The significance of symbols

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As we celebrate the Chinese New Year and the arrival of the Year of the Monkey it’s a perfect time to reflect on the significance of symbols, numbers, animals and household practices throughout the Chinese culture. The implications for gift-giving are significant, so read on if you are contemplating business gifts to a Chinese client or contact.

Odds or evens
The Chinese obsession with luck and superstition is also expressed in terms of even and odd numbers.  An even number in Japan denotes bad luck, while an odd number in China and Taiwan suggests bad luck. Many traditional Chinese people believe that having an uneven number of people in a photograph brings bad luck risking the person in the middle to die. Similarly in Singapore funerals the body is dressed in an odd number of suits of clothing (3, 5, 7 or more).

If you are contemplating giving a gift to a business associate, be aware that gifts are ideally given in pairs because odd numbers imply separation and loneliness. Cash gifts should be in even numbers and given with both hands (while interestingly, should you give money in India make sure it is an odd number.)

Give it all away 
Gifting has its own set of expectations and flowers have special connotations. Animals play a strong symbolic part as do the rituals of eating, death and the household….

There is much to bear in mind when it comes to the basic act of giving. In China it is considered polite to decline a gift when it is first offered and the giver is expected to offer it multiple times. Also the gifts are generally not opened in the giver’s presence.

Apples are popular gifts as their word for apple is ping which also translates as peace, but the Chinese never give apples to invalids because it sounds a bit like bing, which is Chinese for illness. Likewise, oranges are a good gift (as the colour symbolises gold and the pips inside are interpreted as many sons).

But it is a faux pas giving someone a timepiece, such as a clock or a watch: the phrase “to gift a clock” is pronounced “sòng zhōng” in Mandarin, which is a homophone of a phrase for “terminating” or “attending a funeral”. It is equally bad to give someone a fan or an umbrella as a gift is frequently unfriendly. The words fan “shàn” and umbrella “sǎn” sounds like the word “sàn” meaning scatter or to lose and”sàn kāi”  which translates as split up. Traditionally, the bride gives her parents a fan, symbolizing that she is leaving them for her husband. Similarly, in Singapore bad luck or taboo gifts are: straw sandals (as they are worn at funerals); sharp objects (knives or scissors: as they symbolise the cutting off of a friendship) and handkerchiefs (as they are considered a sign of sadness). Also don’t give blankets as they stifle the recipient’s prosperity and do not give a book to anyone who has investments or enjoys betting as shu which can be interpreted as the word for losing.

Say it with flowers
The symbolism of colours plays an equally important role in China.

GREEN is used as a sign of cuckoldry especially when linked to hats (for a man wearing a green hat advertises that his wife or sister is a prostitute).

RED is the colour of happiness and the most popular gift tradition is to present bright and distinctive red envelopes containing money.

ORANGE in China (and Japan) is equated with love and happiness.

YELLOW in South-East Asia is considered the imperial colour because it suggests grandeur and mystery and in China herself it is symbolic of the masculine principle, yang, the power of the sun.

BLUE predominates at the annual sacrifices at a temple. The sacrificial are of blue porcelain, the robes worn are of blue brocade, and the light filtering through a special blind is also blue.

The symbolic appeal of colours goes as far as flowers themselves where the marigold is the emblem of long-life: ‘the flowers of ten thousand years’. Most Asian people respond negatively to white flowers because white has death connotations while, more auspiciously, in China orange blossom represents innocence and chastity.

Generally speaking, the Chinese interpret animals 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.

As 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 us do 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 word 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.

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