Tag Archives: Taiwanese

Taiwanese Ghost Month


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.


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.”


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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).

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.

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.

The Golden Rule


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.


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.


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.

The Origin of Chinese Valentine’s Day


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.


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.


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.

The Story of the White Snake and Her Lover


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.


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


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.