New Year is probably the most superstitious time in China. With some pretty rigorous rules about what you can and can’t do and the seemingly endless baijiu-fueled firework extravaganza raging in the street, Spring Festival is an extreme time to experience Chinese culture as an expat. In other words, if you hope to relax and enjoy a peaceful holiday, you’re very much out of luck.
Over Chinese New Year, the country’s superstitious rules are plentiful and strict. Along with refraining from using bad language, visiting hospitals and cutting their hair, Chinese people are expected to follow some pretty rigorous rules about sweeping their homes, keeping all windows and doors open at midnight and decking themselves out in the color red.
Whatever the time of year, China is full of weird and wonderful superstitions, most harmless and amusing, some even vaguely practical. Feng Shui is essentially superstitious architectural and interior design, but sometimes it makes perfect sense: don’t put an upstairs bathroom above the dining room, for example. I can’t argue with that. Bathroom plumbing mishaps during meals could be disastrous. Others don’t make much sense at all. What damage could be done by having your bed facing a door is beyond me.
Some Chinese superstitions are just downright weird, and even perhaps socially irresponsible, depending on where you sit. Many of the rules surrounding childbirth — such as confining a mother for a month after giving birth, during which time she is not supposed to bathe — sound rather backward to Western ears.
Far more troubling, in my mind at least, is the practice of getting a cesarean section in order to deliver a baby on an “auspicious” day. This one strikes me as rather fanatical and a little disturbing. Wearing red to bring good luck or eating long noodles on your birthday to encourage a long life is one thing; surgery to bear your child prematurely is another. There are times when an obsession with good luck could lead to very bad luck indeed.
But who am I to judge? I come from a culture whose rituals include dunking infants underwater to ensure they get into heaven if they die and drinking wine and eating crackers as if it was the blood and flesh of the Son of God.
Some Chinese superstitions are rubbing off on me. After living in China for several years, I have developed an involuntary case of “tetraphobia,” — a fear of the number four. As it does with many Chinese people due to it sounding identical to the Chinese word for death, its presence sends a grim feeling through me, not unlike when I wake up and realize that it’s Friday the 13th.
Not that I really believe in all that. I wouldn’t pay extra for a mobile phone number devoid of fours, as many here do, but I’d definitely think twice about renting an apartment on the fourth floor, and I wouldn’t dream of wearing a t-shirt with China’s death number emblazoned on the front. I find some relief in the fact that in China, the satanic connotations of the number “666” are rendered obsolete, proving that one man’s mere numeral is another man’s abject and fearful curse. It all depends on what side of the planet you’re on, I suppose.
Despite my newfound aversion to the number four, I don’t feel inclined to follow many of the CNY superstitions. The subtle pervasiveness of superstitious belief usually relies on us being raised with these customs from childhood, rendering us incapable of avoiding their irrational influence. For its part, my Western upbringing has instilled in me a level of irrational paranoia about certain things; I will never choose to walk beneath a ladder, for example, and booking a flight on Friday the 13th always makes me momentarily nervous.
I sometimes find myself analyzing superstition in order to discredit it and make myself feel better. If a black cat walks in front of me, I might wonder to myself, “What if the cat was white? Would that mean good luck? What if I’m in China and the cat was red? Or, what about a red cat with the number eight painted on it? That would be a very lucky cat indeed. In China, at least. But now I’m mixing up my cultural superstitions.
I would never admit to being a superstitious person. My superstitious concerns don’t generally involve the appeasement of ghosts or controlling the flow of positive and negative energy, as they do in China. But like religion in Western countries, China’s superstitious practices often serve to make people feel better about their lives.
At any rate, it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets and be on the safe side. So, this holiday season, be sure to wear red underwear, eat plenty of fish (don’t flip it, for heaven’s sake) and clean your house thoroughly before the New Year. If you do everything just right, who knows? Maybe the Year of the Dragon will be your year!
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Keywords: Chinese New Year superstitions
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