Author Archives: TRC

Chinese historical legend: End of the Shang Dynasty

“Zhou Xin, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, he loved women and drinking and his favorite concubine was a woman called Da Ji.  We say she is hu li jing, a fox spirit that tricks men. Right, so Da Ji never smiled and the emperor wanted to see her smile, so he—oh wait, I have to tell you, in ancient China they had an alarm system set up, so if the emperor was in trouble, he’d have someone light a bonfire, and people further out would see the fire and light fires too and send armies to help, and then people even further out would see those fires and light their own and send armies, and so on. So Zhou Xin lit the alarm fire to try to make Da Ji smile, and a few days later, soldiers from all over China arrived at the palace, but there was nothing for them to do because it was just a joke, and Da Ji finally smiled. And because only this could make her smile, the emperor did it again and again, and finally the other towns got tired of having to send soldiers to the palace all the time, and they probably got tired of having to get new wood all the time too, so they just stopped sending soldiers when they saw the fire. And then when the palace was actually under attack, no one came, and that’s how the Shang Dynasty ended.”

My informant believes that he learned this story from his father, who has an interest in ancient Chinese history. Interestingly, my informant had never heard of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which was the tale I immediately thought of after he told me this legend. Both the Boy and Zhou Xin waste others’ time and resources for their own amusement, and by the end, people no longer believe their cries for help. As a result, the Boy loses the sheep he was supposed to protect, and Zhou Xin loses the kingdom he was supposed to defend.

This legend takes place on a much larger scale and is set during a real historical period with real historical figures.  Zhou Xin was the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty and is remembered in history as 商紂王, Shang Zhou Wang, a derogatory title applied posthumously to reflect his unsuitability to be emperor. This legend explains why the Shang Dynasty ended (Zhou Xin’s allies thought the alarm fires were another joke) and gives and example of something Zhou Xin did to earn his pejorative nickname.

Chinese tale: Chang E

“Chang E originally lived in the Sky Temple. Her husband, his name was Hou Yi, he was a very famous and strong archer. They fall in love. But you know, the Chinese gods who live in the Sky Temple, they’re not allowed to fall in love—with each other, with human beings. But they do. Their punishment was banishment to Earth. So they have to live on Earth as normal human beings. They want to go back, but you know, when they are thrown out of the Sky Temple, they lose their powers and they can’t fly anymore. So Hou Yi, he goes to someone called Xi Wang Mu, a very famous Chinese god, I can’t remember if it’s a she or he, she/he’s kind of mysterious. So Hou Yi, he runs across the whole land, the land is called Sheng Zhou, it refers to China. And there is a kind of water called ruo shui, weak water. And this water is called weak because any boat that tries to go across sinks because its density is very low so nothing can go across it. I don’t know how he gets across, I don’t think he swims, but he gets across somehow. So he gets to Zhi Wang Mu, and in the beginning Zhi Wang Mu doesn’t want to see him, but he begs again and again, “my wife is beautiful and staying on earth will make her old, and she’s sad and I’m sad,.” So Zhi Wang Mu gives him two pills. Zhi Wang Mu says, these two pills can’t get both of you back to the Sky Temple, and this is what Qin Shi Huang was searching for, because if you eat one of them, you live forever, but if you eat both of them, then you can fly back to the Sky Temple. So Hou Yi is very happy and he brings the pills back to Chang E and he says, I am going to go somewhere, to work I guess, and when I get back we will eat these together. But you know, when he goes out. After he goes out, Chang E eats both of them because she wants to go back to Sky Temple. So she eats two pills, both of them. And you know what happens? She starts rising, but this rising is different from the normal flying ability of Chinese gods—you cannot return. Gods, they can fly up and fly down. But after eating these two pills, you can only fly up, you can’t go back. So Chang E flies up to the Sky Temple, but the Sky Temple refuses to accept her back, because one thing, you’re being punished, and the second thing, you betrayed your husband. So the only place she can go is the moon, because there’s nobody living on the moon.

Oh, the husband. After Chang E leaves, he lives on Earth and becomes a normal human being. But he still has his archer skills. And in that time, there were nine suns. And every sun had his own mind. These suns are the sons of some god, I don’t know, he fathered these nine suns. And the suns walk over the sky every day, they take turns walking over the sky. But one day, the nine suns all came out at the same time. It’s really hot, and lots of people and trees and animals dies, and all the water evaporated. And everyone is very angry, Hou Yi is very angry too, his wife just betrayed him and went to live on the moon! And then this happened, and he cannot live forever, and he’s mad, yo guys are making trouble for me. So he gets mad, and pulls out his arrows, and shoots the first sun. and the first sun dies. And he shoots, shoots, shoots, and eight suns died. But when he was going to kill the last sun, someone stopped him, because we need a sun to live, so this one sun now has to walk every day because his brothers are all dead. Then there is peace and Hou Yi dies, because he’s human.”

My informant says that this is such a popular story that he can’t remember where he first heard it. The story is strongly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Moon Festival, since Chang E is the goddess of the moon and immortality.

I actually learned a variation of this myth from my grandmother when I was much younger. In my grandma’s version, Hou Yi and Chang E were banished to Earth as punishment after Hou Yi shot down the eight suns, who were the sons of the king of the Sky Temple. I also heard a different version in my Saturday Chinese School class in elementary school—Chang E ate both pills because one of Hou Yi’s assistants was trying to steal them for himself.

For my informant, the most compelling part of the story is Chang E’s betrayal of her husband after all of the effort he spent getting the pills at her request. I agree that this tale could be interpreted as a condemnation of female fickleness. It could also be a warning that betrayal or disobedience could lead to Chang E’s fate—being eternally lonely, banished from both the heavens and Earth.

Annotation: China launched its first lunar probe in 2007. It was called 嫦娥一號 (Chang E Yi Hao), Chang E Number 1, in honor of the moon goddess.

A man walks into a bar…

A man walks into a bar and says “ow”

My informant overheard her roommate telling me a joke that started out with “a neutron walks into a bar…” and chimed in with this “walks into a bar” joke that she’d learned from one of her friends in high school.

This joke relies on the popularity of the “walks into a bar” structure. The joke works by using a familiar setup, but then switching the expected denotation of the word “bar.” From past experience with jokes based on this structure, the audience has been conditioned to expect that the man walks into an establishment which serves alcohol. Only after a moment of confusion does the audience realize that the “bar” in this joke uses a different definition of the word.

Chemistry joke: A neutron walks into a bar…

A neutron walks into a bar and orders a drink. When it tries to pay, the barman says, “for you, no charge”

My informant first learned this joke during Orientation at USC the summer before her freshman year. She introduced herself as a biochemistry major and another student responded with this joke. The other student told the joke as an attempt to connect with my informant over the only personal information he knew about her. My informant warned me that the joke was silly before telling it to me, but the silliness of the joke was what allowed it to work as an effective icebreaker. The very familiar structure of the joke contributes to its cheesiness. At first, the audience is confused at the absurdity of a neutron walking into a bar. The “no charge” punchline, though, validates the “walks into a bar” setup. The joke plays off two denotations of the word “charge”: an electrical charge and a requested payment. The joke requires only a basic knowledge of chemistry (a neutron has a net electrical charge of zero), so the teller could be confident that my informant, as a declared biochem major, would understand the joke, and that they could then laugh about (or at) it together.

Folk Belief: Leaving rice in the bowl

My informant couldn’t remember when her family first started telling her that if she left rice in her bowl, her future spouse will have ma, acne scars. The number of grains left would equal the number of scars. She remembers that one of her parents usually followed up this warning by saying, “see, your uncle used to leave lots of rice in his bowl”—the implication being that her aunt had a lot of acne scars.

My informant isn’t sure if this is an actual superstition; she has a suspicion that her parents just told her this to get her to finish her meals. The only correlation between finishing a meal and a future spouse that either of us could think of is that grains of rice stuck to the edges of a bowl and acne scars on a face have a similar spotted appearance. This saying was a way for my informant’s parents to direct her actions; her desire for a scar-free future spouse was motivating enough to get her to finish her rice.