Let the fortune arrive 福到(倒)了 and other wordplays

Would one live or travel in China, it is nearly impossible to miss some decorative elements, which are all but common in the western world. A newcomer discovering Chinese culture for the first time might get puzzled by a pair of soft toy fishes swinging on the wall, impressive porcelain cabbages on the table and character 福 which seem to be suspiciously often hung upside-down on the doors.

The explanation for such ornaments can most commonly be found from Chinese language. Chinese language includes large number of characters that are pronounced in completely or almost similar manner and it is easy to use this feature of the language to transmit meanings.

Fortune Upside-down and the Bat of Fortune

One example of a symbol that gets it’s meaning from pronouncing is bat. Good fortune in Chinese is (福), but also character 蝠 that indicates bat is pronounced exactly the same way. That is why bat represents good fortune in some contexts. Otherwise bat and fortune are not known to have anything to do with each others even in the Chinese culture.

There are also other ways to play with good luck. It is quite common to spot the character of good fortune  福 hung on the walls upside down. There is very logical explanation for this phenomenon as well. Chinese sentence 福倒了 fú dào le literally means “fortune upside down”, but it just happens to sound exactly like 福到了which means “the fortune arrived”. There are hardly anyone who wouldn’t welcome luck to his or her corners, so it makes perfectly sense to turn over the luck to the door by yourself and in that manner make sure that the fortune will actually arrive.

The Relationship Between Fortune and Fishes

Yet another example of the use of pronunciation based symbols is perhaps the best know Yángliǔqīng (杨柳青) New Year painting where a small boy is holding lotus flower in his hand and large fish in his lap. The character lián 莲 which means lotus flower sounds precisely like character连which means linking and connecting. Fish is pronounced ​ 鱼 and the character余that stands for surplus and extra has the exact same pronunciation. This indicates that the painting can be interpret to mean: May there be surplus year after year! In Chinese this wish is commonly expressed “Nián nián yǒuyú 年年有余!”

Also the species of the fish matters: the most loved fish in China is carp lǐ 鲤. The word “lǐ” sounds a little bit like two positive characters: 利 and 力.利 indicates victory and profit and 力means power, skill and strength. Obviously two carps are better than just one and a pair of carps also signifies happy marriage.

But What About the Cabbage?

Perhaps the most amusing of Chinese decorative elements is the symbol of richness which just happens to be Chinese cabbage báicài 白菜. The reason is the usual suspect: pronounciation. Báicài the later part of of the word  cài sounds a little bit like the Chinese word cái​ 财which means richness and property. That is why Chinese people are so fond of cabbages. Saying fācái 发财in the other hand means getting rich and as this is seen as something worth seeking, Chinese people also especially like the number 8 (Bā 八) as it sounds like the in fācái. This also explains why Chinese people would be happy to live in 8th floor of the building, aim to include number 8 in their phone numbers and sometimes add number 8 to the names of their companies.

There are plenty of these sorts of word puns in China and especially playing with pronunciation is ever so popular. If you have already started to study Chinese and you have the chance to travel to China, you might consider trying to spot some of Chinese symbols for luck and ask locals what is the reason behind. For starters you might want to check what kind of decorative cabbages will be waiting you in China. You will find it out by writing 白菜发财 to Baidu (báicài fācái = Chinese cabbage, become rich).

Teksti Janna Lipiäinen ja Veli Rosenberg