USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Taiwanese’
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.

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.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs

The Golden Rule

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.

Transcript:

Informant: So I’ve heard this in various forms. It’s the Golden Rule. Uh, which is to, “Do unto others what you would like done to you.” And this is the kind of, uh, general rule of thumb. And that’s something that like I think my parents espoused on me. And I grew up as a Buddhist, so a lot about, you know, the passion, kindness, love, in that form, was always definitely valued. What was interesting is, I’ve heard it in a different form, one time at a Buddhist summer camp. Um, it was flipped around to say, “Do not do unto others what you would not like done to you.” Um, the whole premise being, like, don’t, you know, don’t project your beliefs or values onto another person, um, because the previous iteration of that would have you projecting, like, “Oh, I like this thing. So thereby you must like this thing as well.” But that’s flipped to be the other way, where you don’t assume you know what they would like, but recognize what you would not like, and then respect those boundaries in other people as well. And I think, I think that’s a good way of flipping it. And I think it’s also a very Buddhist way of flipping it, in that like… Oh, you know, to mitigate suffering for other people, recognize where suffering comes from and like, just don’t do it. But definitely the first time I saw it, I think was like a poster in the middle school, a really like, tacky, general quote that people have. Like inspirational things. And then like, I read it and I was like, yeah, that’s a pretty good proverb.

Analysis:

The Golden Rule is a teaching from the Christian Bible that concerns how to treat other people. The informant shared with me the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule. The teachings between the two versions are similar, but the Buddhist version focuses on how to not treat others rather than on how to treat others. The Christian version of the Golden Rule is popularly known and used, and, like the informant mentioned, many people learn it at a young age. Versions of it appear in various places, from Bible verse Matthew 7:12 to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to the song “3-Way (The Golden Rule)” by The Lonely Island. Versions of this principle taught by other religions, however, are lesser known.

Myths
Narrative

The Origin of Chinese Valentine’s Day

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.

Transcript:

Informant: Okay, so in ancient China they believed, um, that stars are actually gods, just like, um, ancient Greek people. So there are, I think, these two stars that are especially bright. One is from the constellation of Altair, and in Chinese they call it like the “cow star,” “the coy boy.” Like the “boy who farms cows.” Okay, I’m going to call it “cow boy,” but it’s not that type of cowboy. The “cow boy star.”  And there’s this other star that’s called the “weaver star.” The “weaver girl star.” And that star’s from the constellation of Vega. A very bright star too. But these two stars are located across from the milky way. There’s this vertical milky way, and then the stars are on the two sides. Yeah, and so there was this story that the cow boy and the weaver girl, they fell in love with each other, but love is not allowed in the holy court of the Chinese gods. Like the highest god mother. So the highest god mother discovered that her granddaughter, the weaver girl, actually fell in love with another god, like a boy. And then she was angry, so she like kind of put the cow boy into exile, and she like abandoned, made him become a human, so instead of a god. So he reincarnated or something, he became a human, and his job was farming cows, so he’s still a cow boy. Um, but he had a friend who was also a god. And then this friend… Okay, his friend was Taurus, which is like the “golden cow” or something in Chinese. His friend golden cow spoke for him and then the god mother got angry with the golden cow as well, so she abandoned, she exiles Taurus as well. So Taurus became cow boy’s cow in the, in the human world. But Taurus knew what was going on, but the cow boy forgot everything that happened when he was a god. And then, um, so one day the weaver girl was very unhappy, so she tried to work very hard in her job in the hopes that her grandmother would let the cow boy come back again, and her job was to weave clouds. So she weaved some very beautiful clouds. Um… And then one day, I think the goddesses wanted to come down to the world of the humans to take a shower because apparently there was this really beautiful pool that they wanted to take a shower in. Or river. I don’t know. So they came down and took a shower. And when they came down, the Taurus who morphed into a cow spoke to the cow boy and said, “If  you go now to this poolside you will find a lot of women’s clothes, and you should go and take the one that is red. And if you take that one you will find a wife.” And then so the cow boy listened to his cow and went to the poolside and took the red clothes. So when the goddesses, or like fairies… Yeah. Maybe fairies is a more apt, uh, description. So when the fairies were done taking showers, they went back, but because the weaver girl, because she didn’t have her clothes on, she wasn’t able to return. And then the cow boy appeared with her clothes and asked if she would marry him. And, um, she was actually… She was at first very angry with him. But when she looked at the cow boy again, she discovered this was her… her lover from the past. She was really happy, so she agreed, and so they married, and then lived as a family in the human world and her job was to weave. His job was to farm cows. And then they were really happy together. Until the god mother discovers that her, the god mother’s granddaughter, the weaver girl, was with this guy again in the human world! So she was utterly angry. And then she came down and wanted to take, um, the weaver girl back to the world of the gods. And then the cow boy and their two children were very sad. They were horrified to be separated from the weaver girl. And so they were crying, and they were like begging. And um… Apparently the god mother was a little moved by this, so she allowed the cow boy and their two children to return. But she manually separated the cow boy and the weaver girl with like a river. I think she tore up the sky or something, and that’s how apparently the milky way formed. The milky way was there to separate these, the pair of lovers. And um… And said the cow boy and the weaver girl could only meet for one day in a whole year, and I believe that’s on July the 7th? I don’t know if the two stars actually converge on July the 7th. Maybe they do. Maybe they do like go into the milky way on July the 7th. I don’t know. But um, so reputedly, on July the 7th a bunch of birds, um… holy birds. Let’s see… Cranes! Okay. Cranes that signify happiness and love, right? A bunch of cranes would come and form a bridge so that the weaver girl and her husband and their two children can meet on the bridge for one day in a whole year. And… yeah. So that became the origin of the Chinese Valentine’s Day. And then these two stars would be just on the night sky.

Analysis:

This story provides an explanation for the Chinese celebration of Valentine’s Day. It has an elaborate exposition, and the actual basis for the holiday does not get revealed until the very end of the story. It tells the story of two lovers who a divine entity tried to separate and their eventual being allowed to have a relationship, but only on one day out of the entire year. The story sends the message that love cannot be mitigated by distance and by the efforts of outside parties if the couple’s feelings are strong enough.

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