Taboos are restrictions or prohibitions that are dictated not by laws, but by a culture’s social, behavioural, or religious expectations. They influence our social interactions, dining etiquette, and even the way we speak. Taboos stem, above all, from our shared desire for self-preservation, and have roots in religion, superstition, history, medicine, and so on. Some are shared among civilisations while others are more culture-specific – sometimes appearing entirely logical to one civilisation and absurd to another.
Understanding and assimilating taboos in Chinese culture is not only key for your child’s social development and integration, but will also allow them to develop a more complex relationship with Chinese language, culture, and history.
Homonyms or 同音字
In China, taboos are very commonly originated from homonyms or 同音字- two or more words sounding exactly the same while meaning different things.
Here are a few examples of such taboos to avoid:
Never share a pear (分梨/fēn lí/)
Never share a pear with friends or family!
The act of ‘sharing a pear’ is written as 分梨/fēn lí/, which happens to be a homophone of 分離, which means ‘to separate’. Unless you wish to separate from your loved ones, pears should never be shared!
The number 4
The number four (四/sì/)is generally avoided in China, since the pronunciation of 四/sì/ sounds like 死/sǐ/, which means ‘death’. You may have noticed that many buildings do not have floor number 4 and some aircrafts do not have seat row number 4.
Avoid gifting clocks
When it comes to presents, it is common practice to avoid gifting clocks or watches. The act of doing so, 送鐘/sòng zhōng/, sounds the same as 送终, which translates to sending off someone who is dying, or even means to kill or murder someone.
Taboos in Cantonese
The Cantonese dialect contains more sounds and intonations than Putonghua. Being in the southern part of China, people who speak cantonese have a long history of actively engaging in commercial activities. As a result, there are many taboos that are Cantonese specific. Below are a few examples:
When referring to an empty house...
空屋 literally means ‘unoccupied house’; however, 空, meaning ‘empty’, sounds the same as 兇, which means ‘terrible/fearful’. Therefore, 空屋sounds a lot like 兇屋, which means ‘haunted house’!
When referring to an empty house for sale/rent, in Cantonese you would say 吉屋 instead, where 吉is the exact opposite of 兇and it means ‘excellent’.
The pig's liver
The proper name of pig's liver is 豬肝. However, using this proper name is generally avoided since although 肝 is the word for ‘liver’, it sounds the same as 乾, meaning ‘dry’. Imagine having a dry wallet, which means having no money! Everyone would rather have a prosperous amount of money, and therefore instead of saying 豬肝 (pig’s liver) in Cantonese, we say 豬潤, where 潤 means plentiful (利潤 means profit).
Some food related Cantonese taboos
Many non-Cantonese natives might scratch their heads when they are told that cucumbers, which should correctly be called 黃瓜, are called 青瓜 in Cantonese. While Cantonese acknowledge that they are called 黃瓜, most of the time they would not say that in order to avoid offending people whose last name is 黃. This is because「瓜」in colloquial Cantonese also means "to end", "to die".
Cuttlefish, 魷魚, is another sensitive food item, especially when many companies are laying off employees. 豉椒炒魷, cuttlefish fried with black bean paste and chili, means being fired by the boss because the sliced cuttlefish curl up once fried, resembling the employee's having to pack up everything and leaving the company.
Symbolism and Superstition
Other taboos have more to do with symbolism and a little superstition.
For instance, never leave chopsticks standing upright in your bowl. This creates an image similar to that of burning incense sticks, which is associated with death and graveyards.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is an event with its own share of taboos and rules to follow:
First of all, it is best to avoid frequenting bookstores during the new year. The word for book,書, sounds the same as 輸, which means “to lose”. Chinese people therefore avoid bookstores at Chinese New Year, particularly if they are business owners or betting at the races, in order to avoid any type of financial or asset losses during the coming year. Instead, people wish bookstore owners 一本萬利 /yī běn wàn lì/ , meaning one book brings many benefits, or investments from a single capital bring multiple profits.
Crying and arguing are also best avoided, and it is important to stay away from using any words with negative connotations to avoid jinxing yourself, your family, and friends.
Finally, while it may be tempting to start the new year afresh, Chinese people avoid cleaning, sweeping, and cutting hair during CNY, to prevent the loss of good fortune, prosperity and success. On the first day of CNY, people even steer clear from showering!