11 Taboos in Chinese Culture

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Every culture has its own taboos, and it is important to remain aware of them when traveling or encountering another culture to ensure you don't commit a social faux-pas. In Chinese culture, some of the most common taboos involve gift-giving, birthdays, and weddings.

Numbers

According to Chinese tradition, good things come in pairs. Therefore odd numbers are avoided for birthday celebrations and weddings. To avoid bad things happening in pairs, activities such as burials and gift-giving are not performed on even-numbered days.

In Chinese, the number four (四, ) sounds like the word for death (死, ). For this reason, 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.

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 the Chinese New Year, in case good fortune is swept out into the street.

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 that doing so will prevent them from writing well when they start school. They may also become prone to fighting like roosters.

Leaving food on one’s plate—particularly grains of rice—is believed to result in marriage to a spouse with many pockmarks on his or her face. Not finishing a meal is also believed to incur 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 restaurant owners as chopsticks stuck in rice look similar to incense placed in urns.

Gift-Giving

Since good things are believed to come in pairs, gifts given in pairs (except sets of 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. There are many other such ominous Chinese gifts to avoid.

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

Holidays

It is a Chinese taboo to share stories about death and dying and ghost stories during special occasions and holidays. Doing so is considered extremely unlucky.

Chinese New Year

There are many Chinese New Year taboos to be wary of. On the first day of the Chinese New Year, inauspicious words cannot be spoken. For example, words such as break, spoil, die, gone, and poor should not be uttered.

During the 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. 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.

When preparing paper dragons for the 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.

Birthdays

One long noodle is typically slurped on one’s birthday. But revelers beware—the noodle should not be bitten or cut as this is believed to 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 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, as attending happy celebrations during mourning is considered disrespectful to the dead.

If a roasted 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 this time.

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 such as weddings are not held, fishermen do 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 during this time to lessen the chance of a run-in with wayward ghosts.