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. 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. 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: 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.
Weddings are micro-planned and planning is highly time consuming. 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. 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.
A time and date is set for this meeting. This is expected, and a second meeting is set, with a period in between to allow any problems to be worked out. A relevant proverb is used to signal acceptance. 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.
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. 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: If a baby or child dies no funeral rites are performed, as respect cannot be shown to a younger person: Funeral rites for an elderly person must follow the prescribed form and convey relevant respect: Preparation for a funeral often begins before death has occurred: The coffin is provided by an undertaker who oversees all the funeral rites. 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.
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: 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. 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: 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. 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: 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: 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, 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. 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. 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. Some conventions are considered with regards to age: 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.
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: The correct way of greeting a person is very important in Chinese culture: 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. 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.
The card should be held in both hands when offered to the other person: 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. 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: The broom is also sometimes used in temple rituals. This functions to remove bad luck. Numbers Numbers play a role second only to food in Chinese custom and culture. Certain numbers are considered lucky, and others unlucky. 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. 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.
If a dog howls continuously, it is believed that this presages an imminent death. Miscellaneous customs and superstitions Other customs and superstitions include: