"Ba-ba-ba." Has a nice ring to it, don't you think? It ought to: ba in Mandarin means "to increase" or "get rich". So by ancient Chinese association, if ba also means "eight", why then the number eight is lucky, too. Three eights? Trifecta! Of course that's why Beijing was holding its opening ceremony on the eighth of August (at 8:08, no less), but there's no reason you can't share in the good fortune. Buy some penny stocks. Go on a blind date. Better yet, get married.
As even the freshest Sinophile knows, however, there's a downside to this homophonic logic. Si means "death" and "four". It even means "is" if you're one of those lazy southwestern Chinese who feel Mandarin is already rich enough in different sounds to make touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth and saying "shi" unnecessary.
This is all fairly academic until it comes to the delicate matter of gift-giving in China. Gifts for the friends who squire you about and translate on demand during your visit in China are as appropriate as offers of cash are inappropriate. But by all means avoid giving the following:
Zhong means "clock", but it also means "end", as in dying. Song zhong, or "giving a clock" sounds the same as sending someone to his grave. A Chinese recipient's offense will range from mild - "Ah, time waits for no man, heh heh," to grave, "So you want me dead. Is that it?" German Chancellor Angela Merkel infamously gave one to Hu Jintao on a state visit, and the ensuing flap so upset her that George Bush took it upon himself to massage away her worries.
For some incongruent reason, watches make perfectly acceptable presents.
Fans and Umbrellas
Never mind that umbrellas brought indoors still open carry ghosts and invite misfortune, or that fans can be used as deadly weapons (see Ninjas Attack the Shaolin Temple III). In Mandarin, an umbrella is a san and a fan is a shan, close enough to mean san, "scatter", and connoting san kai, "split up". On the downside, you may rain all over a friend's parade with such a gift. On the upside, this may be the most pain-free way to break it off with a paramour since the "It's not you - it's me" line.
Shame on you for considering these a present in the first place, unless they're sterling silver or jade. Maybe those black lacquered beauties with the tiny opera masks cut it in Peoria, but for a Chinese friend it's the equivalent of him giving you a fork. "Chopsticks", that is kuai zi, sounds the same as "soon child", making it a particularly bad gift for an unmarried woman. The jury's out on whether to give them to couples trying to conceive.
Actually, fruit is always a good gift in China, just as long as it comes in even numbers. You can't go wrong with one of those big, wrapped basketfuls found at finer fruit stands everywhere. It's the act of sharing a pear that's unlucky, because that would be to fen li, which means the same as "separate". On a similar note, avoid giving half-eaten peaches to male Chinese, unless they're big Liza Minnelli fans.
That's about it for semantically unlucky gifts. However, you can't forget that your average Chinese can come up with more symbolic interpretations for an object than Dr. Freud with a snoot full of marching powder. The following presents are a bad idea based on the same kind of thinking that led the ancestors to declare, "Bad vision? Eat owl eyes!"
Knives and Scissors
This makes sense in actuarial terms, given the likelihood that people are more likely to injure themselves with such a gift than with, say, the latest Harry Potter installment (of course we're talking physiologically, not intellectually). But even if you're not slicing through a pinkie, using a sharp-edged gift is slashing away at the ties of friendship.
A Green Hat
"Wearing a green hat" in China is an age-old idiom for being cuckolded. During the Jin Dynasty, one Empress Wu tired of her aged king and fell in love with the dashing Duke of Zhou. Under constant scrutiny, she would signal to her lover that the coast was clear by prevailing on her husband to wear his jade crown on days he went outside the city walls.
* Warning: the preceding anecdote is completely fictitious, and was concocted for lack of even a shred of evidence as to why wearing a green hat would mean your wife sleeps around.
Now we're just getting pessimistic. The implication is that the giver of the shoes is providing the receiver with means to zou kai (hit the bricks). Couldn't they just as easily be means to go for a walk together? Or to accompany the giver to some high-class venue where the unshod will be frowned upon? Oh well, no doubt this is one of those many situations in China wherein asking too many questions will earn you a sharp, "No why!" in response.
Take comfort in the fact that you can't go too far wrong, even with an unlucky gift, because the Chinese have a counter-spell for your lack of culture. As long as they give you a token sum of money in return for your cursed present, its juju power is neutralized. That's a relief, isn't it? Knock on wood western culture never gets bogged down with such superstition. Did someone just sneeze? Bless you!