Author Archives: Sara Hua

Fraternity Bid

The informant told me a story very recently after a fraternity on campus offered him a bid to join their organization.

He was told to get into the car with two of the brothers and blindfolded. They dropped him along side of sidewalk. One of the brothers got out of the car with him and removed the blindfold. He raises both hands towards the informant, one with a red M&M and the other with a blue M&M. The brother said to him, “you can take the red pill and join us, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Or you can take the blue pill and go on with life without us.” The informant took the red M&M, and the brother nodded solemnly. Then he said, “This never happened,” and drove off, leaving my informant on the ground next to the sidewalk.

Analysis: This is clearly a reference to a popular movie called The Matrix (1999). Whether all fraternities have bid rituals referencing pop culture or if this was a one-off would take more research and collection. The reference may make the ritual more approachable to the new potential initiate, or give the fraternity a sense of coolness and make them seem hip and popular. The blindfold symbolizes the fact that the new member was blind to the world before he found the brotherhood.

Most fraternities are founded on history and tradition, so it is interesting to find this ritual that goes slightly against the grain, as it is a very current reference.

Annotation: “The Matrix”Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved June 24, 2009.

Yeh-Shen, A Chinese Cinderella

My informant was a kindergarten teacher for a Chinese school me that she has presented this story many times before. It was therefore very rehearsed and unusually eloquent.

Informant: “Yeh-Shen was born to Chief Wu and his wife. However soon a sickness overtook them both, so she was reared by her stepmother. The stepmother didn’t like Yeh-Shen for she was more beautiful and kinder than her own daughter so she treated her poorly by giving her the worst chores.

She only had one friend at that was a fish with golden eyes in the pond. Each day the fish came out of the water onto the bank to be fed by Yeh-Shen. Yen-Shen had little food for herself but she still shared with the fish. Her stepmother hearing about the fish put on Yeh-Shen’s coat and went to the pond. The fish swam up thinking it was to be fed, and she stabbed it with a dagger, and cooked the fish for dinner.

Yeh-Shen was upset over the death of the fish and sat crying next to the river. Suddenly and old spirit appeared and told her that the bones of the fish were filled with a powerful spirit, and that when she was in serious need she was to kneel before the bones and wish on them with her heart’s desires. Yeh-Shen retrieved the bones and hid them.

Spring came and with it, the spring festival. Yeh-Shen was forbidden from going to the spring festival. After the stepmother and sister left, she went to the bones wishing for clothes to wear to the festival. She got a beautiful gown and cloak and golden slippers with a pattern of scaled fish. She went to the festival and everyone was dazzled by her beauty. However her stepmom and sister moved closer and she feared being caught, so she ran, leaving behind one slipper. When she arrived home she was dressed again in her rags. She spoke again to the bones, but they were now silent. Saddened she put the one golden slipper in her bedstraw. After a time a merchant found the lost slipper, and seeing the value in the golden slipper sold it to the King.

The king wanted to find the owner of this tiny beautiful slipper. He sent his people to search the kingdom but no ones foot would fit in the tiny golden slipper. He put it on display in an area near where it was found. All the women came to try on the shoe but it didn’t fit. Until one night Yeh-Shen slipped quietly across the pavilion, took the tiny golden slipper and turned to leave, but the king’s men rushed out and arrested her. She was taken to the king who was furious for he couldn’t believe that any one in rags could possibly own a golden slipper. As he looked closer at her face he was struck by her beauty and he noticed she had the tiniest feet.

The king and his men returned home with her where she produced the other slipper. As she slipped on the two slippers her rags turned into the beautiful gown and cloak she had worn to the festival. The king realized that she was the one for him. They married and lived happily ever after. However, the stepmother and daughter were never allowed to visit Yeh-Shen and were forced to continue to live in their cave.

Informant: “It’s my favorite story. I know it by heart and I’ve told it so many times I can’t count.”

Me: “What do you think the moral of the story is?”

Informant: “Be a kind-hearted soul and you’ll be rewarded! I mean, fish are lucky symbols in China, and there’s the whole Buddhist thing too about not taking another life.”

Analysis: This story is a variation of what was thought to be the original Cinderella story. My informant was correct when she assumed that the story had certain Buddhist influences – it is against the religion to take another life, regardless of what it is. Thus the stepmother is ultimately punished for killing the fish.

In Chinese culture, there will often be more fish symbols around Chinese New Year. That’s because the word for fish “Yu” sounds like the word for ‘extra’. Fish are therefore a symbol of wealth and prosperity, so we can see that this cultural aspect was included as a symbol within the story.

The motif of the tiny golden slipper relates to the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, and how women with smaller feet are thought to be more attractive. As we can see, the King is eager to find the owner of the slipper, but he has not met her beforehand. All he knows is the size of her foot.

The Grimm tale had the evil stepsister chop off a part of her foot to try to fit it into the small glass slipper, so it is interesting to note that this very unique cultural part of the tale (tiny feet equivalent to beauty) made it into the Western adaptations of Cinderella.

Annotation: Cinderella, Grimm Brothers

C’est La Vie

My informant tells me that the first time he heard the phrase, he was seven and complaining about the rain on a beach day. His mother then sighed, and said “C’est la vie”, which translated roughly into “Such is life.”

Me: “What does this saying mean to you?”

Informant: “It means that some times you can’t change things and just have to accept life as it is.”

Analysis: This proverb may also have to do with dealing with bad luck, as sometimes the world may seem to intentionally mess with your plans. It is a phrase often said when life isn’t fair, but one has to deal with life. Similar American sayings are, “That’s the way the ball bounces”, or the more slang term, “Shit happens.”

In modern American culture, a popular response to “C’est la vie” is, “la vie”, a pun on the pronunciation of the words. (C’est la vie = Say ‘la vie’). This joke was present in the romantic comedy film, Easy A, featuring Emma Stone and Penn Badgley.

Annotation: “Easy A (2010)”Box Office Retrieved January 27, 2011.

My informant was born in France, but currently goes to school at UC Irvine.

Burning money at Chinese funerals

Informant: “When someone passes away you burn money so that they can spend it in the afterlife. My grandma recently passed, so my mom burned money on specific days. It happens three times I think, it’s very structured. That way, they can use it in the afterlife.”

Me: “Is it real money?”

Informant: “I don’t think so… I’m pretty sure it’s paper with money numbers written on it. It looks like old money. But basically they believe that the spirits can still walk the earth and influence people and have an impact on us, so you want them to be happy. It’s a respect thing. That way you can ask them for favors later. I know they also burn mini fake wooden TVs.”

Analysis: Upon hearing the story from my informant, the first thing that came to mind was the ancient Greek tradition of putting a coin underneath the tongue of a person so they could be ferried over the River in their journey to the underworld.

This fake money is actually called “Joss Paper”, and resembles money used in ancient times by the Emperor. It is usually made of bamboo paper or rice paper. Some of it is wrapped up like gold bars, and it is commonly burned with incense. In more modern folklore, it is believed that this money will go into a bank account that the deceased can access in heaven.

Often, the money must be folded before it is burnt. This is in order to distinguish it from regular money, for burning regular money is considered unlucky in most countries in Asia. The origin of this practice comes from regional folklore in China, and may have evolved from leaving food and incense at the Buddhist altars. However, Buddhism typically discourages burning money as they believe to deceased travels to the “Pure Land”, where there is no need for material things.

Xue Shan Chun Xiao (musical performance)

Analysis/Observation: The song is played on a traditional Chinese instrument called a “zither”. It is a Chinese folk instrument that is plucked as a harp. Like most Chinese instruments, it is either played in D or G major, and usually consists of five notes: Do, Re, Mi, So, La. There are 21 strings, and the sounds get lower as strings get thicker. The green strings symbolize the note “So”. It is made of wood, and usually has traditional art carvings along the side of the instrument, and is hollow inside.

The song is called “Xue Shan Chun Xiao”. Translated roughly, it means “Spring on the Mountain.”

The song started out very slow and sweet. The informant performed it with slow, exaggerated motions in her arms. She seemed very peaceful. In the middle, the song suddenly picked up pace and there was a very intense section where her fingers are moving very fast. She has an intense expression on her face, although it also looks like she’s concentrating very hard on plucking the right notes. The song ends with a “bang” like effect.

Informant (translated) : “The song is a minority dance song that is supposed to mimic the flow of water when it is spring. When the snow melts from a mountain, it starts slow, then suddenly goes faster and faster as more ice melts.”

Me: “When is this song normally performed?”

Informant: “It’s a more modern song that comes from the Dai minority. However it’s not a dance song. In traditional fol music, you have dance songs, and then you have solo songs. It’s actually used a lot in music exams because of the technique you need.”

Analysis: The Dai people reside in the province of Yunnan, where there is a mountain called the Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The mountain is approximately half the height of Mount Everest. The piece of music is most likely referring to this mountain and the flow of water into the river come spring. The Dai minority is commonly known for their festive dances that they do at the spring festival, so the song is not commonly played during the festival as it is not a dance piece. It is more often played during concerts or as a prelude to a show.

Annotation: Due to the large file of the original recording, it could not be uploaded. A link to the same piece (played by someone other than the informant) has been attached.

Xue Shan Chun Xiao

A variation of the GuZheng appeared the popular film “Gong Fu” or “Kung Fu Hustle”, which opened in 2004.

Recently, using Chinese traditional folk instruments to play pop music has become a trend. A girl playing Adele’s Rolling in the Deep on the zither went viral in Chinese forums.