9 Chinese Symbols to Know for Your China Vacation
1. Shuang Xi (Double Joy)
Let’s begin with something simple. Even if you’ve never seen this Chinese symbol before, you’d likely be able to guess its meaning from what surrounds it. An amalgamation formed by the Chinese character for joy (喜, xi), the character is still read as xi, or sometimes as shuang xi. A wedding announcement, couples would display this around their houses on the wedding day, as well as print it onto banquet invitation cards. The character is often also used as a decorative motif for wedding gifts.
During your China vacation, you would likely encounter this symbol on sale in Chinese-themed shops and festive markets. There are no restrictions on buying or displaying this character outside of wedding occasions, the character doesn’t have any religious or cultural connotation. That said, you should, of course, never give anything with this character to someone who’s divorced or widowed. That would be offensive in any culture.
2. Bagua, the Chinese Trigrams
The bagua (八卦) is an arrangement of Chinese trigrams that denotes the elemental reality of the world. Most commonly associated with Taoist mysticism, the bagua is nowadays also often found on many “Chinese-themed” souvenirs and decorations. An example would be training swords for Chinese Martial Arts practice.
In addition, Feng Shui, or Chinese geomancy, heavily uses the bagua as a defensive mechanism. Households and companies would display it above main entrances, this being for the purpose of deflecting negative energy known as sha qi (杀气). Generally speaking, there are no major stipulations or superstitions involving being around a bagua or carrying one. However, being mythical objects, you should refrain from touching those belonging to others. This, incidentally, is a common taboo for all Chinese symbols on this list.
3. Fu (Blessing)
The simplest of all Chinese symbols on this list, Fu (福) is the Chinese character for good blessing. Note that this is different from good luck or wealth in the Chinese language, there being completely different Chinese characters for the latter two. Fu, in essence, denotes an overall positive life. One free from mishaps, illness, and conflict.
Fu is most commonly found on Chinese New Year gifts and decorations. Outside of this, it is also frequently used as a decorative motif on Feng Shui objects, interior decorations, and tourist souvenirs. In the case of souvenirs, it might be paired with other “good-luck” objects such as gold ingots, guardian animals of the current year, jade carvings, etc. Generally, anything with Fu on it makes for an ideal gift. After all, who wouldn’t want a blissful, contented life?
4. Guan Gong (Lord of Honour)
Guan Gong (关公) is the honorific title of Guan Yu, a much-respected general from the Three Kingdoms period. The embodiment of honour and loyalty, worship of Guan Yu began as early as Sixth Century A.D. Today, Guan Yu remains widely worshipped throughout Chinese communities.
With the exception of artistic paintings, objects featuring Guan Gong almost inevitably have some sort of metaphysical association. Guan Gong statues are also heavily used in Chinese geomancy displays, and in Hong Kong, both policemen and underworld triad members venerate Guan Gong as the personification of camaraderie. During your China vacation, there is nothing particularly wrong with buying any object featuring Guan Gong, unless you are religiously sensitive. Do note, though, that many Chinese consider Guan Gong as a force of justice i.e. raw power. Thus, it is considered inappropriate, even dangerous, to gift someone anything with Guan Gong represented on it.
5. Zhao Cai Jin Bao (Beckoning of Wealth)
An anagram of the Chinese characters for the phrase zhao cai jing bao (招财进宝), this Chinese symbol has the exact meaning as the phrase it is formed from. I.E. the beckoning of wealth and treasure. One of the most frequently used Chinese symbols in decorative paper cuttings, it is especially popular during Chinese New Year. At the same time, it is also often used in paintings, sculptures, and other Chinese-themed decorative. To put it in another way, zhao cai jing bao is one of the safest, and most uniquely Chinese souvenirs to buy during your China Vacation.
6. Menshen (Gods of the Door)
Nowadays, you’d only encounter menshen (门神) at the main entrances of traditional Chinese mansions and communal facilities. As their displays imply, menshen are used to ward off evil. Menshen is also always displayed as a pair, never just as one.
While worship of deities of the door began as early as the Han Dynasty, most Chinese nowadays consider menshen to be Tang Dynasty generals Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong. Emperor Taizong ordered portraits of the duo to be affixed to gates, supposedly because he was tormented by nightmares involving his slain foes. Over time, these portraits evolved into highly popular divine protection for households and properties, and at wealthier mansions, temples, and clan houses, displays of menshen could even get very elaborate. For example, it is not uncommon for richer clan houses to have them etched and decorated in glittering metallic colours.
7. Good Luck Knots
Knots have been popular throughout Chinese history. In recent years, their popularity likely surged a little, thanks to them being perceived as effective geomancy charms. Usually, they are paired with other Chinese symbols for wealth or luck. For example, ancient coins or jade pendants.
There’s are many types of knots, all typically made with lanyards in red or off-red colours. Regardless of design, all knots emphasize on a symmetry of pattern, since they fundamentally represent harmony. At the same time, the intertwining of lanyards to form the knots is a popular metaphor for relationships, be it platonic or romantic. Incidentally, knotting is not unique to China. Other East Asian civilisations such as Korea also have traditions of knot making. Albeit with significant design differences.
8. Chinese Peaches
This simple fruit could be utterly baffling for tourists unfamiliar with Chinese culture, especially when it isn’t paired with other Chinese symbols. Distinctive in shape, and usually in shades of pink, the Chinese peach doesn’t represent abundance or harvests i.e. anything you would normally associate with food. It represents longevity.
The origin for this is the appearance of such peaches in Chinese myths, in which they are said to ripen once every three thousand years, and are capable of imbuing immortality. In folkloric art, these peaches are also frequently paired with the God of Longevity, the latter always represented as a genteel and bald elder wielding a staff. Thanks to such myths, many Chinese birthday banquets nowadays serve “peach bun” or “longevity buns” as a compulsory main course. Note that such buns are merely made to represent the mythical, life-extending peaches of heaven, none contain any fruity fillings. Don’t be too disappointed when eating any during your China vacation.
9. Chinese Carps
The graceful Chinese carp is a major element in Chinese landscape designs. At the same time, they are also popular subjects in Chinese paintings. This popularity stems from the Chinese character for fish being a homophone of the character for excess. Both are pronounced as yu, with the same intonation. During Chinese New Year, many festive gifts are decorated with lively fishes and the phrase nian nian you yu (年年有余), which means having excess/abundance every year. Outside of Chinese New Year, many Chinese also display artworks containing fishes at home or work as an aspiration for abundance. Apart from auspicious connotations, such artworks are naturally also appreciated for their tasteful designs.