When Lu Chao boarded a Lucky Air flight in the eastern Chinese city of Anqing in February 2019, he left nothing to chance. It was the 28-year-old’s first time flying, and as he stepped aboard the Kunming-bound flight, he tried to turn luck in his favour – by tossing a pair of coins towards the jet’s engines.
There’s a pervasive idea running through Chinese culture that things aren’t random
Airport security personnel immediately hustled Lu into detention. The remaining passengers had to wait several hours while the ground crew retrieved the coins, worth about 23p, and ensured that the plane’s engines hadn’t been damaged.
Lu’s pursuit of a safe flight was widely mocked in China. Yet it was just one in a spate of similar incidents there recently. Last year alone, at least half a dozen people, ranging from an 80-year-old grandmother to a 26-year-old med student, were caught tossing coins as they boarded flights. And Lucky Air – which has suffered a string of such episodes since 2017 – began warning passengers on airport flight-status monitors that throwing money into a jet engine will buy “the sort of blessing you don’t need”.
Incidents like Lu’s are extreme examples. Yet while many countries have their own superstitions and rituals – whether that’s Italians eating lentils on New Year’s Eve for prosperity or Indians adding one rupee to gift money – people in the Chinese-speaking world seem particularly preoccupied with luck, from boarding gates to high-stakes baccarat tables and school exams to political races.
Even something as seemingly simple as the number eight is an emblem freighted with psychic import – it’s a particularly potent symbol because its pronunciation is a homonym for “to get rich”, and a licence plate or phone number with an eight in it comes at a premium throughout China. Even underwear can be lucky: wearing red knickers for the New Year – and when playing mahjong – is a time-honoured technique for ensuring good luck.
There is obviously tremendous diversity in people’s attitudes toward luck, both in China itself and among the broader ethnic Chinese diaspora. But there are also many constants. And in the traditional Chinese calendar, the turn into each new year is a time that crackles with particular significance.
In Taipei, Taiwan, where I am based, Chinese New Year sees the city’s normally buttoned-up demeanour take a more raucous turn. People paste up auspicious characters and rhyming couplets, descend on lottery ticket kiosks en masse and jam into temples to pay obeisance to the full roster of gods who hold sway over the fortunes of the coming year. Even politicians are compelled to publicly try their luck, visiting temples to draw fortune sticks and gain insight into what the coming year may hold for their constituents – and themselves.
So where does this Chinese fascination with luck come from? Stevan Harrell, emeritus anthropology professor at the University of Washington, who has written about Chinese concepts of fate, says the origins of the preoccupation lie deep in the past.
“This English word ‘luck’ implies randomness, but there’s a pervasive idea running through Chinese culture that things aren’t random,” Harrell said. “The whole concept of something being random just isn’t there.”
That’s because, he explained, “There’s a belief in order: there’s some sort of order behind everything.”
Liu Qiying is a Taoist priest in Taipei’s historic Wanhua district who performs ceremonies at temples throughout Taiwan. Traditionally, he said, many people believed in a simple maxim: “tian zhuding” (“heaven decides”).
In Taoism, this notion gave rise to a complex explanatory cosmology based on the relative positions of Jupiter and a dozen stars during the planet’s 12-year orbital cycle. These workings of the heavens are believed to drive each person’s fate, and to this day they are the object of intense concern for many ethnic Chinese, and the bread-and-butter work for legions of fortune tellers.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in gods. If you pray, you’ll be blessed
This conviction in an underlying, if mysterious, order to life has also figured prominently in traditional Chinese political thought. Generations of emperors staked their legitimacy on the assertion that they personally manifested a heavenly mandate that uniquely allowed them to maintain order – and, by extension, peace – among their subjects.
Yet if there’s an order behind everything, might not mere mortals still be able to put their own fingers on the scales of fate? In fact, said Liu, while some higher power has plans for each person on Earth, traditional Chinese belief also holds that “heaven never seals off all the exits” – there is always a way out.
This idea of wresting some control back over one’s own fate, and the astounding profusion of ways to do so, may ultimately be more remarkable than a simple fascination with fortune-telling and luck. Indeed, the broader Chinese world is home to a sprawling industry of luck-improvement services. In Taipei, for example, some temples offer full-service online packages that guarantee a priest will perform the requisite monthly rituals to dispel unlucky influences throughout the year; and even the upscale Eslite Bookstore has a cosmological self-help section chock full of do-it-yourself fate-improvement guides.
Priests and fortune tellers can help turn a string of bad luck around by helping the afflicted change their phone number, redesign their business cards or even change their names. Calling on a priest to perform a ritual known as “tse-kai” to dispel baleful influences is, for some people, practically as common as seeing the dentist. And there’s a refreshingly nondenominational bent to the whole endeavour: the welcome sign is forever lit.
“We call [this attitude of openness] ‘youbai youbaoyou’,” said Liu. “It doesn’t matter if you believe in gods. If you pray, you’ll be blessed.”
While the gods themselves may not be too picky about who comes calling for their help, supplicants often bring a markedly tough-minded attitude to their search for a tutelary. In a place like Taiwan, with no shortage of gods and local deities from which to choose, people look for results.
And when a particular god delivers, people take notice. In fact, for centuries, this is how otherwise-obscure local heroes, saints and even ruffians have gradually won wide followings and been promoted into the bigger, culture-wide pantheon. This hard-nosed approach has led to a remarkably open and diverse space of belief with few absolute boundaries: it’s not at all unusual, for instance, for a Taoist temple to honour figures from the Buddhist tradition, and vice versa.
Liu Qiying is a case in point. He has his own coin-tossing story, albeit one with a far happier ending than that of Lu Chao, the first-time flyer. Several years ago, Liu’s wife gave birth to a daughter, which was a source of great joy for the family. Yet Liu hoped for a son as well.
In 2013, he travelled from Taiwan to the Dahuaxing Temple in southern China. The Buddhist temple honours an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, often referred to as the Goddess of Mercy. There, below a massive hilltop statue of Guanyin sits a wishing pool with several carved dragon heads. Popular belief holds that anyone who tosses a coin into one of the dragons’ mouths will conceive a child.
Liu upped the stakes a bit, facing away from the dragons and tossing a coin backwards, over his head. The coin, he says, sailed directly into one of the dragons’ mouths.
Not long after, his wife became pregnant again, with what turned out to be a boy. And today, a small bust of Guanyin sits among the many Taoist deities that crowd the altar Liu tends in Taipei.
Lu Chao, for his part, proved far less lucky. Five months after he tossed his two coins off the jetway – and after later reportedly enlisting his brother to defend him in court – he lost his case and was fined more than 120,000 yuan (£13,650).
Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.
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www.bbc.com 2021-02-10 20:56:30