Generally speaking animals can be interpreted as bearers of good luck. Deer connotes wealth and the bear is a male symbol. The dragon is seen as a benevolent being that brings rain for the farmers. The Emperor of China even was considered a personification of the dragon.
As for fish, the eel is a symbol of carnal love and in China, but more especially in Japan, the carp symbolises courage and endurance, because it swims against the river’s flow and allegedly, up cataracts. As a symbol of virility, it is the emblem of young men, and on their festival paper carps are set on the tips of poles or on the rooftops of houses.
For things that fly, the dragonfly is the symbol of summer but also weakness. Bats are symbols of long life and happiness and butterflies represent the soul and, in Hong Kong, marital bliss. In China two magpies or two swallows flying together symbolize marital bliss. They consider the magpie a harbinger of good luck and dire misfortune will befall anyone who kills it. Equally auspiciously, Mandarin ducks always come in pairs representing conjugal happiness and fidelity.
Till death do us part
Naturally, superstition and rituals abound in all matters matrimonial and funereal. In Ancient China, chap ngo mei was the day on which unmarried urban maidens were allowed out of the house (for once), and taken to the waterfront in rickshaws or cars. They threw oranges into the sea or river while praying for good husbands.
At weddings, if the prospective groom met an untimely death the bride would go ahead with the wedding ceremony marrying his ghost instead. She would then live with her dead husband’s parents. An old woman who has sons and grandsons holds an umbrella to cajole the spirits in favour of male offspring which were highly desired and girls traditionally unwanted.
Mourners at a funeral keep their distance from the coffin for fear that their shadow will fall on it and thus be buried with the deceased. It is customary to burn auspicious squares of coloured paper on the funeral pyre to bring good luck to the soul of the deceased on its journey to the afterlife. Mourners traditionally set off fireworks on their way home to fend off the spirit of the departed. As they are leaving the cemetery each is given a new handkerchief with a red thread in it, two sweets tied with red thread, or simply a red thread; this must be waved over the left shoulder to prevent ghosts from following people home.
Please come in
The inside of a Chinese home, however, is subject to the well-known rules of feng-shui. Thoughtful placing of mirrors (which reflect bad spirits) and bowls of water (which attract good spirits) aim to preserve the harmony of the home. There are other rules: the foot of the bed should never face the door of a bedroom, while the bed itself should ideally face south. The front door of the house should face east, towards the sunrise; but it shouldn’t be aligned with the back door, otherwise luck (and money) will be interpreted as going out of the house as soon as it comes in. A house at the end of a cul-de-sac is unlucky; evil spirits can march straight up to the front door.
One way to be familiar with all these Chinese habits is to study the designs of Chinese rugs. They derive from homonyms (words which sound alike but are written differently) ie the Chinese word for a bat fu sounds identical to the woChinrd translatable for happiness so a stylised bat is often depicted on a rug to denote happiness. Some numbers and some colours are thought to be lucky so five red bats translate as the five forms of supreme happiness: health, wealth, longevity, a natural death and a love of virtue. Sometimes symbols are combined to convey a special message to the rug’s owner. A deer (symbol of prosperity) and a stork (of longevity) might be interwoven to express the wish for a long and prosperous life.