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Just For Luck: How Does Young China View Classic Superstition?

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“Want to know why unlucky youths today are working hard? Just look at their phones!” This comment on Chinese social media platform Weibo caused a debate over the merits of millennials turning to their phones in the hopes of improving their fortunes.

On Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, phone case makers claim to “make evil spirits retreat,” “give luck,” or “make one rich.” The discussion topic lured the interest of over 4.5 million netizens at the time, some going as far as to vehemently testify that certain phone cases are interlinked with feng shui — which, one 2015 article claims, is “not superstition,” but rather a reminder to “pay attention to the health of one’s wealth.”

Phone cases promising “wealth” and “good luck” (images: Taobao)

It’s a concept that certainly has legs among China’s upwardly mobile millennials. As economic opportunity has increased, the expectations placed especially on only children — products of China’s now defunct one-child policy — to achieve financial stability and success have increasingly piled on.

25-year-old Liu, a graduate of Xiamen University who prefers to be identified by her surname and now works in a fast-paced e-commerce company in Shanghai, mixes her personal phone case superstition with a dash of pragmatism. “I always make sure I have 100RMB [about 14USD] tucked behind my phone case, as this will bring me luck and reassures me that even on bad days, I have something tucked away,” she says. “The money becomes a sort of symbol of hope, and since I always have my phone, I always carry this hope. Plus it’s also useful in case of emergencies, such as if my phone runs out of battery, and I have no means to pay for anything.”

“The money becomes a sort of symbol of hope, and since I always have my phone, I always carry this hope.”

What superstition is in China and how it is embedded in language, culture and daily behaviors can seem obscure to the non-Chinese eye. Tales of real estate lawsuits due to bad feng shui, of elderly passengers lobbing coins into plane engines, of buildings without a fourth floor, or even the CCP blaming folk beliefs around goats for a drop in the nation’s birth rate — are not unheard of. But though these news stories might say otherwise, superstitious behavior isn’t solely limited to the elderly — much of China’s youth cling to aspects of it as well.

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A nationwide survey conducted in 2002, implicating 30 provinces of adults aged 18-69, found that the proportion of the public concerned with “destiny, supernatural powers and mysterious phenomena” remains “quite high,” though many completing the survey also admitted they “didn’t know” or were “unclear.” State newspaper People’s Daily attributed the high numbers to a “lack of scientific spirit,” and advocated for offering some kind of “atheistic education for young people.”

When talking to Chinese millennials and Generation Z almost two decades later, many seem to have the same mentality. Young professionals bustling around China’s first tier cities as readily rely on promises relayed from star signs to help with blind dates and job interviews. A 2017 survey from the China Youth Daily Social Survey Center showed that 70.3% out of over 2,000 respondents said they knew “many people” who liked having a horoscope culture as part of their life. 52.5% of respondents said that they hoped to better “know themselves” by reading horoscopes, and 42.5% simply do so “out of curiosity.”

But though these stories might say otherwise, superstitious behavior isn’t solely limited to the elderly — much of China’s youth cling to aspects of it as well.

James, a 14-year-old student at an elite independent school in Beijing, says he is only superstitious when it suits him. Due to his misfortune when gaming with his friends, he considers himself somewhat unlucky. To help boost his chances, he will wish to Chow Yun-fat, the renowned Hong Kong-born movie star who lives a humble life in spite of his estimated 714 million USD net worth. James says his friends see Chow as a sort of god-like figure, and that the sheer amount of respect they have for him renders their behavior in worshiping him justified.

Social scientists affirm that superstition originated to help people to cope with uncertainty and anxiety in their lives; Indian social scientist Fatik Baran Mandal writes that it is especially “prevalent in conditions of absence of confidence, insecurity, fear and threat, stress and anxiety.” If this is indeed the case, one such anecdote apposite for China is the academic demands faced by school children right until their University admission — and even then, chances of admission into somewhere like Tsinghua University stand at less than 2%.

One side effect is that entrepreneurs are looking to cash in — and not only by selling lavish, lucky phone cases. The feudal superstition industry seems to be booming; for fortune telling, membership of the Yuanhenglizheng Fortune-telling Forum has swelled from 50,000 in 2003 to more than 600,000 today. Lucky numbers are still very much at the forefront of public consciousness; the Beijing Olympics began at 8:08pm on August 8th, 2008 and only last year, Chinese investors bought a Sydney skyscraper for 88,888,888USD.

Internet trends also demonstrate how these ancient superstitions are being recaptured by the younger generation. The “koi disaster relief” phenomenon is just an example, referring to the belief that sending digital koi fish can help divert disasters and misfortunes, and bring good luck.

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These lucky koi fish are said to live “in the boundless wishing pool”, which is considered the top-tier of good luck in the Chinese internet world. A 2017 article on Chinese article platform Sohu asserts that though many people who forwarded koi fish to others did not really think it would work at the time, “everyone did it, and they never tired of it.” Pink dolphins and cats of different colors have since emerged as trendy additions to the lucky koi fish.

A 27-year-old mother of two named Lili, who lives in an upmarket residential neighborhood in Shanghai, says: “I send koi fish to my friends as I believe it’s nice to show support and care for others. It’s not that I believe the fish will bring them fortune directly, but it sends a symbol, and this symbol can make them feel loved and valued.” Lili also flashes her Co-star horoscope app, which she says she reads daily to guide her decision-making when she is uncertain about something.

“We rely on Co-star for a sense of meaning and understanding in our day-to-day lives.”

Co-star is an AI-driven app that generates user’s astrological charts based on the exact date, time and place of birth. As of mid-2019, the app had close to five million users. For Lili, “nearly all the young mothers in this neighborhood have the Co-star app,” but adds that those over 35, not so much. “When our husbands read the news daily, we read Co-star,” she says. “We rely on it for a sense of meaning and understanding in our day-to-day lives.”

Yet paradoxically, superstition (or mixin 迷信 in Mandarin Chinese) is still seen as somewhat of a dirty word, with connotations of rural backwardness. Online articles covering topics like feng shui or “sitting the month” (zuo yuezi 坐月子) often hurry to justify their position as “science-based,” even if the practices are entirely rooted in folk tradition.

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24-year-old Louis, who was educated in the U.S. and now works as a UX designer, is somewhat impartial. “I feel like superstitious people in general may have a big confirmation bias,” he says, referring to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. He sees a difference between people in his generation “religiously following horoscopes — which if you look at the description of each Chinese zodiac sign, there are overlaps,” and following other ancient Chinese traditions such as drinking hot water when you are sick, that he thinks happen to involve a degree of superstition.

Beyond trivial pursuits for better grades, online gaming luck and elaborate phone cases, superstitious behaviors can still be seen throughout China’s young demographic. In light of a surge in media coverage defining millennials as “stressed, depressed and exam-obsessed,” it makes sense that superstition can be one of the most comforting means for young people to cope with various environmental pressures — whether through lucky phone cases, sending koi fish or relying on an app.

Header image: Mayura Jain

Olivia Halsall
    Olivia Halsall is an incoming Masters student at Cambridge University. She spent a year studying Chinese at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and a year working as a freelance tutor and journalist in Shanghai. She writes about anything and everything to do with China on her media project, 66hands.com