Most Chinese superstitions — not quite all, but easily a majority — are based on puns.
The best known of these (perhaps because it has been copied by the Japanese and Koreans) is the taboo against the number four (四, sì) because it sounds similar to the word for “death” (死, sǐ). The number is often skipped when numbering the floors in hospitals, the seat rows in planes, etc., much as 13 is in Western countries. (In Korea, the 4th floor is not skipped, but it is referred to euphemistically as “F” — so elevator buttons are labeled B, 1, 2, 3, F, 5, etc.) Sometimes this is taken to extremes. In the community where I live in Taiwan, for example, no house number ends in the digit 4. This means that the odd-numbered houses on one side of the street quickly get out of sync with the even-numbered ones on the other side — so, for example, 37 is across from 48 (for some reason, numbers beginning with 4 are okay).
Another manifestation of this is the long list of taboo gifts. A few of these are conceptual (a gift of shoes means you want the person to walk away and leave you, etc.), but most are pun-based. A clock is an inappropriate gift, for example, because 鐘 (“clock”) and 終 (“end, final” — suggesting death) are both pronounced zhōng. Shoes, umbrellas, books, and various other things are taboo gifts for similar reasons.
Of course, some superstitions have to do with good luck. A pineapple is generally considered a lucky fruit in Taiwan because the Hokkien pronunciation of 鳳梨 (“pineapple”) is similar to that of the phrase 旺來 (“prosperity is coming”). Businessmen love pineapples. Doctors, however, are expected to steer clear of them — because it would obviously be perverse for a doctor to want his business to pick up. Doctors avoid mangoes (sounds like “busy-fruit” in Chinese) for the same reason. All the Taiwanese doctors I know — even those who are otherwise quite Westernized and non-superstitious — observe these fruit taboos.
Another pun-based superstition involves hanging up a paper bearing the character 福 (“blessings, fortune”) or something similarly auspicious — but hanging it upside down. This is because 倒 (“upside down”) has the same pronunciation as 到 (“come, arrive”), so it means that blessings will come to you.
A few superstitions — not many that I know of — are based on the visual appearance of written characters. A student of mine recently installed two square air-conditioning units, one next to the other, in a wall which faced his neighbor’s house. The neighbor wouldn’t stand for it and insisted that the units be removed and reinstalled one above the other rather than side by side (at considerable expense and inconvenience to my student). The “logic” behind this bizarre demand was that two squares side by side suggest the Chinese character 哭 (“cry, weep”).
English-speaking cultures, on the other hand, have basically no pun-based superstitions that I can think of. But what if we did? What would they be? English doesn’t have nearly as many homophones and near-homophones as Chinese, but I can think of a few.
- Rather than the fourth or the 13th, hospitals would skip the sixth (“sick-sth”) floor.
- Authors hoping for success would have their books bound in red to ensure that they would be read from cover to cover. (The number eight would be lucky for restaurateurs for similar reasons.)
- Pears would be auspicious fruits to eat on a date (as, it goes without saying, would be dates).
- Important customers would no longer be literally wined and dined, for fear that it would cause them to complain more.
- Greeting a sick person with “hello” (hell-low) would be a major faux pas. I suppose “What’s up?” (answer: heaven, the other place where dead people go) would be nearly as bad — but that connection is too meaning-dependent to be a proper Chinese-style pun-superstition.
- Computer programmers would obviously have to steer clear of Looney Tunes memorabilia.
- Taboo gifts would include socks, clocks, beets, batteries (especially when accompanied by a gift of a single grain of salt), boxes, and punch — all of which would send the same rather unfriendly message.
- Crab would be considered a very unlucky thing to eat, and people born under the sign of the Crab would refer to it with some euphemism.
- Criminals would superstitiously avoid pennies and anything else made from that most unlucky of metals.
- Obviously, no one would dream of taking a crash course in a language before flying overseas.