Maybe you’ve been in an elevator and the number four has been omitted? Or been told you need to eat long noodles on your birthday? Perhaps in a business meeting your counterparts became highly uncomfortable with the position of the table and chairs? China is famous for its many superstitions, and while it is true they are usually not followed to the letter, they still remain widespread across the country. Superstition and business are heavily intertwined so your understanding of them can sometimes be the difference between success and failure. With this in mind here are seven Chinese superstitions every foreigner should know.
1) Don’t predict sickness or the possibility of death for yourself or anyone else, even in jest. The Chinese are extremely sensitive about this especially during the Spring (Chinese New Year) and Qingming Festivals. If you do happen to do this by accident, especially if it’s about others, you might be required to say 呸呸呸 (pēi pēi pēi) to the corner of the room. This will dispel any bad luck you have brought on yourself or others.
2) The number four is considered unlucky because it is strongly associated with death. Four 四 (sì) sounds like 死 (sǐ) which means ‘die’. Many elevators, offices and hotels omit the number four completely. Therefore you should avoid arranging meetings or events at 4pm. Additionally if you’re booking a Chinese client or associate into a hotel avoid booking them onto the fourth floor or into a room with the number four in it.
3) The character 福 (fú) which means happiness is one of the most visible symbols in China. You may have seen it decorated on people’s houses and businesses during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). One thing most people do not notice is that they’re invariably stuck upside down. This is because the characters for ‘upside down’ and ‘arrive’ are homonyms, so ‘the fú is upside down’ sounds like “happiness has arrived”. If you see one during this festive period, you can say “fú dàole” to bring the person you are with good luck!
4) Feng Shui (风水 fēngshuǐ) is a philosophical system that relies on spatial placements of objects in order to balance the flow of energy (qì), enabling you to be more productive and prosperous. A Fengshui master must be employed to do this correctly which can be a very expensive process. Therefore it is far more widespread in companies and organisations than the general population.
When Chinese people visit foreign countries, they don’t expect western companies to adhere to Fengshui and they would never comment on the condition of your office. So hiring a Fengshui master is most of the time unnecessary and always expensive. However there are some small steps you can take to optimise your office or meeting room to make your Chinese guests more comfortable.
- Do not seat Chinese people at the corner of the table (rounded or sharp) because this is seen as ominous in relation to their general well being. This is one of the main reasons why Chinese people prefer round tables.
- Water is the most powerful symbol of money in Fengshui. If possible seat your guests in a position where they can see any water features your office or building may have.
- Do not seat any guests directly in line with door as this is seen as the path of negative energy.
5) Fish are considered lucky because the Chinese for surplus – 余 and the Chinese for fish – 鱼, are both pronounced yú. For this reason fish is usually ordered during business dinners so if you are hosting it is a good idea to order one.
6) Never give a watch or clock as a gift. In Chinese, saying ‘giving a clock’ 送钟 (sòng zhōng) sounds like the Chinese words for ‘attending a funeral ritual’ 送终 (sòng zhōng). Additionally, giving a clock is usually seen as a sign that time is running out; therefore, the end of relationships and life are the messages that such gifts are associated with.
7) The number eight is considered extremely lucky and is strongly associated with wealth and prosperity. Eight 八 (bā) sounds similar to 发 (fā) which means prosperity and wealth. Additionally the number six and the number nine are also considered lucky. For example, the Bank of China’s listing code on the Shanghai Stock Exchange is 601988.
So how seriously do Chinese people take these superstitions? Some are adamant about obeying them. Others don’t follow them closely but rather view them as a part of their traditional culture. But either way, as with good manners and dinner etiquette, learning and respecting Chinese superstitions will help you build long term relationships.