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Red Underwear Chinese Zodiac Year (Ben Ming Nian) Tradition

“How old are you?” I asked Riuwu, an accounting professor at a university in Nanjing. We’d just met on a train returning on the Nanjing – Natong extension, and this is a common question to ask a new acquaintance in China. Asking people here how old they are in this culture is also a must in many [...]

“How old are you?” I asked Riuwu, an accounting professor at a university in Nanjing. We’d just met on a train returning on the Nanjing – Natong extension, and this is a common question to ask a new acquaintance in China.

Asking people here how old they are in this culture is also a must in many cases, as it is often very difficult to tell from looking. The Han Chinese tend to look very young up until their mid thirties and then jump quickly to looking pretty old with few stages in between. Then they tend stay somewhat frozen in time for a few decades until becoming elderly and taking on a respectable old appearance befitting a museum exhibit.

“I am a dragon,” he stated, indicating that this was his ben ming nian — his zodiac year — one that is believed to bring bad luck.

This means something to the Chinese, but all it meant to me is that his current age is evenly divisible by 12. He could have been 36, 48, or 60 and I would not have been the wiser. I stared at him quizzically.

“I am 48 years old. I can wear red this year,” he stated proudly.

I understood the tradition and thought about asking him what color underwear he had on, but refrained.

He told me anyway. “I usually wear a red shirt, but today I have on a blue one. This year I can also wear a red belt and red . . .” He paused. Perhaps out of modesty, perhaps because he was genuinely looking for the proper English words, he gestured towards his crotch and, unable to hold back a shy smile, whispered the word, “underwear.”

In China, the color red means prosperity, and is often worn during a person’s zodiac year to mitigate its predicted inauspicious effects. While this is a mere guideline for shirts and slacks and other pieces of clothing, it’s often taken as an iron clad rule for underwear. It’s OK to wear a blue shirt during your zodiac year just so you’re sporting the auspiciously colored underwear. For 12 months straight these red underwear of good luck and prosperity will be worn, and will not be changed up for another color until the following New Year.

But Ruiwu soon told me that there was a catch to the red underwear defense:

“You can’t buy red underwear for yourself,” he warned, “someone else, your wife, your family, your friends have to buy it for you.”

In China, it’s perhaps good to have a lot of friends during your zodiac year.

Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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