Any parent with a five-year-old knows that a frightened child refuses to go to bed quietly—even when mom already promised to leave the lights on. The source of the child’s distress could be anything from scary movies to a large barking dog. Trauma, however trivial in the eyes of the adult, is serious to the child.

But fret not. Taiwanese folk magic is here to help! An age-old Taiwanese ritual, known as siu-kiann—literally Taiwanese for dispelling shock, is a time-honoured, battle-tested remedy for many a five-year-old’s most horrid make-beliefs.

These rituals can be elaborate and require a visit to your local temple priest. Or you can conduct a quick-fix version from the comfort of your own home. You just need a small cup, the child’s favourite Linus-van-Pelt-style blanket, some magical chanting and a bucket of rice!

Behold, this is your definitive at-home step-by-step siu-kiann guide for combating your kid’s nightmares. Oh, and mom’s sleep deprivation as well—of course.

Photo: Grains of rice (a key siu-kiann ingredient) in a wood container

Siu-Kiann Step One: Assemble the Kit

Your starting point to the siu-kiann ritual should be to assemble your equipment. This is what you will need:

  • a couple of sturdy chairs
  • a small measuring cup
  • a bucket of rice (uncooked)
  • your child’s favourite blanket
  • tender loving care (TLC)

Step one is to seat your child on one of the chairs. You yourself will sit opposite the youngling in a face-to-face fashion.

Next, take one measuring cup full of rice and tightly wrap it in your child’s favourite blanket—cup and all. If your child does not have a favourite blanket, you have the option of using the shirt your child happened to be wearing just prior to the start of the ritual.

Make sure you have a solid grip on the rice-in-cup-wrapped-in-blanket. The basic mechanics of the ritual are simple. You are to gently tap your child’s chest in a rhythmic fashion using the wrapped rice while chanting the magic formula.

Photo: Chinese coin with zodiac engravings

Siu-Kiann Step Two: The Magic Formula

This version of the siu-kiann ritual invokes the blessing and protection of East Asia’s traditional guardian spirits—the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. In order, they are the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the hound and, finally, the boar.

Each time you gently tap your child’s chest, quietly recite the name of one of the guardians, starting with the rat. Proceed through the zodiacs for a total of 12 taps. Each sequence of 12 taps is one mini-cycle. Repeat for a total of seven mini-cycles—or 84 taps.

Now, this is key. Seven of these mini-cycles equals one main cycle. At the end of one main cycle, unwrap the rice and empty the cup into a rice bucket. Refill the cup, re-wrap it and repeat the above procedure two more times. In summary, 12 taps per mini-cycle, seven mini-cycles for one main cycle, and three main cycles in all. That’s a total of 21 mini-cycles or 252 taps. 12 × 7 × 3—capiche?

For maximal effect, try invoking the guardian spirits in their Taiwanese names. You can probably recite it in Mandarin or even English, but we believe recitation in the Taiwanese language to be the gold standard. The spirits’ names in Taiwanese are chhí, , hóo, thòo, liông, chôa, , iûnn, kâu, ke, káu and ti.

Photo: Mother and daughter

Siu-Kiann Step Three: Smack!

By this point, your five-year-old is likely close to dozing off. To complete this placebo magical ritual, give them a good smack on their backs (but not too hard) and, in a loud, thundering and confident voice, proclaim that they have been cleansed of their fears and that all is well!

The sudden smack and the loud proclamation will probably scare the wits out of the child—perhaps causing them to forget their previous fears but hopefully not creating new anxiety—so be sure to provide them with a tight hug and no shortage of TLC.

It is helpful at this moment to unwrap the blanket and examine the cup of rice. You are sure to find patterns on the surface of the rice that closely resembles whatever it was that troubled your five-year-old’s young mind. This indicates that the shock has been dispelled from the child (hence the ritual’s name) and has safely been transferred to the grains.

For example, say the child was frightened by an encounter with a snake, you’ll find impressions on the surface of the rice that resembles a slithering serpent. Use your imagination. Seriously, put your back into it.

The siu-kiann process is perhaps not unlike the transcribing of “intrusive thoughts” described by psychologist Nick Wignall. In his guide published in Psyche, the cognitive behavioural therapist notes that “taking the thoughts ‘out of your head’ and putting them on paper will help you get distance from them and give you a different perspective.” Except, of course, that in siu-kiann, you’re putting those thoughts not on paper but—well—in rice….

Statue: Man contemplating

Notes and Disclaimers

For adults experiencing anxiety or suffering from more serious forms of PTSD, more formal versions of the ritual are available at Taiwanese temples. Though we strongly advise seeking help from certified specialists trained in modern psychology and psychotherapy, instead.

As far as we know, the effectiveness of the ritual has never been established under rigorous scientific scrutiny in peer-reviewed studies. Folkloric anecdotal evidence suggests a high rate of success in treating minor shocks. However, please exercise discretion when considering distress-relieving alternatives. All cavorting aside, mental health is not a joke and everyone (especially children) should be entitled to high-quality expert care.

It is widely believed that the rice used in the ritual is safe for consumption, though this has not been scientifically verified. Consume at your own risk.

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Posted by:The Island Folklore Society

A society for the collection, preservation, translation, promotion and celebration of Taiwanese Tales & Traditions. Visit islandfolklore.org to learn more.