How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

Why is a city like Hong Kong inclined to superstition? One theory suggests that because of the high-risk nature of jobs in the early years of Hong Kong’s rise as a financial powerhouse, many people would look for other ways to boost their odds of success, often drawing on traditional Chinese superstitions.

Wearing red for luck

Red is considered a lucky colour in Chinese culture. While it’s strongly associated with Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings – when it’s a tradition to wear red – many don red attire when they feel they need a little extra luck. This rule extends to underwear, which is good news for anyone wanting to attract good luck in a more subtle way. In fact, the best way to be lucky for the new year is to wear red underwear gifted by friends or family.

Chinese New Year traditions

The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in Hong Kong, and there are some crucial dos and don’ts that come along with it. On the first day, anything that involves cutting – such as having a haircut or clipping your nails – is a no-go if you want to have good luck in the year to come. Same for cleaning the house and washing hair, although many will still do the latter.

Dos are mostly associated with eating certain foods. Fish is popular as the word sounds like “surplus”, while round food items such as oranges, lotus candy and tangyuan, a dessert made from glutinous rice balls, all symbolise family unity. Flowers are also bought as their bloom represents imminent wealth, and different flowers have different meanings. For example, peach blossom is said to bring about luck in romance. In addition to lucky red, for Chinese New Year, it’s important to wear new clothes.

Taboo gifts

Hong Kongers believe certain things should never be given as gifts. Most items with this unfortunate reputation are scorned because the alliteration of their names has connotations with something bad, which in turn means they bear bad omens. Here are some gifts to avoid giving (or receiving):

Clocks: In Cantonese, “to give a clock” is pronounced “song zung”, a phrase that sounds the same as “to prepare for the end”, referring to the rites of paying one’s last respects to a loved one near the end of their life and burying them after they die. Clocks are also solemn reminders that time is running out.

Shoes: The pronunciation of shoes rhymes with “hai” and is considered to be unlucky and unharmonious because of the way it is pronounced.

Purse or wallet: This rule only applies to people you are not close to, as it insinuates you are giving your money away.

Sharp objects: Gifting knives and blades is frowned upon, because they are seen to represent a severing of relationships.

Pears: The word “pear” sounds similar to the word for “depart” or “leave”.

Umbrellas: The word for “umbrella” is like the word for “separate”.

Black and white objects: These are the colours of mourning, so black and white objects make for unwelcome gifts.

Four of anything: As explained below, “four” sounds like “death”, so anything that comes in a set of four is a no-no.

Green hats: In Chinese, to “wear a green hat” means “to be cuckolded”.

Applying feng shui to architecture

Feng shui is the Chinese architectural philosophy of organising your surroundings to attract good luck and ward off bad energy. Many superstitious locals decorate their homes with plants and position their furniture according to the principles of feng shui. In addition, many prominent buildings in Hong Kong incorporate feng shui elements. One example is the HSBC headquarters, designed by the renowned architecture studio Fosters + Partners. The escalators inside the building are set at an angle to the main entrance, to prevent evil spirits from entering. Two metal rods installed on top of the building also serve to deflect bad energy from the neighbouring Bank of China Building. In a nod to Chinese culture, the Walt Disney Company even consulted a feng shui expert when they built Hong Kong Disneyland. The theme park’s entrances and attractions are positioned to attract the flow of good qi (energy).

Dragon gates

Dragons, the bearers of good fortune and prosperity, are believed to live in the mountains. In another feng shui-inspired architectural choice, many coastal buildings feature rectangular holes that function as passageways for their positive energy to pass through: dragon gates. Prominent buildings with dragon gates include the Repulse Bay residential and commercial arcade, and the Bel-Air Residence.

I was born in Hong Kong, China, and raised there for 18 years. There are a number of cultural similarities that I noticed when I came to America. When it comes to superstitions and gender roles, I found we have more in common than people think. Sometimes Americans think Chinese people are more superstitious, but Americans are superstitious too.

Both cultures attach meaning to numbers, but in their own way. For instance, Americans believe that bad luck comes in threes, but did you know that the number 3 symbolizes “liveliness” in Chinese? People even put this number in their license plates and phone numbers, and choose apartment numbers that contain a 3.

A 3 is good, but a 3 with an 8, which together symbolize both health and wealth, is even better. While the number 13 means bad luck in American culture, Chinese people actually think it brings them liveliness as well. The number that Chinese people try to avoid is 4, which means death.

Both Americans and Chinese believe in the bad luck of opening an umbrella indoors. According to myths I have heard from my grandmother in China, spirits live inside an umbrella, and if a person opens it up inside a house, the spirit gets released and will stay inside. The worst thing a person could do is pick up an umbrella on the side of a road on a rainy night and bring it home. A lot of Chinese horror movies start off with this cheesy opening.

The reason why I am bringing up these interesting cultural beliefs is to emphasize that we are all one and the same. We should respect each other’s culture, whether Chinese, American or from any other nationality. No one should ever tease anyone’s cultural beliefs or be prejudiced against them for their culture.

I remember one time someone mentioned the phrase “Asian persuasion” and I was completely clueless, until I looked it up on Urban Dictionary. This phrase means that some American men tend to think that Asian women are more easy to deal with. For example, they think that Asian women will cook, do laundry and take care of kids at home — basically, be a housewife.

This is the kind of misperception I would like to address. I want all of you to understand that we are, again, the same. Asian women are women. They will not cook more often than an American woman. In fact, I know a lot of families back in Hong Kong in which the fathers cook for the family or even stay at home to look after children.

There are a lot of things that people are not familiar with about Chinese culture, and that is something that will stay mysterious until they live in China. The same applies to Chinese students; we are still not as familiar with American culture as Americans are. But what we can do is be respectful to one another. That way, we can not only live together peacefully, but also learn from each other’s cultures.

Every culture has its own unique superstitions (迷信 – mí xìn), and China is no different. Chinese culture is rich in beliefs, customs, and superstitions that vary greatly from those in the West. Let’s take a look at some of these, and how they will bring you either good luck or bad luck.


How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

No 4th, 13th, or 14th floor.

In China, the number four is extremely unlucky (不幸的 – bú xìng de). This is because the pronunciation of four (四 – sì) sounds similar to the Chinese word for death (死 – sǐ). Therefore, many people choose to avoid the number four like the plague. It’s not uncommon to step into an elevator in China and notice that there’s no button for the 4th floor, or the 13th or 14th floor, for that matter. Chinese people like superstitions so much that they’ve even adopted the Western superstition of the unlucky number thirteen.

When it comes to good luck, the magic number in China is eight. This is because eight (八 – bā) sounds sort of similar to the word for prosperity/wealth (发 – fā). Do you remember the Beijing Olympics and its grand opening ceremony? Of course you do! Well, it’s no coincidence that the games commenced at 8:08 PM on August 8th, 2008 (8/8/08). Staring the games at this time was meant to bring good luck (好运 – hǎo yùn). Yeah, the Chinese take their numerical superstitions that seriously.


In Chinese culture, the colors white (白色 – bái sè) and black (黑色 – hēi sè) are both associated with mourning and loss, and are therefore considered unlucky. Black is never worn in celebrations or ceremonies, and people avoid decorating their home with anything black. As black resembles dirt or feces, it symbolizes evil, disaster, and sadness. Although white is often considered bad luck, it also symbolizes brightness, fulfillment, and purity, as it is the color of breast milk. These days, more and more Chinese are taking up the Western custom of wearing a white wedding dress.

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

Red envelopes packed full of kuai.

As far as good luck goes, it doesn’t get much better than the color red (红色 – hóng sè) in China. It’s the color of the flag, and it represents happiness. During weddings or festivals, you’ll see red everywhere you go. In particular, during the Spring Festival, children will be given a red envelope (红包 – hóng bāo) full of money as a good luck present. As it is the color of blood, red is associated with life. In traditional Chinese wedding ceremonies, the bride would wear a red dress.

New Year

During the Spring Festival celebration, or Chinese New Year as it is known in the West, there are countless superstitions one must pay attention to. This has been covered in a recent post, but some of the highlights include: not getting a haircut during the first month (doing so will result in the death of an uncle), not cleaning the house (this will sweep away the good luck), and eating fish, as fish (鱼 – yú) has the same pronunciation as the word for surplus (余 – yú). Of course, we can’t forget the constant lighting off of fireworks, which is said to scare away the evil beast Nian (年), who preys on children.

Learn more about New Year superstitions with this great video from “Sexy Beijing.”


When giving gifts in China, it is imperative that you never give someone a clock. This is due to the fact that “giving a clock” (送钟 – sòng zhōng) sounds similar to “bid farewell to someone on their deathbed” (送终 – sòng zhōng). As such, giving someone a clock basically means you’re sending them off to the great beyond.

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

Happy retirement! Here’s a clock! You’re going to die!

If you should find yourself eating in a Chinese restaurant, and you get too full to finish your bowl of rice, don’t you dare stick your chopsticks (筷子 – kuài zi) in there. This is because chopsticks in a rice bowl resemble the sight of incense (香 – xiāng) at a tomb.

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

Lay your chopsticks over the bowl instead.

Animals also play a big role in Chinese superstitions. Dragons (龙 – lóng), used to represent men, are divine beings capable of bringing happiness and good fortune. Phoenixes (凤凰 – fèng huáng), representing women, are also auspicious. While turtles (龟 – guī) are revered for their longevity in Chinese culture, they can also be a symbol of bad luck. For example, keeping a turtle as a pet may slow down your business.

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

Every Chinese parent wants their son to be a dragon and their daughter to be a phoenix, for good reason.

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

The Donald and feng shui master Pun Yin.

Of course, when it comes to ancient Chinese beliefs and superstitions, we can’t forget about feng shui (风水 – fēng shuǐ). This system uses the laws of Heaven and Earth to improve your life. Chinese take their feng shui very seriously, and one’s home or office needs to be arranged in the correct manner to bring about positive qi which will lead to happiness and success in life. Even the Donald himself consults with feng shui masters from time to time, although he might not regard the practice as highly as his Chinese counterparts. To quote the business tycoon – ”I don’t’ believe in Feng Shui, but I use it because it makes me money.” Maybe he could consider using feng shui to correctly align his hideous toupée. If you’re interested in learning some more about this ancient practice, read Steve’s post from last year. Also, if you want to improve your Chinese, check out all of the many resources that Transparent Chinese has to offer.

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Within Chinese culture, superstitions are common among many people. Like any other culture, some of these may seem strange, but they hold unique value. To better understand more Chinese superstitions, I turned to my close Chinese friend Sonya for her experiences with superstitions.

These are seven Chinese superstitions:

1. In Chinese culture, people will burn fake paper money to commemorate a person who has passed away. A large part of this superstition is seen in a memorial event of the Tomb sweeping festival, which has a long history in China.

2. In China, people do not use a broom to clean the floor on the first day of Chinese New Year. Chinese people also do not throw out their trash on this day. It is bad to clean your house on this day, especially the floors, because the broom is seen as making fortune going away.

3. There are also superstitions regarding your body. For example, your eyelid twitching has two different meanings. If the left eyelid jumps suddenly, this means fortune and good luck. If the right eyelid jumps suddenly, this means bad fortune and unluckiness.

4. When someone starts a new business in China, some Chinese business people will turn to a fortune teller for guidance. They will pay a considerable amount of money for the fortune teller to tell them the exact time to open their business. The dates and times are seen as important for wealth and good luck with their business.

5. When a person passes away, their family does not bargain the price of an urn for ashes. They also do not point to an urn that they decide to buy. This is out of respect for the person who passes away, so that there is not a focus on money.

6. Certain numbers in China are considered bad luck or have negative connotations. The number “four” is very unlucky and one word to avoid. This is because the Chinese word for “four” sounds like the Chinese word for “death”.

How to understand and respect chinese superstitions

7. When a person’s Zodiac animal will be the next year, this means that it will be a tough year for them. A solution to this superstition is that they will have to purchase red socks or underwear for a good year and to protect themselves.

For my friend Sonya, these superstitions are a part of her culture and life in China. Through a greater understanding of these, it gives others the ability to connect with Chinese culture and the people in it. This can further create a new awareness with regard to our own cultural traditions and superstitions. No matter how superstitious you are, it is important to recognize how superstitions speak to our cultures around the globe.