Superstitions are a reflection of a civilisation’s culture, and these cultural differences may surprise us due to how different they are from our own. This is especially true if they are the customs of a country which is on the other side of the world, such as China.
To begin, we will address the issue of numbers. Numbers have a special importance in Chinese culture due to their significance. In Chinese, several characters may be written with the same pinyin but pronounced with a different tone, totally changing the meaning of the word. Thus, mā (妈) means mother and mǎ (马), means horse. The similarity does not go unnoticed.
In this context, the number four has a great symbolism in China: it is an unlucky number. It has nothing to do with the number of months in the year, the division of days into hours, or anyone’s death, as the number thirteen does in western culture. It is due to its pronunciation, sì (四), resembling that of death or dying, sǐ (死). For this reason, the number four is practically absent in all contexts: after the third floor of a building comes the fifth, there is no seat number four (or fourteen) on a train or aeroplane, etc.
However, there is also a number for good luck, number eight. Its pronunciation, bā (八), is almost a homophone of prosperity or fortune, fā (发), although it may also be related with Buddhism and its eight petal lotus flower, which represents the perfection of the spirit. Thus, we can find various examples in China which show the importance of this superstition. For example, the Olympic Games held in China began on the eighth day of the eight month of 2008 (08/08/08) at eight o’ clock in the evening.
Additionally, traditions and customs are also a clear reflection of a culture, and the historical background of a country and its geographic location play an important role. Therefore, the further from each other two civilisations being compared are, the more differences we can find. In almost all cultures a series of virtues or meanings have been attributed to different animals. In the west, a black cat is related with bad luck, and a white dove with peace. In the same way, a deer or white crane is a symbol of good luck in China.
This is, surprisingly, the case of the bat, and is also due, among other reasons, to the pronunciation of this word: biānfú (蝙蝠). The final character, fú (蝠), is practically a homonym for that of happiness, fú (福), and is therefore related to good news. Numerous ancient paintings and vases can be found with drawings of bats, and even in the past it was a custom to sit on the patio at night with a cup of tea, observing how these animals fluttered around.
Thus, although it may seem strange to us, it is better not be offended or upset if you are given a picture of a bat as a gift – you are being wished the best of luck!
Beatriz Bustos Rincón
Translated by AGESTRAD