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  • Home> About China> Custom

    Chinese customs, superstitions and traditions

      

    Chinese culture is rich in customs, traditions and superstitions. In this section you will find brief descriptions of a selection of traditional customs in certain areas of life.

    The extent to which these customs will be observed will vary between areas within Greater China and between Chinese communities throughout the world. Some traditions may no longer be observed apart from in small pockets of very traditionalist Chinese.

    Marriage customs and preparation

    In a culture where the perpetuation of family ancestral lineage and the family as a social institution are central, marriage is an important institution and has many intricate customs associated with it. In the Chinese family system the wife lives with the husband’s family and is deemed as no longer part of her own family, but the 'property' of the husband’s family.

    Arranged marriages, where the marriage match is arranged by the parents or relatives of the bride and groom were once common in Chinese society but are now rare and viewed as old-fashioned. Marriage is usually now based on the two people involved’s own choices. However, once the couple have chosen each other, the arrangements are usually taken over by the parents (or older relatives), thus observing traditional customs and superstitions.

    Chinese men tend to marry fairly late in life, as they need to save up for the expense of the wedding: a Chinese wedding can be very expensive, especially where the involved families are of high social status. Two important componentss of Chinese culture- the need to avoid embarassment ('saving face') and to conspicuously display wealth and prosperity- come heavily to the fore in marriage, especially where the marriage is of the eldest son. Failure to provide a lavish wedding is likely to lower the status of the family, bring shame upon them and bring criticism from relatives raining down upon them.

    There are several stages to a Chinese wedding (described under), usually under the overseeing of the groom’s parents (or older relatives). Weddings are micro-planned and planning is highly time consuming. The process begins when the parents are informed of their son/daughter’s intentions and, if they are in agreement, a meeting between the two families is arranged.

    Information gathering

    In Chinese culture, a marriage is not simply a love match between two people, but an establishing of a relationship between two families as well. If the parents are not happy with the lineage and status of the other family, a wedding will not occur.

    The ‘information gathering’ stage of a wedding involves the groom’s family ascertaining the reputation and lineage of the bride’s family, and the character and behaviour of the bride. This is of great importance as the reputation of the groom’s family is at stake. Before a meeting takes place, the groom’s family will have already made surreptitious enquiries through friends and acquaintances. A meeting will be arranged for the two families to meet- usually without the bride and groom present- and a frank and open discussion will ensue. Some prefer the initial meeting to be held over a meal in a restaurant with members of the extended families such as aunts and uncles present. Sharing a meal will help to break the ice and strengthen the bonds between parties soon to be in-laws. Conversation is likely to revolve around family backgrounds and origins- though not with a serious tones as this may lead to arguments which will lead to a cancellation of the wedding- and serves to allow the two families to become acquainted and establish a rapport. The family of the bride will use the opportunity to investigate the status and wealth of the groom’s family and ensure that their daughter is not likely to be maltreated: as noted before, after marriage the bride will become part of the groom’s family.

    Negotiation period

    If both families are satisfied with each other, the groom’s parents will send their representative- always female and chosen from among his aunts or elderly relatives- to ask for the bride’s hand in marriage. A time and date is set for this meeting. The representative will discuss a suitable date, the amount of the dowry and the number of tables allocated to the bride’s family at the wedding banquet. The bride’s family will always delay agreement on these matters so as not to appear too eager, even if they have already decided the matters. This is expected, and a second meeting is set, with a period in between to allow any problems to be worked out. However, on her second visit to the bride’s house, the groom’s representative expects a decision. A relevant proverb is used to signal acceptance. The bride’s family will request that the wedding is conducted with due felicity and grandeur, and the amount of dowry and number of required banquet tables will be stated. The groom’s representative will not bargain, as this is considered unseemly: she will only ask the bride’s name and date of birth in order to determine a suitable date for the wedding by reference to a fortune teller. The groom’s family will now be able to estimate the costs of the wedding and start to make preparations. If a relative of either the bride or groom dies before the wedding day, the wedding will be postponed for a period, traditionally a year but now usually reduced to a hundred days, as it is considered inappropriate to hold a wedding during a period of mourning.

    Engagement

    If preparations for the wedding can not be made within the specified time period or the couple do not wish to ‘rush into’ marriage, an engagement will occur first, but only with the bride’s parents’ consent. The engagement is usually a simple affair, with an exchange of rings (worn on the third finger of the left hand), and the engagement is of an unspecified time period. Chinese engagements are not a binding commitment to marriage, but an indication that the couple intends to marry. Engaged couples may sometimes live together as man and wife (if their parents consent), but formal marriage is always preferred because of its (relative) permanency.

    Funeral customs and the wake

    The burial of the dead (cremation is traditionally uncommon) is a matter taken very seriously in Chinese societies. Improper funeral arrangements can wreak ill fortune and disaster upon the family of the deceased.To a certain degree, Chinese funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age of the deceased, the manner of his/her death, his/her status and position in society and his/her marital status.

    According to Chinese custom, an older person should not show respect to a younger. Thus, if the deceased is a young bachelor his body cannot be brought home but is left in a funeral parlour. His parents cannot offer prayers for their son: being unmarried he has no children to perform these rites either (hence why the body does not come to the family home). If a baby or child dies no funeral rites are performed, as respect cannot be shown to a younger person: the child is buried in silence.

    Funeral rites for an elderly person must follow the prescribed form and convey relevant respect: rites befitting the person’s status, age etc. must be performed even if this means the family of the deceased must go into debt to pay for them.

    Preparation for a funeral often begins before death has occurred: if a person is on his/her deathbed a coffin will often have already been ordered by the family. A traditional Chinese coffin is rectangular with three ‘humps’, but it more usual in modern times for a western style coffin to be used. The coffin is provided by an undertaker who oversees all the funeral rites.

    When a death occurs in a family all statues of deities in the house are covered with red paper (so as not to be exposed to the body or coffin) and mirrors removed from sight, as it is believed that one who sees the reflection of a coffin in a mirror will shortly have a death in his/her family. A white cloth will be hung across the doorway of the house and a gong placed on the left of the entrance if the deceased is male and right if female.

    Before being placed in the coffin, the corpse is cleaned with a damp towel, dusted with talcum powder and dressed in his/her best clothes from his/her own wardrobe (all other clothing of the deceased is burnt and not reused) before being placed on a mat (or hay if on a farm). The body is completely dressed- including footwear, and cosmetics if female- but it is not dressed in red clothes (as this will cause the corpse to become a ghost): white, black, brown or blue are the usual colours used. Before being placed in the coffin the corpse’s face is covered with a yellow cloth and the body with a light blue one.

    The coffin is placed on its own stand either in the house (if the person has died at home) or in the courtyard outside the house (if the person has died away from home). The coffin is placed with the head of the deceased facing the inside of the house resting about a foot from the ground on two stools, and wreaths, gifts and a portrait or photograph of the deceased are placed at the head of the coffin. The coffin is not sealed during the wake. Food is placed in front of the coffin as an offering to the deceased. The deceased’s comb will be broken into halves, one part placed in the coffin, one part retained by the family.

    During the wake, the family do not wear jewellery or red clothing, red being the colour of happiness. Traditionally, children and grandchildren of the deceased did not cut their hair for forty-nine days after the date of death, but this custom is usually only observed now by the older generations of Chinese. It is customary for blood relatives and daughters-in-law to wail and cry during mourning as a sign of respect and loyalty to the deceased. Wailing is particularly loud if the deceased has left a large fortune.

    At the wake, the family of the deceased gather around the coffin, positioned according to their order in the family. Special clothing is worn: children and daughters in law wear black (signifying that they grieve the most), grandchildren blue and great grandchildren light blue. Sons-in-law wear brighter colours such as white, as they are considered outsiders. The children and daughters-in-law also wear a hood of sackcloth over their heads. The eldest son sits at the left shoulder of his parent and the deceased’s spouse at the right. Later-arriving relatives must crawl on their knees towards the coffin.

    An altar, upon which burning incense and a lit white candle are placed, is placed at the foot of the coffin. Joss paper and prayer money (to provide the deceased with sufficient income in the afterlife) are burned continuously throughout the wake. Funeral guests are required to light incense for the deceased and to bow as a sign of respect to the family. There will also be a donation box, as money is always offered as a sign of respect to the family of the deceased: it will also help the family defray the costs of the funeral.

    During the wake there will usually be seen a group of people gambling in the front courtyard of the deceased’s house: the corpse has to be ‘guarded’ and gambling helps the guards stay awake during their vigil; it also helps to lessen the grief of the participants.

    The length of the wake depends upon the financial resources of the family, but is at least a day to allow time for prayers to be offered. While the coffin is in the house (or compound) a monk will chant verses from Buddhist or Taoist scriptures at night. It is believed that the souls of the dead face many obstacles and even torments and torture (for the sins they have committed in life) before they are allowed to take their place in the afterlife: prayers, chanting and rituals offered by the monks help to smooth the passage of the deceased’s soul into heaven. These prayers are accompanied by music played on the gong, flute and trumpet.

    Colours and clothing

    Colours

    In Chinese culture there are three central colours: red, black and white.

    Red, being the colour of blood, symbolises the positive aspects of life such as happiness, wealth, fame etc. Red is always associated with good luck.

    Black, being the colour of faeces is associated with dirt, sin, evil, disasters, sadness, cruelty and suffering among other negative things. Black signifies bad fortune and must not be worn during festivals, wedding celebrations etc. or used in home decoration. Black symbolises a lack of civilisation and backwardness. However, traditions associated with this colour are quickly fading, and among the younger generations black can be frequently seen as a clothing colour.

    White symbolises the mother’s milk and is intermediate between red and black, balancing the two colours. It signifies moderation, purity, honesty and life, but is also used at funerals as it is believed it can harmonise all elements. It can be used in all rituals and ceremonies as it is essentially neutral. Other colours are classified according to their relative darkness and lightness and associated significance thereof.

    Clothing

    There are no specific rules in Chinese custom governing dress. Traditional costumes are rarely worn and clothing is usually chosen for comfort or according to the fashion of the day.

    Bright colours are preferred for clothing in Chinese culture, but the colour of one’s clothing is generally suited to the environment: for example manual workers and farmers will often wear dark colours because of the nature of their work. Some conventions are considered with regards to age: the elderly are not encouraged to ‘dress young’, for example t-shirts and jeans.

    Speech and greeting conventions

    Many western visitors to China have had a rude shock: Chinese conversations in public tend to be loud and highly audible- to western ears the conversationalists appear to be arguing. Arguments usually result not in especially loud speech, but in the use of curses and swear words, regardless of sex or age.

    However, Chinese etiquette states that the best way to speak is softly and with one’s head slightly bowed. ‘Answering back’ to those older is considered ill-mannered: the advice of elders should be accepted. Children who answer back or swear are considered bad mannered and their parents are held responsible.

    Chinese men speaking loud are not considered bad mannered: a woman speaking loudly is, and may have abuse and ridicule heaped upon herself.

    The correct way of greeting a person is very important in Chinese culture: inappropriate greeting is considered very much undesirable. Among strangers, acquaintances or at formal occasions the greeting (in Mandarin) ‘Ni Hao’ (or ‘Nin Hao if much respect is meant) meaning, literally ‘you good?' is used. The phrase ‘Have you eaten?’ is used as a more familiar greeting and testifies to the centrality of food in Chinese culture. Chinese culture considers it impolite to meet someone and not ask him/her to eat: he/she may be hungry!

    The traditional Chinese ‘handshake’ consists of interlocking the fingers of the hands and waving them up and down several times. This is today rarely used (except during festivals, weddings and birthdays of the elderly), and the western style handshake is ubiquitous among all but the very old or traditional. When greeting, a slight bow often accompanies the handshake, with the bow being deeper the more respect is being proffered to the person, for example an elderly person or someone of high social status.

    The Chinese tend not to greet those close to them with greetings that may bear a negative slant such as ‘you’re looking sad’ or ‘you’re looking tired’: this is deemed improper. In formal contexts, or when addressing an elder or person with high status it is considered highly inappropriate and rude to address the person by their given name. They should be addressed according to their designation, for example ‘Mr Tang, Doctor Liu, Chairman Lee’ etc.

    Business/name cards are ubiquitous in Chinese business and will almost always be exchanged upon meeting a stranger in such a context. The card should be held in both hands when offered to the other person: offering it with one hand is considered ill-mannered.

    Miscellaneous customs and beliefs

    Brooms

    Many superstitions abound in Chinese culture about brooms. The use of brooms should only be for cleaning the house, shop etc. Traditional Chinese culture holds that a broom is inhabited by a spirit, thus explaining why it should not be used for games, playing etc. The broom should not be used for cleaning the household gods or altar as this is disrespectful. These objects are cleaned with a cloth or a special small brush. During the Spring Festival, Chinese custom prohibits the use of the broom for three days from New Year’s Day, as it is thought that use of it will sweep away the good luck the new year brings.

    Beating a person with a broom will rain bad luck upon that person for years. The curse can however be lifted by rubbing the part of the body hit several times. The broom should never touch the head: this is very bad luck. In gambling, the spirit in the broom is sometimes invoked by ‘threatening’ it until luck in gambling ensues. The broom is also sometimes used in temple rituals. Here, the person’s whole body is swept with the broom in front of the deities and the broom then beaten. This functions to remove bad luck.

    Numbers

    Numbers play a role second only to food in Chinese custom and culture. It is believed that numbers can determine a person’s fate- for example in the naming of a child.

    Certain numbers are considered lucky, and others unlucky. The luckiest number in Chinese culture is eight, as the Chinese for eight sounds like the word for ‘lucky’. Four, conversely is a very unlucky number as in Chinese it sounds like the word for death. Thus Chinese adhering to the customs try to avoid the number four in, for example, car number plates, house addresses etc. Seven can also signify death, and '1' loneliness.

    Moustaches and beards

    Despite a long history of beards and moustaches in Chinese heroes and Chinese deities pictured with beards, wearing a moustache is considered bad luck by Chinese custom, and can bring misfortune on the family and relatives of the wearer. Being unshaven is associated with the working classes- who are thought not to have time to shave- and thus lowers the status of the wearer.

    Finger and toe nails

    Chinese custom forbids the clipping of one’s toe or finger nails at night as it is believed that this may cause a visit from the dead or a ghost. Nail clippings are to be carefully collected and disposed of in a place unknown to others as it is believed that nail clippings can be used to cast a spell or curse upon the person from whom the clippings have come.

    The fluid from a dog’s eye

    Dogs are believed to have the ability to see supernatural beings such as ghosts and phantoms, and howl when they see one. If a dog howls continuously, it is believed that this presages an imminent death.

    Following from this, it is believed that the fluid from a dog’s eye can enable humans to see the spirit world, for example ancestors’ souls. A medium will smear the fluid on his/her eyes in order to see the supernatural world for the purposes of exorcism etc. However it is believed that ordinary people who smear the fluid from a dog’s eye on their own eyes may die from the shock of seeing the afterlife.

    Miscellaneous customs and superstitions

    Other customs and superstitions include:

    Dreaming of snow or teeth presages the death of a parent.

    Hearing a crow cawing between 3 and 7am means the hearer will receive gifts, whereas hearing a crow caw between 7 and 11am rain and wind will follow, and between 11am and 1pm quarrels will ensue.

    If a man's ears burn it can mean special things: if they burn between 11pm and 1pm there will be harmony between him and his wife; if they burn between 1 and 3 in the afternoon, a guest will soon arrive.

    Yarrow and tortoiseshell are considered to be lucky.

    (Information by Network Center of MOFCOM)

    (News source: English Website of Ministery of Commerce)

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    Beijing time: 2019/06/19/7AM
    local time: 2019/06/19/4AM

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