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Monday, February 8, 2016

What Chinese Words Can Teach Us about Culture - Upside Down Signs and Dumplings

The Chinese love play on words and especially for the Chinese New Year Holiday. Many Chinese traditions can be explained using word play and since we're celebrating Chinese New Year with the last couple of posts, let's look at the following examples:

1) Upside-Down Signs: I have always wondered why the signs on the doors/windows of houses and stores were upside down. Did someone drink too much the night before when they were putting up the signs? After some quick research, it appears that a play on words is the reason for all this madness.

The most common sign you'll see upside down is the one containing the character "福" which means fortune in Chinese ("fu" in Mandarin and "fook" in Cantonese - that's why you see fu and fook in many restaurants in US Chinatowns). Anyways, the reason to hang this sign upside down is because the Chinese word for upside down ("dao" in Mandarin and "dou" in Cantonese) sounds like the Chinese word for arrive so when you hang the 福 sign upside down it signifies that "Fortune has Arrived". For the same reason, sometimes you'll see the Chinese character for the season Spring "春" ("chun" in Mandarin and "choon" in Cantonese) upside down.

Looks like a Chinese ingot to me
2) Dumplings "饺子":
It is a well known tradition that Chinese people make and eat dumplings for Chinese New Year. As with long standing traditions, the reason behind the tradition is probably forgotten. There are a few reasons besides the obvious camaraderie and fun of a family getting together to make and to eat dumplings.

The first is that dumplings look like Chinese gold ingots which symbolize wealth. The second reason which is a word play is that "饺子" ("jiao zi" in Mandarin) sounds like "sleep and have sons" which is a traditional blessing despite the sexist connotations. I think the word play only exists in Mandarin which may explain why some of the southern parts of China where Cantonese is more prevalent might not have the same tradition. Also, dumplings are very popular in Northern China.
Chinese Ingot
So there you have it. Two of Chinese New Year's mysteries explained! Stay tuned for other posts providing clarity for things you've always seen or done but couldn't figure out why.

Feel free to leave your comments or to suggest alternate explanations!        

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