11 Taboos in Chinese Culture

Learn How to Avoid These Common Chinese Taboos

Man filling in questionnaire, close-up of hand
David Gould/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Every place has their own taboos, and it is important to learn what they are when traveling or encountering another culture to guarantee you don't do something offensive by accident. There are many Chinese taboos, so be sure to know them to avoid a social faux-pas. 

Numbers

According to Chinese sayings, good things come in pairs. Therefore odd numbers are avoided for birthdays and weddings. To avoid bad things happening in pairs, activities like burials and giving gifts to the ill are not held on even numbered days.

Also, the number four (四, ) sounds like the character for death (死, ). That is why the number four is avoided particularly on phone numbers, license plates, and addresses. For addresses that do contain fours, the rent is usually less and apartments on the fourth floor are typically rented by foreigners.

At Work

Shopkeepers may opt not to read a book at work because book (書, shū) sounds like lose (輸, shū). Shopkeepers who read may be afraid their businesses will suffer losses.

When it comes to sweeping, shopkeepers are careful not to sweep toward the door, especially during Chinese New Year, in case good fortune is swept out the front door.

When eating a meal, never turn over fish when you are with a fisherman as the motion symbolizes a boat capsizing. Also, never offer a friend an umbrella because the word umbrella (傘, sǎn) sounds similar to 散 (sàn, to break up) and the act is a sign that you will never see each other again.

 

Food

Young children should not eat chicken feet as it is believed they might not be able to write well when they start school. They may also be prone to get in fights like roosters.

Leaving food on one’s plate, particularly grains of rice, will result in marriage to a spouse with many pockmarks on his or her face.

Or, the person will have the wrath of the Thunder god.

Another Chinese taboo relating to food is that chopsticks should not be left standing straight up in a bowl of rice. This act is said to bring bad luck to the restaurant owner as chopsticks stuck in rice look similar to incense placed in urns at temples when meals are offered to ancestors.

Gift-Giving

Since good things are believed to come in pairs, gifts given in pairs (except four) are best. When preparing the gift, do not wrap it in white as that color represents sorrow and poverty.

Certain gifts are also seen as inauspicious. For example, never give a clock, watch, or pocket watch as a gift because "to send a clock" (送鐘, sòng zhōng) sounds like "the funeral ritual" (送終, sòng zhōng). According to Chinese Taboo, clocks symbolize that time is running out, meaning the end of a relationship or of life is indicated. There are many other such ominous Chinese gifts to avoid.

If you give an unlucky gift on accident, the receiver can make it right by giving you a coin which changes the gift to an item they symbolically purchased. 

Holiday Taboos

It is a Chinese taboo to share stories about death and dying and ghost stories during special occasions and holidays.

Chinese New Year

There are many Chinese New Year Taboos to be weary of. On the first day of Chinese New Year, inauspicious words cannot be spoken. For example, words like break, spoil, die, gone, and poor cannot be uttered.

During Chinese New Year, nothing should be broken. When eating fish, diners must be careful to not break any of the bones, and be extra careful not to break any plates.

Also, nothing should be cut during Chinese New Year as that signifies one’s life could be cut short. Noodles should not be cut and haircuts should be avoided. Just in general, sharp objects like scissors and knives are avoided during Chinese New Year.

All windows and doors in the home should be open on New Year’s Eve to send out the old year and welcome the New Year. All debts should be paid by Chinese New Year and nothing should be lent on New Year’s day, otherwise, the person will be paying back debts all year.

Other don'ts include crying on New Year’s Day as that means you will cry all year. And don’t wash your hair on Chinese New Year Day or you may wash away all your luck.

When preparing paper dragons for Chinese New Year, it is taboo for women who are menstruating, people in mourning, and babies to be near the dragons when the cloth is being pasted to the dragon’s body.

Eating fish during Chinese New Years (魚, ) is a must, though diners have to make sure they do not eat all the fish. Having leftovers can ensure there is a surplus (餘, ) every year.

Birthdays

One long noodle is typically slurped on one’s birthday, but revelers beware. The noodle should not be bitten or cut as this could shorten one’s life.

Weddings

In the three months leading up to a couple’s wedding, they should avoid going to a funeral or wake, another wedding, or visiting a woman who has just had a baby. If one of the couple’s parents passes away before the wedding, the wedding must be postponed for 100 days or 1,000 days as attending happy celebrations is considered disrespectful to the deceased.

No one should sleep on the bridal bed after it has been installed and blessed. If the groom must sleep on the bed before the wedding, he should not sleep alone as leaving one side of the bed empty is considered a curse on the couple’s health. To avoid leaving half of the bed empty, the groom should have a young boy, preferably born in the year of the dragon, accompany him in bed.

If a roast pig is given as part of the bride’s gift to the groom’s family, the tail and ears should not be broken. Doing so would mean the bride is not a virgin.

Fifth Lunar Month

The fifth lunar month is considered an unlucky month. It is a Chinese taboo to dry blankets in the sun and build houses during the fifth lunar month.

Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival is held during the seventh lunar month. In order to avoid seeing ghosts, people should not go outside at night. Celebrations like weddings are not held, fishermen will not launch new boats, and many people opt to postpone their trips during the Hungry Ghost Month.

The souls of those who die by drowning are considered to be in the greatest turmoil, so some people refuse to go swimming to lessen the chance of a run-in with wayward ghosts.