Photo Credit: Medium
In this segment of the blog we dive into the world of soul mates and how they are perceived in Taiwan, China, Japan, and other countries within Asia. Known broadly as “the red string of fate,” the story has a number of permutations and has been inspiration for many different books, tv shows, movies, and cultural references. In Taiwan there are even temples set up to Yue Lao (月老) the Old Man under the Moon who is rumored to tie the strings between two people. Join us as we take a look at this wonderful thread that weaves its way through Taiwanese culture.
I will never forget one class period teaching English in China. I had given my college students a Hogwarts Houses quiz as homework and we were collecting the results and writing them on the board. Seeing the numbers, I nearly fell off my podium: well over half of my class were Slytherins. I was surrounded by snakes!
In the United States it is fairly well understood that Gryffindor is the brave house, Ravenclaw is the smart house, Slytherin is the evil house, and Hufflepuff is some strange happy assortment of the rest. In the books J.K. Rowling even writes something to that effect that all of the dark wizards came from Slytherin. Yet here I was in a class of incredibly bright, kind, and motivated students, who did not seem like the typical or even secret followers of “you know who.”
How to account for these results? How do I turn this into a dialogue with my students? How do I understand and empower them? How do I explore this further? It required some quick improvising on my part in class and is something that has stayed with me for a long while after.
It took time, but I have eventually reached the initial conclusion that ambition or outward expressions of ambition is not viewed as a negative in China in the same ways it is understood in the US. Furthermore, to stand out in the ways that those in Gryffindor sometimes aspire to, was not encouraged and in some cases incredibly dangerous in mainland China within the past half century. The tallest tree is the one most likely to be knocked down by the wind and all.
In retrospect, I am incredibly grateful of this experience. It has led me to question what it is that personality tests actually measure as well as what the biases and cultural assumptions that these tests carry with them. If all you have is a hammer…
In recent years an increasing number of linguistic, phycological, and sociological studies are seeking to examine how language influences emotion and perception. We know that things are sometimes lost in translation but more and more researchers are specifically looking to determine whether human experiences such as happiness, anger, love are the same at their core across different languages and cultural groups.
The trajectory of these studies indicates that there is a difference across cultures and language speakers with regards to the way emotions are perceived and expressed. As a Scientific American article from 2019 points out, that the nuance that comes with different expressions oftentimes depend on a cultural context through which the expression is used, learned, and understood. All of this cannot be easily conveyed or translated to a culture that does not have an equivalent word or understanding.
As foreigners living abroad, we on some level run into this all the time. How to explain 麻烦, 关系，撒娇， 孝顺， etc. ? “Burdensome,” “relationships,” “cutesy,” “filial,” yes, AND so much more!
There is a great blog post on The Salty Egg which elucidates three ideas about love found in Taiwan that we understand in English but don’t necessarily have a word for.
So if my angry and your angry aren’t the same what can we rely on? How to get to the heart of a cultural understanding, emotion, or idea?
Another field of study that has taken off in the last half century is the comparative school of Jungian psychology that looks at archetypes and the myths that define cultures and cultural views.
The Jungian Psychologist and writer, Robert A. Johnson has a quote on myths which we love. He writes in his book “She:”
“Myths are rich sources of psychological insight. Great literature, like all great art, records and portrays the human condition with indelible accuracy. Myths are a special kind of literature not written or created by a single individual, but produced by the imagination and experience of an entire age and culture and can be seen as the distillation of the dreams and experiences of a whole culture. They seem to develop gradually as certain motifs emerge, are elaborated, and finally are rounded out as people tell and retell stories that catch and hold their interest.”
Perhaps, one way to understand the values and views of another culture, in conjunction with learning the language, is to examine the myths and stories that permeate a culture.
One of these ideas that we see often enough within Taiwan is the red string of fate. It is the parallel of Aristophanes’ story about joined souls and a wonderful contrast to the idea of fates cutting of strings that we are familiar with in the West. Although the story is understood to have come from China, it is a common belief of tale in Japan, Taiwan, and other countries within Asia. It has a certain power that most good parables or myths contain.
As the story goes, a young man walking home meets an old man leaning on a staff beneath the moon. The man explains that the boy is connected to his predestined wife by a thread. Being young, or in some versions disgusted with his future wife’s appearance or social status, the boy picks up a rock and throws it at the girl before running away. Years later, the boy is arranged to be married through a union arranged by his parents. On their wedding night the groom and bride meet in their traditional bedroom. Lifting the veil for the first time, the man sees that the woman is incredibly beautiful and is very pleased with his luck. He notices, however, that she has a adornment covering one eyebrow. When he asks her why she wears this, she responds by telling him the story of how as a young girl she was playing by the river when a young boy threw a rock at her which struck her above the eye. She had lived with a scar ever since and has been wearing an ornament ever since to cover it up. Listening to the story, the young man realizes their connection. With tears in his eyes explains that he was the young boy who threw the rock and he asks for her forgiveness which she gives him. They go on to be happily married.
One of the take aways from this story is that we all have a red string tied around our ankle, wrist, or pinky fingers (it differs based on country) that connects us to our soulmates. We can stretch, tangle, ignore, or twist this thread but it will never break. In most cases, if we can believe in fate, luck, serendipity, and the help of a benevolent god, we will find the person we are predestined to be with. Time, distance, and circumstance have no sway over this connection.
This story or cultural myth becomes a wonderful one to examine or mine. It is an Ariadne connection to exploring a world and world view that we are used to in the West. It also is easy to understand how the red string of fate has become such a cultural force and so widely used and portrayed in art and literature.
If you’re curious, we suggest you can go to Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple where you will have the opportunity to see and even pray to Yue Lao. May you feel a tug on your line.