Interestingly, superstitions are often very territorial in nature. They vary from one part of the world to another, and bring an almost unique flavor to the region that they belong to, shaping the lives of its people and their sense of culture. Furthermore, the more timeless a superstition may seem, the more believable it becomes. It is better to have accounts of several generations supporting a superstition’s ability to turn your life upside down – for better or for worse – than to simply read it off the internet. Somehow, the former never fails to lend an air of authenticity to a superstition’s power of bringing good or evil in your life.
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Because of their territorial character and claims of having history – personal or otherwise – on their side, superstitions tend to vary from one civilization to another. Sometimes superstitions in one region are almost the same as those in the other, making them part of a big harmonious family of superstitions, whereas at other times they may offer conflicting prescriptions to their followers with an almost nationalistic or religious fervor.
Chinese civilization dates back thousands of years and, therefore, has its own long list of dos and donts in terms of superstitions. The list is so long and extensive that I am not sure if anybody has ever managed to follow all of them. At the end of the day, I think people just tend to pick and choose the ones that seem authentic and easier to follow. My personal favorites are the ones that surround the Chinese New Year. It is not just one or two, but a collection of superstitions built around this festival. Building on each other, they warn of death and poverty on the one hand and offer promises of prosperity and health on the other.
The most interesting superstition, however, involves cleaning – or to be more precise, no cleaning at all – on the Chinese New Year’s Day. As a family, this means that we are all required to help in cleaning the house before New Year’s Day, especially making sure that our individual rooms are properly cleaned and have no clothes, books or other objects aimlessly lying around the room. All this however had to be done before the New Year deadline, and once done there is to be absolutely no cleaning on New Year’s Day. My parents would never fail to remind us that while the house was being cleaned to welcome good luck and prosperity in, we should avoid all cleaning on New Year’s Day as we may end up sweeping away good luck. For the same reason, all brooms and mops had to be kept out of sight.
Interestingly, if you did manage to leave any cleaning abject lying around on New Year’s Day, then you will have to wait till the next day to be taken to task for it since all bickering or crying needs to be avoided on that day, and my parents rightly felt that if one mistake had been made already then we did not necessarily need to follow it up with another. Of course, children often take advantage of this one day of immunity to be as mischievous as they please.
Back in China, I even knew a friend, Ma Ayi, whose grandmother would not allow her to wash her hair on New Year’s Day for the same reason. Since it is considered a good practice to get dressed up and sit in the living room to welcome good luck in, I would be advised of the same by her grandmother in front of everyone assembled in the room, with her telling me how she had not allowed Ma to wash up at all that day to make sure that she does not end up washing away her luck.. I am not sure which one of us used to be the more uncomfortable and embarrassed at that time, me or Ma. My own grandmother liked making sure that besides cleaning objects, we also left no knives or sharp objects lying about as this may injure the good luck entering the house. Interestingly, her list of sharp objects even included pencil sharpeners!
Of course, once New Year’s Day was over, all those that had failed in keeping the house clean could be taken to task and had to work extra hard in the second round of cleaning, which involved sweeping of all the floors. However, instead of sweeping dust outside the house, it had to be swept inward towards the middle. By starting at the doorstep, we were required to sweep inwards towards the centre of the parlor.
Once all dust and rubbish had been hence collected, it was carefully placed in different corners of the house for the next five days and no one was allowed to step on it during that time. This was done to make sure that any good luck still lying around was not accidentally thrown out or trampled upon.
My mother also believed that if we mistakenly end up sweeping the dust out over the front entrance, then one of the family members will be swept away by death as well. It was only after the fifth day that the dirt and rubbish hence collected and carefully placed around the house could be taken out, but even then we were only allowed to carefully take it out through the backdoor. However, once in the United States, the use of vacuum cleaner on New Year’s Day did present an interesting logistical challenge for quite some time!
Superstitions are an interesting reflection of our hopes and fears – things we would like to see in our lives, and things that we would like to avoid. They are essentially a cultural phenomenon, and hence like any other social activity or value system, they too have their own individual costs and benefits, advantages and disadvantages. They add to the unique identity and makeup of a culture, and are most often not repressive in nature.
They even offer us with an interesting insight into the mind of our ancestors, and how they lived their lives. For example, I am not sure if any one of my ancestors ever lost their ears by pointing towards the moon, as the popular superstition holds, but having known my grandmother, I am pretty certain that the very thought was enough to deter most of them from taking the chance!