Category Archives: Legends

Narratives about belief.

Detroit’s East Market – Legend


My father told me about living in Detroit. His side of the family is almost all Italian (Sicilian, more specifically). There was a saying that “You always know someone in the Mafia”, even if you weren’t aware of it. Detroit is notorious for high crime rates, or at least it was when my father was younger. He himself knew that his uncle was friends with people in the Mafia, which made many family members very uncomfortable. My father assumed that this meant he didn’t have to pay for protection (to the Mafia) for his liquor store, which many other store owners had to do. 

My dad knew a story about a newcomer to Detroit – someone who moved there without knowing what the situation was like. He sells their house and buys a new one in Detroit, with hopes of making it in the motor industry. Unfortunately, his perfect view of the city is shattered upon arrival, where robberies are rampant and terrible shootouts happen every day. The newcomer is terrified and keeps moving to new neighborhoods, asking for police help each time. The police prove more than useless and it becomes clear that they have little to no control over the city. Eventually the man, who has been robbed and mugged multiple times, is ready to give up on his dream. Just then, he stumbles into a new neighborhood. People are selling fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers out in the open. The newcomer is baffled – how are they able to do this and feel safe? He figures this area is more affluent and can fund their police better. But when he asks about the police, he gets laughed at. “The Mafia protects us,” respond the vendors. Apparently, this was the area in the city most tightly under the Mafia’s control. Crime was almost completely eliminated. My father referred to this place as the Eastern Market – one of the first farmer’s markets. He visited himself and testified to its truth – it was safer than most other places in Detroit at the time.


My dad heard this story from his parents, who warned him about going in certain neighborhoods because of high crime rates. My dad knew it to be true himself after visiting the area. The story reminds them that oftentimes there’s a whole lot going on that you don’t see – his uncle was a good example of this. A different relative was put in prison for obstruction of justice related to Detroit crime. He worked for the police. My father took dangerous places very seriously, especially after working at a Detoir emergency hospital where he saw gunshot patients and stabbed patients constantly.


There’s an inherent warning in this story, and a forced acceptance of the way things are. The story’s purpose is to help children (maybe more mature children) understand the city they live in, and come to terms with the fact that someone they know might be involved in crime. They must also come to terms with the fact that the police are not, in fact, safe people to talk to. They can easily be bribed and were not effective at all in eliminating crime. Finally, the story helps the children remember that the Eastern Market is one of the safer areas in Detroit.

Red Embroidered Shoes (红色绣花鞋), A Chinese Horror Story


Ming and Hong were from the same class in middle school and had always been neighbors. The two grew up together and were close friends who walked home together every day. When they were ninth graders, the school’s evening study hall was extended to 9 PM due to heavier course load. Unlike their peer who had parents to escort them, Ming, the braver one, escorted Hong back every night. On their way home, there was a graveyard, and they sometimes saw will-o’-the-wisps floating around there, but the two got used to all the peculiarities and even joke about them.

It was an ordinary night just like the others, Ming and Hong walked past the graveyard after a drizzle. But this night, one could see no moon in the sky and it was dark everywhere. Ming was usually fearless and sometimes sang aloud for Hong to be courageous, but this night he couldn’t for some reason. Out of nowhere, an old woman in shabby clothes walked towards them from the other end of the road. Hong clenched to Ming and trembled, said: “Look at her shoes!”

Ming looked down and saw a pair of red embroidered shoes. The old woman’s clothes were all black. She had pale skin and lifeless eyes that gleamed in the dark. Though the two couldn’t see much in the dark, every detail of her red embroidered shoes was clear as if only the shoes were strangely lit in the night.

Ming and Hong walked past the old lady quickly and felt a chill. The two were so startled that they ran back home as fast as they could.

Hong asked if Ming could stay for the night, Ming said yes, given Ming’s family had been away for the week, and accompanied Hong to sleep. At midnight, Hong was woke by the sounds of his parents returning home from a long day’s work. Hong pled his dad to pick him up starting tomorrow, and asked if he saw Ming.

“Ming? When did Ming come?” asked Hong’s dad.

Hong was baffled: “He was just there before I fell asleep!”

Hong’s dad comforted Hong that Ming must have gone home while he was asleep.

However, when Hong went to school the following morning, there was no sign of Ming. So Hong left school early and visited Ming’s family with his dad, but the house was empty. 

Having been worried for two days, Hong heard that the local police had found a dead body in the river. The body wore a pair of red embroidered shoes. It was Ming.

Ming and his mom only had each other. After Ming was gone, Ming’s mom went delusional so Hong spent time accompanying her when he was free.

It was Friday night when Hong watched a Japanese horror film with Ming’s mom. There was a shot of someone standing there with blood dripping down their legs and stained their shoes red. Ming’s mom screamed out of horror, so Hong had to calm her down before running back home. By the time Hong walked past the graveyard, it was already dark and chilly. Hong was so scared that he could sense his heart pounding in his chest. The imagery of red embroidered shoes soaked in blood kept flashing back. Suddenly, someone grabbed Hong from running. Hong turned back and saw Ming’s mom. Her lifeless eyes gleamed in the dark. Hong was almost scared to death but managed to get away. The moment he arrived home he turned on all the lights to cast away the darkness. But the lights were red. Hong fainted.

When Hong woke up he had his parents by his bed. Hong’s mom apologized for switching on the red emergency lightbulbs because the regular lightbulbs didn’t work last night. But Hong wouldn’t listen, he kept murmuring: “Red embroidered shoes… I want red embroidered shoes…”

Hong’s dad decided to drive Hong to the hospital with his motorcycle. By the time he rode past the graveyard, he could feel Hong no longer leaning on his back. Hong’s dad looked back and saw no sign of his son.

Hong’s dad recruited all the men from the neighborhood to search for Hong in the graveyard. Someone from the search party swore that he saw Hong with Ming’s mom, wandering in the graveyard, but as soon as he ran towards them the two disappeared. Hong’s dad had to report to the police. The police patrolled this area every night until one night, a pair saw a teenage boy walking towards them with a middle-aged woman from the other end of the road. As they walked close, one whispered: “Look at their shoes!”

The other looked down and saw two pairs of red embroidered shoes. The pair was so frightened that they paced faster to walk past the teenage boy and the middle-aged woman. The moment they passed, they felt a chill.


The informant is a 24-year-old female who was born and raised in China, and currently studies in the United Kingdom. The informant first heard the story of red embroidered shoes from her middle school peers when they were all about the same age as the protagonists of the story, Ming and Hong. The story is set to happen to middle school teenagers she could relate to. After hearing the story, the informant couldn’t find the courage to walk home by herself for a while and remembered the story vividly due to horror.


Given the age group of the audience, it seems natural to me that middle school teenagers were drawn to a horror story with relatable settings. The evening study hall has been a part of a Chinese student’s daily schedule as required by most Chinese schools, and it was no surprise that teenage students came out with a horror story to address their fear of walking back home alone at night after evening study hall ends. It’s also possible that one of the parents first came up with the story to warn their children about the danger of returning home alone at night and to remind them to always be alert on their way, because many Chinese school-age children walk themselves home when the parents are too busy to pick them up. In the informant’s case, the story’s warning message was proved to be effective; the informant pled her dad to pick her up after evening study hall just like Hong did in the story, teamed up with peers to walk together, and even at times she had to walk alone she walked quickly and carefully. 

Besides its thematic purpose, the story appeals structurally with some typical motifs of Chinese horror such as the red embroidered shoes. According to the informant, Chinese horror is personally most frightening to her because it often involves outdated traditions or folk objects (such as the red embroidered shoes) that are regarded as nuanced or peculiar from today’s view. Notably, supernatural agents including the cross-culturally common will-o’-the-wisps and the old woman (which is likely a ghost), alongside the graveyard touch on the theme of blurring life and death, which is regularly found in Chinese horror narratives because the culture emphasizes death. Furthermore, the story embodies chromatic symbolism, and symbolizing blood with the color red is not only cross-culturally relatable to a wider audience, but also has a horror story connotation that helps establish a dreadful ambiance so the story is more easily remembered and emotionally impactful.

Mengjiangnü Weeping Over the Great Wall (孟姜女哭长城), A Tragic Chinese Legend


In the Qin Dynasty(221 B.C. – 206 B.C.), there lived a beautiful young lady called Mengjiangnü (孟姜女). She fell in love with a hard-working, handsome young man called Fan Qiliang (范杞梁 Fàn Qǐliáng). However, on their wedding night, Fan Qiliang was taken away by force to join the labor to build the Great Wall, as the Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, first emperor of Qin, a notorious tyrant) ordered. The labor was unbearably strenuous on the wall. People associated being sent to the wall with painful death instinctively, and so did Mengjiangnü. No matter how devasted she was, she was no one but a powerless civilian, and the construction of the wall, which then appeared to be more of a symbol of the emperor’s ambition instead of its defensive use, could not be stopped by anyone’s protest.

A year went by slowly for Mengjiangnü. In late autumn, Meng Jiannu made cotton-padded clothes for her husband and decided no matter how hard the journey was, she must set off to meet his husband. When she finally arrived at the construction site, Fan Qiliang was already dead and buried under the wall.

Mengjiangnü wept in distress for three days. On the third day, a section of the wall suddenly tumbled down and the many skeletons of heavy labor civilians buried underneath were revealed at last. In order to identify her husband, Mengjiangnü bit her finger and prayed to the god that her blood would sink into the very body of her husband. Thanks to the pity of the god, she found her dead husband’s remains before bleeding herself dry.

When the news reached Qin Shi Huang, he was furious that he first intended to persecute Mengjiangnü. But after seeing this beautiful young woman, he took a fancy of her and demanded her to marry him instead. Couldn’t see herself as the tyrant’s concubine, Mengjiangnü jumped into the Bohai Sea (渤海) close to the Great Wall, after burying her husband.


The informant is a 26-year-old male who was born and raised in China. He first heard of the story of Mengjiangnü from his grandparents when the family visited a section of the Great Wall in Beijing. Mengjiangnü is a known Chinese legendary figure and her story has been passed down from generation to generation among most Chinese families to remember not only the wall’s spectacular presence, but also the bitter cost behind its construction.


According to the informant, he had always seen the Great Wall as something monumental and miraculous, a symbol of national pride, but after hearing the story of Mengjiangnü his impression of the Great Wall changed. Despite the public discourse still eulogizing the Great Wall’s glorified symbolism, the story of Mengjiangnü added a tragic layer to people’s perception of it, reminding many generations of the historical, collective trauma of lives buried due to heavy labor building the wall. While the truth value of Mengjiangnü’s story remains doubted, it was historically documented that many lives of civilians had been lost due to poor working conditions, highly demanding labor, and under-developed construction techniques that were unable to aid their work. It was rumored that in the 14th century, civilians of the Ming dynasty first came up with the folk tale because the Ming’s ruling class proposed a large-scale reconstruction of the Great Wall to defend themselves from the northern invasion. This reconstruction raised great wrath among the laboring class, so the story of Mengjiangnü became popular as it embodied not only their discontent with the rulers but also their hope for an undisturbed, happy family life. After hundreds of years of oral circulation, the story of Mengjiangnü now embraces more of an educational value to remind the younger generations of the tragic history that comes with the construction of the Great Wall, a national spectacle.

The story of Mengjiangnü Weeping Over the Great Wall appeals to people because of its plot twists and inclusion of supernatural power. With the help of gods, Ming people believed in their just causes standing against tyrannic orders using the historical and legendary figure of Qin Shi Huang, a villain who not only took away Mengjiangnü’s husband but also her own life as well. The story was crafted with folk wisdom and with generations to come, will remind its audience of the folk’s tolerance. 

The Clown from McDonald’s, A Chinese Urban Legend


If you get off from work late at night, stay away from McDonald’s. There used to be a girl who entered McDonald’s late alone for food, but for unknown reasons, the lights were on, but the entrance was locked. The girl looked inside through the window, but no one was there. Knowing that McDonald’s is usually open 24/7, the girl sat on a bench outside to wait for the staff. After a while, she started feeling a chill as if someone was blowing on her neck. The girl turned around and saw the McDonald’s clown statue come to life, with his red mouth wide open, and giggled.


The informant is a 24-year-old female who was born and raised in China, and currently studies in the United States. The informant’s older cousin stayed with her family when she was in middle school, and she first heard the urban legend from her cousin. Though the name of the clown, Ronald McDonald, is unknown to most Chinese customers, the clown figure is a commonly seen motif among younger children’s horror stories because of familiarity with the clown statue placed inside most McDonald’s.


According to the informant, it was the first time when she really felt Coulrophobia (extreme or irrational fear of clowns) the night she first heard this story from her cousin. She was neither a consumer of any Western media that portrayed dark clowns nor someone who was exposed to clown figures often in other ways, such as visiting the circus. As a result, she was convinced that the fear of clowns was innate, and Ronald McDonald was only featured in this urban legend because it was one clown figure that children of her generation were most familiar with, given McDonald’s later removed all Ronald McDonald’s statues. The story warned her off from visiting McDonald’s at night and perpetuated her fear of clowns.

As noted in related studies, deindividualization is one of the factors why children were naturally afraid of clowns because they can’t read the clown’s intent under his heavy makeup. Hence this story and the fear of Ronald McDonald may be cross-culturally applicable as it addresses human fear of dealing with clowns which are often associated with uncertainty of harmful intent and unpredictability of behavior. The story of McDonald’s clown can serve as an emotional release for its tellers and audiences to confront and cope with fear in a controlled and protected environment. In retrospect, the informant suspected that her cousin must have heard the story from parents who tried to discourage their children from consuming junk food and to stay away from McDonald’s.

The Doll’s Revenge, A Chinese Urban Legend


When Aunty Mei entered her hotel room, she saw a pretty doll lying on the ground. Without telling anyone, Aunty Mei planned to secretly take the doll back home as a present for her 10-year-old daughter. That night, a girl in her dream told Aunty Mei that she couldn’t find her shoes, and she insisted that Aunty Mei let her wear Aunty Mei’s shoes instead. Unable to think it through due to a long day’s travel, Aunty Mei said yes and fell back to sleep.

Aunty Mei woke up the next morning and found her shoes disappeared, as she looked closely, she saw the doll was wearing a pair of shoes just like hers, but smaller in size. The more she thought about it the more it dreaded her, so Aunty Mei checked out of the hotel at once, leaving the doll behind.

Having been tired both physically and mentally, Aunty Mei fell asleep again on the train. She dreamed of a child’s voice whispering to her: “Aunty Mei, why wouldn’t you take me home? I love your clothes, I must wear them.” The moment the voice finished talking, Aunty Mei felt something crawling up her knees. Aunty Mei tried to get rid of it but this thing would not let go. Aunty Mei woke up in horror and could still hear a child giggling. To her surprise, that doll from the hotel rested on her knees. Aunty Mei checked her suitcase and found that the pink dress she bought yesterday was now gone. Apparently, the doll’s pink dress was Aunty Mei’s originally. Aunty Mei furiously threw the doll out of the train’s window and locked the window up.

After a short while of relief, a business partner rang her for an emergent meeting in the city she just left. Aunty Mei had to get off at the nearest station and wait for the next train heading back. Out of nowhere, a weeping girl bumped into her and asked if Aunty Mei could take her to her mom.

Aunty Mei searched the area but couldn’t see a woman looking for her daughter. Aunty Mei then decided to stay for the night and brought the girl with her to a local hotel. The girl kissed on Aunty Mei’s cheek, but the lips were cold.

That night Aunty Mei dreamed of a girl in her arms. She tried to get rid of her but the girl’s arms were around her neck, and the harder she tried, the tighter the girl held onto her. On the next morning when the hotel’s staff checked on her, Aunty Mei was already strangled to death. But instead of a girl, a doll in pink dress was found in her arms.

When investigating the case, the police examined Aunty Mei’s personal belongings and found a notebook that listed all the children Aunty Mei trafficked for the past two years. As for why Aunty Mei mysteriously died in a hotel room, the police couldn’t answer.


The informant is a 26-year-old female who was born and raised in China. The informant first heard the story of the doll from her lower school classmates, and the story was extraordinarily horrifying to her because every girl in her friend circle kept a doll then. In retrospect, she focuses more on the story’s mention of child trafficking instead of its horrifying plots and motifs.


For the past few decades, child trafficking has been a serious social crisis in China and the story of the revengeful doll possibly circulated among the informants’ age group as a cautionary tale to warn them of child trafficking. It made sense that the majority of the narrative focuses on horrifying motifs such as a mysterious doll, dreams influencing reality, and a giggling girl coming out of nowhere. These motifs help create an emotionally impactful, dreadful ambiance only to foreshadow a plot twist by the end of the story, where the intended message finally unveils itself. Besides aiming towards and warning its targeted audience, young girls (who are the most likely victims of child trafficking), the story also provides reassurance featuring karma, as the villain being punished by the revengeful doll satisfies its audience’s need for justice. Despite the revenge is not procedurally just, the end of the story reflects what the folk believes to be the villain’s deserved fate asserting the concept of karma, which is culturally significant to many Chinese people.