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Weird and Interesting Chinese Taboos

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Chinese Lucky Charms
Credit: lagalag15 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chinese lucky charms and amulets are used to ward off bad luck.

Growing up in a Chinese family is quite a challenge. Aside from the high parental expectations for us, we were also told to follow strict rules and regulations pertaining to Chinese beliefs. Many of them didn't make sense at all. Sometimes, even my parents didn't know where these taboos originate. The superstitions had been instilled so deep into their belief system that they passed them onto us.

Strange as the rules may seem, I still find them very interesting. Those rules, I would learn years later, stemmed from Chinese culture, customs, and language. Learning about the taboos is crucial for me to get to know about my heritage. As I have read somewhere, if you want to understand yourself, you must first understand your roots, which in my case has originated a sea apart from where I was born.

Do not expect though that these restrictions will matter to every Chinese. The taboos surrounding my culture may be considered merely as a bunch of weird superstitions to some people, including some Chinese. Yet in general, many Chinese still diligently follow a majority of them, if not all, not because they are afraid of bad luck, but because they want to observe their tradition.

Below are just some of the many forbidden things that were taught to us and the explanations behind them.

Taboo #1 Getting Two Dogs in One House

Chinese Character for Cry
The Chinese have a rich and complex language that they often use for identifying luck. A combination and play of Chinese characters can lead to certain bad luck. The taboo against getting two dogs is just one example that originated from a play of words. To expound, having two dogs means that you have two mouths to feed. If you combine the Chinese characters for two 'mouths' and a 'dog', you will get the word 'cry.' That is why two dogs in one house is a no-no, as two mouths of dogs can bring sorrow and grief to the family.

If you look at it in a logical perspective, it makes sense that owning one dog can sometimes be better than two (though I'm sure many would disagree). You can take care of one dog better than two. You can pay more attention to the pet if you only have one. What's odd is that in Chinese belief, while we cannot get two dogs, we are allowed to get three or more. Chinese households with two dogs can remedy this "bad luck" by either getting an additional dog or a fake life-size dog figurine.

Two Dogs
These two pups look cute together, but keeping the duo is believed to bring sorrow to the house.

Taboo #2 Sharing a Pear with Your Loved One

Credit: S B Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Thinking about sharing a pear with a loved one?

Another restriction with regards to Chinese language is one to do with pears. Unlike the first example, the explanation behind this restriction is related to the way the words sound. Pear is called 'li' in Chinese, which sounds like the Chinese word for separation. Sharing a pear with a loved one, therefore, is considered bad luck as this may cause the separation between the eaters.

I cannot think of a sensible explanation for this belief other than that the pear is too small to be shared anyway. My family used to share a pear. My mother would slice some pears into pieces served in a plate, so we would tend to eat from the same fruit. As soon as my mother found out about this taboo, she never let us share a single pear anymore.

Taboo #3 Giving a Clock as a Present

Small Clock
Credit: Image Catalog Public Domain
Clocks make lovely presents, but the Chinese think otherwise.
This can be really rude especially if the recipient is an old person. The Chinese words for clock is 'shi zhong,' which sounds like the Chinese words for 'time' and 'stop.' So giving this to another person implies that his time will stop, or to put it simply, die.
Personally, I wouldn't mind being given a clock especially if the giver is not a Chinese. After all, there are so many cute clocks out there in the market. However, my elderly uncle did mind that when he received a clock a few years ago. What's worse, the giver was a fellow elderly Chinese who possibly knew about this taboo. I think it was really very rude of the giver.

Taboo #4 The Number Four


Missing Elevator Button
Have you noticed any missing number?

The Chinese word for number four, 'si,' sounds like death in Chinese. Therefore, many Chinese try to avoid this number as much as possible. In China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, you will notice that elevators in residential buildings and hotels don't have a button for fourth floor. Rarely any flats or rooms exist on the fourth floor because living there is bad luck.

In my family, whenever we apply for a new mobile number or landline number, we would often request the staff to choose us a number without the four. We also avoid this number when scheduling for special events. Recently, we even moved our flight schedule that fell on the 24th of December, which is a 4th day of a Lunar month, which also happened to be on a Thursday. Since I am a paranoid Chinese passenger who is afraid of flying, it felt very wrong to travel with a number four on our itinerary.

Of course, completely avoiding this number is impossible and may even sound ridiculous to foreigners. As a general rule of thumb, we Chinese can certainly be lenient in many cases. Owning four watches or going out to to the movies on a fourth day of the month is fine. But when it comes to important dates, such as weddings and grand openings (and in my case, flying on a plane), we avoid it at all costs.

Taboo #5 Getting a Haircut, Taking Selfies, or Going to the Hospital During Ghost Month

Hungry Ghost Month Offerings
Credit: ProjectManhattan via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Food and incense are offered to the hungry ghosts.

The Chinese observe the Ghost month during the 7th month of the Lunar calendar. This period is considered to be unlucky for the Chinese as it is when the ghosts are believed to come out to find food. No weddings or other celebrations are to be held on this month. Many other taboos surround this period, as the Chinese are afraid to provoke the ghosts. Unlike many Chinese families, my family does not offer food and incense to the hungry ghosts. My mother does not know the particulars of the rituals, and according to her, if you make one mistake in the ceremony, the hungry ghosts will get angry.

Taboo #6 Breaking Mirrors, Glassware, or Ceramic Ware

Broken Mirror
Credit: Rodrigo Paredes via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It's a cliche in Chinese dramas to see a glass breaking out of nowhere whenever something bad happened to a character. This is because many Chinese believe that breaking a glass (or other fragile objects for that matter) would lead to bad luck. That is why in our house, my mother had hidden our ceramic ware and replaced our plates with stainless steel material. She wanted to reduce accidents to a minimum as much as possible.

Taboo #7 Wearing Black or White

Black Dress
If you don't like to stand out (in a bad way) at a Chinese party, never wear black or white. Those two colors symbolize death. You will only see a group of Chinese people wearing pure black or pure white during a funeral service. If you have a Chinese friend who is planning to bring you to his or her parents' house, wearing these colors would surely make a bad first impression.
However, times are slowly changing. I notice that the younger Chinese generation find these colors fashionable. A black jacket is very common in places such as China or Hong Kong. I have a handful of black and white clothes in my own closet, but I would only dare wear them if I'm simply going to run an errand or when I'm eating out with people who wouldn't mind my attires' color. I would never wear those at a party or at my fellow Chinese friends' house.

Final Words

As you can see, many of the restrictions have to do with Chinese words. You may ask, how about the people who do not know the Chinese language? These rules, thankfully, only apply to Chinese people. Whether or not you are a Chinese, just remember that when dealing with other Chinese, avoid crossing those lines that may be interpreted as rude.



Sep 13, 2015 7:41am
Interesting! I knew about the taboo on the number 4, but not the others. I am from the UK and my mother always said that if you broke a mirror it was seven years bad luck, so that sounds quite similar to the Chinese superstition about breaking glass. I believe this originated because mirrors were incredibly expensive hundreds of years ago.
Sep 13, 2015 10:16pm
I'd never really figured out what led to the mirror superstition. Your explanation to that made a lot of sense. It's amazing that other cultures has similar belief too. Thanks for reading!
Oct 17, 2015 9:58am
Most excellent! Thumbin'", and I'll be sharing this later on other platforms.
Oct 18, 2015 7:00pm
Thank you vicdillinger!
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