I found out this morning that one of my Chinese teachers and a bunch of his single friends celebrated November 11 by going to karaoke, eating out, and playing poker. In Canada we mark November 11 a little differently. But China’s 11-11 is a fun and probably inappropriate example of how words, dates, and numbers can be played with in Chinese culture.
November 11 is unofficially “Singles’ Day” in China, according to my teacher. In Chinese it’s called 光棍节 (guāng gùnr jié), which ultra-literally would read, “single/bare/naked stick festival” (more on that below). I had no idea that there was a Singles Awareness Day (S.A.D.) with Chinese characteristics. Apparently it’s a young peoples’ deal and was popularized on the internet, so not everyone knows about it – at least that’s the impression I got from my teacher. Can you guess why they’ve chosen November 11th? (Hint: it has absolutely nothing to do with millions of Westerners killing one another).
11-11… look at all those single digits; just a bunch of single ones that wish they were twos. So 11-11 is the day when all the singles get together and have fun. At least, that’s the G-rated version I got in the classroom.
Although my teacher said that 光棍节 is for both men and women, other locals and some of our recent culture readings note that the phrase “bare stick” (光棍) is gender-specific, meaning “bachelor” but with traditional negative connotations like “hoodlum” or “scoundrel” – basically, an adult male who isn’t doing the socially acceptable thing by having or pursuing a wife and family. “Bare stick” can be used pejoratively against a man who doesn’t have a woman. I’ll let you the connect the underlying innuendos yourselves between bare sticks, bachelorhood, and the shape of the number one.
The 11th of every month is also when they practice queuing in Beijing (I am kicking myself for not stopping to take a photo of the signs at the bus stops when we were there, but at the time we didn’t want to embarrass our hosts). China is infamous for its lack of queuing at bus stops, ticket booths, elevators, escalators, train stations, restaurants, etc., and Beijing caught on that it will be pretty embarrassing to have Olympic visitors and media experience the usual shoving crowds. So every 11th people are supposed to get in line, and to remind them there are signs with two cute, happy little ones standing in a row (a.k.a. the number eleven with happy faces drawn on the digits).