Tag Archives: folk gestures

Chinese promise gesture and accompaning phrase


“Here is a gesture that might be interesting. The gesture is for making a promise. I think the U.S.’ is very similar. You hook your pinky finger with your friend and touch your friend’s thumb.”

“But what’s different in China is that at the same time, you need to say ‘la gou shang diao yi bai nian bu xu bian.'”

“The two thumb touching is what we say like putting a stamp on the promise.”


FG is a student studying history and economics at USC. He is currently in a program in Ireland. He performed this folk gesture and folk speech to me through a zoom call. This piece of folklore is something that is performed many times by the informant when he was young.


This is a combination of folk speech and folk gesture. The folk speech has to go in combination with the gesture to make any sense. As a matter of fact, because this folk speech has been around for too long, part of the content doesn’t make sense anymore. “La gou shang diao yi bai nian bu xu bian,” or “拉勾上吊一百年不许变,” translate directly to “hook, hang, a hundred years no change. ” The “hang” part doesn’t make sense because as this piece of folklore spread in China, the original word for “shang diao”, or “上吊”, or hang, actually is a transformation from the homophone “上调,” which also is “shang diao,” but the meaning is very different. “上调” means the thumbs pull up and meet to put a red stamp on the things we want to promise.

On the other hand, another explanation is formed for the transformed version of “shang diao,” or “上吊.” People start to say that it means we keep our promises til we die. Because “上吊” specifically means a method of suicide: hanging on a rope. Folklore rationalizes itself with different transformations. It intrigues me when I think of the transformation and the rationalization of this particular piece.

Folk Gesture: ไหว้ or Wai

Translation: No literal translation, for it is rather just a coined physical gesture.

Context: In Thailand, the informant states that when greeting family members or friends, in some cases even strangers, one should clasp their hands together, similar to how you would for prayer, place your hands near your nose bridge, and then bow your head. Ever since the informant was a little girl, this has been a gesture that expresses a formal greeting, and it is a sign of respect. “Wai” can be used when greeting someone or departing from them, and it is especially important in expressing piety. T.S. describes that as a little girl, whenever she would forget to greet her grandparents or other elders with “Wai,” should be met with a scolding. Not expressing “Wai” to certain individuals can earn you the title of one without manners. The informant believes that the origins of “Wai” must be tied to the rise of Buddhism since monks have been utilizing the motion for centuries, as they always want to express maximum gratitude and respect. When greeting a monk, it is even enforced that a different form of “Wai” should be used, one that has you place your thumbs to your forehead rather than your nose bridge.

Analysis: Forms of folk gesture can be used to solidify respect amongst a group of people, consolidating interconnectedness and overall companionship. The “Wai” is a gesture that brings the Thais together under a common practice, helping the nation cement a sense of peace within their foundation. The “Wai” is also a way to teach children and early generations to respect their higher-ups and elders, for this creates a stable pious relationship that prevents extended rebellion as they grow up. Speaking from personal experience, there are similar modes of expression within Latin American cultures, specifically the Caribbean. Growing up, I was exposed to “Biendicion,” a saying that holds very similar significance to “Wai.” When saying “Biendicion,” one must connect their cheek to the person’s cheek that they wish to greet. Similarly, as T.S. described, not using this phrase to elders within your own family can be seen as an act deserving of scolding and correction. Even as an adult, one must use it to those in the generations above them, so the phrase never dies off.

Bowing Down Twice

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing why bowing down only twice is important during a memorial rite or a funeral. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

She told me that to understand this piece, you need to understand the Yin and the Yang (negative and positive) culture of Asian countries. Yin, is the power that is believed to be dark and negative, while Yang is the positive power. 

In Korean funerals or memorial rites, people only bow down twice. It is believed that one’s first bow means the Yang power and the second bow means the Yin power. This means that the first bow is only meant for the people who are living and the second bow is for the people who are dead and no longer in this ‘living’ world. Thus, when you bow down to the families of the dead, you only bow once because they are alive, and you bow down twice to show respect to the dead. Events that require bowing down and related to death such as a funeral or an ancestral rite will require bowing down twice. 

My informant also highlighted that all bows should be performed with the utmost respect because this is a matter of living and the dead. 

Analysis :

When I was young and attended funerals, I remember peeking through my arm to see how many times my parents were bowing down. I was sometimes confused because they would bow down once in some situations and would bow down twice in some situations. This connection of Yin and Yang with the funeral culture show how Asian countries strongly believe in the ‘powers’ of negativity and positivity and its connection to Confucianism; you need to have detailed and precise actions even when you are showing respect to your ancestors.

How to stop a dog from pooping

Main Piece:

“Do you remember what your dad used to tell us when we were little, about how to stop dogs from pooping? (laughter) So, he said that when you saw a dog pooping you should stare at it and interlock your index fingers and pull on them while staring at the dog. I did it many times, and it worked! Or maybe the dog was just creeped out by me staring at it.”



The informant is a 27-year-old Mexican American college student. He heard this “trick” from his uncle. He is not sure why he was told this but continues to try out the “trick” to this day.



I believe that this gesture was a way to entertain us when we were children. It might just be a prank to pull on naïve individuals.

Shaka Hand Sign — Hawaiian Legend


The following piece was collected during a conversation with a girl who had recently visited Hawaii. We had been discussing the varying uses of the shaka, commonly referred to as the “hang loose” gesture. The girl will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I, the “Collector”.

Informant: “So, I was talking to my cousins who live there and we were talking about how to properly do the shaka sign. I told them that I felt slightly phony trying to pull it off because I don’t surf, but they told me that it’s not only for surfers. They said it was their way of saying ‘hello’. They told me that apparently, the reason why it was thumb and pinky out, all other fingers closed, was because there was a Hawaiian man once who lost his fingers, they don’t know how, but that he lost his fingers and that was just how he waved.”

Collector: “Was it because of a surfing accident? Is that why it’s a surfer sign here?”

Informant: “They don’t know why, they think it’s because of a shark or surfing accident.”


            The Informant learned this belief when she was visiting her cousins in Hawaii. The Informant believed her cousins and thought the origin of the shaka, according to the cousins, seemed like a reasonable beginning of the very popular hand sign. The Informant believes there must be some truth to this, mainly because it originated somehow, it’s very possible this is the reason why.


On the other hand, I believe that it is very possible that people who use the sign very regularly will not think much of its origin, but when told the story of a surfing or shark accident, will accept it as truth. When I first heard it, I remember nodding to myself and thinking “that makes sense”. I believe that people revel in coming up with explanations for things they normally would not be able to explain. I read other beliefs on this gesture, and some say it is a very popular sign whose meaning has become misconstrued. The idea behind the shaka, in many of these accounts, was simply a gesture that would encompass the meaning of “aloha”.