Four Chinese lucky animals, one vegetable
As China prepares for the lunar New Year, the entire country is suddenly awash in traditional decorations and folk art. For centuries, Chinese people of every region and background have made use of a wide range of colorful symbols to express their hopes for happiness and good fortune, not only during the Spring Festival, but all year round.
But while most expats likely understand why dragons and phoenixes adorn the walls of ancient palaces, they may be less clear as to why their favorite restaurant has a statue of a golden frog sitting by the door, or why their hotel proudly displays a giant glass cabbage on a pedestal by the front desk. And so, here are five commonly-seen but rarely-understood lucky symbols and the fascinating stories behind them:
Many newcomers to China are introduced to the fish and its meaning not long after arriving, particularly if they come around the beginning of the year. Fish are associated with abundance, as the words "fish" (鱼) and "surplus" (余) are both pronounced "yu." They are commonly seen in decorations put up during the Spring Festival, as the common blessing "nian nian you yu" (年年有余) ensures that each year will not only bring a little something extra, but ornamental fish as well.
Fish is also a must-have for any New Year's banquet. Traditionally, families who could not afford such a delicacy often placed a wooden fish on their dinner table, just to ensure that their humble feast was complete.
The most commonly-seen fish is the carp (known to many Westerners by its Japanese name "koi"), whose name (鲤) calls to mind profit (利) and strength (力), as all three are pronounced "li."
Like fish, the chicken's value as a symbol of good fortune comes from its name. Both "chicken" and "lucky" are pronounced "ji," though their tones and characters differ (鸡and 吉, respectively).
At events when a good dose of luck is needed, especially the opening of a new business, paintings of chickens are often presented as gifts and prominently displayed. Large scrolls featuring "big chickens" or even "one hundred chickens" come with wishes for even greater fortune, and can fetch a hefty price from painters specializing in this sought-after bird.
The character 吉 is often paired with 祥 (xiang, meaning "auspicious") which is associated with goats (yang, 羊), another lucky though less frequently seen animal.
The toad is often seen perched atop countertops in restaurants, hotels and stores across China. Sitting on a pile of ancient coins, it has long been a symbol of wealth and money-making.
This connection has not always been seen in a positive light. Legend says that a magical, three-legged toad was captured by the Daoist immortal Liu Hai, who lured him with a string of golden coins. The toad's attraction to money led to his loss of freedom, which ancient scholars took as a warning against greed.
But today, the toad is meant to encourage money-seeking, not only encouraging cash flow but scaring away thieves with its glowing eyes and fierce scowl.
Another popular symbol of wealth, the cat is a relative newcomer in China. Statues of the familiar feline originated in Japan in the 1800's, and its Chinese form has changed very little from the overseas original.
One arm raised to beckon money in, the other usually holds a large coin reading "ten million ryo" (千万両) a Japanese currency, though sometimes a more Chinese message such as "fortune" (福) or "great wealth" (大财) is used instead. Rarely, both of the cat's hands will be raised, to welcome money with twice as much enthusiasm.
There are several Japanese stories explaining the cat's origin, most of which involve a waving cat saving a person from danger. Others point to a Chinese source: a folk belief that when a cat washes its face, guests will arrive.
Animals are not the only creatures that bring fortune to homes and businesses. Chinese folklore includes many lucky fruits and vegetables, even the humble cabbage. Traditionally, this simple, white-leafed vegetable symbolized moral purity and modest living.
The most famous lucky cabbage is a jade carving given as a wedding gift to a Qing dynasty empress in the late 19th century. Today, the cabbage is housed in Taiwan's National Palace Museum, prized as one of the museum's most valuable exhibits.
Replicas are often found on the mainland, but with much different symbolism than what the emperor had in mind. Like so many other symbols, the cabbage is now linked to money-making. Its Chinese name "bai cai" (白菜) sounds similar to "one hundred wealths" (百财).