Yes/No Pencil Ritual

Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”


Many grade school children play this game with a pencil. You can only use pencil. No mechanical pencils or pen. So first you would write on a piece of paper: “yes” and “no.” Then you put the paper on the table and then put the pencil in the middle of the paper. There are usually four people at each corner of the table. Then you call on the spirit into the pencil…After that you can ask the spirit questions about your life…you know something like: does he like me, will we be together, how long will we be together, am I going to pass this test, etc… But you can be cursed to die if you ask about how the spirit died or who the spirit is. It is okay to ask about their past life but never ask for the name or how he/she became a spirit. Sometimes more specific things can be written on the paper for different situations…I heard some news in Chinese newspaper where people die from this game because they ask the question they shouldn’t.

The informant stated that she played with her friends in middle school in Hong Kong, though she said that many adults play this game as well. She said she did it when she played the game nothing happened but she and her friends got very scared that she tore the paper into many pieces, broke the pencil, and ran away from the room as fast as they could.


I think this game challenges the idea of beliefs and the origin of ghosts and spirits. As seen by many other ghost stories, spirits usually arises from untraditional death or improper burial. In this case it is taboo and deathly to find the origin of the spirit. This game also reflects how people are unsure about the status of their lives; also trying to find answer to unanswerable questions in life. Not being able to ask how the spirit came to be also reflects the unknown origin of how ghost came to be.

The use of the pencil shows how the idea of ghost is most of the time associated with objects with no modern technology; how they are paused in certain time period.

The paper and the pencil reflect the idea of contagious magic how an object can possess power after certain rituals. In this case the informant and her friends destroyed those objects because they perceived those objects as having power after the rituals performed.

This dare is also similar to the idea of children folklore where there are underlying meanings, in the case the fear of the unknown. Similar to how female children conduct their Bloody Mary dare in groups as a bonding experience, this dare has a similar underlying purpose. It is a group bonding experience under the shared fearful experience, or bonded under the same curse. Similar to the Bloody Mary dare, the truth value is not as significant as the actions performed.

The dare as a ritual then turned into a legend through unofficial and official storytelling. The news about death from this game is then a memorate for the legend and keeps the ritual as an existing and ongoing legend.