USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘unlucky’
Contagious
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection
Signs

Why You Can’t Write Your Name in Red

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 

Text: 

“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.

In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written.  Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).

So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.

Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.

This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.  

 

To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:

Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2

June 2016,

www.visiontimes.com/2016/06/02/a-chinese-taboo-never-write-other-peoples-names-using-red-ink.html.

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic
Protection

4 Will Bring Death

The informant shares how the number four is a connotation for bad luck in Chinese culture. She shared this in a group environment, where another member of the group, ‘Support,’ provided additional information to what the Informant was sharing:

 

Informant: We also don’t like the number 4

Me: What’s the number 4?

Informant: Like the number, four. We don’t like it. It means death. It’s associated with death

Support: Because when you say four in mandarin it sounds like the same word as death in mandarin.

Informant: So literally in my building there is no fourth floor, it’s the fifth floor.

Support: It’s kinda like how sometimes in America in buildings there’s no 13thfloor. It’s the same way… they just skip the number 4 when doing floors.

Informant: Yeah theres no 14th, 24th, they just skp the number.

Support: Oh really?!  I remember seeing the 4thskipped,but I don’t remember seeing 14th.

Informant: Like in my building there’s nothing floor.

 

Support: yeah because you don’t wanna live on the death floor… its kind of a pun.

 

Informant: But then lucky numbers are six or eight for a similar reason. Eight is associated with wealth, like you’re getting more money.

 

Context:

I was talking with a group of friends while we were working on a class project and some of the group members wanted to share pieces of their traditions with me. It was a very casual setting and the performance took place in front of three other individuals.

Background:

The informant is from Hong Kong, China, but attends school at USC. She has experienced the stigma of the number four first hand, because there is no floor containing ‘4’ in her apartment building in Hong Kong.

Analysis:

I love learning about how different cultures have similar superstitions to the United States, but while similar there is a different reasoning. While the US may view 13 as unlucky, it is not that way in China.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

47: The New 13

Alright so we’re flying out to Hawaii, myself and three other friends who also believe the power of 47 and, by the way, our groupchat name is 47. So, we get to the airport and we see that it, not only our gate number’s 47, but the time that were flying out? 3:47.

‘ get on the plane, take off, fly for 30 minutes over the water, the pilot says, “This is your captain speaking. There’s been a malfunction with the plane and the- the s- uh-uh-uh the technology to fly over water is not working right now. We need to turn around.”

So we fly another 30 minutes back to LAX, so we’ve been in the air for about an hour and we have fuel for five hours ‘cuz we’re supposed to go to Hawaii, so were full of- full of gas – a lot heavier – we turn around, we land at LAX with the firefighters and paramedics there just in case.

‘ everything’s fine, we get off, we go t- we go to Ono Hawaiian Barbecue that night ‘cuz we wanted Hawaiian food – we’re supposed to go to Hawaii – so like of course- L&L. It was L&L Hawaiian Barbecue closes at 11, so we run to it (gesturing sprinting by swinging his arms at his sides with fists clenched). My receipt number’s number order 47. It was too much, too much.
So, then, in Hawaii, we ate uhh then in Hawaii after the very. 1st. day. we get there, we go snorkeling. I get stung by a box jellyfish, my arm swells up like crazy and burns, hurts so bad. The 47 ruined everything after that. The next day we drink at my friends’ house. My friend got way too drunk and threw up in his bed, slept right in the puke, woke up the next day super sick. Everything was bad bad. That’s all from the trip. 47.

The Informant had zero hesitation when I asked him if he had a lucky or unlucky number. He said, “Oh dude 47. 47 for sure.” I feel like he could talk for hours about spooky coincidences that seem to always revolve around the presence of the number 47.

The first and one of the only recorded instances of a distinctive focus on the number 47 began at Pomona College. A student tried to determine if the number occurred more often than any other random number. This turned into a widespread hunt throughout the campus for 47 and has turned into a traditional celebration on campus ever April 7th. The Pomona inside joke has popped up throughout many Hollywood films and TV shows, but there is never any indication of good or bad things associated with its presence. It seems as though the number 47 exists in the mediums for the sake of existing; not good luck and not bad luck.

This collection was funny, especially because the Informant had a seemingly endless list of examples to share with me. I couldn’t get him to shut up about it. Because of this, I was shocked that there hasn’t been recorded examples of the unluckiness of the fateful number 47.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Where’s the Four?

The Main Piece
The number four is an extremely unlucky number. Just as seven is said to be lucky, the number 4 is heeded with caution, especially in East Asia. In China it is common for buildings to skip making a button for the fourth floor button to be skipped and changed to five. The lore is that someone has either died on the floor, will die there, or a spirit will haunt it if marked with the number four. In most buildings, whether they are apartments or offices, one will not find the fourth floor. Although it does in fact exist, it is not a button in elevators because of superstitious reasons. Many workers find it better to keep on the safe side and preferably just skip the number.
Background Information
My informant is Demie Cuo, an undergraduate student at USC. This belief is common with many people of East Asian culture as they tend to associate words that sound similar with one another. The word for death sounds similar to the word for the number four. Therefore, they think of four as an unlucky number, bringing death to whatever it marks. Demie explained her shock when she came to the states and the fourth floor marking was present in elevators. It took her a while to get used to this oddity. Her parents would warn her of the number four, and even her friends knew about its superstition. She always felt best to abide by these warnings even though she was not truly scared of the number.
Context
I was told about this folk practice by my friend’s roommate, Demmie as we were going up in the elevator. We were discussing folklore previously and she was reminded of this practice as we were headed back to our rooms. She quickly discussed with me why the number four in elevators was extremely odd to her when she first came to the states.
Personal Thoughts
I found it extremely interesting to hear that a superstition has had that much power over a country. If anyone in America were to ever suggest something similar to that it would be quickly dismissed. This shows how much influence cultural beliefs have over the people all across East Asia and even various parts of the world. Although the superstition could be easily proven wrong with examples from any other country not abiding by the superstition, many companies and buildings still abide by this rule. It makes me wonder if there are any superstitions America abides by that go unnoticed simply because it is built into our own culture.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Magic
Protection

Don’t Write In Red

The Main Piece
In Korea it is commonly known that if you write someone’s name in red, then they will die. It does not have written in any particular way or on any particular object, but simply in red ink. The color represents the blood of the person as if one was smearing it across the canvass. She has heard several stories of incidents happening where a person has died coincidentally after their name was written in red. While the myth can not be proven to be true or not, these rumors ventilate throughout Korea, keeping people on edge and careful of what they write.
Background Information
My informant is Elizabeth Kim, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC, she is also a full and third generation Korean. She states that it is because of her almost annual trips to Korea that she has heard of these various rumors, stories, and superstitions. She tells me about how she enjoys hearing these stories just as she enjoys hearing a scary story. There is the possibility that it could be real which keeps her excited. She hears it from her friends that live in Korea and sometimes even cousins or aunts members at family gatherings.
Context
I was interviewing Elizabeth towards the second semester of our freshman year outside of Parkside Apartment at USC. The setting was casual and conversation flowed easily as we discussed the folklore she knew of.
Personal Thoughts
Hearing this piece of folklore actually made me a little nervous at first. I can not count the amount of times I have written people’s names in red. In fact, I have written my own name in red hundreds of times. In elementary school teachers make you correct other students’ paperwork and write “Corrected By: ______.” However, this also makes me consider the fact that everyone dies at some point and one’s name is always being written down. So perhaps it only makes sense or perhaps just coincidence that one dies and their name is written in red.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Material

The Banba Doll

The Main Piece
The Banba Doll, the name the Tan family has given it, is said to have the power to “affect the way your day will go. It has seven sides, one for every day of the week and you’re supposed to change its side every day.” This folk practice and object has been performed and passed down for generations. If one forgets to turn the Banma Doll, then the “Banma Doll will forget to give you your blessings.” It is also a metaphor for being sure one has all their belongings and double checking one has done everything necessary before leaving the house. Since the person was so forgetful, repercussions will come. The object has different Chinese characters on each side, each representing one day of the week. Rachel went on to state the importance of turning it over on the right day. “I’m not exactly sure why we had to turn it over on the right day, my grandmother never explained that part to us, but I remember her specifically saying that if we didn’t turn it over on the right day, then we might as well have not turned it over at all.” This action represents the idea that if one is going to do something, then they should do it right.” This is both a folk object and practice as it has been passed down from generation to generation and is a practice done daily.
Background Information
My informant is Rachel Tan, a current undergraduate student at USC. Although she has left it in her home in Singapore while she is away at college, whenever she returns home she is sure to turn the doll over. She says it has become common practice for her ever since her mom gave it to her. “I’m not sure where it all started, I just know it’s been in my family for what seems like forever and no one can seem to get rid of it.”
Context
We were discussing traveling over the summer and she brought up the fact that in her room there is the Banba Doll. I had no idea what that was so she continued to tell me more about it and the significance it held in her family.
Personal Thoughts
I found it odd for families to uphold such tedious practices with a background they were unknowledgeable on. It shows the power folk objects such as the Banba Doll can have on people. I personally would not partake in this practice, but perhaps it is because of its age and ancestry that the practice continues and I am simply unable to relate.

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