Tag Archives: writing

Chinese Red Ink Superstition


E, a 22-year-old Chinese-Taiwanese female who was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is currently a senior at the University of Southern California.

Background info:

E’s first language was English, but because her parents were immigrants, she quickly learned Mandarin as well. Her parents are proud of their culture, and thus they often participated in many Taiwan and Chinese traditions, and believed many of the superstitions, as well. This is one of the superstitions E’s mother believed.


Late at night, a lot of weird conversations happen. Because E is on a project with me, we were working together at around 2:00am when we started discussing superstitions. When she knocked on wood, it brought this conversation up. The following is a transcript of the conversation I had with E. (I will be represented with a J.)

Main piece:

J: “Are there any other superstitions that you experienced growing up? With your family or friends? School, even?

E: “Another superstition that my parents had was red typically meant death or pain, so we would never write someone’s name in red, because it was almost like… wishing that upon someone.”

J: “Are there any other implications to the red ink?”

E: “Yeah! So, because the red ink represents that negative energy, it’s seen as rude or threatening to write letters in red. Even email or texts being red is seen as almost… taboo? Like I wrote an email to an older Chinese relative, and accidentally left some of the text red from something I had copied into the email, and she called my mom to tell her about it!”

J: “Do you think that this is more of an elderly superstition, or would you say younger people believe or participate in this as well?”

E: “Well, it definitely is an older people thing. But, because respect is such a large thing in both the Chinese and Taiwanese cultures, the young people try to observe these things. Like there are many superstitions like this that don’t necessarily make sense to the younger generations, but they still observe them in order to not upset or unintentionally insult the older generations.”


The superstition is interesting on its own, but I think the conversation around whether young people believe it was the most interesting part of this conversation. I think that it is nice to be respectful of older generations’ traditions or superstitions, despite not believing in them. However, I got the vibe that E did not think that there was credibility to superstitions. I think every generation has their own traditions or superstitions, but it is still important to recognize and document the previous generations’ folklore.


Cāng Jié and the Origin of the Chinese Writing System

[Translated from Mandarin]

Back in the early years of Chinese history, a four-eyed man named Cāng Jié (倉頡) was the historiographer of the Yellow Emperor. To record things, Cāng Jié used the rope-tying method, the only form of documentation around during that time. After a while, the more Cāng Jié stared at his repetitive knots, the less he remembered what they stood for. He was frustrated.

One day he passed by a group of quarreling old men at an intersection. Each of them was arguing which road led to his home. One claimed a pair of tigers lived on his road. Another said that some deer lived on his road. The last one stated that goats lived on his road. The dispute was eventually settled when they discovered that the trails of animal prints on the ground told them which way each should go. Cāng Jié was inspired by this—if every animal has its own prints to distinguish its identity, every object in the world should have its own symbol too.

Cāng Jié then proceeded to simplify the shapes and essences of objects in the world into characters composed of simple lines. Soon he developed a whole system of written characters that each imitated what they represented. When Cāng Jié completed the writing system, the skies started raining millet, and ghosts in the ground cried at night.

In the end, both Cāng Jié and the Yellow Emperor were pleased, and Cāng Jié’s writing system was used as the standard writing system in the emperor’s unification of the kingdom.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Cāng Jié is an interesting character because his role in Chinese history is realistic though the details of his deeds and his appearance may have very well been exaggerated. 

Cheng Miao and the Clerical Script

[Translated from Mandarin]

The clerical script, or lìshū (隸書), is a form of Chinese calligraphy that is said to have been invented by Chéng Miǎo (程邈), who had somehow offended the emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng (秦始皇) of the Qin dynasty. Qín Shǐ Huáng threw Chéng Miǎo into prison. However, during his time in prison, Chéng Miǎo was able to simplify Chinese script. You see, before the clerical script was invented, Chinese characters were written in seal script, or zhuànshū, which had many curving strokes that were complicated to write.

The prison guards discovered that Chéng Miǎo’s clerical script was much more efficient to write than seal script, and they showed Qín Shǐ Huáng. Qín Shǐ Huáng was very pleased with Chéng Miǎo’s new script and decided to change the Chinese kingdom’s writing to clerical script. Because of this, Chéng Miǎo was released from prison and rewarded with a high governmental position.

The informant is a calligrapher and had learned this legend from friends from whom he first learned calligraphy. Though Chéng Miǎo’s feats sound realistic, there are people who doubt that Qín Shǐ Huáng would be so lenient on someone who changed a writing system that the emperor had just unified shortly before. Recent evidence has also suggested that clerical script may have been invented by a team of people, as opposed to one single person. It is interesting that even the development of Chinese calligraphy has such debatable folklore.

交換日記 — Exchange Journals

「交換」(koukann) in Japanese means exchange, and 「日記」(nikki) means journal. Together they mean exchange journal, although, in fact, it is more of a sharing journal than anything else. In Japan, girls in the later years of elementary and early years of middle school often participate in a game of sorts, where a group of about three or four pass around a journal amongst themselves. One girl would have it in the morning, write something about her day, and give it to the next girl during lunch, who would pass it to the next girl after-school, and so on.

My informant has spent her entire life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa, among other things, is known for its stationary residents; my informant barely knows anyone that has moved houses at all in their entire lives. Because of this characteristic, she said, she spent her school years, from elementary to high school, with approximately the same group of people.「グループきつくて、友達とかも大変だったよ」are her exact words, which translates roughly to, most times, friendships were (for good or bad) claustrophobic and exclusive. In this environment, which perhaps mirrors the environment of most Japanese schools in an intensified form, my informant had 交換日記 with two of her best friends.

The 交換日記 was used mainly to tell secrets they were too afraid to say out loud, or to refer to inside jokes and stories that cemented them closer together as a group. For instance, said my informant, one of her best friends only ever openly gushed about the boy that she liked in the 交換日記, never breathing a word about it out loud. That was an unspoken rule about the 交換日記, in fact–the journal and real life existed, essentially, in two separate realms, and by some unwritten law they all knew that they couldn’t actually talk about anything that was mentioned in the journal, unless the person who wrote it brought it up herself. There were a lot of unspoken rules like that, my informant said, to make them feel like they were participating in something secret, a covert organization of some sort, although every girl around them was doing the same thing.

The style and content of the 交換日記 were highly ritualized, she said. The journal was always the same standard, seventy-page school-use notebook, the one that basically every Japanese student used, and still uses. The cover was always decorated to the utmost; in their case, they had glued sequins and glitter all over the front, and an applique of a butterfly, making it shiny and girly and unrecognizable (the butterfly, she said, was because they had inside joke about it which she has since forgotten). On the inside of the cover they had written down the rules for the 交換日記, as all exchange journal groups did. Their rules dictated that each girl had to at least draw one picture of something detailing their day in their journal entry, no girl could withhold information about a crush or a potential crush, and each entry had to be at least a page long. The most important rule consisted of having to hide the actual physical exchange of the journal from all others. Other groups made other rules, but these were theirs, and it defined their 交換日記. My informant went through six notebooks with the same group of friends before they decided to stop. She said, however, that she knew girls who would get in fights with their friends because they were participating in more than one 交換日記 with different groups of friends. The one thing about the 交換日記, she said, was that it exhibited all the drama and self-consciousness of being a pre-teen/teenage girl in Japanese society.

The 交換日記 is indeed largely reflective of the school life of girls in their elementary and middle school years. My informant grew up with the same group of people, and for the most part, the same group of close friends, as do, it seems, most Japanese children still. The 交換日記 illustrates the girls’ desire to define themselves away from the rest of the school population, to create a distinct, close-knit little society governed by its own rules. It also indicates precisely how claustrophobic the school environment can be; with these close-knit groups and their secret journal societies, how is a newcomer supposed to integrate into the school? My informer said, in fact, that it must have been very difficult to be any kind of an outsider. Get on the wrong side of your friends, and you were out–and being out meant you had to find a way into another group, which was always extremely difficult, especially with girls, my informant said, who were very territorial about these kinds of things. This seems to make sense in a homogeneous society like Japan’s, where students, eager to distinguish themselves from the crowd, create friend groups as foundations for their identity, relying on these friendships to set them apart because, in all other aspects, everyone is usually relatively similar. There were prestigious 交換日記 groups that everyone wanted to be part of, for instance. And then there were ones like the my informants’, created merely for fun and for advancement of their friendships, but still possessing an intense, intimidating undercurrent of exclusivity.