If you grew up in an Asian family, you might have heard these words of caution: Each remaining grain of rice in your bowl represents a blemish on your future spouse’s face. Don’t overly praise a newborn’s looks, or greedy demons will kidnap the baby. Giving shoes to your partner means they may run away from you. Avoid giving a clock as a gift, which represents an early death for the recipient.

For Peter Chan, a Chinese Canadian painter in Toronto, the consequence of not finishing off the last few grains of rice inspired one of the latest pieces in his ongoing series called “Ideals & Traditions.” In a black-and-white painting titled “Silly Superstition,” a small rice bowl obscures a young woman’s face. Was her spouse a thorough eater as a child, or did their hasty dinner habits leave her with a pock-marked face? Or is she brandishing the bowl and its unfinished contents in defiance of superstition?

Chan spent the first part of his childhood in Hong Kong, moving to Toronto when he was 8. In Hong Kong, he accepted Chinese cultural traditions and beliefs as the norm. But as a teenager and adult in Canada, he gravitated toward the Western motivations and perceptions around him.

“In the beginning, I did the painting just because I thought [the superstition] was bizarre. But after I put it out, so many people sent messages saying that was their experience, too,” Chan said. These responses triggered more questions: Where did this superstition originate? How did it become so widespread? And, on a deeper level, what other teachings and behaviors exist that we don’t fully understand, yet are culturally pervasive?

Scared Into Obedience

Superstitions are beliefs and behaviors that typically arise in environments that foster fear, uncertainty, and unpredictability. “Superstition is something people rely on to gain a sense of control over things that we do not have full control over,” explains Dr. Yan Zhang, associate professor of marketing at National University of Singapore, who conducted a study on how people “undo” bad luck with superstitions. We see a tighter hold of superstitions in societies that are non-religious, where people are more likely to believe in either science or good/bad luck associated with superstitions.

Among Asian countries, superstitions often align with our strong sense of collective agency, meaning we have a propensity for connecting luck and blessings with ancestors and supernatural forces. This is in contrast with Western cultures, which typically attribute luck to individual effort. Asian superstitions also reflect the polite, respectful, and altruistic characteristics seen in many of our cultures, explains Dr. Ridha Hasnul Ulya, a lecturer at Universitas Negeri Padang in Indonesia. Through Dr. Ulya’s study on cultural manifestation in superstitions, he learned that superstitions help us to understand the rules of politeness and provide indirect guidance for acceptable behaviors within a cultural framework. And let’s be honest; the rice superstition may be more effective than a nagging parent at getting children to finish their dinner.

For example, people in the Minangkabau ethnic group in Indonesia are taught not to whistle at night because doing so invites snakes into the home. Does a jaunty warble really lure snakes into your bed? Or is this a way to keep the streets respectfully quiet at night? Dr. Ulya’s guess is that this superstition is a sly way of shaping societal norms, a considerate solution when people act impolitely.

Superstitions tend to be wielded most among parents to influence their children’s behaviors. Among the Minangkabau, children learn about a folktale called Malin Kundang, in which a mother curses an ungrateful son, turning him into stone — a threat many parents use on their disobedient children. In numerous Asian countries, shaking your leg signifies tossing away prosperity or is evidence of idleness; but perhaps it’s simply an irritating habit that parents want to curb.

“I think that parents consciously make these superstitious statements so that the [impolite] behaviors are not carried out, and we can live in an orderly and harmonious manner without endangering others,” Dr. Ulya reasons, adding that superstitions should be expressed constructively and with positive intentions. Instead, superstitions are often communicated as threats, with little to no explanation of their mystical consequences or taboo nature.

From Awareness to Understanding to Growth

While Dr. Ulya and Dr. Zhang have taken the academic route of studying superstitions, juxtaposing Peter Chan’s artistic approach, the mutual conclusion is that societies can benefit from exploring their cultural beliefs — and changing their approach if necessary.

Chan describes his paintings as being more cheeky and silly than confrontational, yet with an intention of bringing awareness to traditions, superstitions, and cultural beliefs that are consciously and subconsciously embedded in our lives. As awareness brings focused observation and reflection, Chan says, it also is the first step for anything to change.

In Chan’s creative work, awareness is inevitable. Painting is an unhurried process, one that demands patience and measured consideration of colors, subject matter, material, translucency. This meticulous practice invites Chan to understand, consider, wonder, and ask questions that help him to better connect with his paintings, in contrast with our tendency to “process images so fast, like flipping through Instagram,” Chan says. “This internal state of being and creating brings things to the surface and is reflected in the painting. I’d like to think that [my process and paintings] bring awareness internally and spread outward, reaching others who are ready for it.”

His work on the “Ideals & Traditions” series illuminated the passing down of cultural beliefs across generations — from his grandparents to his parents and then to him. His art became a meditative process, connecting him with the past, present, and future. Coincidentally, one rewarding outcome of his exhibit in Hong Kong was observing parents explaining superstitions to their children.

“There is an appreciation once there is truly an understanding,” Chan observes. “Sometimes we wonder how and why [our parents] are a certain way — call it habits, things we don’t agree with, or find too old-fashioned, like superstitions, for example. But I always try to keep an open mind to see from their side and to live in their world for a moment. Then an ‘aha’ moment can hit me and show me how their history shaped them.”

This exploration of childhood superstitions has led Chan to be more cognizant and accountable for his beliefs and the responsibility that comes with that. “If something is not working, we have the chance to change it for the next generation,” Chan elaborates. “If there’s [a tradition or superstition] that is not bettering society or adding to the world, like a negative part of a superstition, we have a chance to break the chain. [Similarly,] I’ve learned about ‘ancestral trauma,’ which can be passed on from generations of the past until it is broken or changed. This is why it is important to be able to connect and help others recognize [trauma] within themselves.”

Superstitions and beliefs can change at the surface level, for example, in the case of the ancient Chinese belief that solar eclipses were caused by a heavenly dog devouring the sun. Royal astronomers were tasked to shoot arrows at the dog or bang pots to scare away the creature before it could eat the sun. Today, that belief is outdated, thanks to scientific discoveries.

Yet, superstition continues to have a stronghold in situations where causality is not easily inferred, says Dr. Zhang, citing cancer as an example, which does not have a clear cause. “In such a case, people tend to believe that it is some past action — such as not praying to a god — that caused this.” Sadly, this type of belief erroneously puts the blame on an individual, perpetuating shame, secrecy, or denial. 

Change also comes in the form of reshaping the meaning of a superstition or providing a more thorough explanation, without actually doing away with the actual belief.

“Superstitions have been misunderstood by the public; there is a moral message and the expected value of politeness that we need to interpret deeply,” Dr. Ulya says. Once that is acknowledged, Dr. Ulya believes superstitions can be used positively to shape children’s character and build a generation that understands social order and creates harmony within the family and community.

*   *   *

Throughout 2021, Chan will continue adding paintings to his “Ideals & Traditions” series, one of which will likely highlight the cultural taboo of sticking chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice (resembling incense reserved for the dead). As a child, Chan remembers frequently being chastised for this, racing back to the dining table in the middle of a game to reposition his utensils.

“With these paintings, I can bring these ideas into the spotlight and hope that people take a moment out of their busy lives to meditate on them,” Chan says. “I paint these ideas because I keep wondering about them and pondering their origins while also understanding the power they hold in their history.”

Whether that power also holds truth, Chan still is unsure. Regardless, he’s still likely to polish off every grain of rice in his bowl.

The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.

Image credits: Peter Chan

Author

  • Melody Ip is the managing editor for Mochi magazine and a freelance copy editor/writer when she's not singing along to KidzBop with her three kids. She loves the trees and rain of the Pacific Northwest, still sends handwritten letters, and always has at least five books on her nightstand.