Superstition: East Meets West

It’s easy to mistake the spread of consumer culture and capitalism across the globe with a transmission of Western values and thought. Scratch a little deeper below the surface, and the rich traditions of Eastern philosophy comes through. Superstition is a fascinating manifestation of a cosmological framework which is entirely distinct from the Western worldview, shaping the mindset of millions across Asia. 

East Meets West

Ever sceptical, superstition is generally regarded in the West as archaic and clichéd. The taboo surrounding the number 13 is little more than a gimmick in the horror movie genre. We say “bless you” as a reflex rather than to ward off the plague. We don’t believe there is any real danger in stepping on the cracks of pavements, and we are inclined to think that cats possess a remarkable knack for escaping potentially lethal situations unscathed rather than a genuine ability to be reborn eight times. We like to think of ourselves as conducting our lives in accordance with the rules of logic, scientific reasoning and rationalism, with mainstream media cynically eschewing any hint of occult or spiritual tendencies.

Spin round to the other side of the globe, however, and despite the influx of Western free market capitalism, digital technology and modern culture in all its inglorious forms, superstition still has a strong hold on society in Asia, particularly among the elder generation. These superstitious practices revolve around two major themes; wealth and death. People are guided by the belief that one’s fortune is directed by the gods and spirits of ancestors who inhabit the earthly realm. If you anger these spirits, bad luck will befall you, whereas if you curry their favour, health, good fortune and prosperity will come your way.

The boundary between superstition and religion is inevitably blurred, and what makes Asian superstition even harder to unpick is that it draws from a rich tapestry of thought spanning traditional local folk religions, Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, wisdom of sages from bygone eras, and ancient metaphysical principles like Yin and Yang, the Five Elements and Feng Shui. These superstitions, which continue to dictate the minutiae of people’s behavior, provide a fascinating insight into the cosmological paradigm of the Eastern mind, shedding light on those values which have withstood the test of time and been passed down through the generations.

Popular temples attract hoards of crowds every day, but especially during particular festivals
Popular temples attract hoards of crowds every day, but especially during particular festivals

Death, Sickness and Misfortune

A pervasive awareness of the looming presence of death underpins Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese cultures, which permeates many of the taboos and rituals surrounding this morose topic. At the dinner table, it is sacrilege to have chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice. It symbolizes the image of incense burning in the temple to remember someone who has passed into the other realm. Receiving or giving money that has the number four in it is practically treason, reasoning being the number four (sì四) sounds almost identical to the word for death (sǐ死). For this reason, the fourth floor is always mysteriously absent in a hospital, and guests refuse to stay in hotel rooms ending in the number 4.

As the British Transport Minister learned the hard way on a trip to Taiwan, it is considered a grave taboo to present a watch or clock as a gift since the pronunciation for the act of sending this particular gift (sòngzhōng 送鐘) is exactly the same for that of a funerary rite (sòngzhōng 送終). The new Taipei mayor didn’t exactly receive the gift in good grace, saying that he would sell it for scrap metal. Yet this awkward incidence demonstrates the seriousness with which such taboos are treated. On a less morbid note, in mainland China it is customary to serve someone a bowl of noodles on their birthday, the longer the better, to symbolize a long life. But a rather unsavoury version of this Daoist obsession with longevity is that hairs sprouting from moles (particularly on the face) are often left to grow unhindered.

Taiwan’s older and younger generations both succumb to the inherent Asian obsession with ghosts. There’s an entire month dedicated to them – the seventh lunar month, which falls at the beginning of August by the Roman calendar. Stemming from Buddhist and Daoist traditions, the belief is that Ghost Month is the one time of year when the dead return to haunt the Earth’s surface. They come to eat, drink and be merry. In an attempt to appease the ghosts, piles of fresh fruit, meat and other dishes, as well as bottles of rice wine, whisky, and soda are laid out as a feast of offerings. Families and store employees will stand outside their front doors burning giant wads of “ghost money” that disintegrate into towering plumes of flames and smoke.

A pervasive awareness of the looming presence of death underpins Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese religious culture
A pervasive awareness of the looming presence of death underpins Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese religious culture

As if quenching the hunger and thirst of the departed isn’t enough to ward off bad luck, precautions are taken to avoid angering the spirits. It is forbidden to swim in lakes, rivers or oceans, take airplanes or long train rides. Extremists will tell you not to whistle in the night because it will beckon a ghost towards you. And upon entering a room, you should exercise safety by stacking your shoes one on top of the other or turn one over so a ghost cannot take a walk in them.

The Tomb Sweeping Festival is the most important rite in the veneration of ancestors, which is something taken extremely seriously in Chinese culture. During this time, people will return to their ancestral homes to clear the graves of their departed relatives, prepare special offerings of food and burn paper money to ensure they are not lacking in the afterlife. In the modern age of overcrowded transportation and scarce tickets during festival seasons, entrepreneurial firms are beginning to offer more pragmatic mourning services where hired professionals will take on the burden of familial duties. For an extra charge, they will weep, bow and honour the grave with gifts. Unsurprisingly, many have reacted to this recent development with outrage, considering it a woeful sign of the increasing depravity of society and the shameless march of commercialization.

Burning paper money to bestow upon ancestors in the heavenly realm is a common practice
Burning paper money to bestow upon ancestors in the heavenly realm is a common practice

Wealth, Health and Good Fortune

Good fortune, prosperity, legacy, whatever you want to call it – on a superficial level success is largely defined by the level of wealth you acquire. So many cultures gamble with luck. Symbols, numbers and other miscellaneous tokens can be found here and there, but the Chinese place an abundant amount of faith into superstition when it comes to financial fortunes. For example, to have an 8 in your telephone number or your car number plate is considered extremely lucky, and more affluent members of society will fork out thousands of dollars to attain the prized symbol of two or more 8s on their registration plate. This is because 8 (bā八) sounds like the fā 發 in fācái 發財, which means to get rich or make a fortune. The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony kicked off at exactly 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 o’clock on the 8th of August 2008 precisely because of the fortuitous connotations of this numeral. 9 (jiŭ九) is also considered a lucky number, since it shares the homonymic qualities of the word for longevity (jiŭ). Therefore, while exchanging red envelopes at Chinese New Year, quantities of money in 8s or 9s are preferred to symbolise prosperity and longevity.

Fervent believers in turning over a new leaf, many of the rituals that manifest good fortune take place during Chinese New Year. This is when new clothes, often in red, are bought to symbolize new money coming in, and red envelopes are exchanged amongst family members, close friends and work colleagues. Before New Year’s Eve the dirt is swept out the door, symbolising that all of the old year’s hardship is gone, after which the brooms and brushes must be put away to avoid sweeping away the luck of the upcoming year. Residents place a red poster with the character for prosperity (fú福) upside down on their front door at New Year, which is a play on words between ‘upside down’ (dàole 倒了) and ‘to arrive’ (dàole 到了). Fish is also an essential part of the festive meal, owing to the similar pronunciations of the words for fish (yú魚) and surplus (yú餘).

Paintings of gods adorn the doors, guarding the temple entrance
Paintings of gods adorn the doors, guarding the temple entrance

The harmonizing geomantic principles of Feng Shui, literally translated as wind-water (fēngshui 風水), still feature prominently, particularly in the corporate sphere. Feng Shui is an essential part of the course structure for architects, engineers, property developers and real estate agents. Businesses will carefully hire architects trained in its precepts, who know, for example, never to build a structure which faces north, and to create a barrier just behind the front entrance to ward off evil spirits – since they can only travel in straight lines. Water features and fountains are seen as especially symbolic, because their clarity and free flowing nature represent wealth coming in. Fish ponds are tranquil and reflective, and the size and strength of the fish fittingly correlate to the strength of your company. Feng Shui experts were consulted in the planning of Disney Lang Hong Kong, resulting in the entrance being shifted by 12 degrees to invite in good fortune, and the inclusion of water fountains, lakes and streams for prosperity, and ornamental boulders for stability.

A Glimpse into the Future

Fortune telling has a history which spreads back into the primordial reaches of human civilization. Among some of the earliest examples of the written word, Chinese relics of turtle plastrons and ox shoulder bones reveal consultations of the gods. Questions carefully carved onto bone would be cracked in the fire to divine the weather, auspicious days to set out on a journey, whether to expect a male or female heir, and the fates of kingdoms long since forgotten. The desire to glimpse into the mysterious mists of the future has not loosened its grip on the Chinese heart. Many will regularly consult soothsayers for advice on anything from marriage, business, property, careers, babies and any other major or minor life decision they may need some reassurance about. Under the fluorescent lights of these roadside booths, statues of gods and goddesses sit nestled among the air conditioning units and electric fans, while fortune telling proprietors studiously interpret an enigmatic reliquary of symbols gleaned from their customers’ face, hands or date of birth.

Horoscopes and blood types form part of the assessment when choosing a compatible partner (although this may admittedly have been superseded by financial and educational status), and can even determine whether or not potential employees are hired by a company. Particularly auspicious days on the lunar calendar often see a surge in weddings, and the birth rates are noticeably higher during lucky years.

Incense Burning in the Temple in Sanxia, Taiwan
Incense Burning in the Temple in Sanxia, Taiwan

Bringing Harmony to Chaos

There’s something of a chicken and the egg scenario in these superstitions – it’s hard to guess which came first, the values or the practices? Superstition was targeted by Mao Zedong during the iconoclastic Cultural Revolution as one of the “Four Olds” which he believed China had to shake off in order to develop into his vision of a modern socialist society. Perhaps testament to the hold which superstition has on Chinese and Taiwanese people, these beliefs have nevertheless remained embedded in their cultural panorama. Their cosmological worldview is rooted in balancing the books, warding off bad luck while welcoming in the good, bringing order and harmony to a chaotic world, and a measure of stability into the unpredictable flow of time.

Western minds which tend to think in terms of systems, outcomes, tangible causes and results, may struggle to comprehend this seemingly irrational and unfounded faith in the power of such rituals to influence one’s fate and fortune. But these superstitions all reveal with great clarity the core values of a traditional Asian family – veneration of the ancestors, filial piety towards elders, and an emphasis on harmony, wealth, prosperity, wisdom and honour. The Occidental tendency to conflate the role of the individual and accredit our successes and failures to our own skills and resources or lack thereof, stands in stark contrast to that of the Oriental perspective which sees the individual as a link in a long chain of ancestors past and descendants yet to come. When the Chinese say “never forget your roots” (yǐn shuǐ sī yuán 饮水思源), they mean it in genuine earnest, since family legacy is something which carries a profound importance.

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