Author Archives: Stella Chen

Traditional Taiwanese Engagement and Wedding Customs – Folk Ritual

1. Text

Interview transcription:

When asked to share a traditional Taiwanese custom, the informant shared the following Taiwanese wedding tradition.

The interview was conducted in a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese. It has been translated below into English and organized in the order performed into categories for ease of comprehension.

Pt 1. Engagement Customs

a) Intro:

“In Taiwanese culture, weddings happen like this. The parents of the bride and the groom meet, they usually have a meal together in a hotel. They then decide that the bride and groom shall get engaged. The engagement celebration, or *訂婚 (*phonetics “Ding Hun”; transliterated as “set marriage”), is hosted by the bride’s family. The bride’s family determines how many tables need to be set up, who to invite, which are usually the parents of the bride and groom, as well as the elders of both families such as the grandparents or other older relatives.”

b) Crackers:

“There is a saying that goes “*甲查某子 換大餅” (*a rhythmic phrase in Taiwanese which is translated to “marry off your daughter, get a big cracker”). This is because the groom’s family orders big round traditional Chinese/Taiwanese crackers called *喜餅 (*Mandarin word read as “Xi Bing”; transliterated as “Happiness Cake”) that is given to the bride’s family and relatives. There are also *小餅 (*small crackers that are usually Western cookies in a tin box).

c) Gifts:

“In the old days, there is a tradition of the bride’s family preparing *擺下 (*transliterating what I heard as a Taiwanese phrase to Mandarin, should mean a “gift set” in English) where 12 or 24 items are carefully selected and given to the groom’s family along with the bride. Some examples of things that can be in the set are pig feet meat tied with a red ribbon, cooked abalone, and a Western suit set for the groom, including pants, socks and shoes. Although people now simplified the suit giving tradition to giving the groom money to pick his own suit.”

“From the groom’s mother, called *婆婆 (*phonetics “po po”; translation “mother-in-law”), traditionally *品禮 (*Taiwanese word transliterated to Mandarin, means “proper gift”) is given to the bride. It is a box that contains a set of gold jewelry passed down from the mother-in-law to the bride.”

Pt 2. Wedding Customs

a) Intro

“Yes while the engagement is hosted by the bride’s family, the wedding is hosted by the groom’s family. The celebration is called a *喜宴 (*Mandarin word read as “Xi Yian”; transliterated as “Happiness Banquet”; translated as “wedding banquet”). It is usually held in hotels.”

“Recently because of Covid there has been very few wedding banquets. But after Covid restrictions are gone, people will hold their banquets like before.”

b) Traditional Wedding

When asked to recount the informant’s own wedding, the informant responded with the following:

“In the old days weddings were very traditional and over-the-top. When the bride is wed into the groom’s family, there would be a truck that carries all of the bride’s furniture, such as her dressing table, to the groom’s house.”

“There would be someone called the *媒人 (*Mandarin word read as “Mei Ren”), which is someone who holds the bride’s hand as she walks from her home to the groom’s home. There would also be another person who is usually someone that is higher aged, and is known to have a lot of *福氣(*Taiwanese word transliterated to Mandarin, read in Taiwanese as “Hou Ki”, means “luck/fortune”) to hold the bride’s hand and walk her to the groom’s house.”

c) Registering Marriage

When asked about how registering worked, the informant responded:

“Registering marriage is a separate thing from the engagement and wedding tradition. Couples can register whenever they want and it is very easy to do so at the local government building.”

2. Context

Informant relation to the piece:

The informant is a Taiwanese person of the more elderly generation who has lived in Taiwan their whole life. They recounted the piece from their memory having experienced many Taiwanese weddings in Taiwan.

Informant interpretation of the piece:

They interpret the rituals as a tradition that has been passed down through generations in Taiwan but is also changing due to modernization. They look back at old rituals with nostalgia and a sense of humor. They feel proud sharing Taiwanese traditional customs.

3. Analysis

In traditional Taiwanese culture, parents and the older generation members of the family play a huge role in the engagements and marriages of their sons and daughters. This tradition could have developed from ancient Chinese society where marriage decided whether a family prospered or not, therefore a great amount of care and control is exercised over the marriable children of the family. In addition, families also used marriage as a tool to gain status or riches, whereas royal families would use marriage to make peace with other nations as tools of warfare. Therefore, there is this longstanding tradition of the parents deciding spouses and planning marriage for the children. This is reflected in the Taiwanese engagement and wedding ritual collected above as the parents are present throughout the ritual and hold a great amount of power in the rituals, preparing gifts and hosting banquets. This ritual has a profound impact on how Taiwanese people view marriage. Young people may find themselves feeling suppressed by the marriage expectations of their parents or elders who hold such an important role in the marriage rituals, therefore when considering potential spouses the preference of the parents or elders in the family is often a huge factor that influences their decisions. If young people do choose to engage and marry someone without the blessing of the older generations, it would be difficult for them to perform the Taiwanese engagement and wedding ritual as they would be missing important people who are part of the ceremony. This is not to say that marriages are all traditional in Taiwan, in fact, Taiwan is the very first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. Therefore the ritual is able to be performed in non-traditional contexts. This suggests that it is not the ritual that is creating the rigid framework for marriage but rather the perspective of the parents and older generations, which if changed, can make this marriage ritual a celebratory one rather than controlling.

Don’t shower after giving birth – Taiwanese Folk Superstition

1. Text

When asked to share a superstition, the informant responded with the following Taiwanese superstition:

“A woman is not supposed to shower after giving birth, so while they are in the care center for a month after giving birth they do not shower. The belief is that you might catch a cold if you shower after giving birth. Similarly you are not supposed to eat anything that is cold or is categorized as “cold” foods (in Chinese medicine philosophy there are two kinds of foods, “cold” and “hot” foods that influence the body’s temperature).”

2. Context

The informant believes that there is some scientific basis for this superstition so they were not very sure if it counts as a superstition. The informant learned this superstition from her grandma and other elders of older generations. The informant does not follow the superstition as she did bathe after giving birth.

3. Analysis

The superstition collected above from the informant is a folk belief that is related to Taiwanese folk medicine. There are a plethora of superstitions about health, body temperature, and womanhood. For instance, if someone eats what is considered as “hot” foods on a hot summer day they are more likely to get a heat-stroke or nose-bleed. In addition, there is a folk belief that women should not eat or drink cold food or liquids during their period since it would worsen period cramps and be bad for their health. This folk belief is very similar to the one collected from the informant above, as the “coldness” of water is believed to be harmful to the health of a woman who just gave birth. Therefore this folk belief is also a form of contagious magic as through contact with water the coldness is transferred to the person. This superstition may have begun in a time where water was not sterilized which would cause harmful germs to enter the body which is dangerous for mothers who just gave birth as they have a weakened immune system. With the improvements of modern medicine and healthcare however women do not have to worry as much about taking a bath after giving birth since the water and environment are clean and safe. This explains why the informant does not follow the superstition that is suggested by older generations. This result suggests that through technological advances, some folk beliefs are rendered obsolete and not as useful as they used to be.

Don’t Cut Things When You Are Pregnant – Taiwanese Folk Superstition

1. Text

When asked to share a superstition, the informant responded with the following Taiwanese folk superstition:

“There is a superstition where you are not supposed to cut things when you are pregnant. The belief is that you would be risking cutting your own child. Therefore pregnant women would avoid using scissors or knives to cut anything.”

2. Context

The informant learned this superstition from being told by their grandma. The informant is Taiwanese and grew up in Taiwan. The informant does not believe that this superstition has any real basis since it is impossible to harm the baby in the womb by cutting something outside.

3. Analysis

The superstition collected above is a folk belief that is related to homeopathic magic since it is impossible to cut the child in the womb, however cutting something is similar to cutting the baby in the womb. This belief may have been created so that women do not perform dangerous tasks during pregnancy. Since pregnant women are carrying a new developing life in their body, it is best not to get injured during pregnancy as it would affect the health of the mother which would influence the baby. Perhaps this folk belief is also a prayer for a healthy and natural birth for the infant, since the act of cutting is similar to the procedure of C-section, or may symbolize cutting away the child. There are many superstitions in Taiwanese culture, especially surrounding child birth, since it is a difficult and at times dangerous undertaking for the mother. Children are important in traditional Taiwanese culture due to the emphasis on traditional family structures and the idea that children are the future of the family who carry on the parents’ name and legacy. Therefore, child bearing and birth are very important, causing people to rely on any sort of knowledge, even superstitions with no scientific evidence, to ensure the health of the mother and child.

Chinese New Year Celebration – Chinese American Folk Ritual/Festival

1. Text

When asked to share a folk tradition, the informant responded with the following:

“For Chinese New Year, when I was younger I would fly from China to US during my winter break and go celebrate [the holiday] at my grandma’s house in k-town (Korea Town).”

“We would make dumplings and in some of the dumplings my grandma would put a dime or penny or date in them. If you get the special dumpling, you get $1 or $5.”

“After the meal, we would play mahjong and watch Chinese New Year celebration live stream. This was a tradition that my grandma had done since my dad and his siblings were kids, so it’s a pretty long tradition”

“We would try to wear a lot of red for the new years. Usually my grandma would make dish too because my last name sounds like fish but also my dad loves eating fish.”

“Everyone gave out red envelopes to the kids, usually containing 50 to 100 dollars.”

2. Context

Informant relation to the piece:

The informant is Chinese-American and is currently a college student in the US. The informant shares this family ritual from their memory of participating in it. The informant’s grandma is the one who initiated this ritual, which is also a commonly practiced ritual/festival in Chinese culture.

Informant interpretation of the piece:

It is a ritual that brings together the family from different places in the world. It is a festive one since there is good food, fun activities, and presents.

3. Analysis

Chinese New Year is a traditional Chinese holiday and festival on the new year of the lunar calendar. It usually spans a week or two, and on each day there are different customs and rituals to perform. The main one is on the first day of the new year where the family gathers with all the relatives on the husband or father’s side of the family, which is closest to the ritual collected above from the informant. Since this ritual is only performed once a year, it is regarded with great importance, which explains why the informant would be flying across the Pacific from China in order to perform this ritual with their grandma in America. Chinese New Year is the Chinese equivalent of Thanksgiving for Americans. It serves as an excuse and incentive for the entire family to get together, which is pleasant for some and unpleasant for others. Similar to the ritual of Thanksgiving, there is a set of traditional Chinese foods that are prepared and eaten on Chinese New Year. In the ritual collected above, the foods are specific and personal to the informant, which are dumplings and fish, showing that the traditional foods eaten on New Years differ in each family. Unlike the trademark turkey that is eaten on Thanksgiving, there is not one food that is always eaten on Chinese New Year since the ritual is performed by Chinese people spread across different regions, which would have different foods available, especially for a family like the informant’s in the US. Another detail worth noting is the giving of red envelopes and the money prize for the special dumplings. Since Chinese culture places great emphasis on monetary prosperity, these customs for New Years reinforce to children that there is luck required to gain prosperity and the importance of money. Whereas Thanksgiving has no such customs, reflecting the contrast between American and Chinese culture on the concept of money for children.

Tooth Fairy – American Folk Ritual

1. Text

When asked to share a folk belief, the informant responded with the following:

“The tooth fairy is a mythical creature that is very familiar to American children. They are taught that the tooth fairy will exchange their lost teeth for some kind of prize if they put them under their pillow before going to bed. Parents will often come in while the child is sleeping and swap the tooth out for a small gift, usually money, to make it look like the tooth fairy came.”

2. Context

Informant relation to the piece:

Informant learned the ritual from hearing kindergarten classmates talk about losing teeth. Informant is currently a college student. Informant is American and grew up in the states. They mentioned that at a “young enough age everyone believed in the tooth fairy” and was “upset when they realized that she isn’t real”. The ritual made the informant “excited to lose teeth” because it meant that they would get a gift that night. They realized the tooth fairy was not real around 8 years old when they caught their dad putting money under their pillow.

Informant interpretation of the piece:

The informant has no idea where the ritual originated, and suggests that maybe it started as a way to keep kids from being scared of losing baby teeth.

3. Analysis

The American folk ritual of the tooth fairy is tied to a life cycle event of aging where children lose their baby teeth and grow adult ones that last for the rest of their lives. This ritual is not tied to a specific time or date, but rather whenever a child loses a baby tooth. It also only happens for a limited amount of times before the child loses all their baby teeth. Since most children go through this process of losing teeth, it is a common and widespread ritual for American families. This ritual is mainly a form of deception from the parents to the children as they create a mythical figure called the tooth fairy to create a sense of magic and wonder in the children that they associate with losing teeth. This seemingly harmless form of deception or fictional storytelling from parents can also be observed in rituals such as Santa Claus bringing presents on Christmas Eve. This is interesting when compared to some Asian cultures which originally did not perform rituals such as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. In Japan, when a child loses a baby tooth, they either throw it up on the roof or bury it in the dirt. There is no reward for losing the tooth like in the American Tooth Fairy ritual however it symbolizes the child maturing and wishing for good fortune and health for the child. In comparison the Japanese ritual does not involve deception from the parents as the American one does. Perhaps this speaks to how the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus act as a rite of passage for Americans, where most children believe in the mythical figures until a certain age and must deal with the realization that they were deceived by their parents, which motivates them to continue to pass down this rite of passage to their children. In a way this form of deception encapsulated in the tooth fairy ritual represents the loss of naivety and gaining of maturity when a child grows up. Since growing up often means learning a lot of unpleasant faces of the world, the tooth fairy ritual can act as a vaccine or initial exposure to American children in preparation for adulthood.