mulan’s character has remained popular for centuries, and knowledge of her story has spread far beyond its origins in China.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Dining Etiquette

Context:

The informant, who is Buddhist, gave a presentation at a recent retreat on spirituality that I had gone on. I asked to meet with him to talk about other Buddhist principles and lore that he had not gone over at the retreat.

Interview Transcript:

Informant: So, again, I was raised Buddhist. So my parents are Taiwanese Buddhist, which is a very specific like type of Buddhism. It’s a kind of pure land Buddhism, where it’s like, borderline spiritual, like religious Buddhism. Like a savior type of Buddhism, as opposed to, like the origin of Buddhism in India, which was more about self cultivation. One of the things that they espouse, or like, one way of practicing that Buddhist practice, is not eating meat. Because, you know, obviously if you eat meat, you are then thereby, you know, perpetuating the suffering of animals, or other living beings. So that makes sense. So there’s no beef, no chicken, no pork, no fish, no eggs… Actually they do eat eggs. Um, but then they go a step further, actually, and there’s a rule where you don’t eat garlic. Or you don’t eat anything that would like, smell bad. Which is so interesting. And like, my dad would always like, “Oh, make it vegetarian, but no onions.” And I was like, “What? Onions aren’t meat.” And he would be like, “But it’s the Buddhist thing to do.” And I’ve heard various, like, folklore as to why that is. Um, one of it is, like, so silly, like “Oh, you know. You don’t want to offend someone with the smell, so you don’t do it.” Because other people would be offended by the smell of onions, apparently. That’s one story. And then I recently heard, recently being like a year ago, where I heard a whole different story that was fascinating to me. Which, now, reflecting on it it doesn’t make any sense. But, the whole premise is, like, those types of foods tend to be like roots, so you would need to, like, harm the Earth by physically digging at it, like opening up the Earth, to get these, like, vegetables. Or like these very pungent, um, foods. So that’s like, ginger, garlic, onions. But then I’m thinking like, doesn’t that include like, carrots?

Me: And potatoes?

Informant: And potatoes! [Laughter] So, um, but that was something somebody told me. And again, it comes from the place of like, mitigating suffering and not causing harm, even to the Earth. And like, I can see how someone would espouse that folklore, and just be like, “Yeah, makes total legitimate sense.” But, for me I was a practicing vegetarian, but I didn’t buy the whole onion thing ’cause I didn’t get it.

Analysis:

This dining custom embodies the Buddhist principle of not causing others unneeded suffering, similar to the practice of vegetarianism. The extra explanation about preventing harm to the Earth also espouses this principle, though the informant pointed out a flaw in that explanation. The informant did not subscribe to this practice himself, though he learned it from his family.

[geolocation]