The Howard Journal of Communications, 19:18 !43, 2008 ISSN: 1064-6175 print/1096-4649 online

The Howard Journal of Communications, 19:18!43, 2008
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1064-6175 print/1096-4649 online
DOI: 10.1080/10646170701801987
A Textual Analysis of Fortune Cookie
Sayings: How Chinese Are They?
Department of Communication, University of Hawaii at Hilo,
Hilo, Hawaii, USA
The present study analyzes 595 fortune cookie sayings as cultural
texts and explores the predominant values and ideologies embedded in those texts. The study indicates that fortune cookie sayings
fulfill four primary functions: prophecy, compliment, advice, and
wisdom. This textual analysis further uncovers that fortune cookie
sayings (a) delimit ‘‘fortune’’ in terms of money, prosperity, and
romance; (b) make compliments about sociability and talents;
(c) provide advice on life and relationships with others; and (d)
offer wisdom regarding integrity, spirituality, and the past. Despite
their apparent triviality and ordinariness, fortune cookie sayings
represent a form of hybridized cultural discourse. Such hybridized
cultural discourse, according to many critical scholars, is claimed
to be a form of progressive and emancipatory resistance. However,
the analysis reveals that fortune cookie sayings subscribe to
dominant ideologies in both U.S. American and Chinese cultures.
As detailed in the present study, they are a fusion of the American
Dream and the Chinese upward mobility.
KEYTERMS American Dream, Chinese upward mobility, cultural
values, fortune cookies, hybridity, ideology, textual analysis
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 90th Annual Meeting of the National
Communication Association, Chicago, IL, November 11!14, 2004. We wish to thank
Dr. William J. Starosta, Dr. Ronald D. Gordon, and Dr. William Kelly for their thorough reading
and thoughtful feedback. We also gratefully acknowledge Dr. Carolyn A. Stroman and the
three anonymous reviewers for their perceptive comments and incisive criticisms.
Address correspondence to Dr. Jing Yin, Department of Communication, University of
Hawaii at Hilo, 200 West Kawili Street, Hilo, HI 96720-4091. E-mail: [email protected]
Fortune Cookie Sayings
It is customary to end a meal with a fortune cookie at Chinese restaurants in
the United States. In fact, fortune cookies have become an inseparable part of
Chinese food. According to Hendrick (2004), ‘‘Research indicates that about
96 percent of people who eat Chinese food open their cookies and read the
fortunes, and that 67 percent read them aloud so that everyone dining with
them will hear’’ (p. 6NW). Fortune cookies are also popular enough to serve
for a variety of entertaining purposes. Lucky numbers printed inside fortune
cookies are made use of for lotteries (Nichols, 2005). Chocolate-coated fortune cookies are even sold to offer romantic tidings for Valentine’s Day
(Dunnewind, 2004). It was reported that approximately 50 million fortune
cookies are consumed weekly (Hendrick, 2004).
To many U.S. Americans, fortune cookies are a symbol of Chinese culture. Fortune cookie sayings are considered as Chinese wisdom. However,
when U.S. Americans travel in China, they would quickly find that their meals
are not accompanied by fortune cookies. When Chinese people come to the
Untied States, fortune cookies are an amazing discovery. ‘‘Are you sure they
are Chinese? How come I have never seen them in China?’’ Although many
U.S. Americans believe that fortune cookies are authentically Chinese
(Hartman, 2004), they are a primarily U.S. American creation (Brewington,
2005; della Cava, 2005; Peterson, 2004), although it may be said that they
have a foot in two cultures.
The origin and history of fortune cookies have been debated. According
to Brewington (2005), ‘‘San Francisco lays claim to creating them in 1909,
while some believe a Chinese-American restaurateur in Los Angeles invented
the cookie in 1918, inserting Scripture inside and passing them out to the
poor’’ (p. 1B). Others believe that they ‘‘originated in China in the 14th century in the resistance against Mongol rule. Chinese patriots hid messages in
moon cakes to co-ordinate their plans to overthrow the invaders’’
(Hemtasilpa, 2004). Still, there is another story: ‘‘It was invented here in 1914,
when a Japanese-American introduced cookies bearing thank-you notes at
his Japanese Tea Garden in Garden Gate Park’’ (della Cava, 2005, p. 8D).
There seems to be multiple authors of fortune cookie sayings. For
instance, della Cava (2005) featured Lisa Yang, whose father is Steven Yang,
the owner of the M&Y Trading Service Company. Lisa, who is a 23-year-old
student at San Jose State University, was born in China but raised in the
San Francisco Bay Area. She has been writing dozens of fortunes each week
for the past three years. Athitakis (2002) revealed that Russell Rowland, a writer and bookkeeper, wrote more than 600 fortune cookie messages for the
same company.
Despite their trivial and mundane appearances, fortune cookie sayings
are indeed important cultural texts. As Stuart Hall (1980) argued, a cultural
text is a place where struggles over meaning, identity, and power take place.
It is precisely the everydayness of fortune cookies that gives them cultural
and political significance (Carey, 1989). Because fortune cookies are viewed
J. Yin and Y. Miike
as a symbol of Chinese culture in the United States, they merit scholarly attention and assessment. As seen above, like any other form of cultural texts,
fortune cookies are products of a complex process of meaning production.
They reflect a distinctive way of organizing life and making sense of the
world (B. ‘J.’ Hall, 1998, 2005; Yin, 2002; Yin & Hall, 2002). They are simultaneously products of complex power relations. Thus, fortune cookies
should be understood as both cultural and political.
Fortune cookie sayings do not actually represent a particular group’s
culture such as that of Chinese Americans. They are written by certain
authors who have appropriated an alleged Chinese form to cater to customers in the United States. Hence, fortune cookie sayings are not a form of
folk culture. They are not able to represent what a group of people wishes
to define and communicate themselves. Like media contents produced by
a small group of producers, however, they can mediate other peoples’ definition and perception of that particular culture. As Hay (1989) wrote, the
power of cultural texts thus lies in their ability to articulate certain practices
and meanings and provide intertextual experiences for the audience to consume new texts.
The purpose of this article is to examine what kind of values and ideologies fortune cookies represent beneath their apparent ‘‘Chineseness.’’ The
article also aims to explore the cultural and political implications of fortune
cookies sayings as cultural texts. Fortune cookies are not products that were
created in Chinese culture and then diffused to other cultures. Given that
fortune cookies are products of diasporic groups in another culture, it is
reasonable to assume that more than one culture contributed to the production of these particular cultural texts. Thus, the present study considers
fortune cookie sayings as a form of hybridized cultural discourse and
analyzes them accordingly.
Broadly defined, textual analysis refers to an examination of cultural products as powerful forces in shaping contemporary culture (Martin &
Nakayama, 2007). There has been a wide range of methodological types of
textual analysis, ranging from quantitative content analysis to qualitative
ideological criticism (Kellner, 2003). The present study combines a quantitative content analysis and a qualitative thematic analysis of cultural texts to
explore significant symbolic meanings, values, and ideologies in cultural artifacts by attending to the interrelations among the texts and to the contexts of
the texts.
Content analysis is traditionally defined as ‘‘a research technique for the
objective, systematic, and quantitative description of manifest communication’’ (Berelson, 1952, p. 18). In this definition, the frequency of occurrence
Fortune Cookie Sayings
is viewed as the significance of the selected symbols (McQuail, 1994).
Starosta (1984, 1988) insisted that, although quantification is appropriate at
the initial level, scholars need to go beyond the quantitative analysis to
understand the nature of texts. He suggested the use of a qualitative thematic
analysis to (a) explore the rich meanings embedded in the text, (b) situate the
text in relation to other texts that serve as reference of the text, and (c) locate
the significance of the text in the cultural and historical contexts (Starosta,
1988; Sun & Starosta, 2001, 2002). In other words, themes identified in this
process should not only reflect the complexity of the text, but should also
be sensitive to the internal logic of the text as well as its inter-relationships
with other texts and its context.
This textual analysis of fortune cookie sayings follows the method that
Starosta (1984, 1988) used. We first sorted out 595 fortune cookie sayings that
we had collected during the 1999!2004 period into four categories and 10
themes according to the frequency of occurrence. In this process, each fortune cookie saying was treated as a basic unit of analysis. In accordance with
the traditional quantitative content analysis (McQuail, 1994), the frequency of
occurrence was viewed as the significance of meanings in fortune cookie
sayings. It was used as the criterion of grouping and categorizing fortune
cookie sayings. In order to attain inter-coder reliability, we each independently read through all the collected fortune cookie sayings, categorized
them into groups, and identified recurring themes of each group. Then,
we moved on to compare and discuss each other’s sorting. We were able
to agree on the categories and themes. Finally, we both took a qualitative
approach to further analyze each theme in relation to other themes and
the cultural, histological, and political contexts in which fortune cookie sayings are produced, distributed, and consumed.
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995) defined a fortune
cookie as ‘‘a Chinese biscuit that contains a piece of paper that says what will
happen to you in the future’’ (p. 718). This definition probably coincides with
people’s common expectations about fortune cookies. However, the present
analysis reveals that they do more than telling about the future. Fortune
cookies have four primary functions. The first and predominant one is
prophecy. In addition to prophecy, they also offer compliments and provide
advice and wisdom. In the collection of 595 fortune cookies from a variety of
Chinese restaurants, 367 cookies (61.7%) are predictive—telling about the
future; 66 cookies (11.1%) are complimentary—praising your good character; 72 cookies (12.1%) are advisory—providing advices on life; and 90
cookies (15.1%) are philosophical—stating wisdom (see Table 1).
J. Yin and Y. Miike
TABLE 1 Categories and Themes of Fortune Cookie Sayings
Numbers (%)
# Within themes
367 (61.7)
Your sociability
Your ability
Happiness and principles
66 (11.1)
72 (12.1)
90 (15.1)
595 (100)
Fortune Cookies as Prophecies
The largest category of fortune cookie sayings (367 or 61.7%) is prophecy.
The prophecy category is characterized by the use of the future tense. The
typical prophetic fortune cookie starts with ‘‘you will’’ or ‘‘something (someone) will . . . .’’ Here, fortune cookie sayings are true to their name by predominantly foretelling fortune. Fortune is defined by fortune cookie sayings as
monetary fortune (181 or 30.4%), prosperity (165 or 27.8%), and romance
(21 or 3.5%).
However, unlike fortunetellers or other types of prophecy that hopefully
give signs of the future as accurately as possible, whether positive or negative, fortune cookie sayings make only positive predictions. This characteristic of fortune cookies is noteworthy. It suggests that the choice of fortune
cookie sayings is deliberate. They are not merely cultural texts but also products shaped by marketing strategies.
In the United States, fortune cookies are extra ‘‘free’’ items given
out with the purchase of food. This marketing strategy caters to the
‘‘loving-free-stuff’’ consumer psychology. Because people usually do not
go to Chinese restaurants for fortune cookies, accurate or truthful prophecy
is not necessary. Rather, as a token of eating Chinese food, it creates a discursive relationship among fortune, Chinese food, and the customer. By excluding negative predictions, fortune cookies associate Chinese food with good
fortune or luck. This association further evokes a good feeling about
eating Chinese food. Such a discursive construction not only establishes an
identifiable feature for Chinese food, but also helps the business of Chinese
Fortune cookie sayings classify fortune into money, prosperity, and
romance. The first category of fortune is monetary fortune. Among the three
types of fortunes, money is the most frequently recurring theme as a sign of
good fortune in fortune cookie sayings.
Fortune Cookie Sayings
It is interesting to note that fortune cookies’ predominant prediction is about
money. Some 181 (or 30.4%) fortune cookie sayings repeat the same theme
that you will have a lot of money very soon.
A check of thousands of dollars will be sent to you soon.
A large sum of money will be deposited in your account weekly.
A long-hidden treasure will be discovered by you.
You will be one of the most influential rich persons.
You will be richer day by day after this moment.
You will be the richest person in your community.
You’ll have so much money that you won’t know what to do with it.
You’ll instantly become a millionaire from scratch.
The experts at Wall St. will be shocked by your financial success.
The whole nation will be surprised by your financial success.
In traditional Chinese culture, under the influence of Confucianism,
money should always be subdued to yi. Yi is a term that has a broad range
of meanings. It can be roughly translated as morality, righteousness, and
faithfulness. It refers to the appropriate communicative behaviors ascribed
to specific roles and statuses that each person has (Lu, 1998). It is often associated with moral responsibilities and obligations that one should have
toward her or his family, group, and society. The ultimate goal of being an
ideal human is to pursue moral perfection rather than material benefits. Yi
is one of the tenets of Confucian discourse. The Analects teaches that a
nobleman1 cares about yi, whereas a baseman cares about li (utilitarianism,
materialism, and profit) (Lu, 1998). This concept has also been secularized in
Chinese culture, which extended the principle of yi to yishi. Yishi is a person
who is not necessarily an educated or noble man, but ‘‘who cares more for yi
and less for money.’’ The opposition of yi and money (or li) in both elite and
everyday discourses addresses the pursuit of material pleasure and benefits
in association with moral deterioration.
The opposition of yi and li is inscribed in the hierarchy of social relationships in traditional Chinese culture—shi (noblemen or educated men) on the
top of the pyramid, followed by nong (peasants or farmers), gong (craftsmen), and shang (businessmen and merchants) at the bottom. As one goes
down this ladder, the expectation of yi is lowered as well. This is not to
say that such violation is justified, or that members of the lower level groups
would not face negative social consequences.
Shang are believed to prioritize profits or money over other things that
are more important, such as moral perfections and human relationships.
There is a Chinese expression that is still in common use: ‘‘Shang care only
for li (money, profits).’’ As a result, shang are suspected to be greedy and
fraudulent. A Chinese saying goes, ‘‘No shang is not deceitful.’’ Shang is also
J. Yin and Y. Miike
constructed as less capable of being sensitive to human feelings. For
instance, in his famous poem Song of the Pipa Player, Bai Juyi (772!846
A.D.) described a story about a shi (nobleman or educated man) who
appreciated and sympathized with a lonely wife who was left behind by
her profit-hungry shang (businessman) husband. The poem reads: ‘‘Shang
care more about profits and would not mind being parted from the loved
ones.’’ Until China rushed into a market economy during the 1980s, the contempt for businessmen and the rich had been a dominant form of ideology in
China. Even then, the ‘‘pure pursuit of money’’ was regarded as a sign of
moral declining by Chinese intellectuals.
Nonetheless, fortune cookie sayings highly praise and celebrate the pursuit of money and material comfort. The celebration of money in fortunate
cookie sayings can be grouped into two subthemes: (a) money as means
of survival and (b) easy money. The sub-theme of money as basic means
of survival can be seen in the following examples:
Before long money will not be a matter to you.
Before long you will be able to spend as much as you want.
You’ll have more money than you can spend.
This type of fortune cookie saying is a manifestation of the constant concern about money that is shared by most immigrants. Making enough money
to cover all expenditures and support their families becomes their common
goal. This goal is also the driving force and motivation for them to endure the
harshness of their daily lives. Indeed, Xu (1994) observed that ‘‘the simultaneous contempt for business (and ‘the rich’) and love of money (in the
form of thriftiness)’’ mirror the psychology of Chinese immigrants viewing
‘‘money not as a measure of success but as a means of survival’’ (p. 8).
A second, equally notable, sub-theme on money in fortune cookie
sayings is easy money. According to this type of fortune cookie sayings,
money will come to people not through hard work but through some other
easier means, such as inheritance and lottery.
You will earn thousands of dollars daily by doing nothing.
You’ll inherit a great wealth from an unknown person.
You will earn a great fortune without seeking.
Your distant relative is looking for you to inherit his wealth.
Your fortune will not come from lottery tickets but from other games.
These messages go beyond viewing money as the basic means of survival because they convey a kind of wishful thinking that one can obtain
money without having to work for it. What is also implied by the notion
of easy money is that a happy life can be brought about only by money.
In addition, money-making or profit-driven actions appear to be exempted
Fortune Cookie Sayings
from the domain of ethics or morality. Thus, individual upward mobility,
regardless of its means, is unproblematic in fortune cookie sayings. McAlister
(1992) and Yin (2005) argued that assimilation into the mainstream
U.S. American culture and the inclination for upward mobility are intertwined and unquestioned in certain Chinese American literature, such as
Amy Tan’s (1989) Joy Luck Club. Certainly, Chinese Americans adopt a variety of co-cultural communication strategies other than assimilation in negotiating their cultural identities and power relations in the dominant U.S.
society (Orbe, 1998). As Althusser (1971) postulated, however, the power
of cultural texts, such as novels and fortune cookie sayings, lies in the fact
that they normalize and naturalize, rather than reflect and confirm, certain
world views and social practices.
Fortune cookie discourse manifests the psychology of ‘‘the love of
money’’ but not the ‘‘contempt for business and the rich’’ (Xu, 1994). This
‘‘money-loving’’ psychology may be an expression of the American myth that
what matters in the United States is money—that one needs to get as much as
possible and by any possible means (hooks, 1997). Fortune cookie sayings
succumb to such a dominant ideology in the Untied States.
The second category of fortune defined by fortune cookie sayings (165 or
27.8%) is a broader notion of prosperity as delimited in more than monetary
Fame and fortune lie ahead.
Soon you will be getting the recognition you deserve.
You are next in line for promotion in your firm.
You’ll inherit a car much better than the one you have dreamed of.
You’ll live in luxurious surroundings among millionaires.
You’ll soon move to Hollywood and live among movie stars.
You will be awarded some great honor.
You will soon be honored by someone you respect.
Your ideas are clever, and you will be rewarded.
Your labors will bear many rewards.
Your next car will not be a Mercedes, but one even better.
Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded.
Consumers probably expect this type of message when they crack and
open a fortune cookie because it is supposed to tell people that they will
have good luck in the future. Wishing to have good fortune may be a
common feeling across cultures. However, different cultures have different
definitions of good fortune. In Chinese culture, ming (good name, fame,
or reputation) and li (money, profit, or wealth) go together in pragmatics.
J. Yin and Y. Miike
Nevertheless, the belief of li as the corruption of moral perfection implicitly
suggests that li is not something that should be proud of or talked about
aloud. It can be a nice by-product of ming (good name), which resulted from
morality, but it should always be secondary. Prioritizing li over ming lowers
one’s own status. The idea that ‘‘fame and fortune lie ahead’’ alludes to the
priority of ming.
In U.S. American culture, on the other hand, success often means both
money and fame. Money brings about fame, and fame brings about money.
Not a few U.S. American university students go so far as to say that their goal
of life is to be ‘‘rich and famous.’’ Although money and fame do not have to
come in any particular order, money is generally more important. Many U.S.
Americans could live with money and lack fame, but not vice versa.
Furthermore, celebrities are considered as living proofs of success for
many U.S. Americans. Becoming a celebrity or associating with them is also
a measure of success. One of the fortune cookie sayings, ‘‘You’ll soon move
to Hollywood and live among movie stars,’’ is thus more an indicator of the
American Dream than of a Chinese ideal.
Another noticeable feature of this type of fortune cookie sayings is the
emphasis on opportunity. It reiterates the promise of the Untied States as
the land of opportunity.
An exciting opportunity lies ahead if you are not timid.
Golden investment opportunities are arising.
There are many new opportunities that are being presented to you.
Opportunity knocks on your door every day—answer it.
Soon, you’ll have a chance at a profitable transition.
There are big chances ahead of you.
You will take a chance on something in the near future.
The promise of opportunity attracts thousands of immigrants to the
United States. They come to this land with their own American dreams. They
suppose that as long as they work hard, they could achieve anything they
have dreamed about. The emphasis of fortune cookie sayings on opportunities may alleviate the harshness of current life by projecting a better future.
On the one hand, they protect the psyche because they provide a certain
relief, especially for those who are struggling in their everyday lives. On
the other hand, they are problematic because the relief that they offer is
through escapism. Escapism keeps people from actively challenging prejudice, discrimination, and other forms of inequality and injustice. For
example, the saying ‘‘All your hard work will soon pay off’’ alludes that
one should be patient with regard to the present situation because the future
is the solution to all problems.
In reality, race and class are intricately intertwined. As Chinese
immigrants wish to climb up the class ladder, they have to give up their
Fortune Cookie Sayings
Chineseness, which is disregarded as backwardness, poverty, and
oppression (Leowen, 1988; McAlister, 1992; Wong(Lau), 2004; Yin, 2005).
Many members of non-White groups in the United States would later find
that, no matter how hard they work and how much they give up, they would
not be totally accepted by the mainstream American culture (Takaki, 1993,
1998). Even their American-born descendants, unlike those of European origins, are still regarded as forever foreign (Nakayama, 1988; Takaki, 1993,
1998). Asian Americans are compelled to deal with the issue of invisibility
(Sun & Starosta, 2006). With critical consciousness, many Asian Americans
are creatively negotiating their relationships with the dominant U.S. culture
like many other co-cultural groups do (Orbe, 1998).
Nonetheless, fortune cookie sayings do not reflect such critical consciousness. Ignoring the historical and political-economic context, fortune
cookie sayings sponsor an individualistic outlook on the future. Life is characterized as full of changes and adventures. Such an account personalizes
experiences and processes that are heavily shaped by social structures. It
places exclusive control on the individual over life and the future.
Change is happening in your life, so go with the flow!
There is always time for you to try a new path in life.
Try something new and different. You will like the results.
You may soon change your line of work.
You will make many changes before settling satisfactorily.
You soon find more adventure in life.
You will take a pleasant journey to a place far away.
You won’t be bored for long! New adventures are on their way.
The preference for adventures in fortune cookie sayings is also telling
because it signifies the desire for adventures and explorations that is rooted
in the Enlightenment mentality of the modern West (Tu, 2002). The search
for excitement in voyeurism is very common among Europeans and
European Americans. Yet, for economically and culturally underprivileged
immigrants, it may be an unattainable luxury.
The final theme of good fortune offered by fortune cookie sayings (21 or
3.5%) is romance.
A romantic evening is in your future.
An admirer is concealing his affection for you.
You will have a happy reunion with your long departed lover.
J. Yin and Y. Miike
You’ll be invited to a royal dancing party and meet your first lover.
You will hear unexpected good news from your first lover.
Longing for romance may have its universal appeal. People from all
countries and cultures desire love and being loved. Although some can be
read as gender neutral, fortune cookie sayings embrace the patriarchal conception of romance. They re-state the ‘‘Cinderella’’ story (e.g., ‘‘You’ll be
invited to a royal dancing party and meet your first lover.’’). It assumes that
good fortune for a female is love and marriage. This type of fortune cookie
sayings represents a sexist ideology, which is not culturally particular. It exists
in both Chinese and U.S. American cultures. Here, cultural or racial differences
become less important when another factor, gender, enters into the picture.
Fortune Cookies as Compliments
People generally may not associate fortune cookies with compliments. Some
66 (or 11.1%) of the fortune cookies collected, however, can be lumped
under the category of compliments. Fortune cookies pay people compliments by praising their good character. Truthfulness in this case is beside
the point. The complimentary feature of fortune cookies, like the positive
predictions, creates a pleasant relationship between customers and Chinese
food. Unlike the prophetic sayings that use the future tense, the complimentary ones are characterized by the use of the present tense. Direct address is
used to establish an immediate relationship with the customer. This type of
fortune cookie sayings is descriptive and typically starts with ‘‘you are’’ or
‘‘you have.’’ The complimentary category consists of two themes: (a) sociability and (b) talents.
One persistent theme of compliments made by fortune cookie sayings is
‘‘you are charming’’ (28 or 4.7%). This type of compliment used in fortune
cookie sayings concentrates on one’s sociability.
You display the wonderful traits of charm and courtesy.
You are very expressive and positive in word, act and feeling.
You are artistic and others can relate to you.
You are never bitter, deceptive or petty.
You have a keen sense of humor and love a good time.
You have the ability to adapt to diverse situations.
Your presence livens up any conversation.
Your self-confidence shines and makes a great impression on others.
This theme of fortune cookie sayings displays a U.S. American’s fondness for popularity and sociability rather than Chinese social norms
Fortune Cookie Sayings
(e.g., ‘‘You have a keen sense of humor and love a good time;’’ ‘‘Your are
very expressive and positive in word, act and feeling’’). In U.S. American culture, being able to attract other people’s attention is seen as an ability to
socialize well. People are expected to impress others within a short period
of time in social and professional settings. In brief conversations, one can
quickly get to know people and make oneself known to others. The unspoken assumption is that the unique quality of an individual will not be
acknowledged until it is displayed in communication. Thus, communication
skills are crucial for people to be noticed or even liked by others. The same
assumption also encourages people to stand out in order to make oneself
known as ‘‘who one is’’ rather than ‘‘what one is.’’2
On the contrary, from a Chinese point of view, attention is not something that one can work on through communication. It is gained through
respect and prestige commanded by a person’s virtue or morality, as shown
in the Chinese saying, degao wangzhong (noble character and high prestige).
Noble character is achieved by self-cultivation or self-development (Cheng,
1998). Indeed, Confucian teachings warn against glibly using words that
do not resonate with one’s actions and morality (Chang, 1997). A person
who does not have good character nor commands certain social respect
should not make herself or himself conspicuous. Those who would do so
are considered a tiaoliang xiaochou (a contemptible buffoon)—someone
who tries to get attention through unbecoming acts.
This cultural view is predicated on the ontological assumption that a
person’s identity is defined in relation to others (Chen, 2001, 2002; Chen &
Starosta, 2003, 2005; Miike, 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2007). An individual
is expected to understand her or his position in the complex web of her
or his social relationships and behave accordingly. A key to such a sense
of self is one’s relationships to the collective (e.g., the family, clan, group,
and community). The collective looks after an individual and takes the ultimate responsibility for the individual. In return, the individual is obligated to
put the harmony of the collective prior to her or his personal will. Mutual
obligations are required for both the collective and the individual. Rights
come with obligations (Yin, 2006a, 2006b, 2007).3
In order to maintain collective harmony, individuals are discouraged
from making themselves stand out unless their superior morality and virtue
permit them to do so. A Chinese saying, ‘‘A sticking-out rafter will rot first,’’
teaches this kind of individual-collective relationship. The collective protects
as well as constrains the individual. Therefore, not being aligned with others
in the collective is considered as showing off, which is not only unwarranted
but also endangers oneself and brings shame to the collective.
An important concept related to the maintenance of harmony is being
qianxu. Qianxu can be roughly translated as modesty, but it is more than
the Western concept of modesty. It connotes not only humility but also the
acknowledgement and appreciation of others. That is, being qianxu means
J. Yin and Y. Miike
that an individual has to assume she or he is not good (or knowledgeable)
enough, and that he or she has to appreciate the fact that other people are
better. The notion of qianxu enables people to behave discreetly. Being
the center of attention can be embarrassing for many Chinese people.
Furthermore, many Chinese are inclined to presuppose that you cannot
know a person through what she or he says, and that you need to observe
the person for an extended period of time. A famous Chinese maxim says:
‘‘Distance tests a horse’s strength while time reveals a person’s heart.’’ Consequently, there is no need for the person to strive to impress people immediately. Attempts to make an impression instantly are met only with suspicion.
Fortune cookie sayings, on the contrary, prompt people to grab others’
attention. Hence, fortune cookie sayings are more consonant with U.S.
American cultural values than with Chinese cultural values.
Another theme of the compliment category in fortune cookie sayings is
about talents. Thirty-eight (6.4%) fortune cookie sayings compliment the
customer’s abilities.
People say you have sharp sense and superb intellect.
You are talented in many ways.
You have the ability to excel in untried areas.
You have the making of a winner.
You have sound business sense.
You have a good head for matters of money.
You have the making of a leader, not a follower.
Executive ability is prominent in your make up.
This theme of fortune cookie sayings implies that one is a free agent
who is acting out at the center of the universe on her or his own will. Business and leadership potentials are frequently mentioned. The comments on
money making reaffirm the overall materialistic orientation of fortune cookie
sayings. The admiration for leadership capability advances the ethos of fortune cookie sayings that sanctions the psychology of ‘‘getting ahead’’ through
individual endeavors.
This theme underlines the strong faith in the individual. That is, one’s
success rests in large measure on her or his individual abilities and talents.
Such an idea needs to be understood in relation to common beliefs held
by immigrants in the United States. Most immigrants come to the United
States with their versions of the American Dream. They subscribe to the belief
that if they work hard enough, they can make it on the land of opportunity.
Furthermore, those who come to the new land by choice, rather than
Fortune Cookie Sayings
involuntarily, share a strong belief in themselves. They trust that they are
hard workers and will succeed on the land of the free. Amy Tan (1989)
described this kind of psychology among Chinese immigrants as nenggan
(capable of making it anywhere). It is the self-confidence that enables those
Chinese individuals to explore life on a foreign land. It is not surprising that
fortune cookies include sayings such as ‘‘You are talented in many ways’’ and
‘‘People say you have sharp sense and superb intellect.’’
It is precisely the self-assuredness that helps sustain the myth of the
American Dream. McAlister (1992) and Yin (2005) maintained that many
Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans view individual upward mobility
as unproblematic. Fortune cookie sayings such as ‘‘You have the making of a
winner’’ support individual upward mobility. Success here is conceived as
the result of individual, or at most family, efforts. Any notion of the collective
beyond the family level is not included in such a formulation. Social equality
and justice are out of the domain of consciousness. All these presumptions
resonate with the American Dream, but they also need to be understood in
the context of a particular form of traditional Chinese ideology.
Many in the West believe that a hierarchically structured society like
China ascribes different social roles to people in accordance to their birth status (Parsons, 1951, cited in B. ‘J.’ Hall, 2005). Chinese culture, in fact, advocates upward mobility through individual achievements. The Imperial
Examination System4 in China promised opportunities to all people to move
up the social ladder through education. This system assumed that if a man
studied hard enough, he could pass as shi (nobleman).5 Nevertheless, the
reality is that the social structure privileged certain groups over others. And
the majority of people had no access to education. Furthermore, the talents
that the government was looking for were very narrowly defined. Political
and ideological dissenters were excluded. The unfairness was exacerbated
by corruption within the government.
Just like the ‘‘American Dream’’ ideology, the myth of the Imperial
Examination System was taken for granted as common sense. Individual
upward mobility was thus uncritically accepted. This Chinese belief in individual achievements and upward mobility fits into the American Dream
nicely. Fortune cookie sayings that commemorate individual talents and
potentials represent the interplay of these two dominant ideologies.
Whereas the American Dream includes the acquisition of money, fame,
and status, the Imperial Examinations System confined success to the areas of
education and sociopolitical status. The Imperial Examination as the only
means for upward mobility prioritized education in Chinese culture. The
social hierarchy with shi (educated or noblemen) at the top and shang
(businessmen) at the bottom was constituted on the basis of contempt for
the rich and business. In contrast, as argued previously, one prevailing theme
of fortune cookie sayings is money. For instance, ‘‘You have sound business
sense’’ and ‘‘You have a good head for matters of money.’’ These messages
J. Yin and Y. Miike
show that fortune cookies buy into the monetary aspect of the U.S. American
dominant ideology.
Fortune Cookies as Advice
The third category of fortune cookie sayings is advice (72 or 12.1%). This
type of fortune cookie sayings is written in the directive form, telling someone to do something. Unlike the prophetic and complimentary fortune
cookies that use the second person to address customers, advisory fortune
cookies often omit direct address. And yet, they imply a dialogue with their
targeted consumers.
Fortune cookie sayings provide advice on life (40 or 6.7%) and on
relationships with others (32 or 5.3%). Interestingly enough, the advice that
fortune cookie sayings offer are not free from contradictions. In term of the
outlook on life, fortune cookies advise people to be both active and passive.
Some fortune cookie sayings urge people to actively take charge of the
course of their lives through actions. Among this type of advice, one obvious
possibility is to ‘‘pursue your dreams’’ with ‘‘confidence:’’
Approach all areas of life with bold enthusiasm.
Be innovative, take charge of new ideas.
Don’t be afraid of competition.
Hold tight to your dreams.
Get your mind set . . . Confidence will lead you on.
Pursue your dreams.
Yes, do it with confidence.
On the other hand, fortune cookie sayings also caution people about
their actions:
Be careful of extravagance.
Keep your feet on the ground even though friends flatter you.
Lavish spending may be disastrous, be careful.
Rome was not built in a day. Be patient.
The wise thing to do is to prepare for the unexpected.
The ‘‘go-for-it’’ type of advice may be another hint of the American
Dream. That is, anything is possible, and nothing can be achieved without
individual efforts. Thus, a capable individual needs to make every effort to
realize her or his dream. The ‘‘be cautious’’ warnings, however, embody
some elements of Chinese culture.
Chen and Chung (1994) contended that influenced by Confucianism,
Asian organizations tend to use the preventive mode of communication as
opposed to the problem-solving mode of communication that Western
Fortune Cookie Sayings
organizations prefer. Rather than trying to fix problems afterwards, Chinese
people seek to prevent any possible rupture or conflict before it happens
so that harmony can be preserved. This way of thinking further leads people
to act prudently and to be prepared for the unexpected. ‘‘Playing safe’’ is
thought of as worldly wisdom. Fortune cookie sayings, such as ‘‘The wise
thing to do is to prepare for the unexpected’’ and ‘‘Be careful of extravagance,’’ denote the value of prudence.
The notion of prudence is further linked to a keen realization of one’s
own limitations. It is believed that the recognition of one’s own limitations
enables a person to judge herself or himself as well as the situation realistically. Praises and honors are considered as potential hindrances to that recognition. People are constantly warned against being swayed by them. The
fortune cookie saying, ‘‘Keep your feet on the ground even though friends
flatter you,’’ corresponds to such a belief.
In terms of human relationships, fortune cookie sayings also provide
conflicting advice. On the one hand, some recommend people to be on their
guard. On the other hand, others propose people to cherish friendship and
share their fortune, as seen in the following examples:
(Be on your guard.)
Don’t share your investment with anyone except your life companion.
Guard your secrets.
Keep your plans secret for now.
(Cherish friendship and share your fortune.)
Share your happiness with others today.
Reach out your hand today to support others who need you.
Remember to share good fortune as well as bad with your friends.
This contradiction can be read in light of inconsistent Chinese values
about how to relate to other people. The Confucian principles of ren (benevolence, compassion, and duty) and yi (righteousness, justice, and loyalty)
prescribe not only the virtue of an individual but also her or his relationships
with others (Yum, 1988, 2003). Trust and loyalty are the foundations of
friendship. Confucianism also defines the family as the basic unit of society.
Family is crucial to draw the boundary between the in-group and the outgroup. Many cultures influenced by the Confucius tradition exhibit distrust
toward out-group members (Chen & Chung, 1994; Yum, 1988, 2003).
Chinese culture is no exception in this regard. The distrust of the out-group
and the principles of ren and yi are irreconcilable. The only solution to this
problem is to apply them separately in different contexts. Fortune cookie
sayings embrace such a paradox and produce inconsistent advice regarding
human relationships.
J. Yin and Y. Miike
Although fortune cookie sayings may be grounded on the Chinese
assumptions about human relationships, the communication styles suggested
by fortune cookie sayings are very non-Chinese.
Be assertive and you will win.
Be direct, usually one can accomplish more that way.
Do not let your instinct run right over your reason.
Speak up if you feel that too much is expected of you.
Intercultural communication researchers (e.g., Chen, 2001, 2002, 2004;
Chen & Chung, 1994; Chen & Starosta, 2005; Sun & Starosta, 2002) observe
that the Chinese tend to be indirect in order to avoid conflict, save face, or
maintain harmony. Like many other East Asians, the Chinese prefer a nonverbal
empathic orientation to direct self-expression. This preference is vitally imbricated with some fundamental Chinese assumptions about the role of language
in communication. The Chinese consider language as an imperfect means for
conveying meanings because it can hardly capture the essence and richness
of human experience. Verbalizing an experience in fact reduces the essence
of that experience (Saville-Troike, 1982). Thus, the best way of communicating
something is without having to express it in words. Words are secondary,
and they become necessary when nonverbal empathy is lacking.
Moreover, in Chinese culture, language is viewed as a double-edged
sword, which needs to be handled with great care. Confucius warns people
against glib words that do not match a person’s action and morality (Chang,
1997). A person might be able to get her or his way with words, but words
can also hurt people by causing unexpected trouble and shame. ‘‘Trouble
arises from the mouth’’ is one of the most popular teachings in Chinese
Fortune cookie recommendations to ‘‘speak up,’’ to ‘‘be direct,’’ to ‘‘be
assertive,’’ and to prioritize reason over intuition, however, are often associated with U.S. American communication styles. Many U.S. Americans assume
that something cannot be communicated if it has not been put into words.
Speaking up is generally considered as the most effective way to get things
done and to be true to one’s own feelings (Althen, 1992). Fortune cookie sayings such as ‘‘Be direct, usually one can accomplish more that way’’ are based
on this culture-bound assumption and suggest that people adopt the American style of communication.
In their advices, fortune cookie sayings further endorse the idea of being
true to oneself. Being true to oneself, in this case, is deemed as the direct
correspondence between people’s outer behaviors and inner feelings.
Answer just what your heart prompts you.
Discover the power within yourself.
Stay close to your inner self, you will benefit in many ways.
Fortune Cookie Sayings
An (2004) remarked that the Chinese notion of cheng (truthfulness, honesty, and sincerity) differs from the Western concept of sincerity. Rooted in
individualism, the Western notion of sincerity stresses the consistency
between the inner self and the external exercise. The Confucian conception
of cheng is guided by the understanding of the network of human relationships and the empathetic feelings toward other human beings (An, 2004).
Fortune Cookies as Wisdom
The last category of fortune cookie sayings is wisdom (90 or 15.1%). Unlike
the advice category, this category is written in the assertive mode, stating a fact
or proposition. Whereas fortune cookie sayings’ predications, compliments,
and advices emphasize predominantly money, the sayings featuring wisdoms
focus on happiness, principles, and other non-material matters, such as time:
A happy heart is better than full purse, but you will have both.
A merry heart does good like a medicine.
Your happiness is intertwined with your outlook on life.
Your home is a pleasant place from which you draw happiness.
Your principles mean more to you than any money or success.
Seeking for happiness may be a universal human desire. But different
people have different senses of happiness. According to Jhally (2003), in
U.S. American culture, happiness had been primarily about social life rather
than material life until the advertising system confused happiness with consumption. As a result, many U.S. Americans are prone to believe that they can
be happy through the purchase of goods and services. In a similar vein, as
China rushes into a market economy, money overrides any other alternative
forms of happiness. Ironically, in spite of its unmistakable materialism,
fortune cookie sayings reserve some space for happiness beyond money.
One of the interesting themes in the wisdom category is that of time.
Fortune cookie sayings stress the importance of the past and the wisdom
of the elders.
From a past misfortune, good luck will come to you.
In youth and beauty, wisdom is rare.
Listen to the wisdom of the old.
No man is rich enough to buy back his past
Past inspirations and experiences will be helpful in your job.
The best prophet of the future is the past.
You have at your command the wisdom of the ages.
Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961) posited that there are three
time orientations across cultures: past, present, and future. They further
associated time orientations to other cultural characteristics. For example,
J. Yin and Y. Miike
future-oriented cultures are related to individualism. In those cultures, such
as Anglo-American cultures, people have a tendency to do things to achieve
a certain future. Past-oriented cultures, on the other hand, are coupled with
collectivism. In those cultures, people have an inclination to value their traditions and learn from their histories. Chinese culture was recognized as an
example of such a past-oriented culture.
Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s (1961) framework is essentially based on a
linear view of time. It is inadequate in explicating the Chinese time orientation because time is viewed as non-linear in Chinese culture. History develops in a circular fashion. Luo Guanzhong’s (1330!1400 A.D.) famous novel,
Romance of The Three Kingdoms (2002), summarizes the course of history as
follows: ‘‘The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to
unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since
antiquity.’’ The past always has implications for the future, because it provides a context for present and future events. Without the past, the present
and future cannot be fully understood (Miike, 2002, 2003a).
The circularity of time in the Chinese context should not be understood
as fatalism. The future is not simply a reoccurrence or repetition of
the past, which is predetermined or beyond human power. There is a
dynamic relationship between the two. Such dynamics can be observed in
the well-known paradox: ‘‘Good fortune lies within bad, bad fortune lurks
within good.’’ The past constitutes conditions rather than acts as a determinant for the future. It is the indeterminacy of the future that allows
present actions to enter. The future can be changed through proper human
interventions. Learning from the past is an attempt to shape the future in a
desirable direction. Fortune cookie sayings diminish this more circular
understanding of the past and the future. Fortune cookie sayings, such as,
‘‘From a past misfortune, good luck will come to you,’’ nevertheless, illustrate
the profound impact of Chinese cultural values on this particular type of
At the end of this section, it is especially worthwhile to discuss how fortune cookie sayings exhibit particular viewpoints on certain geographical
locations. They assign specific meanings to different continents. For instance,
Africa is designated as the land of exploitation, whereas Europe is associated
with status and prestige. As far as Asia is concerned, fortune cookie sayings
reserve it for romantic vocations. Asia is also viewed as exotic.
You’ll inherit a diamond mine in Africa.
You’ll go to Africa to take over the greatest gold mine there.
You’ll be chosen to be the heir of a kingdom in Europe.
You’ll be asked to take a high and prestigious position in Europe.
Fortune Cookie Sayings
Someone will pay you to travel to the Far East for a vacation with your
This differentiation of locations appears to be based on the geographical
hierarchy created and perpetuated by Europeans and later by European
Americans in their domination of non-Western countries and cultures. This
hierarchy, along with the hierarchy of race, has been inscribed in people’s
consciousness around the globe. Fortune cookie sayings are yet another type
of cultural texts that commemorates and fortifies the imperialist and colonialist ideology.
This article analyzed 595 fortune cookie sayings as cultural texts and
explored the predominant values and ideologies embedded in those texts.
The present textual analysis indicated that fortune cookie sayings fulfill four
primary functions: prophecy, compliment, advice, and wisdom. The analysis
further uncovered that fortune cookie sayings (a) delimit ‘‘fortune’’ in terms
of money, prosperity, and romance; (b) make compliments about sociability
and talents; (c) provide advice on life and relationships with others; and
(d) offer wisdom regarding integrity, spirituality, and the past.
Fortune cookie sayings provide a perfect example of hybridized cultural
texts. They are a fusion of the American Dream and the Chinese upward
mobility. In this sense, fortune cookies are both American and Chinese,
although the former is more predominant than the latter. Rather than completely adopting everything American and excluding everything Chinese, fortune cookies are at the intersection of the two cultures. Hybridity theorists
(e.g., Kraidy, 1999) may interpret this cultural mixture as a form of resistance
to Western colonization.
This conception of hybridity is based on an optimistic view about the
global flow of information. Hybridity does take place, and the hegemonic
power of Western culture does not take the form of magic bullets or hypodermic needles. However, most hybridity researchers tend to celebrate hybridized
new cultural forms without critical interrogation. Stam (2003) contended,
Hybridity has never been a peaceful encounter, a tension-free theme
park; it has always been deeply entangled with colonial violence. Indeed,
as a descriptive catch-all term, ‘‘hybridity’’ fails to discriminate between
the diverse modalities of hybridity, such as, colonial imposition, or other
interactions such as obligatory assimilation, political cooperation, cultural
mimicry, commercial exploitation, top-down appropriation, or bottomup subversion. (p. 33)
J. Yin and Y. Miike
Kellner (2003) further points out that there is a tendency in cultural studies and postmodernist and poststructuralist research to romanticize resistance in non-Western cultures and downplay the power of Western culture.
The celebration of resistance without distinguishing the forms and types of
resistance can be very dangerous because some forms of resistance can be
reactionary and destructive. Echoing Kellner’s (2003) argument, the present
analysis of fortune cookie sayings demonstrates that this form of resistance
is not necessarily progressive. What fortune cookie producers adopted from
U.S. American culture is not something random. It is a particular form of
Americanness (i.e., the White middle-class American ideology). This type
of ideology can be used to justify social inequality by blaming the individual.
It is also a weapon used against other racial minority groups, especially
African American youths (McAlister, 1992; Nakayama, 1988).
Moreover, fortune cookies possess certain Chinese cultural elements,
but what is preserved in their sayings is mainly the dominant Chinese ideology, such as upward mobility through individual achievements. Those types
of ideology can go along with the dominant U.S. ideology easily. The two
forms of ideologies work together to keep underprivileged racial, gender,
or class groups blind to their unequal conditions. They also render the
oppressed groups segmented by turning them against each other. Thus, this
form of hybridity or resistance can hardly qualify as progressive and emancipatory.
As Certeau (1997) reminded us, inquiries into cultural formation ought
to be both cultural and political. Without the political, the cultural will fall
into the prey of folklorization, losing its force for social change. Without cultural specificity, the search for universal commonality will run the risk of ethnocentrism (Chen & Miike, 2006; Miike, 2006). Therefore, the study of
cultural hybridity should not lose a political edge. In order to avoid the
over-obsession with textual complexity at the expense of material forces,
due attention needs to be paid to the political economy and everyday struggles of marginalized people. Furthermore, with a view to deciphering hybridized texts as cultural products more accurately, it is imperative to locate
them in their historical contexts that have been voided in current accounts
of hybridity.
The findings of the present study have a couple of implications for communication theory and research. First, they pinpoint the fact that mediated
communication plays a vital role in facilitating particular forms of hybridity.
Our analysis of fortune cookie sayings demonstrated that certain dominant
ideologies in different cultures collide and create a specific repressive mode
of hybridity. Second, the findings of the present study confirm James Carey’s
(1989) theoretical statement that the commonsense and unproblematic nature of communication shapes our culture and society. The dominant group
controls and produces cultural texts as messages that naturalize its own
worldview while marginalizing those of the dominated groups (S. Hall,
Fortune Cookie Sayings
1980). As a result of the long-term consumption of such omnipresent messages, the dominated groups come to internalize the values and ideologies
of the dominant group and start to participate in the perpetuation of those
values and ideologies. It is because of this communicative function of cultural
texts that communication researchers continue to critique them as mediated
messages in order to bring about positive social change.
1. Women and uneducated men were excluded from the noblemen category.
2. It should be noted that U.S. Americans also disapprove showing-off excessively or ‘‘trying too hard
to impress people.’’
3. The argument about the pronounced right-obligation relationship in China does not mean that
U.S. Americans have only individual freedom without obligations. However, U.S. Americans tend to prioritize freedom over obligations and view the latter as a constraint on the former. Rosemont (1998) pointed
out that responsibility has been ostracized and marginalized in the individualism-informed Western discourse. In Chinese culture, these two are dialectically related. One’s rights are understood in terms of
the responsibilities associated with her or his position in the interrelated network of social relations.
For instance, the ruler, as Mandate-of-Heaven, is endowed by Heaven precisely because he or she is given
more responsibilities than the governed (Cheng, 1998).
4. The Imperial Examination System is also called the Civil Service Examinations. It was initiated in
the Sui Dynasty (581!618 A.D.), perfected in the Tang Dynasty (618!907 A.D.), and ended in 1911
(Man-Cheong, 2004). It was used by the government to recruit and select government officials for more
than 1,300 years.
5. Women were excluded from the Imperial Examination System for most of the time. They were not
allowed to take the examinations except for a short period during the Tang Dynasty.
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