Tag Archives: Chinese

Chinese Chopstick God

Background: My informant is a friend of mine of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese heritage. His parents are both from Taiwan and are mixed between Chinese, indigenous Taiwanese, and Japanese. The purpose of the call was specifically so that I could gather folklore from my informant, and they were aware about that as well. The entire main piece is a transcription of our call.

Context: This conversation was recorded on a zoom meeting that we had on a Wednesday afternoon. My informant is a friend of mine, and the conversation occurred in both of our rooms. The purpose of the call was specifically so that I could gather folklore from my informant, and they were aware about that as well. During the call and in between our discussions of different folklore items, we talked socially about how we were acclimating. Thus, this conversation was more casual than the rest of my interviews. My informant’s dad, who is the source of this piece, is mixed between Taiwanese native and Chinese from the Hunan province.

Main Piece:

This was the first one I thought about right now when you were listing stuff out…uhm let’s see… the first thing I remember was when I was younger like when I was in elementary school I was told that I could not play with my chopsticks at dinner, like I couldn’t make them into like I couldn’t use them to pretend to be drumsticks or couldn’t use them to pretend to be like standing up in the rice. And I thought it was kind of odd because I saw everyone else around me doing it. Like, why can I do this, his belief or rationale behind it was that Ancient Chinese people believe that the chopsticks, where the tools of ….I believe it’s like the word God or something like that. And so by playing around with them, you’re disrespecting the wood God and children who played with. I’m not kidding. I swear, you looking back on it, it seems pretty ridiculous but you know for a kid who doesn’t know any better, like, you know, you’re just like enthralled by this. Anyhow, so as a kid. If you played with the chopsticks, and like, you know, use them as drumsticks or whatever you make the word God angry and then in the middle of the night. The word God will come and spank in the middle of the night with the chopsticks

Me: ahahahaha. What if you sleep on your back?

Too bad. I don’t know how much I believe that at the time. But I can tell you after day, to this day, I still don’t really play with my chopsticks. I’m very Utilitarian with them.

Me: So, so, like, how old were you when when this story was told to you.

I would say like five or six ish. I was like the beginning of elementary school.

Thoughts: I found this very interesting because my parents are Chinese and I have never heard of a wood god that spanks people. Like many folk stories/tales/beliefs, this folk belief is probably told to children to make sure that they behave.

Chinese New Year

This is a transcription of an interview with a friend from high school, identified as A. In this piece, I am identified as IC.

IC: So, tell me about Chinese New Year. Where does it come from?

A: Lunar New Year is something that happens at the beginning of every calendar year and so it’s also often referred to as the spring festival. There are 12 animals that represent each year and how this myth came to be is that there were these animals who were basically told to engage in a race to determine who would be symbols for each year. The twelve animals in order are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig. The rat is first because it rode on the ox’s back and cheated.

I heard about a variation that the cat was tricked out of the race by the mouse which is why they hate each other. I forget exactly how the cat was tricked out, but this supposedly also explains why cat chases the mouse so much.

IC: What does your family does to celebrate? Like what do you eat and what activities do you do?

A: And so one of the things that we eat every year is this thing called 年糕 (nin gou) which translates to new year cake and so it’s this It’s like not really a cake it’s like a slice of it’s like glutinous. We also eat 蘿蔔糕 (lo baak guo) which is like a radish cake and it’s my personal favourite. Then there are traditions associated with it and the most popular with children at the very least is the giving of the red package.

IC: Yeah, I remember those.

A: Yeah, so it’s married couples, and only married couples, give away red packets to the younger generation.

IC: Why is it red?

A: It’s a symbolism of colour because red a lucky colour in Chinese culture and that’s why you see in Chinese brides wear red during weddings, simply because it’s a very lucky colour. So, by giving red package, the deal here is that you’re helping give them luck for that year.

IC: How much money is in the envelope?

A:  That depends on the person giving the envelope. So usually newlyweds give less because they won’t have as much money and also, they don’t want to build high expectations. But the tradition is called拜年 (bai nian) and first you go to your father’s grandparents place to pay respects for the new year and then you go to your other grandparent’s place. I think that’s the order but I’m not really particularly sure about that because my dad’s parents live in LA, so I usually just go to my mom’s side of the family for that. It’s just going there spending time with your grandparents and like wishing them well for the new year.

IC: Are there any specific things that you’re supposed to do to pay respects or is it just like talking to them and spending time with them?

A: Well, this applies to the whole festival in general actually but there are a lot of four-word sayings that you say.  They are blessings that you say to people. Some examples are 年年有餘 (nin nin yau yu) which means “may you be prosperous every year” and 快高長大 (fai gou zheung dai) which means “grow up well”. The main one is 恭喜發財 (gong hei faat choi) which means “happy new year”.

IC: Yeah, I remember that phrase. Are there any other foods that you eat? Like aren’t you supposed to eat fish or something? That’s what I remember from Chinese class in high school.

A: Are we? I don’t know… I don’t think we do that.

IC: Oh, okay. I mean, I guess it’s different for everyone. Like you don’t have to eat everything you’re supposed to.

A: Oh, there is this one thing where Chinese households have a candy box during New Year. I don’t know why but there’s a box of candy and sweet stuff in every household.

Background:

My informant is 23 years old and she is my friend from high school, which was in Hong Kong. Though she is American, she went She went to New York for college and graduated last year. She is currently working in Hong Kong. She knows about this tradition because her family is from Hong Kong and celebrates Lunar New Year.

Context:

I asked her about this tradition because I vaguely remember learning about Chinese traditions for Lunar New Year during Chinese class in high school. I thought it would be interesting to ask someone who comes from a Chinese/Hong Kong background to ask about the specifics since I don’t know much about it. All I knew was from textbooks designed for speakers learning it as a second language.

Thoughts:

Hearing my friend talk about how her family celebrates it and the traditions that she knows about was interesting to hear as different countries celebrate it differently. It was informative to learn about some foods that she eats and sayings other than the popular phrase that means happy new year.

Red Egg Party

Main Piece:

According to RE, a traditional Chinese celebration for newborn babies is called a Red Egg Party. “The red egg party is to celebrate the one month birthday of a new baby. You rub their head with green onion sticks and a red egg, and throw a celebration with red dyed eggs. Right of passage sort of thing. Belief of good health, intelligence, long life etc.”

Context:

RE, is a sophomore at USC and is familiar with Chinese traditions. She is very invested in this culture and knows a lot about it. This was taken from a conversion over text regarding these traditions.

Thoughts:

What immediately comes to mind when I think of this is its similarities to a baptism. The purpose of both is a right of passage into a new light and they are both typically done in the first month of a human’s life. One thing I was not able to investigate into is why a red egg and green onions. Though theses are to represent “good health, intelligence, long life etc.”, I was not sure why. This as a right of passage makes a lot of sense. It instills Chinese values into the child one month into their lives and brings them into the culture.

Chinese Housewarming Tradition

Main Piece:

According to RE, there is a Chinese tradition for when you buy a home. “When you first buy a house, before you enter for the first time you have to throw new, shiny coins into the house then the first three items you bring in is oil, sugar, and rice. The meaning behind it is that the coins bring money into the house. Oil sugar and rice bring prosperity.”

Context:

RE, is a sophomore at USC and is familiar with Chinese traditions. She is very invested in this culture and knows a lot about it. This was taken from a conversion over text regarding these traditions.

Thoughts:

I think this traditions is interesting. One thing I know about eastern cultures is that they have values and traditions that have to go with omens. One trend I notice is that omens play a big part in their lives whether good or bad. Symbolize matters a lot and this piece speaks to that part of Chinese culture. Throwing new coins into the house as the first item is obviously a symbol of money, which is a goal for people in life. Another symbol is the oil, sugar, and rice. These being signs of prosperity make sense as they are basic ingredients in food. Prosperity is the idea of living a good life and the start to that is always having food on the table. This helps add to the idea that symbols play a huge role in Eastern Asian culture.

Chinese Proverb of “To Kill Two Birds with One Stone”

Main Story: 

“There is a common saying in Chinese (Mandarin) : 箭双雕” 

Original Script : 箭双雕 

Phonetic: Yi (Yee) Jian Shuang Diao

Transliteration: Complete two tasks with one job 

Full translation: to shoot two birds with one arrow

This saying is also present in English, it is the same concept as “to kill two birds with one stone”. The theory being you can complete two separate tasks with one action. For example: say a person has to go get a test done at the doctor’s office and also a check up with a different doctor. But both doctors happen to operate out of the same medical office building. By scheduling the appointments back to back, the person is able to complete two tasks (the doctors’ appointments) with one action (driving to the medical office building). 

Background: 

The informant of this info is my friend and she is Chinese and used to live in Shanghai. She always found it interesting that this phrase exists in both English and in Chinese in an almost synonymous context. She can’t find anywhere as to which phrase came first and who got it from who or if the similarity is purely coincidental, and if it is a coincidental likeness then she wanders what does that say about human nature? 

Context:

The informant is a friend of mine and we were video calling over the phone during quarantine and just chatting about life and funny coincidences across cultures.

My thoughts: 

I kind of agree with my friend on how she feels about the odd coincidence between the two languages and the same phrase. It is interesting that they are so similar in literally every aspect of their meaning. 

Legend behind Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

The following story was told to me by my friend:

So in China we have the Mid-Autumn festival, as I am sure you have heard of, the mooncakes are famous. But, what a lot of people do not know is the myth of how it came to be. It all became long ago. There is a princess who lives on the moon in her moon castle with her little bunny. And as it goes, on the full moon -the 15th day of the month on the Lunar calendar- the princess could see Earth at its fullest. Every full moon she would look down at earth and she would always look at this one farmer and she eventually fell in love with him from afar. So one day, she went down to Earth and disguised herself as a human. Her and the farmer fell in love and she was happy on Earth. Then one day her brother noticed she was missing, so he searched for her and found her on Earth having married a mortal human. Outraged, he came down to Earth, and took her from her lover since it was a disgrace that a god would marry a human and he took her back to the moon. There, he imprisoned her in her castle and she could no longer see her lover. Eventually, the other gods felt bad for her because she was so very sad. So they made the agreement that in Autumn on the full moon she is allowed to go down once a year to visit her lover. So, the festival happens on the full moon on the 15th in Mid-Autumn every year and it is all about reunion and time with loved ones. 

Background: 

The informant is ½ Chinese and ½ French. While she spent the first 13 years of her life in Paris, she moved to Shanghai for high School to reconnect with her Chinese heritage. This story is one of her all time favorite stories from Chinese culture that her grandmother would tell her. She holds it very close to her. 

Context: 

The informant is a good friend of mine, and the conversation was held organically as she was reminiscing about things she loves about her culture one night over dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. 

My thoughts: 

I found this to be such a cute and lovely legend to how the festival came to be. Another one of my friends loves the Mid-Autumn festival. He is from Vietnam though, and while he never mentioned this moon princess story, he also loves the festival and what it signified for him and his friends and family spending time together. I love how this festival brings up such good memories for many of the people I have spoken to and it shows such a wholesome lineage between cultures.

Chinese Sleeping Superstitions

Text:

Informant: Chinese people say that you can’t sleep with the fan on or else it will suck up the air out of the room. Then you’ll die of suffocation. You can’t sleep with your stomach showing or else you’ll wake up with a stomach ache. You can’t watch a baby sleep because it’s bad for the baby. It will make it so they don’t grow up correctly. They’re crazy, but I learned them from my parents.

Context:

I asked a group of friends about any superstitions they were raised with. This was one of their responses. The informant is of Chinese descent.

Thoughts: I am not of East Asian descent and have never hear of any superstitions regarding sleep, but the other people present when the informant shared these with me were and had heard all of these. This may reflect a greater importance of sleep in East Asian societies.

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.

Background:

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.

Context:

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.

Thoughts:

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.

坐月子:Postpartum Confinement

Main piece:

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

Informant: In China, there is a big culture of “坐月子(zuo yue zi)”, literally means “sit on the month “, but just refer to like postpartum confinement, like the month after woman deliver their child. Usually it’s one month, but I think my mom did two month. Anyway it just a really big stage of your life, you know, delivering the baby, and then people in China believe that it’s a big event for the body too, so women need to aware of a lot of things for the month following delivery. For example, they should shower less. I mean if it strict, they should be showering at all, but you know in modern world, who can not shower for so long. Anyway, it’s like showering less, brush you teeth with warm water instead of cold, don’t touch cold water, drink warm water all the time. Rest a lot definitely, like that why it’s “Sit on the month” you know, not like “run on the month”. Avoid wind, if it’s really windy outside then don’t go out side, because they think the wind and the cold is easier to get into the body at that period of time. And also you know food is big part, like they have certain food to eat to one on hand help with milking, and help body get nutrition on the other. They will consider some kind of food has a cold character (寒性- han xing) and some kind of food is hot character(热性-re xing) and something in between. So you need to choose food character according to your body type. Like for example, if you have ulcer in your mouth that means you body is getting too hot, so you will need something that has a colder character like green tea.

Interviewer: How do you define cold or hot for food?

Informant: Ummm…Good questions. I honestly don’t know. You just grew up learning their character from you parents. It’s like if I eat too much mango all at once, my mom would say something like: “your body will be getting too hot.” or something like that I don’t know. So yea, I think older generation definitely have more restriction, but I don’t think younger generation follow it as strict, they kinda do a little modification according to their needs.

Background:

My informant was born in Beijing, China. She knows about this tradition because almost everyone practices it in China and her mom does it too. She will definitely practice postpartum confinement by the time she delivers a baby because she thinks that it is such an important phase of woman’s life and she needs to take the time to take care of her body. She always believes that giving birth to a kid in a way is a rebirth of that woman as well. And because the body undergoes such a big incident, the body is recovering itself too. So with proper care, it helps the body to recover better and even takes away some existing illness.

Context

My informant is my roommate. She finished high school in China and came to the States after. I invited her to have a brief interview session with me to talk about Chinese folklore in general because I feel there is lot of interesting folklore in China that is very different from the rest of the world. And this conversation was conducted when we were cooking for dinner, so both of us are pretty relaxed.

Thoughts

“Sitting the month” is definitely a huge culture difference between China and America. I know that a lot of people in the United States go right back to work within ten days after delivering the baby, which sounds crazy to Chinese people. Though there is some debate on whether it is scientific of postpartum confinement, most people still practice it because it is a tradition that has been around for thousands of years. As my informant mentions, the stricter rule in the past is minimal shower times within a month after delivery, and that is because in older time period, the condition is pretty bad, so people are more likely to catch a cold when showering, especially during winter time. Nowadays, with technology getting better and people living on a higher quality life, more rules are bent towards favor, but the cultural of “sitting the month” still applies.

“Black and White” Chinese Children’s Game

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some stories from her childhood. Before this, she had mentioned a “black and white” game that she played with the other kids, and I asked her to return to that subject and explain it to me.

ME: You mentioned a “black and white” game earlier that you play with your palm.

MW: Yeah, yeah.

ME: Could you explain to me what that is?

MW: Nothing. Oh this? [Holds out hand, palm facing up] Just, we play…

ME: How do you play it?

MW: So we say… and then it’s like, [holds hand behind back, then moves to hold it out in front of her, palm facing up]. You play, it’s the game, right? And then we play game like everybody go, [holds hand behind her back] and only you [holds out hand, palm facing up] is white, is good. Right?

It’s like, we always go like this [holds hand behind back], and then sometimes I go like this [holds hand out, palm up]. Right? That means… I won.

ME: Could you explain why that means you won?

MW: It’s like, we play, who will do okay? If the game, if you throw the ball. Who will be the first one to do it. So we don’t let them know [moves hand back behind her back], and ‘one, two, THREE!’[brings hand back out, palm facing up], right? And with three people, then it’s like we all white, and then this one, this [turns hand over so that palm is facing down], is black.

ME: So ‘white’ is your palm facing up and ‘black’ is your palm facing down?

MW: Yeah.

ME: So how many people do you play it with?

MW: You play it about three people.

ME: If everyone has their palm like this [I have my palm facing down], what does that mean?

MW: Then it’s nothing. But if it’s ‘one, two, three’ and one is out [puts out palm facing up], then he won.

ME: Then why can’t you do this [palm facing up] every time to win?

MW: Because one can start, and then the other ones can follow you, I don’t know. So it’s everybody, like this [palm facing up], then that’s fine, but it should be [flips palm, facing down].

Thoughts: This game stood out to me when MW first mentioned it in passing because I had never heard of a hand game like this, and she called it “Black and White,” which was interesting because the two opposing colors seem to appear a lot in folklore. From what I gathered by my grandma’s description/demonstration, three children play the game and they start with their hands behind their backs. Then, on the count of three, they all put out their hand with it either facing palm up (white), or palm down (black). This part I am the most unsure of, but I think that the goal of the game is to be the only person of the three to have the “white” hand or the “black” hand. Thus, neither “black” or “white” is better, instead, the winner would be the person who chooses how they place their hand uniquely. This is surprising to me, because typically in children’s stories with the colors black and white, one signifies good and the other evil, but in this game they are only meant to signify opposites.