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.
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."
August 8 has been regarded as a particularly auspicious date, both for its numbers and for the fact that the Olympic Games, a matter of intense pride to most Chinese, will open on that day. Beijing hospitals say they are expecting a spike in births that day, according to the state-run press, even if it means an even higher number than normal of C-section deliveries.
Parents of prospective "Olympic babies," however, laid their plans before doubts set in about just how lucky the number 8, or even the Games themselves, actually are.
Heretical numerologists have been all over the Chinese Internet in recent weeks, reading ominous significance into the string of misfortunes that have struck China in recent months.
The heaviest snowfall in 50 years that paralysed the south of China over the Lunar New Year holiday fell on January 25, ie 1/25. Add one to two to five, suggest the woe-mongers, and you get eight.
Same with the date that riots broke out in Tibet – 3/14, they point out. Same again with the date of the Sichuan earthquake – 5/12. To make matters worse, the earthquake struck 88 days before the opening day of the Olympics, which perhaps means double bad luck.
Then there's the "Curse of the Fuwas," those five cuddly Olympic mascots, each with a regional or mythical association, that some diviners of ill-fortune say represent a ghastly premonition.
One is a panda, native to Sichuan. Another is an antelope, native to Tibet. A third carries a torch, recalling the embarrassment of the protests that dogged the international torch relay. Another holds a kite, symbolic of China's kite-flying culture that was born in Shandong, in April the site of the country's deadliest train crash in decades.
What might the fifth, a fish, portend? The floods that have displaced more than 1.5 million people in southern China in recent days?
The government takes this kind of talk seriously. Official censors have tried to take down all the Internet posts that refer to the alleged "curse," though they keep springing up elsewhere. And in Tianjin, a modern port city 80 miles east of Beijing, the municipal TV station invited an expert last weekend to rebut rumors that had seized the city suggesting that the nation's misfortunes somehow threatened Tianjin's children.
Those fears had prompted a run on firecrackers, as parents resorted to the traditional Chinese way of warding off evil spirits – making a lot of noise – and on canned peaches.
Why canned peaches? Because the Mandarin word for a peach, "tao" is a homophone for the word that means "escape": Children who eat peaches will thus escape malign supernatural forces.
"Not everyone believes these rumors, but people will spend money to buy peace of mind," says Chen Zhonglin, a professor of social policy at Tianjin's Nankai University. "They are looking for psychological security ... in a society with big changes every day."
Intellectuals bemoan citizens' predilection for omens of good and bad fortune, and many would agree with Professor Xia, who says the only way to combat superstition "is to popularize science and raise the people's cultural level."
Good luck to them.