Tag Archives: Chinese Customs

Chopsticks manner: Three pieces long and two pieces short

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 48
Occupation: senior manager
Residence: China
Date of Performance/Collection: 2020.4.20
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s):


I was helping prepare the dining table someday. The informant told me don’t put the chopsticks uneven in length

When Chinese people are having dinner, puting the chopsticks uneven in length means bad luck. We called it “三长两短/ three pieces long and two pieces short.” It represented “death”. Chinese people believe when some one died, he/her will be put into a coffin. When the body is in the coffin and the cover is not closed yet, it is called “三长两短”. Therefore, it is ominous to put chopsticks in this way.

Background information:

The infotmant is my mother and she was helping me setting up the dining table. She learned the dining table manner from her parents when she was young and she just felt like I shoud inhet it too.


This piece was collected during a casual conversation between the informant and me before dinner.


I think it is kind of weird that people can connect anything from the table to death. But it is also interesting. This may mean that Chinese people really value meals with family.

Haircut in the First Lunar Month Kills Your Uncle??

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: Mar 13, 2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English


Zhèng Yuè Jǐan Tóu Sǐ Jìu Jìu

This is a Chinese saying that literally means “If you get hair cut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar, your uncle (your mother’s brother) will die”.


Context: The collector and the informant were talking about weird Chinese sayings and customs heard from parents. The informant is a USC student from Beijing.

The informant heard this saying from his mother. Once he planned to get a haircut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar. His mother stopped him by telling him this saying. However, he forgot his mother’s word and went to get a haircut anyway. Then his mother asked him to text his uncle new year greetings and whish his uncle a year of great health. The informant found it funny and that is why he always remember this saying.

Even though the informant’s mother didn’t necessary believe that her brother would die because her son got a haircut, she didn’t think that was a good sign.

The informant doesn’t believe the saying.

The informant doesn’t know why there is this saying. He guesses it is only because it is in rhyme (“Tóu” and “Jìu”).


Collector’s thoughts:

I have also heard of this saying, but only with little impression. I thought it was a very weird saying or custom. Maybe it’s because Chinese people view renewable body parts such as hair and finger nails also as important part of body granted from parents, so it is an ominous sign to cut hair in the first month, a meaningful period of time that is supposed to pave the way for good luck of the entire year.

However, I did some research online and found an explanation: After the Manchus overthrown the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu government enforced a policy on Han people that all Han men should shave their hair and have the required hairstyle like the Manchus. Han people valued hair very much. Hair being shaved was considered humiliating. Many Han men refused to follow the policy as well as other oppression, which led to some massacres. The result was Han people passive resisted by not getting haircut in the first month of the year to express their longing for the lost Ming dynasty as “思旧 (Sī Jìu [Literally: Longing for the past])”. However, as the saying was spread, “Sī Jìu” turned into “Sǐ Jìu Jìu (Literally: Uncle dies)”.

Reference: http://www.sohu.com/a/59020978_349043

Future Son-in-law and Poached Eggs

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 54
Occupation: /
Residence: Shanghai
Date of Performance/Collection: Mar 23, 2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): Shanghainese

Context: The collector asked the informant (as MD) for some Shanghainese folklores. The informant is the mother of the collector.


MD: You know, when a couple in relationship want to make sure parents from each side agree with their marriage, they will visit the woman’s mother. When it is the first visit for the man, he should bring gifts, such as liquor or cakes or whatever, while the future mother-in-law is supposed to serve him a bowl of 水潽蛋 (Shanghainese in IPA: /sɻ̩ pú de/  Chinese Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ pū dàn/  Literally: water boiled egg, specifically poached egg in Shanghainese), 水煮蛋 (Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ zhǔ dàn/, literally: water boiled egg). The kind of water boiled egg that you break the shell first and then boil it. (The informant was emphasizing the difference between hard boiled eggs and poached eggs)

Collector: Yes, I got it. But why?

MD: I have no idea. It’s just a custom! If the woman’s mother does serve the man a poached egg, that means she recognizes the man as her future son-in-law.

Collector: Is there anything special with poached eggs? Aren’t they just daily matters?

MD: Well you know, life in the past wasn’t like now. Eggs weren’t something you could afford every day!

Collector: But you told me your family had hens when you were young… Okay, okay, I got it. Did Grandma serve Dad poached eggs when he first went to visit?

MD: She did.

Collector: Did she just give him the egg or she told him what that meant? Dad mustn’t know the custom. (The collector’s father is not from Shanghai)

MD: Well, she just served him the egg. Your dad is an outlander. He didn’t know.

Collector: Then did you tell dad what the egg meant?

MD: Yeah after the visit.

Collector: But wasn’t that meaningless for Grandma to do so? Because Dad couldn’t know what she implied.

MD: That doesn’t matter. It was the purpose and the feeling of the mother-in-law that mattered.

Collector: Alright. If CH (the collector’s elder sister) brings her boyfriend to you and you think he is a good man to marry, will you also serve him poached eggs?

MD: Yes, I will, if I like him.

Collector: Even if he is a foreigner?

MD: Yeah. That doesn’t matter.


Collector’s thought:

In the past, eggs were valuable food for ordinary people. Even if they had hens, they would probably rather sell eggs for money than consume eggs frequently. Thus, serving future son-in-law eggs is sharing something highly valued with that person, meaning that the man is viewed as a trustworthy husband and is welcomed as a new family member.

It is interesting that the informant values this custom and intends to actively carry it on even though she didn’t really know the background of the custom and in fact, the social context has already changed a lot, which to a certain extent reduces the special value of poached eggs and the meaning of the custom.

The custom might only be a practice in Shanghai, but it’s also possible that the custom is practiced in a larger region, for example, the Yangtze River region.

Eggs on Dragon Boat Festival

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 54
Occupation: /
Residence: Shanghai
Date of Performance/Collection: Mar 23, 2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s):

Context: The collector was interviewing the informant (as MD, the collector’s mother) for folklores. After she told the collector a folklore about eggs, the informant came up with another folklore about eggs. This is a custom the informant practiced in her childhood.


MD: When I was a kid, we (she and her peers) would have hard boiled eggs on Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival). We would weave nets to hang an egg on our neck. (Collector’s note: The nets were made of colored thick thread which was thinner thread intertwined together, according to a follow-up interview). Ah, that was really interesting. Every girl at that time could weave nets.

Collector: Is there something to do with good luck or stuff?

MD: I don’t know. We just followed what adults told us.

Collector: So what did the custom mean to you?

MD: That meant we could eat (eggs)! Those were eggs! It was just, like, whenever it was Duanwu, we could have eggs. (Collector’s note: eggs were not food that could be served every day for most ordinary Chinese families in the 1960s and 1970s.) After we hung the eggs in the day, we could eat them.


Collector’s thoughts:

Festivals are time to have foods that are not available all the time.

The interview also indicates the social environment and the financial status of ordinary families in 20th century China.

During the interview, the collector recalled a prose written by a Chinese writer, Zengqi Wang, that was exactly about eggs on Duanwu. Wang’s hometown is Gaoyou, a city in Jiangsu Province, which is also in the Yangtze River region like Shanghai. However, the eggs mentioned in that prose was duck eggs. See:

Wang, Zengqi. Shidouyinshuizhai Xianbi [食豆饮水斋闲笔,Literally: Journals from a studio of eating beans and drinking water], Huacheng Citry Press, ver.1, June 2015, pp 23-26.

(It is in Chinese)

The Nián Monster

--Informant Info--
Nationality: China
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: April 21, 2014
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

Every year on the eve of the Chinese New Year, the nian monster (年獸; nián shòu) comes out from hiding and eats people. I was told as a child to behave, or the nian monster would catch you and eat you. It has the head of a lion but the body of an ox. After all the chaos it causes, the people find out that the nian monster is afraid of loud noises and the color red. That is why we set off firecrackers every new year, because the firecrackers are red and the explosions scare the monster away. For the same reason, we wear red too, and give out red envelopes of money. If we put the red envelopes under our pillows, then we would avoid the nian monster and we would have good fortune for the rest of the year.

The practices the informant mentioned are traditional customs that are practiced every year during the Chinese New Year festival (which some may argue is a misnomer, because several places celebrate the same holiday). It is interesting to note that the nian monster is named after the Chinese term for “year”, as if the coming of a new year could be something symbolically destructive or at least menacing.

Chinese/Taiwanese Custom of Praying at a Temple for Success in Exams

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Taiwanese
Age: 19
Occupation: USC student, majoring in electrical engineering, minoring in computer science
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: April 7, 2012
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English, French

“China does not have one unified religion. The closest things we have are Buddhism and Daoism, but they tend to stick in their own temples and mountains. So unless you’re a very firm believer in it–it doesn’t trickle down to the normal population. What does happen is that Chinese gods are very practical. The general philosophy is that it doesn’t matter who you believe in, it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, if you step in a temple, you offer your money, you pray, the gods will answer. So, the gods aren’t creators or great beings to be worshipped, they are beings with super powers that you trade with. Basically, we have what is called ‘paper money.’ You buy the paper money from the temple, and then you burn the paper, and you offer fruit, food, or whatever, to the gods, and the gods give you the good fortune that you want. So, we don’t pray at nights before we eat or before we sleep, we don’t call to God for help, but if we’re, for example, going to an exam, it’s very typical in Asia to take your sons or your daughters to a temple and pray to the gods before the exam starts to pray to the gods for a successful exam.”

Q. Have you ever done that?

A. My parents have taken me to temples when I was little.

Q. Was that a meaningful experience for you?

A. I never really believed that that would help, but since my parents took me there, I prayed. I’d say, “God, give me a good exam result.”

Q. Is the practice of taking kids to temples before exams very common?

A. Well, the temples get a burst of popularity every time final exams come around.

Q. On what other occasions do people go to the temples?

A. People also go on New Year, to have a good year, before you start a job, after you buy a new house. Also on the Day of the Dead, the day we honor our dead, a lot of people go to the temples. And some people come more than others; my family goes very rarely because we’re not very religious, so we go once every month or two.

Q. You said that you don’t believe that going to the temples actually helps. Do your parents believe in it?

A. They are agnostics. They take the Pascal’s gamble approach. If it works, it works, and we pay the money, it’s good. If it doesn’t work, well, we paid a little money, it’s not actually that much, and it’s an experience for our children, so that’s fine. They’re very busy people, and visiting the temple takes time, so we don’t do it very often.

Q. Can you talk more about what the experience of going there is like?

A. Temples are usually very noisy, very loud and crowded. Unlike Western cathedrals—I’m not very much into religion, but I love cathedrals because of the architecture—which are serene, and you walk into them and feel awed by God, in Chinese temples, it’s loud, they’re sort of a social gathering. Also, temples are markets—they’re markets with great food. Temple food is good. You know how in the New Testament, they describe Jesus as being very angry at the peddlers who were in the Temple, and he flipped their stalls? There’s a section in the New Testament where Jesus goes to the Temple and he gets very angry at the peddlers for defiling a sacred place. But this is the opposite. In the temples, you’re supposed to have that kind of people. If a temple doesn’t have peddlers, it means that it’s not very popular, and if it’s not very popular, then its gods aren’t very good. So a temple that is empty and sort of quiet and serene is a bad thing. Temples are supposed to be very loud, and there’s supposed to be smoke everywhere from the incense. That’s the Chinese temple.

There are these things, I’m not sure what they’re called, but they’re two crescent-shaped pieces of wood that are painted red. They look like slices of oranges. And you’re supposed to throw them on the ground. You’re supposed to throw a pair of them on the ground. And how they land will tell you how’s your luck. And you’ll hear those things clattering against the ground the whole time. Sometimes you’ll buy a little bag full of rice that’s supposed to be blessed, and you keep them as a sort of talisman or amulet for good luck. You can buy one for the kind of thing you wanted good luck from. So, if you want success in exams, you can buy a success in exam one, if you want success in love, you can buy a success in love one. It’s a very business-oriented thing. There are certain temples, even until now, which are very sacred and which treat money as less of an issue, like the Shaolin Temple and the Daoist temples. But your average temple—they all worship multiple gods, and it’s just whatever god’s most popular in the area. Actually, speaking of the Shaolin Temple, which is very famous for its martial artists—they are said to be the most business-oriented temple now. Shaolin martial arts have spread all over the world by virtue of them being very business-oriented. The head monk of Shaolin no longer sits in his room praying, he goes all over the world on private jets for business purposes.

Q. Does that mean converting people?

A. No, they’re not converting people to the religion. They are not encouraged, nor are they motivated to convert people to their religion. But they welcome people to come and practice Shaolin martial arts, and they get paid quite a bit of money for it.

Analysis: This tradition of praying at temples for success in exams displays a way that religion has adapted to fit people’s present-day concerns, pressures, and needs.

Chinese Ritual-Tomb Sweeping Festival

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 52
Occupation: Postman
Residence: Goleta, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 19 March 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese, Spanish

Qingming Jie is a public holiday in Taiwan and parts of China that translates to Tomb Sweeping Festival. It is also known as Pure Brightness Day. My dad tells me that the Chinese take death and funerals very seriously. So, on this holiday, which usually occurs sometime in April (it changes based on the lunar calendar), relatives of the deceased must go to their graves and clean them. So, kids and their parents have to go to the graveyards and sweep the tombs and decorate them with Chinese charms. They also leave food at the tomb for their ancestors to eat.

My dad said that even though it was a day of respect, it could be fairly scary when he was little. He said that most the times the graveyards would be dingy and dirty and it was your responsibility to go and clean the tomb and make it look acceptable. So, as a little kid, he did not like Tomb Sweeping Day. After cleaning the tombs, they would pray for their ancestors.

The Qingming Festival originally started as a way to honor a man named Jie Zitui. Supposedly, Jie had cut a part of his leg meat off to save his lord from hunger, since his lord had had to go into exile when the crown was in jeopardy. After 19 years, the lord came back, and decided to reward Jie. However, during that time, Jie had hid away in a mountain with his mother and in order to find Jie, the lord ordered that the mountain be set on fire. Both Jie and his mother were found dead and from then on the lord ordered that only cold food could be eaten on the day that Jie died. Other traditions involved with this festival is kite-flying and spring outings. Both are done after the tomb sweeping is finished as a way to then celebrate life and prosperity.

Source URL: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/essential/holidays/qingming.htm

Chinese Custom: Wearing White

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 55
Occupation: Lecturer-UCSB
Residence: Goleta, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 18 March 2012
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

Last month when I was home for Spring Break, my mother once again berated me for wearing a cream colored hair bow. She says that in China, wearing white in your hair means that someone in your family has died and it is taboo to wear white in your hair when that is not true. In Chinese culture, the color white is the color of mourning and death. So, a lot of the times people wear white to the funeral.

This has always been interesting to me because in American culture, people wear all black to funerals and white is the color of pureness and innocence. Then, a woman wears white at her wedding to represent her final transference into womanhood. In Chinese culture, brides often wear red and gold because red is the color of happiness and gold represents wealthiness. I feel that color is always such an interesting kind of symbolism in today’s culture. In each society, certain colors mean different things and can transfer different messages. I know that roses are always a big deal because if a guy gives a girl yellow roses, he only wants friendship, they have to be deep red to be romantic.