With its rapid economical development, China is constantly accelerating modernisation, so if you have been to China in the recent 20 years, you definitely know China is a modern country. Influenced by globalisation, China is taking in more western customs as well. However, being a country with such a long history, some interesting superstitions still exist in China's Mandarin-speaking areas. These superstitions mostly either connect with the language Mandarin or some historical customs.
Now let’s take a look at seven major Chinese superstitions so that you will not make any mistakes while associating with your Chinese friends!
If you have ever lived in China, you may know that Chinese people have a very strong preference for some numbers and aversion for some others. The disgust of “four” in China is caused by its pronunciation which is reminiscent of death. In Chinese, four is “sì” while death is “sǐ”, only the tone is different! If you are a Mandarin learner, you may have been warned by your teacher - do not mix their tones or you will make big mistakes! This is actually very superstitious, and even though many young people do not really believe in it, there are still some sensitive occasions that they deliberately avoid.
One of the most common avoidance measures is to skip numbers that contain "4". Not only in mainland China but also Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, even Japan, some buildings skip the floor numbers with the trailing "4". The actual 4th floor is marked as the 5th floor - right above the 3rd floor. Hospitals that have witnessed life and death are particularly sensitive to this taboo. Therefore, the next time you see a building without all floors which contain four, you know why!
If four is the unlucky number, then what are the lucky numbers? The answer is six and eight! If you know some Chinese customs, or have some Chinese friends, you may have heard of the custom of giving someone red pocket money to congratulate them for some big events, e.g. weddings, giving birth to babies, and money for kids during the spring festival. Nowadays, it is very possible that the red pocket money is transferred through Wechat pay or Ali pay. Since you can decide the number of each digit, how much money should you transfer? You may notice that this “lucky money” always contains a lot of SIX and EIGHT, like 166 yuan, 188 yuan, 268 yuan, etc. Why are six and eight lucky numbers to Chinese?
Six is pronounced as “liù 六” in Chinese, which is the same pronunciation as another character “liù 溜” which means smooth. Therefore, the number six indicates the meaning “I wish everything is smooth and happy with you”. Eight has a slightly different meaning. The pronunciation of eight “bā 八 ” sounds similar to “fā 发” which means “getting rich” or “being richer”. Therefore, both six and eight are very lucky numbers in the Chinese cultural context.
Another very superstitious custom in China is eating a pear without splitting it or sharing it with others. This might sound wierd - why specifically pears? It is because if you are splitting a pear “分梨 fēn lí”, then it sounds the same as “分离 fēn lí” which means parting or separating from someone. In Chinese culture, families and friends being together brings happiness while parting is a very sad thing. As long as you know the cultural background of parting, it is not difficult to understand why people do not want to split a pear or share a pear with others - parting is such a heavy topic which makes splitting a pear an unlucky thing to do as well. However nowadays, more Chinese people are holding an open attitude towards the parting. Young people leaving their hometowns for better opportunities in big cities is very common. You may still find this custom in Northern China, but the concept of “families cannot be separated” is already changing.
If you plan to choose gifts for your Chinese friends, then you really need to know some taboos of giving gifts in China! Please do NOT give your Chinese friends umbrellas or clocks as a gift - they are all taboos of the Chinese when giving gifts! Umbrella is pronounced as “Sǎn 伞” which has a similar sound as another word “散sàn” that means breaking up. Therefore, it is extremely unlucky and impolite to give your friend or even your partner umbrellas as gifts as it indicates that you want to break up with them or your friendship/love will not last for long! Giving an umbrella to others is horrible while giving clocks is even worse. Giving clocks is pronounced as “sòng zhōng 送钟”, which is exactly the same as “sòng zhōng 送终” - organizing funerals for relatives or friends! This is a big taboo specifically for the Chinese elderly who is more sensitive to the “death” topic.
Though many young people in China do not care about these taboos anymore, however, it is safer for you to choose something else as a gift for Chinese friends - you never know who will mind it and who will not.
You may have heard of the Chinese zodiac - twelve animals, but do you know that there is a superstition in China that you need to wear red underwear and socks in your year of fate or you will have bad luck? For example, 2021 is the year of the ox, so everyone who was born in the year of ox needs to prepare red underwear, socks or even red bracelets and necklaces - anything in red that close to your skin. Why do Chinese people have such superstition? That is because ancient Chinese believed that every year there will be a “year god” to take that year in charge. If you have the same zodiac symbol as the year god, the god may be angry with you and give you bad luck, so you need to wear more red clothes and accessories to get rid of the unluckiness. This custom is still in China and is very common.
If you are living in China now, then please do not wear a green hat and go out - your friends will definitely laugh at you! In China, whoever wears a green hat indicates his/her partner is cheating on him/her. It sounds wierd - why specifically green hats? Actually, it has historical reasons behind it as well. Ancient Chinese men wore green hats or headscarves when their wives were prostitutes. The meaning changed a bit over time, but it is still something you definitely do not want to happen - so do NOT wear a green hat in China!
China now is influenced a lot by western culture, especially the young generation. However, unlike the western tradition of eating cakes on birthdays, the Chinese tradition is eating noodles. Noodles need to be made in a special way. Sometimes it is not even “noodles” but noodle - the noodle needs to be very long and the person who eats it should not bite off the noodle since the long noodle stands for longevity. This kind of noodles is called “长寿面 Cháng shòu miàn”(longevity noodles). Most Chinese change their habit from eating noodles to eating cakes nowadays, but still, there are some people who prefer to have noodles on their birthday.
Do you know that ancient Chinese invented umbrellas, so there is one superstition in ancient China which is about umbrellas - do not open umbrellas inside your house. Ancient Chinese and even some Chinese nowadays believe that opening umbrellas in your house brings bad luck to your house and your whole family. Therefore, if anyone did that, the hostess should immediately get a broom and swept all the bad luck out the door.
Fengshui was really a big thing in ancient China. There are many ancient Chinese books that specifically discuss how to get good Feng Shui. “Feng风” literally means wind, and “shui水” means water. However, together “Fengshui风水” is the geomancy in ancient China, which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. Ancient Chinese would design and build houses and buildings according to Fengshui. One of the suggestions is that the house should face south. The house facing north will not have sunshine and light, instead, it will be too humid with lots of bugs of mosquitoes around the house which will bring bad luck to the family. This is still a common custom in China.
There are witches stories in western culture, and there are also masters who deal with the human soul in ancient China. Without the advanced technology and scientific explanation, ancient Chinese believed these masters could call the soul and return it to the body if someone behaved like their souls were out of their bodies. There used to be two types of soul-calling: calling a live person’s soul, and calling a dead person’s soul. For the first type, usually if a family had a kid who cried out inexplicably or suddenly became unconscious, the folks believed that it was because the child’s “yang energy” was too weak and the soul was out of the body or lost. Therefore, they would ask a master to return the kid’s soul to the body. Regarding the second type, it was actually one part of the funeral. The ancient soul-calling ritual started immediately after a person died, and its purpose was to seek the resurrection of the dead. It was recorded by ancient books that after a person just died, his/her families and friends had to cry loudly first, and then masters tried to do soul-calling ritual immediately after their crying. If the deceased has not regained consciousness after the call, it can be determined that the person is indeed dead.
This ritual is extremely rare in China now.
Dream culture is an indispensable and important part of ancient Chinese culture. Although it is superstitious, it was widely spread among the people. "Zhou Gong Interpretation of Dreams" is an ancient book of dream interpretation that has been spread among the people. Ancient Chinese believed that dreams were telling you something and the book could help them to predict the good and bad from the dream. Influenced by ancient Chinese culture, there are still some Chinese nowadays who believe in interpreting the dreams and will pay masters who are good at interpreting dreams to give them suggestions among their dreams.
After learning so many superstitions in modern China and ancient China, I am sure that you understand Chinese culture better. Although superstitions have no scientific basis, as a custom, it is closely related to people’s lives. Superstition is also a part of the culture. If you are interested in Chinese culture, please follow our blog. We will show you more different aspects of China!