Tag Archives: Taiwanese

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.

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.

Taiwanese Lantern Festival

Text:

“I’m not sure about the history behind it, but there’s a lantern festival that happens in Taiwan. People write wishes on a paper lantern, light a candle in it, and let it go. Nowadays it happens all throughout the year, but historically it was a specific season, but I don’t remember exactly which day. A specific township in Taiwan is known for this, so now tourists come to do it. Tangled shows it… a lot of cultures may have lantern festivals but I think that’s what Tangled was based on. Lanterns can be pretty big, as tall as my torso, and multiple people may share a lantern” Represents belief in greater being, writing wish and sending it to the sky will make it come true. Never done it herself. But heard about it visiting Taiwan. Multiple people per lantern, can be pretty big. Size of torso.

Background:

My informant believed that it represents belief in greater being, so writing a wish and sending it to the sky will make it come true. She’s never done it herself, but she’s heard about it while visiting Taiwan.

Context:

This festival happens in Taiwan, annually.

Personal Thoughts:

I believe the lantern festival happens in various countries in Asia, and that is indeed what the Tangled lantern scene is based on. It’s an interesting part of Asian culture that has been globalized through movies, and tourism.

You can see more about the festivals here: http://disneyandmore.blogspot.com/2010/11/where-tangled-animators-found-their.html

Crow’s Mouth

Information about the Informant

My informant is a freelance editor and translator living in Taiwan. She was born in Taiwan and has lived there essentially her whole life, except for a few years in America. I asked her specifically about this proverb that I’d heard my grandma tell me when I was young as I’d never really understood it, and she told me the origin of the proverb and how it became the version that I heard as a child.

Transcript

“‘Having a crow’s mouth.’ Because we Chinese believe—no, not believe, Chinese always claim that crows are bad luck. The story’s very simple. It’s just…we feel the crow—because it’s black, so it’s bad luck. So when it—and other people say…uh…most of the time, it’s just that we believe, it may go against biology, but we believe that most of the time, crows don’t speak. That they don’t go, ‘Wah, wah, wah, wah.’ So when they do speak, it’s that bad things are about to happen. That it’s kind of like…a…prophet, can predict, can tell you that bad luck or bad things are coming. So, so, when they speak, they just…they tell you that you will have misfortune—not necessarily you, not you specifically, just somewhere around there or Taiwan or something. Just that there’ll be misfortune.

So then people started saying ‘having a crow’s mouth,’ became like ‘you’re acting like…a crow.’ That is to say, what you say, after you say this thing, it’ll actually happen. So they’ll say you have ‘a crow’s mouth.’ But if…if a person says something and then it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t count as ‘crow’s mouth.’

Collector: “But you…you—when you say someone has the ‘mouth of a crow,’ you don’t know yet if the thing will happen. Just, as soon as they say, ‘Oh, this bad thing might happen,’ then you need to say, ‘CROW’S MOUTH.’

‘Yes.’

Collector: So you haven’t even checked, to see if it’s really happened.

‘Yes. And, when it—when it first started, ‘crow’s mouth,’ this term was…was…changed—it was that the thing the person said, if it really happened, then we would berate him, saying, “It was you having a crow’s mouth.” That is, for instance, uh, we at NTCH [informant’s work place], each of us wishes…wishes that our boss won’t, won’t do a certain thing. And then a person then, then says, ‘Oh!’—never mind, if we, let me give an example, for instance, we have our first day off, we just had, let me see, Memorial Day. And the day before we get Memorial Day off, someone says, ‘Let’s hope that…after the holiday ends, the first day we come back to work, we don’t get called to a…kind of…meeting…that starts at 8 in the morning and lasts till 7 in the evening kind of meeting.’ I’ve heard that the person who likes our English writings, that boss has that kind of meeting a lot. And then…and then—because everyone thought he was just kidding, ‘No, no, no, that won’t happen,’ and then, yeah, the first day back at work, it actually happens that there’s a meeting from 8 in the morning, as soon as you get to the office, you get called to the meeting, lasting until the afternoon, 7 o’clock, getting home at 7 pm. And then people will yell at the person who said it, ‘You have a crow’s mouth.’ However, if it was this person, it happens that every thing he says like that always has this kind of effect, that is, whenever he says something, it always has this effect, for instance, he eats lunch, that one, that one, at that place that [a coworker of hers] took you to eat once, and then, the dish that they like to eat, they say, ‘I hope they’ll have that dish today,’ and then that person says again, ‘They won’t have that dish today because it’s that…um…that—lately that dish has been going up in price. They definitely won’t use that dish.’ And then when they go, they really don’t have that dish, they’ll say, ‘You had a crow’s mouth!’ And then…um…in the future, when he talks, people will say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth,’ to stop him first. So when he’s prepared to—before he, um, starts to talk, you have to say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth.’ But then, that is, nowadays, um—actually, Taiwanese people are becoming more and more superstitious. Because we’re having more and more bad luck. Don’t we say a lot that we are a bad luck family? The whole country, it has more and more of a workload, things like that. Less and less money. Then everyone starts to become really nervous, whenever someone starts to say something, they say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth!’ Meaning in case, meaning if you say it, then it’ll become a bad thing. So, this phrase became a sort of ‘stop someone from becoming’—it’s superstitious, in case what they say becomes a thing that, um, comes true.”

Analysis

The meaning behind the proverb and how it became a preemptive warning instead of a way to blame someone after a misfortune is pretty clear in the transcript. I do agree with her that this change from a comment or exclamation after the fact to a warning (and the time I remember hearing my grandmother tell me the proverb, she did sound pretty horrified and frantic) does reflect a change in the culture of Taiwan. I don’t believe necessarily that it is due directly to a sort of economic crisis or “bad luck” for the whole island, but it does seem to at least reflect a change in behavior from a more relaxed one where such prophecies were not welcome but tolerated, to one that actively tries to prevent these prophecies from ever being made in the first place.

Original Chinese

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Jade Mountain Ghost

Information about the Informant

My informant is a freelance editor and translator living in Taiwan. She was born in Taiwan and has lived there essentially her whole life, except for a few years in America. She told me about a ghost story that she heard from one of her college classmates that he actually supposedly experienced.

Transcript

“The first one is our class—my undergraduate classmate told me this. He’s one of those—he belonged to a club for…for—mountain climbing kind of stuff—a hiking club. So, they went to the tallest mountain in Taiwan—that mountain’s called Yu Mountain. ‘Yu’ is for like ‘jade.’ Jade Mountain. Although if you just pronounce it, it’s just Yu Mountain.’ So they went to the place that was just…just very remote, with no one around. So they—some people would build little huts for their—so that they could all be together. Sleeping. So they were all sleeping at night. Then—because Yu Mountain counts as a…um…a—lots of people who go there to climb have accidents, that kind of mountain, so there are a lot of ghost stories. So their…their hut, so people say, used to be some people—because Taiwan during springtime sometimes has times when it suddenly gets really cold, and it seems some people don’t bring enough clothes there, so they froze to death. So…so…that hut people said was haunted.

So my classmate, his team had a total of about twenty people. Both guys and girls. He said at night, he’d been sleeping till late at night, he…he…maybe it was early morning or midnight, he felt that there was a girl trying to wake him up. Telling him, ‘I’m cold.’ She borrowed from him a pair of socks. And so he just kept sleeping like that, half-awake, walked over to his sack, and got a pair of socks for that girl, and that, dong, fell asleep again. And then—and then, the next morning he woke up, he suddenly remembered this event, and so…and so he began to ask all the girls on the team, ‘Last night, did one of you come and borrow a pair of socks from me?’ Everyone denied it. So he went to look at his socks and, sure enough, he was missing a pair. And so…so they began to be very scared. And everyone went to check their pairs of socks—everyone went to check if they had—who had slept—because, you know, when you get tired on high mountains—to see if one of them had in a drunken-like state stolen his pair of socks. Everyone—no one’s socks had his—his pair of socks. No one’s sack had his pair of socks.

[laughs] They were so scared that they hurriedly packed up and quickly ran away from that part! And when he got back, he told us this ghost story.”

Analysis

This is an interesting piece for me as the story strongly resembles a variant of the Western “Vanishing Hitchhiker story. In the Western version, a driver picks up a hitchhiker and, because it is cold, the hitchhiker borrows a piece of clothing, usually a jacket or a coat, from the driver. The driver drops the hitchhiker off at his or her destination, which is usually a cemetery. One way or another, the driver will meet with someone who knew the hitchhiker after this incident and the person will reveal that the hitchhiker has been dead for years. In the variant that this account by my informant reminds me of, the driver then goes to the cemetery and finds the gravestone bearing the name of the hitchhiker, with the borrowed piece of clothing draped over it. I was surprised that, in this case that my informant told me about, there was no ending where the borrowed socks made a reappearance in a cemetery or some area associated with the deceased, but then as the ending of this purportedly real experience had all those involved run away in fear, that would not have been possible if they never returned to the site. It is interesting the resemblance this bears to the Western hitchhiker story though, so much so that I am almost inclined to suspect some tampering, either someone setting up the situation deliberately such that it was similar or some changing of details after the fact. But if true, then this would be a strong case of a memorate, where someone’s actual experience becomes part of an established folkloric culture.

For more about “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” visit:

Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” Uploader. Bernd Weschner. 1981. <http://bernd.wechner.info/Hitchhiking/vanish.html>.

Original Chinese

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Pointing at the Moon

If you point your finger at the moon, you would anger the moon, and the deity living on the moon will slice off your ear when you sleep.

The informant is not sure why this is so or who the deity living on the moon is. However, this superstition may be rooted in respecting the deities, and could possibly be linked to the myth of Cháng’é (嫦娥), the Chinese goddess of the moon. She lives on the moon because she had swallowed the elixir of life and became light, floating away from the earth. Her husband Hòu Yì (后羿) was a mortal archer known for shooting down nine of ten suns that were scorching the earth. Cháng’é lives on the moon with a jade rabbit.

It is interesting to note that pointing is disrespectful in cultures all around the world.

The Sitting Ghost

Informant was teaching and boarding at a high school in the mountains, a three-hour bus ride away from the city. The dorm was a foreign environment that frightened her. When she finally fell asleep, she was awoken by a strange presence that she sensed at the foot of her bed. She was unable to move, feeling as though something were pressing down on her, though nothing was above her. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed a man standing at the foot of her bed, fully clad in an ancient Chinese military costume. Since he was watching her peacefully, she assumed that it was an acquaintance from a past life or simply a passing spirit and fell back to sleep in peace, believing that he was there to protect her.

In Western cultures this phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis, and psychologists have come up with scientific explanations. In Taiwan, however, the cause is attributed to ghosts. The phenomenon is known as “鬼壓床” (gǔi yā chuáng), which literally means “ghost pressing the bed,” and the symptoms are strikingly similar. Author Maxine Hong Kingston describes this phenomenon as the “sitting ghost” in her memoir The Woman Warrior.

Due to the prevalence of Taoism and Buddhism in Taiwan, the vast majority of the population—regardless of religion—believes in ghosts. Ghosts are not necessarily evil, as anyone could potentially become a ghost after they die. 

The Story of Hǔ Gū Pó

[Translated from Mandarin Chinese]

Once upon a time, the hǔ gū pó (虎姑婆; a tiger spirit) lived atop a mountain. She wanted to become human, but the only way to do so was to eat children. From time to time she left her mountain to visit the village below, where she would sneak up on children from behind and eat them. After a while, the villagers discovered that wearing a mask on the backs of their heads would confuse the hǔ gū pó and prevent her from eating them. She was starting to look very human, but she still had a tiger’s tail to hide. With no more children to catch, the hǔ gū pó wandered down to the houses.

In one house lived a girl, her younger brother, and their parents, but the parents were out of town for the day. The tiger spirit tucked her tail within her pants and disguised herself as the children’s aunt.
“Your parents asked me to look after you today,” she said, and the children let her in.

In the middle of the night, the little girl woke up to a strange crunching sound.
“What are you eating?” she asked the hǔ gū pó.
“I am eating peanuts,” came the reply. “Would you like some?”
The hǔ gū pó handed over one of the little boy’s fingers.
Understanding that the tiger spirit had already eaten her brother, the little girl escaped from the house, pretending that she needed to use the bathroom.

The next morning the tiger spirit found the little girl hiding atop a tree.
“Come down,” the hǔ gū pó demanded, hungry.
“Fine,” the girl said. “But you should prepare a vat of boiling oil first, so I’ll taste better.”
The hǔ gū pó did just that.
“Now, hoist up the vat to me. I will cook myself and then jump into your mouth. Close your eyes and open your mouth.”
The tiger spirit did just that. The little girl poured the oil into the hǔ gū pó’s mouth and therefore killed her.

The story of hǔ gū pó is a well-known children’s folktale in Taiwan, and this is one of the many versions. It has been compared to the western tales of the Little Red Riding Hood, and “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats”. It has been adapted into a less violent nursery rhyme telling children to stop crying and to go to sleep. The informant (my father) had learned the story from his parents and in turn told it to me many times as a kid. 

When I first heard it, I did not think much of the plot points—upon retrospect, however, the story seemed unusually gruesome for a children’s tale. While “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats” has a similar premise, it is not as violent. The wolf deceives the goats and gobbles them up, but the youngest goat is able to cut open the wolf and save his siblings from its stomach, replacing the weight with rocks, which eventually drown the wolf. In the story of hǔ gū pó, the brother is not only eaten, but the sister receives the dismembered finger as food. She also kills the tiger spirit quite directly/actively. This may be a reflection on the differing cultural contexts of these two tales, in terms of ethics, etc.

Chinese New Year in a Taiwanese-American home

“It’s just my nuclear family that’s here in America. So it’s my mom, my dad, sister, and me. So ‘family’ constitutes as, you know, those four and then just anyone who’s Taiwanese that we see, they’re considered family. So for Chinese New Year gatherings, we would gather together with like–probably like six other families, and we would do Chinese things.

So what we do as Taiwanese Americans… Normally you get together with every part of your family–like, mom’s, dad’s sides. But again, we’re just the four of us. So we just gather with these other families who are also just here by themselves. Um. So we all get together in one of our houses, like every year, we go to a different person’s house.

And, uh…there’s really no structure to it. Because I was a kid, so you know, you sit at the kids’ table, and then, um… So there’s food, there’s a lot of food. My family’s vegetarian…that’s–that’s the whole Buddhist part. So there’s…we go for the vegetarian option. But then the other families aren’t all Buddhist, so um…they…usually order take out. So part of it they cook, the other part is like, ‘too lazy, might as well just order.’

Um. And so, we usually just go and get food. And then the adults hang out upstairs and we hang out in the basement–like the lounge slash TV–wherever the TV is, the kids gravitate towards. So we play, like, video games.

And then there’s the transition after dinner, like when most people are done eating. Then we take turns, family by family, where you sit–the mom and dad on chairs, like in the lounge. And then you have the kids kind of sit and bow in front of them, and they kind of like–this is where you, like, ask for the red envelope. Where you have to earn it.

Which is–so, in Chinese New Year culture, you have the parents–I don’t know why we do this–the parents give a gift of monetary value in the form of a red envelope to the children. Um. Oh God, I don’t even know why. It’s probably–it’s a sense of good luck, and fortune. It means–it’s a metaphor for something. I don’t know what it is. I’m sure there’s a whole ritual for it, in China or Taiwan, but it’s like distilled down into, like: ‘Okay, the parents sit here. Okay, uh, ask for your red envelopes. In Chinese! In the broken Chinese that you have.’

And so you do that. And then there’s some hugging. And then, like…Asian families are a lot less vocal, about their emotions. It’s like, the love is just insinuated, like, “Oh yeah, I make food for you every night. I love you.” But here, it’s like, kinda awkward. You kinda wanna say it, but then it’s like… So. That happens. It’s, like, awkward. And, like…yeah.

So then each family does that. Oh, and when we were really young? They had us perform before that. So, like, there’d be a violin performance, and then another violin performance. And I think that’s about all we did. And then as we got older, it was just–go straight for it. Everyone just got too lazy.

And then after that, we would go back to eating and playing video games. And then cake. Because we would meet, like, once a month. So it was like, ‘Okay, all the–the January birthdays!’ and there would be a giant cake with candles on it. And you’d blow that out, and then we’d eat cake. And then play video games until our parents told us we had to go.

And that was Chinese New Year.

And all the other holidays seemed to be the same basic structure. Video games, some awkward ceremony…and cake.”

My informant moved to the US when he was five years old. He belongs to a Taiwanese-American Buddhist family, and he was very adamant about the fact that they were neither Taiwanese nor American, but a combination of the two. Because of this, he seemed unsure if the way that his family celebrates the Chinese New Year was “traditional” or bore any resemblance to the way other families celebrate the holiday.
The combination of the traditional (the red envelope ceremony – red for luck) and the modern (the kids all playing video games) seems to be the norm for many immigrant families. In my informant’s description of his Chinese New Year, it is evident that, as he explained, his family is both Taiwanese and American.
I found his aside about the way that his family shows love very interesting. They are tight-knit and obviously love each other, but as he describes it, it is much more demonstrative than stated outright. After all, what can be more loving than feeding your kids every day?

Rice and Pimples

Click here for video.
“So when I was little, I was really bad about finishing the food that I ate. […] My mother used to try to convince me to finish my food by telling me that for each grain of rice that I didn’t finish and left in my bowl, I would later on get a pimple and hopefully that’s not true.”

My informant’s mother is from Taiwan. Interestingly, I’ve heard the exact same thing from my own mom, who is also from Taiwan. Its possible that this way of getting kids to finish their rice may have originated somewhere in Taiwan. The country has had a history of food shortages among the lower classes, especially during the Japanese occupation. This piece of folklore may have originated as a way for the older generation who have suffered through food shortages to convince their youngsters (who haven’t experienced famine and don’t understand the importance of eating) by appealing to their vanity.