Author Archives: Matthew Wu

“因噎废食” – Chinese Proverb

Context: I asked my coworker if she could help me with my folklore collection and if she knew any proverbs that she could share. She gave me an example of one that her older sister used to tell her all the time.


Roman Phonetic: “Yin ye fei shi”

  • Transliterated Proverb:
    • yin: because
    • Ye: choke
    • fei: abandon or give up
    • shi: food

Full Translation: The literal translation is “because choke abandons food”, with the meaning behind it meaning giving up food because of the fear of choking.

Explanation: The meaning behind this proverb is to say that one does not simply stop eating food just because there is the possibility of choking. The broader application would be to not let fear stop someone from living their life. This proverb was very important to my coworker when she was nervous about big decisions in her life in high school and college, and her older sister would tell her this proverb to tell her to just go for things because there is a risk in everything, but if she never took those risks, she would never be able to start to accomplish anything. 

Thoughts: I found this proverb pretty inspirational and applicable to my life as well. It is also similar to a proverb my mom would tell me about not worrying too much about what could go wrong and focus more on how to do things right. My coworker said this proverb to me on my first day of work when I was a little nervous about interacting with customers. The context she used was to tell me to go out and just talk to the customers and to greet them without thinking too much about what bad things could happen. The proverb also gives insight into Chinese culture, because there is often an environment that creates go-getter attitudes. 

Finish Every Grain of Rice – Folk Belief


I come home for dinner with my extended family over the weekend. My thirteen-year-old cousin announces that she is finished and is about to leave, but my uncle chastises her for not finishing every grain of rice in her rice bowl. He looks to my mother in support, and she explains the reasoning behind the belief. 



[Mother to cousin]: “This is something that my grandmother told me and your father when we were young. Every grain of rice is the result of hard work from the rice farmers, and not finishing all your rice is disrespecting them. If you do not finish grains of rice, it reflects on your character and shows that you do not value the hard work of those in society. Because of this, a freckle will grow on your face for every grain of rice that you do not finish. My grandmother told me that this happened to her when she was young. Her mother told her to finish all the rice in the bowl, but she stubbornly refused. Over the next two years, she grew three freckles that she did not have before this.”


Meaning to informant: This belief is very important to my mother and uncle because my grandmother was the primary caretaker of both of them. Their parents were both doctors who worked long hours and were not home often. My mother and uncle respected my grandmother a lot and took her words very seriously. While they do not know whether or not to believe the story about my grandmother’s freckles, following the belief is a form of honoring and remembering my great-grandmother. It is also a habit that they have formed and kept since their childhood. 


Analysis: The belief shows that rice is very important to Chinese culture and that every grain is considered to be valuable. Historically, this was because many families in China were not very rich, and parents would tell their children this to enforce good habits about not wasting food. This is different from other foods like fish because fish represents wealth and if you were able to eat fish regularly historically in China, it would mean that your family was pretty well off. There is also a belief in China that leaving fish for the next year was a symbol of good fortune and wealth, which is why people leave leftover fish to be finished the next day on Chinese New Year.

Covering One’s Ears to Steal a Bell – Chinese Joke

Context: This joke was told by one of my coworkers at a boba place. We had closed early that day and the manager had brought us pizza, so we ate and took turns telling jokes. I chimed in and asked if I could use one of them for my folklore project, to which my coworker (KC) agreed. 


KC: “Okay so this joke is one that I found really funny, but I think I found it funny cause it just seemed really stupid. So there was this guy who wanted to steal this huge bell from a rival clan in China.  This bell was very important to the rival clan. There was a problem though because the bell was very big and lugging it around would be too obvious due to the noise it would make. So after sitting around for a while and thinking about how to steal the bell, he came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. He used two pieces of cloth to plug his ears because he thought that this would reduce the sound that the bell made and that no one would be able to hear it. He started to carry the bell away, and people soon stormed in and caught him in the act.”

Background: My coworker learned about this joke from her father two weeks prior to telling it to us at work. She really likes the joke because she “didn’t get the punch line at first when [her] father first told her, but upon realizing what the thief actually did, [she] kept laughing for a few minutes”. According to her observation of the reaction that people have after she tells them the joke, they either “snort of the sheer stupidity of the thief if they get the joke right away or chuckle for a long time after realizing the punchline. 

Thoughts: When my coworkers and I were told the joke, a few of us got the punchline immediately and snorted at the same time, which made everything even funnier. I went home to tell the joke to my father, who laughed and said the joke was actually really popular in China and there was actually a Chinese idiom that was made because of the joke. The idiom, 掩耳盗铃, means to cover one’s ears while stealing a bell and is supposed to tell people not to deceive themselves with stupidity and to think things through before doing them. 

The Dragon Boat Festival and Sticky Rice Balls – Chinese Legend

Context: I went home for lunch over the weekend, and my mother (SS) had bought sticky rice balls for the Dragon Boat Festival in celebration of the Duan Wu holiday which was to be held on May fifth of the following week. Since we had extra rice balls, we ate some for lunch and I asked my mom why people celebrated the Duan Wu holiday using dragon boats and sticky rice balls.


SS: “The Duan Wu holiday is celebrated in honor of the famous poet Qu Yuan, who committed suicide because he felt overwhelming for the Chu capital being captured by the Qin empire. You know about Qu Yuan right?”

Me: “Yea I’ve heard about him in Chinese class and read some of his poems. According to legend, he committed suicide by jumping into a river right?”

SS: “That’s correct! There were many people who respected him and raced out in boats to find and save his body, which is the origin behind the dragon boat races. No one knew if his body was ever found, so the people made sticky rice balls so the fish in the river would eat the rice instead of his body just in case. It is said that even the fish would respect his body and eat the rice balls instead because they felt compassion for Qu Yuan. That is why people throw the rice balls into rivers and eat them on May fifth every year”

Background: This legend is very popular in China, and many people know it and celebrate the Duan Wu holiday. The river where the famous poet Qu Yuan is said to have died is near the city where my father grew up, so he has been to the river and attended the festivals near the river personally many times. My mother first heard the legend from her parents when she was young and celebrating the Duan Wu holiday, and later moved to the same city as my father for high school where she also was a part of the holiday customs there. 

Thoughts: When I was younger, I never really thought about the reasoning behind all the traditions that my family and community performed. However, I realized from this interaction that the Duan Wu holiday demonstrates a lot of Chinese values that were present in my household while I was growing up. For example, the holiday is celebrated in remembrance of Qu Yuan, and the traditions that are practiced during the holiday originated from what happened throughout history in order to honor and respect Qu Yuan’s body. I was able to see that remembering and honoring ancestors is important to Chinese culture and that these values connect with a lot of the folk beliefs and stories that I was told in my childhood. 

The Zodiac Ox and Second Place – Chinese Myth

Story: “You’re already familiar with the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, but why do you think the ox is only second place and the second zodiac sign? The ox is actually very talented and good at swimming. He is a very hard worker. On the day of the Jade Emperor’s great race, he woke up very early and got straight to work making his way towards the finish line. The last part of the race was a great river that all the participants had to cross. The rat who won first place made it to the river at the same time as the ox, but the rat couldn’t swim, so he hid in the ox’s fur. The ox unknowingly carried the cunning rat across the river, and the rat jumped across the finish line off the ox’s back in the last second. That is why the ox had to grudgingly settle for second place, and the rat got first place in the great race.”

Background and Context: This is one of the twelve stories told about the twelve different Chinese zodiac signs that serve as the symbols for each year in the lunar calendar. My mother was born on the year of the ox in 1961, and the animal sign for this year (2021) was the ox. My father was born a year earlier than my mother in the year of the rat. My father told me this story of the ox after I went back home for dinner on Chinese New Year, which he heard from his parents and grandparents growing up in China. He used it to explain why working hard like the ox is good, but working smarter like the rat is better. He also stated that my mother is such a hard worker because she was born in the year of the ox, and why my mother is very good at swimming. My father says that while people born on the year of the ox are stubborn, they don’t typically hold grudges for long.

Thoughts: I didn’t really think much of the myth. Growing up, I was used to hearing the stories of the twelve zodiacs, and my parents would use the stories of the year of the snake and the year of the horse to explain the behaviors of me and my brother and what we had to watch out for. My father believes that the zodiac signs signify actual behaviors in people who are born in the associated years, but I see it as more of a coincidence. From what I’ve seen, the specific behavior of an individual that matches their zodiac sign is used to explain why the zodiac signs are significant in Chinese culture, any discrepancies that do not match associated behaviors can be dismissed due to multiple other factors such as weather when they are born, month or time of birth, the relationship of the individual’s zodiac sign with those of their family, their siblings, and many other factors. I went to a Chinese school for six years from elementary to middle schools, and my teachers would tell me similar stories. There were many similarities in the ways that my Chinese teachers and my parents treated these legends, as they refer to them with at least some form of truth and application to the real world. Even when talking about students or gossiping about coworkers, they would refer to the zodiac signs when discussing their behaviors.