Author Archives: Yunqian Hsu

Haircut in the First Lunar Month Kills Your Uncle??

正月剪头死舅舅

Zhèng Yuè Jǐan Tóu Sǐ Jìu Jìu

This is a Chinese saying that literally means “If you get hair cut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar, your uncle (your mother’s brother) will die”.

 

Context: The collector and the informant were talking about weird Chinese sayings and customs heard from parents. The informant is a USC student from Beijing.

The informant heard this saying from his mother. Once he planned to get a haircut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar. His mother stopped him by telling him this saying. However, he forgot his mother’s word and went to get a haircut anyway. Then his mother asked him to text his uncle new year greetings and whish his uncle a year of great health. The informant found it funny and that is why he always remember this saying.

Even though the informant’s mother didn’t necessary believe that her brother would die because her son got a haircut, she didn’t think that was a good sign.

The informant doesn’t believe the saying.

The informant doesn’t know why there is this saying. He guesses it is only because it is in rhyme (“Tóu” and “Jìu”).

 

Collector’s thoughts:

I have also heard of this saying, but only with little impression. I thought it was a very weird saying or custom. Maybe it’s because Chinese people view renewable body parts such as hair and finger nails also as important part of body granted from parents, so it is an ominous sign to cut hair in the first month, a meaningful period of time that is supposed to pave the way for good luck of the entire year.

However, I did some research online and found an explanation: After the Manchus overthrown the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu government enforced a policy on Han people that all Han men should shave their hair and have the required hairstyle like the Manchus. Han people valued hair very much. Hair being shaved was considered humiliating. Many Han men refused to follow the policy as well as other oppression, which led to some massacres. The result was Han people passive resisted by not getting haircut in the first month of the year to express their longing for the lost Ming dynasty as “思旧 (Sī Jìu [Literally: Longing for the past])”. However, as the saying was spread, “Sī Jìu” turned into “Sǐ Jìu Jìu (Literally: Uncle dies)”.

Reference: http://www.sohu.com/a/59020978_349043

Future Son-in-law and Poached Eggs

Context: The collector asked the informant (as MD) for some Shanghainese folklores. The informant is the mother of the collector.

 

MD: You know, when a couple in relationship want to make sure parents from each side agree with their marriage, they will visit the woman’s mother. When it is the first visit for the man, he should bring gifts, such as liquor or cakes or whatever, while the future mother-in-law is supposed to serve him a bowl of 水潽蛋 (Shanghainese in IPA: /sɻ̩ pú de/  Chinese Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ pū dàn/  Literally: water boiled egg, specifically poached egg in Shanghainese), 水煮蛋 (Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ zhǔ dàn/, literally: water boiled egg). The kind of water boiled egg that you break the shell first and then boil it. (The informant was emphasizing the difference between hard boiled eggs and poached eggs)

Collector: Yes, I got it. But why?

MD: I have no idea. It’s just a custom! If the woman’s mother does serve the man a poached egg, that means she recognizes the man as her future son-in-law.

Collector: Is there anything special with poached eggs? Aren’t they just daily matters?

MD: Well you know, life in the past wasn’t like now. Eggs weren’t something you could afford every day!

Collector: But you told me your family had hens when you were young… Okay, okay, I got it. Did Grandma serve Dad poached eggs when he first went to visit?

MD: She did.

Collector: Did she just give him the egg or she told him what that meant? Dad mustn’t know the custom. (The collector’s father is not from Shanghai)

MD: Well, she just served him the egg. Your dad is an outlander. He didn’t know.

Collector: Then did you tell dad what the egg meant?

MD: Yeah after the visit.

Collector: But wasn’t that meaningless for Grandma to do so? Because Dad couldn’t know what she implied.

MD: That doesn’t matter. It was the purpose and the feeling of the mother-in-law that mattered.

Collector: Alright. If CH (the collector’s elder sister) brings her boyfriend to you and you think he is a good man to marry, will you also serve him poached eggs?

MD: Yes, I will, if I like him.

Collector: Even if he is a foreigner?

MD: Yeah. That doesn’t matter.

 

Collector’s thought:

In the past, eggs were valuable food for ordinary people. Even if they had hens, they would probably rather sell eggs for money than consume eggs frequently. Thus, serving future son-in-law eggs is sharing something highly valued with that person, meaning that the man is viewed as a trustworthy husband and is welcomed as a new family member.

It is interesting that the informant values this custom and intends to actively carry it on even though she didn’t really know the background of the custom and in fact, the social context has already changed a lot, which to a certain extent reduces the special value of poached eggs and the meaning of the custom.

The custom might only be a practice in Shanghai, but it’s also possible that the custom is practiced in a larger region, for example, the Yangtze River region.

Eggs on Dragon Boat Festival

Context: The collector was interviewing the informant (as MD, the collector’s mother) for folklores. After she told the collector a folklore about eggs, the informant came up with another folklore about eggs. This is a custom the informant practiced in her childhood.

 

MD: When I was a kid, we (she and her peers) would have hard boiled eggs on Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival). We would weave nets to hang an egg on our neck. (Collector’s note: The nets were made of colored thick thread which was thinner thread intertwined together, according to a follow-up interview). Ah, that was really interesting. Every girl at that time could weave nets.

Collector: Is there something to do with good luck or stuff?

MD: I don’t know. We just followed what adults told us.

Collector: So what did the custom mean to you?

MD: That meant we could eat (eggs)! Those were eggs! It was just, like, whenever it was Duanwu, we could have eggs. (Collector’s note: eggs were not food that could be served every day for most ordinary Chinese families in the 1960s and 1970s.) After we hung the eggs in the day, we could eat them.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Festivals are time to have foods that are not available all the time.

The interview also indicates the social environment and the financial status of ordinary families in 20th century China.

During the interview, the collector recalled a prose written by a Chinese writer, Zengqi Wang, that was exactly about eggs on Duanwu. Wang’s hometown is Gaoyou, a city in Jiangsu Province, which is also in the Yangtze River region like Shanghai. However, the eggs mentioned in that prose was duck eggs. See:

Wang, Zengqi. Shidouyinshuizhai Xianbi [食豆饮水斋闲笔,Literally: Journals from a studio of eating beans and drinking water], Huacheng Citry Press, ver.1, June 2015, pp 23-26.

(It is in Chinese)

Bear Granny

Bear Granny

Context: The informant is a Chinese student in USC. The collector interviewed the informant (as GL) for tales. The informant then presented a creepy story in English told by his grandfather as a bedtime story. His grandfather is from Chongqing, an inland city in China.

 

 

GL: Okay so, there were two kids. They wandered in the woods. And then they met their granny in the woods for some reason I can’t remember. So they came back home with their granny. And their granny was like, “Okay. You two should take a bath and then we can sleep together.”

Somewhere late at night, the elder sister woke up. She heard some cracking sounds. It came from their granny. So she asked, “Granny, what are you eating?”

Granny said: “I am eating candies.”

And then, you know, some ray of moonlight shone in. The girl saw a lot of bloody intestines and flesh and stuff laying on the bed.  It’s a creepy story. She figured out that her granny was eating her little sister.

So she asked: “Granny, do you want some candies of different flavor?”

Granny was like, “Sure.”

So the girl took a heated, some sort of claws (Collector’s note: he probably meant tongs) from the fire place. (Collector’s note: he probably meant that the girl used the tongs to attack her granny)

And then the girl was like, “Granny, do you want some water to cool down?” and Granny was like “Yeah Sure”. And the girl took some boiling water and killed the Bear Granny.

 

GL: I think it is a pretty prevalence story from where I came from to scare the kids.

Collector: What do you think is this story trying to tell kids? To respect their granny? (in a joking tone)

GL: I had really complicated feelings when I first heard the story. I guess the purpose my grandparents told this story was, you know, I kept asking for bedtime stories before going to sleep, so they wanted to scare me off so they could do their own stuff.

Collector: Do you think it is a typical Chinese story or just a story in Chongqing?

GL: I think it is not typically Chinese but a lot of people from that area (Chongqing) have heard of that story.

Collector: Have you ever told this story to other people before?

GL: Yeah, I told this story to one of the kids in elementary school because he thought I was weird.

Collector: How was the effect?

GL: He was freaked out. (laughing) Yeah, he was freaked out.

 

Collector’s thought:

It is weird that adults tell kids creepy stories as bedtime stories.

I think the story involves an archetype of evil old ladies. But unlike those evil witches in Western tales, this demonic old lady is the grandmother of the protagonist, a dear one in the family. The Bear Granny reminds me of what Professor Thompson said in class that there is a belief in Japan that old people in the family will turn into ghosts (monsters) when they are too old. Maybe this is something common in East Asia. But the tale also resembles the Little Red Riding Hood.

I searched for Bear Granny in Chinese, and saw some articles saying that Bear Granny is popular in Chongqing and Sichuan area. It is called “熊嘎婆 [Mandarin in pinyin: xíong gā pó, literally: Bear Granny]”

No Mirror Facing You When You Sleep

Context: The collector interviewed the informant (as XZ) for superstitions. The informant is a USC student from Los Angeles. Her parents are from China. The conversation was in the collector’s dorm room When the informant saw a mirror on the collector’s bookshelf, she came up with the following folk belief.

 

 

Main Piece:

Never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep.

 

XZ: My parents told me never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep. Because when you are sleeping, your soul, this is so funny, I don’t really believe it, is above your body and moves around. So if you have a mirror facing you when you are sleeping, your soul will look into the mirror and get confused. So it will, like, not go back to your body.

XZ: My parents just told me the story. They think it’s funny. But some people really believe in this. They never put mirrors where mirrors reflect their bed.

 

The informant doesn’t think it is an Asian folk belief but rather an American one. She said that she didn’t believe the saying, but when asked about whether she would put a mirror against her bed, she answered no.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Reflection of the real world in the mirror is a common topic of folk belief. There seem to be an underlying fear of the other self in the reflection, which threatens the exclusivity of self in the real world.

This folk belief also involves the topic of body and soul separation, and the process of sleeping. In this folklore, the connection between the soul and the body is unstable. The soul can get lost easily.