Category Archives: Taiwan

Synchronicity: Elijah, the prophets of Baal, and Pascal

This afternoon I had lunch with the local Mormon missionaries, and we chatted about various things. The discussion turned to some of the more shocking religious practices in Taiwan, and I told them about a ceremony I had witnessed a year or two ago, in which a man had danced around beating and cutting himself with a variety of nasty-looking implements, his goal being to obtain permission from God A to let God B (of whose temple he was a representative) pay a social visit to God A’s temple; some 20 minutes later, by which time the man was completely covered with blood, God A finally relented and granted permission.

I mentioned that this had reminded me of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (The prophets, as you will recall, “cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them,” hoping thereby to get Baal’s attention.) The elders didn’t seem to know that story very well, so I told it to them in some detail.

Later in our conversation, they asked what I was doing these days in terms of religion, and I told them that at the moment my religious activity was pretty much limited to reading and pondering a large number of religious books. I showed them the one I was working on at the moment — Krailsheimer’s translation of Pascal’s Pensées — and we discussed Pascal and his ideas a bit.

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After we’d finished eating, the elders went back to proselyting, and I went back to the college. I still had half an hour or so before my next class, so I pulled out the aforementioned Pascal book; I was on page 281. After a few minutes of reading, I came to page 287 — and the first line on the page read simply: “I Kings XVIII: Elijah with the prophets of Baal.”

So just minutes after discussing both the Baal story and the Pascal book, I find a reference to the Baal story in the Pascal book. (I need scarcely mention that I ordinarily go for years at a stretch without speaking, reading, or thinking about the prophets of Baal.)

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Update: More synchronicity! Immediately after posting this, I went to Bruce Charlton’s blog and found he had posted an excerpt from a Blake Ostler interview — and essentially everything Ostler says in that excerpt was also said in the course of my conversation with the elders.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Old Testament, Taiwan

Chinese-style superstitions for English speakers

Most Chinese superstitions — not quite all, but easily a majority — are based on puns.

The best known of these (perhaps because it has been copied by the Japanese and Koreans) is the taboo against the number four (四, ) because it sounds similar to the word for “death” (死, ). The number is often skipped when numbering the floors in hospitals, the seat rows in planes, etc., much as 13 is in Western countries. (In Korea, the 4th floor is not skipped, but it is referred to euphemistically as “F” — so elevator buttons are labeled B, 1, 2, 3, F, 5, etc.) Sometimes this is taken to extremes. In the community where I live in Taiwan, for example, no house number ends in the digit 4. This means that the odd-numbered houses on one side of the street quickly get out of sync with the even-numbered ones on the other side — so, for example, 37 is across from 48 (for some reason, numbers beginning with 4 are okay).

Another manifestation of this is the long list of taboo gifts. A few of these are conceptual (a gift of shoes means you want the person to walk away and leave you, etc.), but most are pun-based. A clock is an inappropriate gift, for example, because 鐘 (“clock”) and 終 (“end, final” — suggesting death) are both pronounced zhōng. Shoes, umbrellas, books, and various other things are taboo gifts for similar reasons.

Of course, some superstitions have to do with good luck. A pineapple is generally considered a lucky fruit in Taiwan because the Hokkien pronunciation of 鳳梨 (“pineapple”) is similar to that of the phrase 旺來 (“prosperity is coming”). Businessmen love pineapples. Doctors, however, are expected to steer clear of them — because it would obviously be perverse for a doctor to want his business to pick up. Doctors avoid mangoes (sounds like “busy-fruit” in Chinese) for the same reason. All the Taiwanese doctors I know — even those who are otherwise quite Westernized and non-superstitious — observe these fruit taboos.

Another pun-based superstition involves hanging up a paper bearing the character 福 (“blessings, fortune”) or something similarly auspicious — but hanging it upside down. This is because 倒 (“upside down”) has the same pronunciation as 到 (“come, arrive”), so it means that blessings will come to you.

A few superstitions — not many that I know of — are based on the visual appearance of written characters. A student of mine recently installed two square air-conditioning units, one next to the other, in a wall which faced his neighbor’s house. The neighbor wouldn’t stand for it and insisted that the units be removed and reinstalled one above the other rather than side by side (at considerable expense and inconvenience to my student). The “logic” behind this bizarre demand was that two squares side by side suggest the Chinese character 哭 (“cry, weep”).

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English-speaking cultures, on the other hand, have basically no pun-based superstitions that I can think of. But what if we did? What would they be? English doesn’t have nearly as many homophones and near-homophones as Chinese, but I can think of a few.

  • Rather than the fourth or the 13th, hospitals would skip the sixth (“sick-sth”) floor.
  • Authors hoping for success would have their books bound in red to ensure that they would be read from cover to cover. (The number eight would be lucky for restaurateurs for similar reasons.)
  • Pears would be auspicious fruits to eat on a date (as, it goes without saying, would be dates).
  • Important customers would no longer be literally wined and dined, for fear that it would cause them to complain more.
  • Greeting a sick person with “hello” (hell-low) would be a major faux pas. I suppose “What’s up?” (answer: heaven, the other place where dead people go) would be nearly as bad — but that connection is too meaning-dependent to be a proper Chinese-style pun-superstition.
  • Computer programmers would obviously have to steer clear of Looney Tunes memorabilia.
  • Taboo gifts would include socks, clocks, beets, batteries (especially when accompanied by a gift of a single grain of salt), boxes, and punch — all of which would send the same rather unfriendly message.
  • Crab would be considered a very unlucky thing to eat, and people born under the sign of the Crab would refer to it with some euphemism.
  • Criminals would superstitiously avoid pennies and anything else made from that most unlucky of metals.
  • Obviously, no one would dream of taking a crash course in a language before flying overseas.

 

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No ghost instinct

I recently had a discussion with a group of Taiwanese high school students about childhood fears. It turns out that roughly 100% of them had been afraid of the same thing: ghosts. One guy had a phobia of cats, but other than that it was ghosts all around.

When I was a little child, I was afraid of tigers. I slept on the top bunk, and I remember asking my mother how high my bed was and how tall a tiger was — trying to calculate whether or not a tiger would be able to climb up and get me while I slept. Leopards, too. One of my most vivid memories from early childhood is of sitting in the bathtub trying to decide whether I wanted the bathroom door to be closed (to keep leopards out) or open (so that I could see any leopards that might be out there). Later in childhood I was sometimes afraid to go into the woods alone, and when I tried to pin down exactly what I was afraid of, I found that it was the prospect of encountering a huge ugly beast which I could visualize clearly but which I only later learned (after seeing pictures in books) to call a Hyaenodon. I’ve been told that I also used to worry a lot about monkeys coming into my room when I was a toddler, but I have no clear memories of that. “Monsters” also featured in my early childhood fears — beasts corresponding to no specific animal, but sporting fangs and claws and fur clearly inspired by the big cats and other predators. Dinosaurs were also an occasional fear.

Until recently, I assumed that such fears were a pretty universal experience for children and that they were rooted in instincts which served our ancestors in the not-so-distant evolutionary past, when leopards and hyenas and such were among the leading causes of death. As silly as my fears were for a kid living in suburban New Hampshire, they would have been perfectly reasonable on the African savanna.

However, when I described my childhood fears to the high school students, they looked at me like I was from outer space. No one could relate — not even the ailurophobe, who feared only domestic cats and had never worried about lions or leopards. This was a bit of a shock to me. I was also surprised to find that they had never imagined “monsters” — the prevalence of which in popular culture (Monsters, Inc. and the like) had led me to believe that they were also pretty universal. They had feared ghosts, and pretty much only ghosts.

I, on the other hand, cannot remember ever experiencing even the tiniest hint of a fear of ghosts. I’ve been afraid of the dark from time to time, but that fear never took the form of worrying about ghosts. Walking through a graveyard at night would be no more scary than walking anywhere else at night. As a child I used to imagine that a leopard or a “monster” or Darth Vader was hiding in the dark corners of my bedroom, but it never occurred to me to imagine a ghost. I even thought I saw ghost-like apparitions a couple of times as a child (bright white human figures glimpsed out of the corner of my eye) but never thought to be afraid of them (or to think of them as “ghosts,” for that matter). As an adult, I lived alone for a year in a house which was supposed to be haunted (and which had very low rent as a result) without ever once feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable about it. I find the ghost movies that my wife loves to watch insufferably tedious because I simply do not respond to them at all on an emotional or visceral level.

This is not explained by the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts. For fears at this level, belief simply doesn’t enter into the equation. After all, I never really believed there were tigers in New Hampshire or Hyaenodonts in Ohio, either. I know plenty of people who “don’t believe in ghosts” but still feel a frisson of fear when passing a cemetery at night. It’s more likely that the causation runs the other way: I don’t believe in ghosts because I’m not afraid of them; the idea of ghosts can’t muster enough of an emotional response in me to make it a “live option” in Jamesian terms.

Nor is it explained by general fearlessness. In fact I’m quite easily spooked by things other than ghosts. I’ve been afraid of plenty of silly things over the course of my life, and even now stories about grey aliens can sometimes terrify me every bit as much as ghost movies terrify my wife.

One disadvantage of having lived in a foreign country for most of my adult life is that it’s hard to separate personal idiosyncrasies from racial or cultural differences. Am I personally unusual in having feared wild animals more than ghosts as a child? Or is it that Western children fear leopards and hyenas, and Chinese children fear ghosts? And either way, what accounts for the difference?

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Filed under Anecdotes, Psychology, Taiwan

A bit of Taiwanese folk religion/magic

I was talking to one of my students, an engineer in his fifties, and he told me about a local (Yuanlin, Taiwan) magical or religious custom I’d never heard of or read about before, so here I am documenting it for the benefit of whoever may be interested.

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There is in his town a centuries-old maple tree which has become a god (as, according to Chinese folk belief, various plants and animals are sometimes able to do, given enough time) and has a small shrine.

When he was young, my student says, the local men would go to this shrine and consult the divine tree on the question of which lottery numbers to pick. (This was before the introduction of state-sponsored gambling in Taiwan, so they were playing an underground lottery run by gangsters and tied to the results of the state-run lottery in Hong Kong.)

The tree was consulted in the following way. The querent would fill a bowl with flour, packing it down and scraping the top surface smooth, set the bowl out in front of the tree, and leave it there overnight. In the morning, lo and behold, there would be strange scrawling patterns on the surface of the flour — made, in my informant’s opinion, by ants come to truck away the flour, but popularly believed to be the work of the tree itself.

The querent and his partners in crime would then break out magnifying glasses and pore over the scrawlings, trying to read numerals in them — the winning lottery numbers which, they were sure, were hidden somewhere in the ant-doodles. (“If ten people looked at the flour,” my informant says, “they would come up with ten different numbers — so usually at least one of them would be right.”)

Once they were satisfied that they had decoded the tree’s message, they would buy lottery tickets with those numbers. If they didn’t win anything, well, they must have misread the doodles. (In hindsight, that was clearly a three, not a two! Well, next time….) But if they did win something, then they would donate a sizable percentage of it to the tree’s shrine, the local rag would run a front-page what-hath-the-tree-wrought story, and more worshiper-gamblers would flow in. My informant remembers that a shockingly large number of local men opted to forgo gainful employment and spend all their time at the shrine trying to crack the lottery code.

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The flour-bowl ritual has apparently fallen out of practice, but the strange god-and-mammon sandwich of Taiwanese folk religion is still going strong. Some time ago I had a dream that brought the number 7,381 to my attention, and when I told a few Taiwanese acquaintances about it, their reaction was always the same: “I think God’s trying to tell you something.” What? “You should buy a lottery ticket with those numbers.”

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