This morning we listened to firecrackers going off in the distance. And listened and listened as they kept going on and on. This is a normal occurrence, as firecrackers hail the building or opening of a new building. They are supposed to scare of any spirits lurking around, and for that reason are also set off before a wedding. The idea of spirits and ghosts is not just relegated to Halloween (and that’s only partly because they don’t have Halloween in China). Though not nearly as prominent as in Southeast Asia, we do see evidences of “the spirits” around here as well. As I listened to the fireworks this morning, I was thinking about all the superstitions/traditions/beliefs I have heard about recently.
It can be hard to tell what is just tradition, what is more superstition, and what is actually belief. I’m not attempting to make those distinctions right now. A lot of these ideas have to do with the way words sound. For example, 4 is an unlucky number because the word for it sounds like death.
Numbers and dates are also very important. A good wedding date is chosen based on the birthday of the bride and the birthday of the groom and how the stars will be aligned and probably some other stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. Time of a person’s birth determines their fortunes for the rest of their life. One of Kevin’s student said she always gets sick because she was born at an inauspicious time.
Last night some friends were talking about appropriate and inappropriate gifts. You should never give a pear to a friend because the word for pear sounds similar to separation, and it gives the idea you want to end your friendship. Apples are good, however, because they sound like peace. In the past, you should not give someone a knife, because it would mean slicing the relationship. Now, they said, it would be okay. It still seems like a little bit of a strange gift to me. Clocks are bad birthday or wedding gifts because they symbolize death (the phrase for giving a clock is similar to attending a funeral).
Red brings luck, which is why it is such a popular color in China, but white is the color of death and mourning.
Some old houses have high thresholds in the doors to keep the wealth in and the spirits out. You should not step on the threshold because they are considered sacred.
You should not step on manhole covers because you may never marry. If you see someone step on a manhole cover, you should hit them (according to the number of days of the week: once for Monday, seven times for Sunday). Hitting them is supposed to do something to chase away the spirits.
You should not leave your chopsticks sticking up in your bowl, because that is inviting the spirits to come and eat from it. This is how they will leave the food at the graves for their ancestors. In several restaurants we eat at, we also see food placed in front of small alters with Buddha or spirits like the frog spirit, who is supposed to bring wealth.
When babies are born, sometimes they are not given names at first, so the spirits will not know who they are. Sometimes baby boys are called by girls names because the spirits would not be as interested in a girl…which is just sad on several levels. Parents will sometimes insult their children as well, calling them ugly or stupid, to trick the spirits.
Whether our students actually believe these things, or say they believe these things, a lot of times they will practice them just to be safe. Because no matter how much they say “I believe in myself; I decide my own fate,” they know that a lot of things in life are beyond their control.