Article by Matt Green
Every culture has its superstitions, or 迷信 (MiXin). As Englishman, I can’t walk under ladders, cross knives, or say ‘Bloody Mary’ in the mirror three times in a row (literally daren’t). With the onset of Halloween, I see no reason why we shouldn’t discuss ways in which we may avoid tempting fate, or worse dishonour our hosts, while here in China.
Having spent several years here, and having been far too talkative, I’ve been fortunate enough to extend the gamut of mini rituals that I have. Even though I see myself as a man of science, the little stories told to me as a child have been deep set in my daily life. Embarrassingly, I still do a lot of them, such as touching wood when something foreshadowing is mentioned, avoiding three manhole covers that are together, and throwing salt over my shoulder. Most people who don’t see themselves as superstitious even have little things that are just engraved in their culture, such as not walking under ladders or opening an umbrella inside. Most of these are tied to the past, where we didn’t scientifically get as much as we do nowadays – like putting new shoes on a table- when it wasn’t understood that our shoes carry bacteria and other undesirable things which don’t mix with food.
In China, some of the links are harder to see, or at least are less well known. Quite a few of the superstitions pertain to chopsticks, with the most famous one being that you should not stick them upright in your rice. As most know, this faux pas is a symbol of death, resembling the incense used at funerals. Another one, which not many people do know, is that dropping chopsticks is a sign of bad luck which, I’m told, can be solved by hitting yourself (gently) three times. A final cutlery superstition is the meeting of an even pair of chopsticks at your table, which could indicate that you will miss your next plane or whichever mode of public transport you use. Maybe these exist in order to create better manners for the eaters and the hosts it’s hard to tell.
Choosing a number plate, house, or new phone number in China is also a trouble as the list of luck and unlucky numbers are vast. The luckiest number is 8. Eight is seen as wealth as the pronunciation of 八 (ba) and 发 (fa) are similar but it was actually the number for wholeness in Taoist culture. We’ve all heard stories of millions of yuan spent on the numberplate something-A8888888. The major unlucky number 4, as most know. 四 has the exact same pronunciation as death, hence it is sparsely used in buildings of older design, and avoided when choosing a new phone number.
As I’m sure you know, the red decorations at the door are there to ward off the bad luck for the year – or warding off the nian monster – but the house superstitions do not end there. If you were unlucky enough – or lucky enough, however you want to look at it – to have a bee in your house, it would bring good luck as long as it’s not killed – similar to ladybirds. This kind of reminds me of what people say when a bird poops on you. In the UK, people say that it’s good luck, yet you’re covered in bird faeces. So lucky. Having said that I’d rather have the bee in my house. Anyway, back to the household superstitions. Ever seen the dried bundle of leaves stuck to the door of your neighbour? It’s a method to avert ghosts or bad luck (two of the same I’m told). Of course this subject must include Feng shui, which is a massive topic on its own, yet the key to it all is that your door shouldn’t face north.
So during this spookily festive period, don’t forget to avoid those black cats, avoid passing others on stairs, and don’t drop your chopsticks. Or, to counter the ill effects of your terrible lifestyle, wear red, say eight a lot, and hang that horseshoe over your door.
Matt Green is a super superstitious man of science and writer for XIANEASE.