Exploring the Applications and Origins of Chinese Supersitions


Black Cat
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Chinese superstition. Is it really that different to other cultures superstition? Most of us have our fair share of superstitions. Some of these are ingrained into our nature from our surroundings. Others simply are passed on from the culture of our ancestors. Ever heard of the phrase, “don’t let a black cat cross your path”? This one is a particularly popular superstition in the west. It even has been referenced, both jokingly and seriously, in popular media, while also becoming a cornerstone theme of Halloween.

Today, we’ll take a look away from the west, and instead peer at some common Chinese superstitions. This civilization of over 5000 years has a deep and rich history, allowing for the creation and development of many traditions. Some traditions are amusing, even witty by today’s standards. Others, however, have complicated meanings behind them, and are on the darker side of things. Either way, present times find the rather interesting applications of many of these superstitions.

Chinese Superstition & Numbers

Chinese Supestition & Numbers
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Let’s start off with a simple theme: numbers. Every culture has its selection of lucky and unlucky numbers. Chinese culture has quite a few to choose from. Many numbers in Chinese culture have gained value due to being homophones with certain phrases. For example, the number 520 is sometimes used in matters of love. When read out, the pronunciation of “wu er ling” sounds very similar to the phrase ‘I love you’. It’s a sweet and concise way to express feelings. It is a popular way to go on romantic holidays.

Lucky or Unlucky?

There are many ‘lucky’ numbers for the Chinese. These include the numbers 3, 8, and 9, among others. These connotations stem from similar sounds. For example, the number three is pronounced in a similar way to the word ‘life’. The number 9 sounds similar to the word ‘eternal’. Both of these emphasize longevity and so are considered as fortuitous numbers. The number 8 is seen as the luckiest number for the Chinese, bearing a similar pronunciation to the word meaning fortune. Due to the connotations of these numbers, they are often used in many commonplace ways. For instance, people tend to prefer car plates or apartment numbers with lucky numbers.

As far as unlucky numbers go, there is no number more notorious than the number four in Chinese culture. This number sounds the same as ‘death’. Just as lucky numbers are prioritized, car plates or addresses with the unlucky number 4 garner suspicion and avoidance. Even more dramatically, some buildings actually omit the fourth floor. Many go out of their way to avoid it, just as some westerners subconsciously are wary when a black cat nears their path.

What about combinations of numbers? As demonstrated with the number 520, many combinations also yield their own interesting meanings. Something like 748 even has duplicate meanings. One meaning is ‘fortuitous for 7 generations’, and the other meaning is ‘go die’. The difference between these two meanings really is quite amusing. Another surprising number combination is 666. In western culture, this series of numbers is synonymous with the devil. However, since the Chinese oftentimes count 6 as a lucky number, this combination has also been perceived as lucky.

Historical & Modern Usage

Much of the superstition surrounding numbers has been ingrained in Chinese culture for a long time. In ancient times, lucky numbers were referenced in architecture, events, and were even sometimes used to determine auspicious marriage dates. Today, we find a whole new array of applications for these numbers. While some architecture certainly still pays homage to unlucky numbers, the emphasis of this superstition is much weaker than it once was. Lucky numbers may still appear at weddings and other important events where traditions are valued, but today, number combinations are easier and more popular to use. These combinations can convey interesting and sometimes sarcastic meanings, supported by the technological revolution and advent of smartphones.

Chinese Superstition & Colour

Colours & Chinese Superstitions
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Colours often have great meaning in multiple cultures, and tend to overlap. For example, a common western superstition is that black can symbolize loss and death. As a result, this is the colour worn at funerals. Chinese culture has also assigned interesting meanings to each of the colours, and, similar to the act of wearing black at funerals, these colours can dictate what colour clothes are worn, the colouring of decorations, and other applications.

Lucky Colours

Red is likely the colour you associate the most with Chinese culture. Red is considered to be one of the luckiest colours, symbolizing the element of fire. This colour symbolizes fortune and the vitality of life. During the Lunar New Year, red lanterns and charms can be spotted decorating homes and other spaces. They welcome another year of prosperity. Red pockets also sport this colour. These small envelopes are used to gift money during these festivities. Additionally, red is a colour commonly incorporated into traditional clothing, especially clothing that has ceremonial uses. Wedding clothing often shines in this colour. This colour was likely much more commonplace in older times, but today, it has not lost its significance. Red is most definitely a defining colour of Chinese culture.

Another commonly seen cultural colour is gold. While new year decorations are usually covered in red, with a closer peek, it’s clear that gold trimming interlaces with the heavily red colours. Historically, gold was the colour donned by royalty, especially the emperor. Imperial architecture and official flags often sported this colour. It occupied the spot of one of the most important colours in ancient Chinese culture. It is a colour symbolizing the earth, showing authority and grounded-ness. Today, it is a pair with the bright reds of tradition. Traditional red clothing and accessories often have patterns in gold, and red pockets are inscribed with golden writing and trim. This pair is thought to bring fortune and honour the traditions of ancestors.

Unlucky Colours

White is an interesting colour to consider in regards to Chinese superstitions. In popular media shows such as ‘The Untamed’, we can see this contrast of meaning. On the one hand, white is a colour of purity, representing the element of metal. In historical fantasy media, this purity means that an individual is untouched by mortal desires or dirtiness. However, white is also commonly the colour of mourning clothes. It has developed a connection to the idea of death over the years. In more recent years, white has definitely become a more commonplace colour. We can see white in many household appliances, automobiles, smartphones, and other consumer products. From this, we can see that the concept of purity and cleanliness overtakes its mourning connotations in modern times.

Similar to western culture, black is commonly perceived as a negative colour. It is the colour representing the element of water. Black is the colour of evil and wrongdoing, and people usually refrain from using it in ceremonial settings due to its connotation of bad luck. However, just like the colour white, black is used much more today. Since it’s quite a sleek colour, it is popular in modern fashion. Black clothing and accessories are extremely attractive to the younger generation. The colour can also be found in technology and house décor, having spread to many areas outside of cultural traditions.

Chinese Superstitions & Feng Shui

symbol related to Chinese Superstition
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Feng Shui is an interesting superstition that seems to be unique to Chinese culture. This practice has enveloped Chinese culture for many centuries, though its specific origins are unknown. It is interrelated with the idea of qi, which is the inherent life force of every living being. Feng shui provides a guiding principle for how to arrange furniture, buildings, and other objects in a space in order to create harmonization and bring fortune. This arrangement is usually based off of the shape of an environment, as well as the surrounding features.

Historical Usage

In the past, feng shui was used on a larger scale than it is today. In the beginning, feng shui was closely related with the study of astronomy. Using early versions of magnetic compasses and other technology, the Chinese would designate the relation of the Earth to the universe. They depicted which areas were more auspicious for settlement than others. Good feng shui pointed towards gaining wealth, good harvests, little sickness, and overall, a more joyful existence. This principle later provided the framework for the arrangement of villages, towns, tombs, and important imperial residences. In more wealthy households, feng shui was also brought inside the home to bring fortune.

At one point, feng shui was considered an extremely important scholarly topic. Many scholars have studied this topic seriously. The imperial court even withheld this information for itself. One interesting example of the practice of feng shui is the Xishupo tomb located in Puyang. In the process of excavating the site, quite a few burials were discovered. In particular, tomb M45 depicts an adult male with various items buried around him. To his west was a pattern of mollusc shells shaped like a tiger. To his east was a pattern shaped like a dragon. These patterns elude to constellations in the sky. The man himself was buried with his head facing the north and feet facing the south. Altogether, this tomb represents a map of the sky, corresponding with the earliest uses of feng shui.

Modern Usage

Today, feng shui is still a widely popular superstition, and remains in the hearts and minds of people. However, perhaps the focus has shifted to interior design and architecture. The earlier importance of harmony in the environment as well as between the Earth and the universe was left behind. Feng shui has even evolved a couple of quick guiding principles. For example, beds should not face windows. In this case, your bed is representative of your spirit, and facing the window means that your spirit will easily fly out. This is associated with poor health and perhaps an early death. Also, front and back doors should not face each other. If they are, this means that the energy flows through the house too fast. Placing furniture to curve the path of the energy will help slow it down.

Additionally, the importance of burial feng shui has not changed, becoming even more widespread. According to Chinese beliefs, a proper burial will bring fortune to future generations. Burial sites must be carefully chosen. The direction of the tombstone also has to be meticulously aligned. The areas with the best feng shui tend to be grassy and with soft hills. The grass itself means to ward off sickness in future generations. The grave also should not be near any trees or gates, since those will bring bad luck. Lastly, after the preparations have finished, the date for burial has to be calculated to take place on the most auspicious day.

Chinese Superstitions & Yin and Yang

Yin & Yang Symbol - Chinese Superstition
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The idea of yin and yang, roughly translated as ‘shadow and light’, is loosely related with the principles of feng shui and qi. This idea shows the coexistence of opposites in the mortal world. Over the centuries, the Chinese have classified certain groups as having more yin or more yang energy, justifying certain social and political structures. For example, the most basic definition is that ghosts and spirits have a great amount of yin energy. On the other hand, humans teem with yang energy. This also means that hell, where the spirits typically reside, also teems with yin energy. Among humans, males have more yang energy, and females have more yin energy. Thus, this provided reasoning for the heavily patriarchal society that China once was. Since males were representative of light, they were naturally superior to women.

Today, the principles of yin and yang no longer hold the prominence that they once did. However, they still continue in traditions and habits passed down from the older generations to the younger. Like with feng shui, current generations may find themselves referring to yin and yang when organizing their households. They may also reference tradition in the way that they treat outside influences.

Final Thoughts

Dragons on red lanters
Image Source: Cultural Elements

Exploring Chinese superstitions is rather interesting, allowing us to get a brief view of this culture’s vast history, while also analysing the developments over time. Even beyond the superstitions mentioned above, Chinese culture offers a vast array of different beliefs. These have been kept alive while also influencing other surrounding cultures. Some traditions become watered down with the passage of time, turning into a shell of what they once were. Others have retained their importance, being prominent in the minds of the people. Finally, there are those traditions that have found a new voice in changing times. They’ve adapted to the onset of capitalism and popular culture as it is today. All of these and more are what make up a complex and thought-provoking culture that has survived for over 5000 years.

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