On the 30th I had a free talk class of mostly college-age students from richer families. Since it was almost Halloween and a Party organ has listed the rise in superstition as one of seven symptoms of moral decay among government officials, I picked “superstitions” as the topic and asked the students to tell me about common Chinese superstitions. I was interested to see how they defined the term and what things they would consider “superstitious.” We also talked about why people do certain things, about how belief is only one of several reasons a person could have for their “superstitious” behaviours.
I asked about the stuff taxi drivers hang from their rear-view mirrors, and that led the students to produce, from around their necks and wrists, a surprising number of Buddhist trinkets. I see these things all the time, especially the round wood bead bracelets on men, but I was surprised at the number of Buddha (for the girls) and Guanyin (for the guys) necklaces. They said their parents buy them from monks in the temples — one girl said her mom paid 300元 for hers ($45!). The monks perform some sort spiritual service on behalf of the child, and there’s something about power being place in the object or released from the object — their English level wasn’t high enough for me to get the theological details out of them and I suspect they wouldn’t really know anyway. As visions of Martin Luther and medieval Catholic indulgences flitted through my mind, my students said: “But we’re not superstitious. We just have these for good luck. And protection.” I wish I’d had time to press them on that, but it was funny to see how they were serious; they didn’t seem to see any contradiction at all. Apparently we’re working with different definitions of “superstitious”!
“Superstition” is 迷信 (mouseover the Chinese!).
The Chinese term my students were translating as “protection” is 避邪 (“avoid evil”).
I’ve written several times about this kind of thing, including: