13 Cultural Inversions

I have always told people that my ultimate remit is introducing and explaining China and its diverse cultures to the world. On this year’s national day, I will be talking about the elements of this subject which might be slightly harder for people in the West to get their heads around – common cultural symbols that hold exactly the opposite meanings. 13 is a lucky number. I start with the number 13. The Chinese love luck and puns, especially the Cantonese. The Cantonese pronunciation of 十三(“sup saam”) is a near homophone to 实生(“sut saang”), meaning definitely or certainly alive or vibrant. In the Guangdong region, it’s common to find a 13thfloor followed by a 13A in a building, bypassing 14, an extremely unlucky number. 666 means awesome. To the Chinese, 666 is not the Number of the Beast, nor are those biblical beasts relevant to their mythos. The number 6 六(“liu”)is a homophone of the slang term for “smooth”, both in Mandarin and Cantonese. 666 is internet slang that derived from League of Legend players, meaning cool or awesome. White is black. White is the colour of death and mourning. White is worn to traditional Chinese funerals and the mysterious lady in white or the white-clad female ghost is a staple of Chinese horror and gothic. Bats are auspicious. Bats are auspicious creatures to the Chinese. The second character in their word for bat, 蝙蝠,whether in Mandarin or Cantonese, is a homophone and near homonym of 福, fortune and happiness. Continue Reading →


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Zhong Yuan: Ghost Month

This year’s Ghost Month started yesterday. Are you now thinking of Dias de Muertos? You’ve got the right idea. This is the Chinese version. There are three traditional festivals of the dead on the Chinese annual calendar, known in Taoist terms, as 上元Shang Yuan, z中元Zhong Yuan and 下元 Xia Yuan. Shang Yuan, or Qing Ming, the Chinese Remembrance Day, takes place in the 4th lunar month (see my other article). Zhong Yuan, popularly known as 鬼节 (“Gui Jie”) or 鬼月 (“Gui Yue”) Ghost Month, takes place on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.


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