USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘watch’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Gift of Time Taboo

Barbara is a Chinese-American who graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Her parents are from Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States, before giving birth to her in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles. She recently received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is currently working at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles. Her hobbies are baking, exploring hipster cafes or restaurants, and reading thriller novels.

Original Script

Ok, and you don’t want to give your significant other a watch or a clock or anything that tells time ‘cause it kind of means that you’re telling them it’s time for them to go, like they’re gonna to either leave you or they’re gonna die or something.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first heard of this superstition from a friend she was eating with in high school. They were discussing what to give to a friend for her birthday, and the topic of a watch as a potential present came up in the conversation.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

This ancient Chinese superstition has endured time because of its meaning and its sound. The phrase for “giving a clock” is 送钟 (sòng zhōng), which sounds like “song jong.” The pronunciation is similar to that of the phrase for “attending a funeral ritual,” which is 送终 (song zhōng). Besides the sound, clocks and watches also represent running out of time. Thus, the Chinese have always generally considered shoes as taboo gifts.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I have never considered watches or any other objects that tell time as gifts that imply death or abandonment. When I heard about this Chinese superstition I was surprised, because I have both given and received watches as presents. I find this superstition somewhat funny, because the source of this belief is based on sounds and metaphors. I have also never had any near-death experiences or had the person leave me after giving me the present.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Clock and Watch

Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.

 

In Chinese you can’t say the word clock because in Chinese the word clock sounds the same as death. People usually point at the clock instead of saying it or called it “big watch,” “time,” “the time thing,” etc. If you end up saying the word then you have to apologize to the people around them for giving them bad luck.

The informant lives in the United States but still speak Chinese. She was taught about this ever since she can speak the language. It was emphasizing in the family and she found out it is practiced among her relatives and her friend’s family as well.

 

I think this is similar practice to the reason Chinese people avoid saying the word four because it sounds like they are saying death. Death, which is the unknown, is feared and avoided in everyday life. The idea of death is only mentioned and emphasized at funeral. The clock, in this case, has a nickname to avoid saying the actual word. Certain words that have overlapping sound are then muted for everyday life. The same way funeral rituals occur as a special event, words surrounding that particular event are prohibited to occur at any other time otherwise bad luck will enter your life. It is also similar to Western culture’s belief around the number thirteen where in a tall building floor 13 are eliminated.

I always find it peculiar that many everyday word and objects can have bad luck connotation through the way it sounds; also having to apologize for saying those words by mistake. This reinforces the idea of belief and how the truth value of it is irrelevant to whether or not it is practiced. Saying the word “four” or “clock” in Chinese would not bring bad luck but it would bring the belief of bad luck. I think that these traditions are carried through as accepted practice rather than the actual fear of the consequences.

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