Chinese Homonyms

  1. The main piece: Chinese Homonyms

“Oh, okay, so homonyms. The way the Chinese language works, there’s four ways you can say every sound, basically.

“So. I feel like all the sayings I do know, they’re homonyms, and the reason they’re prominent is because they sound like other words that are either good or bad. So like, the number 4 sounds like the word for death, and that’s why the number 4 in China is like the number 13 in America. Like in China, a lot of buildings don’t have a fourth floor. They don’t like having 4 in their phone number, license plate, things like that. On the other hand, the number 8 is lucky because it sounds like the word for treasure. And the word for red sounds like fortune or treasure or something like that, so that’s why we use those red envelopes.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

“I’ve only been to China once, for a class trip over spring break. My parents and grandparents don’t know much Chinese, but we know most of these…homonym rule things because they’ve kinda been, like, the little bit of Chinese that has been passed down from, like, my grandparents’ grandparents. So it’s cool, I always feel a little more, like, Chinese when I follow these rules because they’re some of the Chinese things I actually do know.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

Because the word for the number 4 sounds like the word for death, it seems that this number has become a taboo in Chinese culture. The extent to which it is a taboo shows just how much folk beliefs that are not backed by any science are still extremely believed in by the people, so much that it has been removed from daily life as extensively as possible—building floors, airplane rows, phone numbers, and license plate numbers all try to exclude the number 4. The extent to which nonscientific folk beliefs are valued in society is also shown in the positive connotations of the color red and the number 8. Just like the number 4 is removed everywhere, the incorporation of red and the number 8 as much as possible show that these folk beliefs are rooted in the people from the time that they grow up.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is an 18-year old female of Japanese and Chinese descent. She grew up in Oahu, Hawaii in a family that had moved there five generations earlier, and explained how none of her parents or grandparents knew any Japanese or Chinese. Celebrating Japanese and Chinese cultural traditions helped her feel more connected to her heritage growing up, because she felt that her parents and grandparents were very disconnected from the culture other than with these traditions.