Superstitions fly as Chinese reel from a bad (luck) year
People are rethinking lucky numbers and buying up canned peaches thought to ward off harm, in light of China's recent earthquake, train crash, and Tibet protests.
With China's government leaving nothing to chance at this summer's Olympics, it is by no means a coincidence that the Games will begin at eight minutes past 8 on the evening of the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008.Skip to next paragraph
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Eight, you might have guessed, is a lucky number in China, for the simple, if mundane, reason that in Mandarin the word for that digit, "ba," sounds like the word "fa," which means "fortune."
That kind of superstitious thinking would have earned you stiff punishment not many years ago in China, where the Communist authorities have spent decades trying to root out "feudal thought." But it still runs deep in the popular mind, and Beijing knows it.
"It's not that the government believes this, but it had to choose a date, so why not respect the people's feelings?" explains Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University. "Everyone believes eight is a lucky number." Courting popular sentiment in this fashion, however, could be risky, in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. Just as pervasive in the Chinese psyche as faith in lucky numbers is a belief that natural disasters portend trouble for the country's rulers.
That dates back over 3,000 years, when the king who overthrew China's first recorded dynasty justified his rebellion on the grounds that the ruler he deposed had lost the "mandate of heaven" by ruling poorly.
The idea, explains Don Price, professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Davis, was that "good government preserved the harmony between man and nature. If a ruler fell down on the job, there would be strains on the natural order reflected by catastrophes such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes" that augured his downfall.
That remained the official ideology until the end of the 19th century, Professor Price says. "And as a matter of popular belief, it is still there."
When a massive earthquake destroyed the city of Tangshan in 1976, killing at least 250,000 people, the popular imagination quickly linked the disaster to the death of Mao Zedong six weeks later. So far, however, the current government's quick and effective response to the Sichuan earthquake appears to have forestalled most suspicions about the "mandate of heaven."
Lucky numbers, and noodles
Chinese popular culture is rich with symbolism: It is customary to eat long noodles on your birthday, for example, because they signify long life.
Words that sound like one another, and dates, have an especially powerful attraction; September 18 is a popular day to open a business because the Chinese word for that date "jiu yi ba" (nine one eight) sounds like the phrase meaning "get rich quick."