Chinese Versus Western Superstitions

Superstitions in China

Chinese Superstitions are very different from Western ones. Dr. Caryn Voskuil explains how these differences reflect in the culture

I arrived in Beijing during the spring festival this year. The taxi dropped me off at my apartment, and though it wasn’t even dark yet, I decided to lie down and rest. As soon as the sun set, however, explosives began to go off all over the city. Just outside my window, firecrackers, bottle rockets and various other noisemakers were detonated for hours on end, night after night. The noise was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, both in volume and in duration! My dog and I were at first surprised, then shocked, and finally just plain miserable. My Chinese friends informed me that the purpose of the rockets (and the noise) was to ward off bad spirits and welcome in a prosperous New Year. Likewise, fireworks are set off during weddings and other celebrations in China to chase away any angry spirits that might try to ‘crash’ the party like a drunken neighbor from the world beyond. Hmmmmm…. Was this the legendary Chinese ‘Superstitiousness’ I’d heard so much about? Like those of us in the West, the Chinese have a variety of beliefs, and many of such Chinese Superstitions are a mystery to newcomers here in the East.

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In the American Heritage Dictionary, a superstition is defined as “A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.” Princeton’s WordNet defines a superstition as “an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear.” From these definitions we can clearly see that Westerners are not impervious to superstition. For instance, most Westerners share a distaste for the number thirteen. The number thirteen is associated with bad luck, and although there is no rational reason to make this association, scores of people in the west avoid getting married on the 13th day of the month or living in places that are numbered ‘13’. They expect dark clouds to follow them on Friday the 13th, and many hotels do not even have a 13th floor! (that is, they do not NUMBER the 13th floor as such).

Chinese Superstitions VS Western Superstitions

In the west, walking under a ladder, stepping on a crack, and letting a black cat cross one’s path are all seen (irrationally) as unlucky, and individuals have their own unique superstitions as well. Some athletes wear the same socks or jersey repeatedly to ensure a continued winning streak. Many otherwise rational people have a lucky pen, tie, or other such surrogate ‘rabbit’s foot’ without which they feel exposed to the ravages of fate.

Brides wear white, mourners wear black, and loved ones tie yellow ribbons around trees to bring their friends and family members back into the fold. In the west if you knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, or make a wish and blow out the candles, you will likely feel that you have averted disaster or compelled the future, to some small degree, to yield to your will.

In the land of ‘wedding rockets’ and explosive New Year’s celebrations, superstitions are also abound, but they take on a different and distinctly eastern cultural tone. For example, while the number thirteen holds no ill associations, the number four is universally spurned in China because the character ‘四’ (four) is a homonym for the character ‘死’ which means ‘death’. For this reason, many Chinese do not want an address that includes the number ‘4’, they avoid celebrating events on or making important plans during dates that contain the number ‘4’, and they eschew cell phone numbers, license plates, and other personal items that contain the number ‘4’. The number eight, by contrast, is considered a very lucky number, because the Chinese word for ‘8’ is a homonym for ‘prosperity’. This is one of the reasons that the Olympic Games were scheduled to start on August 8th – or 8/8/2008. The numbers 9 is also considered lucky – you will notice in China that ancient Chinese gates (such as those found in the Forbidden City) have 81 studs on them (or, 9×9).

In direct opposition to western superstitious beliefs, the color white in China is associated with mourning and is therefore considered unlucky, while weddings have traditionally been associated with the color red (although today this is changing). Red is generally considered an auspicious color, while in the west it is more often associated with passion or even danger.

According to the article Everyday Chinese Superstitions (www.associatedcontent.com), if a baby cries when no one is in the room, a ghost is believed to be present. Clipping one’s toenails or fingernails at night will invite ghosts, and dogs are believed to have the unique ability to see ghosts. Soup noodles are never to be cut, as they represent longevity and, while turtles also represent longevity, keeping one as a pet can cause adversely affect your business.

One person’s superstition is another person’s firmly-held belief. While many Chinese superstitions may seem odd to westerners, remember that some of the religious beliefs and practices of the majority of Americans and scores of Europeans also neatly fit into the definition of ‘superstition’ and seem highly unusual to many of our friends in the East. We must respect the beliefs of others if we hope to have them respect our own, particularly when those beliefs defy scientific or logical proof. Through education, understanding and tolerance, we can all better appreciate the unique qualities of our own national cultures and those of our neighbors in this ever-shrinking global community.

**Everyday Chinese Superstitions, http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/229617/everyday_ chinese_superstitions.html

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About the Author

Dr. Caryn Maureen Voskuil is an associate professor of literature at the American university in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She holds a Ph.D. and an M.A in literature and an M.B.A in international management. Dr. Voskuil is also an academic and a consultant specializing in comparative cultural analysis, gender issues and literature.