Tag Archives: Chinese

The Chinese Farmer

E.H. is a 20-year-old Chinese student in my fraternity. He was sharing a few old Chinese stories he used to hear a bunch. His grandma told him this story that she remembered from when her husband (his grandpa) had passed away. He tries to remember this knowledge his grandmother gave to him, since she is getting old and is in her final days. He also looks back on it when he is sad.

E.H.: So there was once a farmer and a son, and they had a beloved horse that helped the family earn a living. One day the horse ran away, and the neighbor said “your horse ran away what terrible luck”. The farmer replied “maybe so maybe not”. A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild horses back to the farm as well. The neighbor shouted out, “your horse returned, and brought several horses with him, what great luck!” The farmer replied, “maybe so, maybe not.” Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the horses, and the horse broke his leg. The neighbors cried, “your son broke his leg! What terrible luck.” The farmer replied, “maybe so, maybe not”. A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the boys for the army. They didn’t take the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg. The neighbors shouted “your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” to which the farmer replied, “maybe so, maybe not, we’ll see”.

As seen in this story, it is really impossible whether to tell whether anything that happens will be good or bad. You will never know what the consequences of misfortune or good fortune will be as only time will tell the whole story. Even if things look great at the start, you can never tell how bad they might get. Same with when things are bad, you never know what good can come out of it. It’s important to remember to just live your life, and not expect too much. Good things come and go, and you cannot get too hung up on the highs or the lows. E.H. explained to me the way he sees this story is if bad things happen, to just ride out the wave, stay humble, and stay balanced.

The Tiger and the Persimmon

E.H. is a 20-year-old Chinese student in my fraternity. He was sharing a few old Chinese stories he used to hear a bunch. His mom told him this story when he was 9 or 10, and she told him this to provide him some guidance and life lessons. It was a way for him and his mom to bond, and this was one of the last childhood stories his mom ever told him.

E.H.: So, deep in the mountains, there is a mother and a newborn child. The newborn child was crying for days and days, and a tiger was roaming outside, he was hungry, he was enormous, his roar would scare all the animals and people away, he was honestly the scariest tiger there ever was. By the time the tiger was roaming around the mountains and heard the baby crying, he thought to himself “what an annoying baby, I am going to go eat him.” So, one day, the tiger hopped into the room and saw the baby, and was about to leap inside, when he heard the mother speak “look a fox” pointing at the scary tiger. She said to the baby “stop crying, stop crying, or he’ll hear you and eat you up.” The baby did not care at all, kept on crying as loudly as he was, probably even louder, and the mother kept on trying to comfort him, saying “look it’s a bear” and yet the child kept on crying and crying. The baby wasn’t frightened at all and kept on crying without the slightest interuption. Finally the mother said “look the big tiger is her, right outside the window”. At that point, the tiger paused, knowing how scary he was, and thought “this baby is going to stop crying, I am the meanest, scariest, angriest animal in the mountains.” The baby, again, kept on crying without the slightest bit of fear. The Tiger is not used to this because he’s used to people being scared and running away when they see him. When he was about to pounce, the mother cried out “look a persimmon”, and again the baby stopped crying. The tiger thought that the persimmon was a creature bigger and scarier than him, so he ran away.

It is interesting how when the baby is crying, it does not stop for the scary animals that would harm him. Instead, the baby stops for a fruit, which then the Tiger then thinks is this insanely scary animal and runs away, since the baby stopped crying for it and not him. It speaks towards the Tigers arrogance, thinking nothing else is stronger and then being scared when he believes something is, even though it was just a fruit. The baby on the other hand is naïve, and doesn’t even know what it is crying about. It does not know the danger by it, and continues on its business. There is something nice about being able to slow down and not worry about the world around you. You can see another version of the story in the book The Tiger and The Dried Persimmon by Janie Jaehyun Park, that has some variations in it.

Bake Your Own Cookie

Background provided by NN : NN was born and raised in Southern California. They were raised in a Chinese-American household and experienced many different forms of folklore. 

Context: NN was approached about folklore, they conveyed it through a telephone call. NN says that her father tells this tale whenever they are lazy. They also revealed that this particular folklore had evolved to be a joke after they learned how to cook and bake. 

Main Piece Transcription of interview (contains the context of particular performance and additional background information):

NN: “ So … like … my dad tells me this story … ALL the time. He usually tells me … when he thinks I am being … lazy, or whatever. The story kinda … always begins … with “There was once a rich man” (accompanied by air quotes) who had … like everything done for him. He never had to … umm … lifted a finger … like AT ALL. Servants … wiped his butt, like … fed him,  they did everything for him. (Pauses for effect) One, day, after he got married his, ummm … wife had to … like … uhh … visit her family for the … the … holiday. She baked her husband  a large cookie, and like put in on … a … string  and put it on around his neck. AND she left to visit her family … for … like a week. When she came back home,  she …  her husband was dead.  Like … he was in the same position … like when she left him … and like the cookie around his neck was not eaten. He was too lazy … to even lift the cookie … to like … eat … so he died. My dad would always say something, like … (deepens voice to imitate their father) “See … work won’t kill you, but being lazy will. Do you want to have someone bake your cookie for you … or what.” 

Analysis: This particular short story is has morbid humor. The laziness of the man is obviously dramatized to highlight the importance of hard work. It seems like the story is told orally and had even evolved into a joke amongst close family members. The moral of the story remains despite the context of the perfomance. It also acts as a representation of Chinese values. The lazy man can also be interpreted as subtle commentary on the partriarchal society. The wife had provided substance for her husband, but his choice led to his own demise. Another interesting layer to this tale is the financial component; the lazy man had never done anything for himself because he had the financial means to outsource all his tasks. This tale could have originated from the working-class as way of encouraging their chidren to embrace work instead of focusing on the scarcity of money.

Chinese New Year Practices

During the Chinese Lunar New Year, one must keep all of the lights within the house on. This is for wealth and good luck. Also one eats spring dumplings, dumplings without meat. Red signs wishing good luck and prosperity are hung around the house.

C is an older Chinese immigrant who migrated to the US over 20 years ago. She still has very close contact with relatives in China and regularly participates in Chinese cultural practices.

Context: I interviewed C about Chinese cultural customs and beliefs.

I find this interesting because of the level of detail that goes into a new years celebration. Typically in American tradition, New Years is celebrated with watching a clock tick to the New Year. This is different to the Chinese New Year celebration in that there is more meanings to the events that occur in the Chinese New Year as well as a stronger emphasis on prosperity and wealth. The popular saying, 恭喜發財, “Gong Xi Fa Cai” Or “Wish you prosperity and wealth” actively wishes the person wealth. Overall, wealth is a strong goal in Chinese culture, where everyone’s goal is to become wealthy. Wealth as a goal is not seen as inherently greedy, more of something to attain through diligence, not ruthlessness.

For another version of Chinese New Year, see:
Lin, G. (2013). Bringing in the New Year. Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Jasmine Flowers Can’t Feed an Ox

茉莉花不喂老牛
Mo Li Hua Bu Wei Lao Niu
Jasmine flowers don’t feed an old ox

C is an older Chinese immigrant who migrated to the US over 20 years ago. She still has very close contact with relatives in China and regularly participates in Chinese cultural practices.

Context: I interviewed C about Chinese cultural customs and beliefs.

This one is very interesting because it is a proverb often said to children. Its meaning is that you shouldn’t be doing something inefficiently. Jasmine flowers are special and are more expensive per pound that what ox normally eat, grass. And because ox eat a lot of grass in one day, it is just not a good idea to spend your money feeding an ox jasmine flowers. Another alternative, more modern, meaning could be to not eat junk food. Chips and other junk foods do not fill up a person as much as a proper meal. Replacing a normal meal with junk food is just a waste of money because it will not last.