Author Archives: Carlos Gonzalez Jr.

Folk Object: Buddhist Strings

Context: My informant comes from Thailand, where Buddhism dominates as a leading religion for many. Such a heavy presence of Buddhism has caused locals, many of who are not even practitioners of Buddhism themselves, to adopt the tradition of wearing Buddhist strings as a sign of good fortune. These strings vary in color but typically come in white, red, or shades of orange, similar to the garments that the Buddhists themselves wear. If one is to visit a temple, these strings would receive the blessing of a monk first before being tied around their wrist. In most cases, you should allow the string to fall and come off naturally, which the informant said takes no longer than a week. No ill fortune comes if you take off the string early, but one should at least give it a day for the blessing to “seep” in. These strings are also wrapped around the ceilings of newly bought houses, this way the home is blessed and cleansed for the rest of the buyer’s stay.

Analysis: Folk objects are tangible constructs that have been embedded with some sort of cultural importance, connecting them to a belief and or folk system. Folk objects are powerful because they tie in the mystical, unknown world, to that of ours, or reality. With something as simple as a string, such as those distributed by the Buddhists, they can be handed out in mass. This allows the folk object to be available to a large crowd, being accessible to all gender, races, and classes. The fact that in this case, the folk object is a piece of string makes sense for Buddhism, for its monks reject any worldly desires and focus on self-improvement and healing. Strings in a literal sense are also known as typically being tethered or being tied with something else. These Buddhist strings metaphorically represent being tethered to the divine protection of a blessing.

Mythical Guardians: The Ogre and The Snake

Context: According to my informant, her grandmother has stated that the story of the Ogre and the Snake date back to the beginning of Buddhist temples in Thailand, and they serve as protectors that ward off evil. The Ogre is more of a gate guardian, they say he is a scary-looking beast. When entering a Buddhist temple, it is also suggested that one does not step on the segment of the door frame that lies beneath their foot. This is a sign of disrespect towards the protector and can lead to bad omens for the individual. The snake, on the other hand, is not embedded in the door, but rather on the railing of the stairs leading up to the temple. The snake serves to entangle enemies within its grasp to prevent them from reaching the door, and if the evil manages to get past the snake, it must face the ogre. These beasts are not just passed down between oral description, but are sometimes physically engrained and carved into the physical door and railings of temples, as noted by the informant who has seen them in real life.

Analysis: In many cultures, scary beasts are used as protectors since they are daunting enough to ward off other monsters. This specific case of the ogre may remind one of the seraphim within the bible, which were often depicted as beautiful within modern-day media until most recently. The seraphim would actually have to announce their presence and well intent when revealing their true forms to humanity, for they were rather grotesque. The ogre in the story is described as having a row of tusks along his jaw, which can be connected to the rows of wings that surround the seraphim. The snake is another sly entity within many cultures, but overall it represents serenity within destruction, reflective of the monks’ altruism and pacifism. These scary mythical beasts contrast with the peaceful men within the temples for their presence must be starkly different in order to serve as purposeful protectors. 

Folk Gesture: ไหว้ or Wai

Translation: No literal translation, for it is rather just a coined physical gesture.

Context: In Thailand, the informant states that when greeting family members or friends, in some cases even strangers, one should clasp their hands together, similar to how you would for prayer, place your hands near your nose bridge, and then bow your head. Ever since the informant was a little girl, this has been a gesture that expresses a formal greeting, and it is a sign of respect. “Wai” can be used when greeting someone or departing from them, and it is especially important in expressing piety. T.S. describes that as a little girl, whenever she would forget to greet her grandparents or other elders with “Wai,” should be met with a scolding. Not expressing “Wai” to certain individuals can earn you the title of one without manners. The informant believes that the origins of “Wai” must be tied to the rise of Buddhism since monks have been utilizing the motion for centuries, as they always want to express maximum gratitude and respect. When greeting a monk, it is even enforced that a different form of “Wai” should be used, one that has you place your thumbs to your forehead rather than your nose bridge.

Analysis: Forms of folk gesture can be used to solidify respect amongst a group of people, consolidating interconnectedness and overall companionship. The “Wai” is a gesture that brings the Thais together under a common practice, helping the nation cement a sense of peace within their foundation. The “Wai” is also a way to teach children and early generations to respect their higher-ups and elders, for this creates a stable pious relationship that prevents extended rebellion as they grow up. Speaking from personal experience, there are similar modes of expression within Latin American cultures, specifically the Caribbean. Growing up, I was exposed to “Biendicion,” a saying that holds very similar significance to “Wai.” When saying “Biendicion,” one must connect their cheek to the person’s cheek that they wish to greet. Similarly, as T.S. described, not using this phrase to elders within your own family can be seen as an act deserving of scolding and correction. Even as an adult, one must use it to those in the generations above them, so the phrase never dies off.

Proverb: bàn zhū chī lâo hû

Mandarin Characters: 扮猪吃老虎

Literal Translation: Pretending to be a pig to trap the tiger.

Context: The informant begins by saying that the proverb has been said to her by her parents and grandparents since she was a literal girl. There is no set time to use the phrase, as the proverb has been mentioned to her a couple of times a year, it simply depends on the situation or context of the prior conversation. For example, if one is going through hardships or periods in life that require encouragement, then it is appropriate for a family member or friend to use the proverb towards that individual. The proverb literally translates to “pretending to be a pig to trap the tiger,” which elicits the message of never fully revealing your cards until the moment is right. It’s a proverb that encourages individuals to remain clever and to always map out strategies that can help them attain success. V.S. also mentions that it encourages Chinese people to remain humble and never be boisterous, similar to the pig who pretended to be weak in order to conquer their enemy/obstacle, the tiger.

 Analysis: The Chinese are fond of incorporating mythical creatures and or animals into their folk, simply because they have a stronger connection to natural truths. Animals are primal, and thus act on instinct and learned behavior, a trait that allows them to be wise in a sense that humans could never be. There is also the presence of the zodiac within Chinese culture, which depicts a system that assigns you a certain animal based on your birth year. Each animal has a certain set of traits that sets them apart from others and all of its interpersonal relationships with the other zodiacs. The proverb also reminds me of the American proverb “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” which elicits the same idea of concealing one’s true power and nature until the time is right, although the American version is more villainized. The wolf in sheep’s clothing seems to be concealing itself for malevolent intent, while the pig does so to remain humble. 

Children’s Folk Game: Bloody Murder

Context: The informant recalls playing the game in his early childhood in the open fields of the west. The game would have to be played in a very rural area, with few to zero houses around. Two teams would form in order to play the game, one would have a “base” while the other would go out and hide in the field. The team at the base would stay within the base for a twenty-four-second count without looking to give the other team time to hide. The main purpose of the game was to hide as deep in the field as you could if you were on the other team. This way the base team would be forced to go deep into the fields to find you, and if they spotted you they would yell “bloody murder”, which would cause the hiding team to chase the entire base team back to their camp. If someone on the base team got tagged by the hiding team then that individual would switch teams. This process would go on until one team had all members and there was no one left on one of the teams. The informant noted that the hiding team did not have to wait until a base member yelled bloody murder in order to run after them.

Analysis: Looking at this game from all accounts, one gets the sense that this folk developed around groups of children whose fathers went to war during the twentieth century. The tactics of the game mimic a lot of war tactics used during guerrilla warfare, and thus one can conclude that the children put together “bloody murder” from the circumstances their fathers were undergoing during wars. In a strange way, perhaps even an adult incorporated this among children in order for them to learn or be introduced to war tactics, this way the children would grow up familiar with the basics of guerrilla warfare. This ensures that the upcoming generations of the American military would have strong, knowledgeable soldiers and leaders. When looking from another lens, this game could have also been a bonding activity amongst children who had absent fathers on account of the war, and thus bonded with one another through “bloody murder.” Children’s folklore tends to be anti-constitutional and is spurred by their inner creativity and the hardships they faced from being institutionally controlled.