You hear a baby cry and are paralyzed by the fear that a ghost is in the room. The next day, you must pay thousands of dollars to get a specialized license plate and street address, which contain at least one number 8, but absolutely no 4s. Later that night, you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep, when you hear a dog howl. Great, a death has occurred. These may seem like insane worries, but it is a regular way of life for many.
Chinese culture is full of customs, traditions and superstitions—many of which have been practiced for thousands of years. Some superstitions persist only in small parts of traditional China, while others are well-known and embraced by Chinese-Canadians.
Although superstitious behaviour can be seen year-round, it goes into overdrive during Chinese New Year—the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. (New Year festivities begin on the first new moon of the calendar year.) Many people refrain from eating red meat on Chinese New Year’s; it is believed that this will ensure a long and happy life. Others will eat fish—representing togetherness and abundance—or a chicken with its head and feet intact, which symbolizes prosperity.
But for many events, superstitions come into play in a big way—like the birth of a baby. To ensure successful labour, a husband should carry his bride over a pan of burning coals when first entering their home as newlyweds. Ouch. After a woman becomes pregnant, she should guard her thoughts because it is believed everything she sees and does will influence her unborn child. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a Chinese woman to sleep with knives under her bed, in order to ward off evil spirits.
And given the many superstitions surrounding birth, it seems only natural there would be a few about death. At funerals, there are several caveats. Mirrors must be hidden; a person who sees a reflection of the coffin will have a death in their family. Also, Chinese beliefs holds that seven days after the death of a family member, the soul of the departed will return to their home. On this day, family members are expected to remain in their rooms. Talcum powder is often dusted over the floors to detect ghost footprints.
The Power Of Numbers
Numbers are of enormous importance to the Chinese culture, with some claiming that unlucky numbers can ruin one’s life. Eight is considered the luckiest number because its Chinese word means ‘prosper”; whereas four is known as the unluckiest number because it sounds like the Chinese word for ‘death.’ Seven can signify death, while nine is sometimes lucky, representing ‘sufficient’ or ‘long lasting.’ The number combination ‘666’ is very lucky in Chinese culture, because it sounds like the Chinese words for ‘things go smoothly.’
License plate sales, which are popular among the upper class in China, draw huge crowds of people who are most interested in tags bearing the numbers 6 and 8. Many will pay literally thousands of dollars for the right plate. And this obsession with lucky numbers extends to everything from phone numbers, dates and to the amount of money given as a gift. In extreme examples it dictates where people decide to live.
Realtor Ian Su says, “If I’m selling a house with lots of 8s in the price, the chances of selling it go up. I also have lots of 8s in my phone number for good luck.”
Although superstitions involving numbers are much more prominent in China and its surrounding countries, they are increasingly popular in Vancouver and other parts of Canada. Yes, tired old superstitions, such as not walking under ladders and never letting a black cat cross your path, are becoming old hat.
Though some believe the prevalence of superstition is fading with newer generations, they still remain a powerful part of belief systems in many parts of the world.
So, the next time you hear somebody spit out a cliché like ‘Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back,’ instead of cringing in disgust, you can contribute to the conversation and state some newfound information like “Eat a chicken with its head and feet intact on Chinese New Year for prosperity.” That’ll shut them up.