Tag Archives: Cantonese

Cantonese Proverb Examining Appearance VS Reality


Original Script in Mandarin Characters:


Pronunciation in Cantonese:

baan[6] zyu[1] sik[6] lou[5] fu[2]


Play pig and eat tiger.


The proverb is used to describe ambitious individuals who pretend to be dumb.


The informant is a 23-year-old female who was born and raised in Guangzhou, and currently studies in the United States. Cantonese is her first language. The informant could not remember when, where, and from whom she learned the proverb, but it has always been natural for her to both understand and use it regularly herself.


The two animal metaphors in this proverb play their own parts, and combined, they work together to describe someone who appears to be ignorant and simple, but is in fact dangerously ambitious. Pig, often seen as a carefree animal, is featured to suggest someone’s simple appearance whereas tiger, the animal correlated with strength and superiority becomes the pig’s prey in this proverb. The seemingly absurd scene of a pig devouring a tiger suggests a dangerously ambitious individual can play dumb to achieve great means, touching on the discrepancy between appearance and reality.

The informant never researched but instinctively understands the proverb and has been using it quite regularly herself. Born and raised in the folk culture, she has no trouble understanding exactly what the two animals symbolize and is able to identify that the “pig” is actually what the proverb is describing. Despite the proverb is only made up with 5 characters, its concise and humorous message fascinates her even today.

Cantonese Tea

Background: RT grew up in Taiwan, but his mother is originally from Hong Kong. He speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.

Me: “So I heard there’s a superstition around pointing the tea pot while eating?”

RT: “Yes, Cantonese speakers point the teapot away while eating. You point the mouth outside, away from the table and people.”

Me: “Why?”

RT: “It’s rude. Also bad luck.”

Me: “Do you know about anything that’s ever happened to someone because a teapot was pointed towards them?”

RT: “Not sure. My mom always told me to never do it, so I haven’t tried.”

Me: “Do you know about any other superstitions related to tea?”

RT: “Before we eat, we also use tea to pour inside the bowls and cups to clean and kill the bacteria because it’s hot.”

Analysis: Once again, this is a practice that in some ways serves a practical purpose that can more theologically be applied to superstition. Not pointing the tea pot at someone could indicate bad luck towards the person it’s directed towards, but may also be a reflection of a collectivist society that doesn’t single out any one person for no particular reason, so I think there’s a lot of societal and cultural implications in this practice as well. And then with the tea pouring, it also remains connected to a practical worry, but also denotes a degree of cultural fluency that certainly contributes to in-group and out-group status in degrees as well.

Chinese Red Name

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and the interviewer.

Informant: So, I grew up in Thailand but my family’s actually from Shanghai, China. There are lots of Chinese people living in Thailand, but even with Thai people there are plenty of cultures that we share. For example, we both don’t write our names with a red ink. Or anyone’s names, people tend to not write any names in color red. I though this was a strictly a Chinese tradition, but it was pretty common in Thailand too.

Interviewer: My Korean family also believes in that myth.

Informant: I guess it’s pretty common amongst all Asian cultures. I just thought it was Chinese exclusive because the color red is so heavily used in China. Chinese people love the color red. We think it can bring good luck and good energy, but it’s also heavily associated with death at the same time. So when you write someone’s name in red, it’s as if you’re welcoming death.

Interviewer: What would you do if you had to write your name and you only had a red pen?

Informant: (laughs) I guess I’ll have to write my name and hope I don’t die suddenly.


My informant heard about this piece when she was very little from her Auntie. While she doesn’t recall the exact whereabouts of how that was brought up, but she describes it as a common tradition that one acquires simply by being around other Chinese people.


My informant and I were discussing traditions that we share in common, as we come from two different cultures – Chinese and Korean, respectively. One thing we found was that both our cultures avoid writing a person’s name in color red. This conversation took place at her house, she currently resides in Los Angeles.


This was an interesting piece of folklore to learn about as it’s common in multiple cultures. I think the reason why it’s so heavily spread in Asia is because how deeply Asian cultures are unified, especially East Asian regions where Buddhist ideologies of linking death and good luck as coinciding factors are common.

Cantonese Wedding Comb Tradition

My mother said that when she was about to get married, she learned of a tradition that takes place before the day of the wedding.  Her older sister combed her hair the night before, and said the following lines:

一梳梳到老 (yi shu, shu dao lao)

二梳白髮齊眉 (er shu, bai fa jing wei)

三梳兒孫滿地 (san shu, er sun man di)

四梳有田有地 (si shu, you tian you di)

Each line is delivered with a stroke from a comb.

The first line translates to, “one stroke, stroke until old age.”  The first stroke comes with a wish for the bride-to-be to have a long life.

The second line translates to, “two strokes, your brows become white together.”  The second stroke wishes for the bride-to-be to have white eyebrows at the same time her husband does.  In other words, this stroke wishes for the couple to grow old together.

The third line translates to, “three strokes, children and grandchildren cover the ground.”  This third stroke wishes for the bride to have many children, and children who survive to raise grandchildren.

The fourth line translates to, “four strokes, you’ll have fields and have land.”   This wishes for the wife-to-be to own property.

There are other significant gestures in this ritual as well.  The reason why my mother’s older sister combed her hair was because she was happily married, had children, and had a home.  Elder members of either family can comb the wife-to-be’s hair so long as they’re happily married and generally have experienced the wishes of this combing ceremony.  Widows or sickly wives can not perform this action.

After the combing ceremony, the wife-to-be can not sleep and must preserve the hair until the wedding.

There’s a lot going on in the gestures of this combing ceremony.  A happy marriage and future is very important, so it would make sense that this combing ceremony takes place.  The stressed need for a happily-wedded wife to perform this ceremony shows that theres is a form of contagious and homeopathic magic going on in the performance.  Since homeopathic magic follows a “like produces like” rationale, a happy wife combing a wife-to-be’s hair hopefully produces another happy wife.  On the other hand, the wife combing the wife-to-be’s hair acts as a form of transferrence.  She is transferring her happiness and successful marriage to the wife-to-be.

My mother noted that the fourth line was a recent addition.  With expanded rights and social roles for women, the wish for her ability to own property became very relevant.  This shows that the incantation and the practice of combing the wife-to-be’s hair is adaptive to changing circumstances.