It’s true that China has many customs, traditions and superstitions which translate to taboos if one is not careful to control some habits on a special day like the New Year.
There are countless number of behaviors or expressions which are acceptable in foreign cultures but considered “wrong” in the Chinese setting.
For instance, you are expected to “enjoy” and finish up your meal when served by a host. Leaving some grains of rice on your plate is considered a disrespect. Eat it up to prove he/she isn’t a bad cook.
Wearing a green hat/cap isn’t fashion in China, especially for men. A man wears a green cap only if his wife/girlfriend has been unfaithful. Surprised?
Hugging a member of the opposite sex in public isn’t allowed although handshakes may be considered OK for the educated ones. Just say hi, if you care, or smile and walk away.
French kisses are only allowed if you’re in France. Don’t try western culture in China unless you’re in your bedroom. Strictly for foreigners, any way.
Asking about someone’s age – especially if they’re from the opposite sex, is considered an insult.
The number 4 and anything that has it, is bad. Four is pronounced “si” in Chinese numerals but the same word – in a different tone, means “death”. It’s hard to see vehicle licence numbers with 4. People don’t offer gifts if they come in fours. Other numbers like 6 and 8 are seen as “good luck and wealth”.
Looking for a gift to express your feelings in China? Don’t go for a clock. The Chinese word for clock is “zhong”, also the same spelling for “death”. You can’t wish someone death if you truly love them.
Don’t give shoes as a gift unless you want to trample upon the receiver, and probably remind them how “poor and wretched” they are.
Handkerchiefs? No! People share these only at funerals.
Mirrors? No, too! It attracts ghosts.
Though foreigners are always forgiven for our ignorance, here are some strict New Year’s Day taboos which every Chinese person must observe:
1. Medicine: Taking medicine on the first day of the lunar year means one will get ill for a whole year.
2. New Year’s breakfast: Porridge should not be eaten because it is considered that only poor people have porridge for breakfast and people don’t want to start the year “poor” as this is a bad omen.
3. Laundry: People do not wash clothes on the first and second day because these two days are celebrated as the birthday of Shuishen (水神, the Water God).
4. Washing hair: Hair must not be washed on the first day of the lunar year. In the Chinese language, hair (发) has the same pronunciation and character as ‘fa’ in facai (发财), which means ’to become wealthy’. Therefore, it is seen as not a good thing to “wash one’s fortune away” at the beginning of the New Year.
5. Sharp objects: The use of knives and scissors is to be avoided as any accident is thought to lead to inauspicious things and the depletion of wealth.
6. Going out: A woman may not leave her house otherwise she will be plagued with bad luck for the entire coming year. A married daughter is not allowed to visit the house of her parents as this is believed to bring bad luck to the parents, causing economic hardship for the family.
7. The broom: If you sweep on this day then your wealth will be swept away too.
8. Crying children: The cry of a child is believed to bring bad luck to the family so parents do their best to keep children as happy as possible.
9. Theft: Having your pocket picked is believed to portend your whole wealth in the coming year being stolen.
10. Debt: Money should not be lent on New Year’s Day and all debts have to be paid by New Year’s Eve. If someone owes you money, do not go to their home to demand it. Anyone who does so will be unlucky all year.
11. An empty rice jar: A depleted receptacle may cause grave anxiety as the cessation of cooking during the New Year period is considered to be an ill omen.
12. Damaged clothes: Wearing threadbare garments can cause more bad luck for the year.
13. Killing things: Blood is considered an ill omen, which will cause misfortunes such as a knife wound or a bloody disaster.
14. Monochrome fashion: White or black clothes are barred as these two colours are traditionally associated with mourning.
15. Welcoming the New Year: According to tradition, people must stay up late on New Year’s Eve to welcome the New Year and then let off firecrackers and fireworks to scare off inauspicious spirits and Nian, the New Year monster.
16. Giving of certain gifts: Clocks, scissors, and pears all have a bad meaning in Chinese culture.