The writing’s on the wall. (Cue Stevie Wonder.) The Chinese ARE very superstitious and the writing is literally on the wall sometimes. (Photos below.)
For example, the Chinese don’t like the number four because its pronunciation (四, sì) sounds like the word for death (死, sǐ). As a result, most elevators don’t have a 4th floor. Some don’t have a 14th floor. Some, following Western superstition, don’t have a 13th floor either. Then the elevators look crazy…
Superstitions have always interested me because I was born on the 13th and people tend not to like the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia). I, on the other hand, welcome the number 13 and often requested it for various things requiring numbers like softball jersey numbers.
So what better time to write about superstition that on Chinese New Year Eve? It’s a very superstitious time of year! Today I was coached by students via WeChat to clean my house. Yes, my students told me to clean my house because the idea is that you should clean out the old dust of the old year to avoid keeping bad spirits or dirt for the new year. (Sounds like “spring cleaning” in the Western mindset to me, but they have assured me that it’s very different, even though Chinese New Year is alternatively called “Spring Festival.”)
Nevertheless I cleaned our bathroom.
Several superstitions surround the Chinese New Year celebration and I can’t possibly elaborate on all of them, but I will explain a few more because they’re absolutely fascinating.
In addition to cleaning the house, people are also supposed to get new clothes to wear. The new clothes replacing the old follow the same concept as cleaning out the dirt of the old year. Lots of stores had sales with prices like ¥666 or ¥888. (NEVER 444 or 400!) These numbers are also special in Chinese. Six (六, liù) sounds like a word that colloquially means smooth, awesome, or superb (溜, liū), so seeing 666 is like “really awesome” or “super cool.” (My students taught me this with the hand gesture, which looks similar to the “hang loose” (shaka) hand gesture I learned when I was a kid in the early nineties.)
Eight (八, bā) is a very special number to the Chinese. “Bā” sounds like “fā” in fācái (发财), which means “to make a fortune.” When people explain the connection, they often just shorten the expression to “fortune” or “lucky” or “prosper.” So if 8 is lucky, then 888? So super lucky! Triple fortune! (If you come to China, pay attention to how many phone numbers have a sequence of 8s in them. If you don’t come, I’ll save you the trouble: it’s a LOT. People will buy phone numbers with special sequences in them. What’s hilarious, though, is when you hear people read the phone numbers. I hear “bā bā bā bā” and think, “sheep?” 😉 ) Oh, and remember when Beijing hosted the Olympics? The opening ceremony was on August 8, 2008: 08/08/08. Bābābā!
Lucky numbers aside, colors are also quite powerful here. It’s no coincidence China’s flag is mostly red. I won’t discuss meanings of all the colors right now, but red (红, hóng) is of particular significance. It’s the color of happiness, celebration, fervor, and (you guessed it) luck. Red is *everywhere* in China! (Andy has actually said he’s a little tired of seeing so much red… haha.) When in doubt, if you’re in China or giving a gift to a Chinese person, choose red.
Hóng is used for hóngbāo (红包) or “red packets,” which are culturally significant because of the color of the envelope AND for what the packet contains: money. Red packets are given for Chinese New Year (and various other celebrations like birthdays and festivals). You can give actual paper envelopes with a Chinese blessings written on them or, if you have WeChat, you can send digital hóngbāo.
Red is everywhere in China, but we’ve seen it in curious places too, like on the undersides of cars. Red ribbon is often tied to various places on cars in China. This seemed like simple decoration when I first noticed it, but then I realized that almost every car has red ribbon (and sometimes green ribbon) tied to it. After learning about the meaning of the color red in China, this made a lot of sense: people want their cars to be lucky. Green (绿, lǜ) often means life and vitality in China, so people want lucky cars that last for a long time. (Don’t we all?)