The power of homophones in China.
The summer before last I was in an antique shop in Bangor and I found a rather odd looking, Swiss-made felt hat. It was something between a Robin Hood and a Peter Pan, was well built, at least a few decades old, and it momentarily made me ponder how it got all the way to this far flung stretch of the east coast of the USA. I added it to my collection of odd hats.
When my visit ended and the time came to return to China, I scanned said collection of hats with the intent of selecting a couple that I would wear for the next year or so of travel. I went for an Army Ranger cap — my usual daily driver — and the Swiss one.
I entered China wearing the Swiss hat and didn’t think much of it until I was walking through the arrivals zone of the airport and was stricken down, stopped dead with a realization: the hat upon my head was green.
Shit. I knew better.
The color of my hat was a fact that I, for some reason, didn’t attribute any significance to before. I purchased the hat in a cultural climate where any person is free to wear any color hat they please but then wore it into a land where a green hat is such a classic faux pas as to be cliche. In China, everybody knows that you don’t give clocks and shoes as gifts or wear green hats.
Dài lǜ mào zǐ (戴绿帽子), meaning to wear a green hat, sounds like the Mandarin term for a guy whose wife or girlfriend cheats on him. This may sound like an extremely weak reason for an entire civilization to alter its fashion sense, but the meaning attached to homophones and near homophones in Chinese society is far greater than in pretty much any other culture on earth. For example, the word for four, sì, is considered unlucky simply because it sounds like sǐ, the word for death. Homophones are also the reason why there are no F rows on Chinese airplanes (apparently) and the reason why an incredible amount of cars in the country have gecko emblems affixed to them:
The Mandarin word for gecko is bìhǔ 壁虎, which sounds a little like bì huò 避祸, which means “to avoid disaster.” Basically, these geckos are a symbolic play on words that are used as good luck charms. The thinking is that if a car wears one of these bìhǔ emblems it will have a better chance to bì huò, avoid disaster; i.e., stay out of accidents.
The tactical use of homophones is a practice that is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and history — this is in no way something new. When it comes to green hats, there is evidence of there being a stigma against them leading all they back to at least the Yuan dynasty (1273 – 1368), when the families of prostitutes were supposedly forced to wear them.
When it comes to my green hat, my apprehension about wearing it in China didn’t stem from the fact that the random Chinese people may think that I’m a cuckold — first off, nobody would really think this; secondly, who cares if they do? — but the fact that it would generally be assumed that I am simply ignorant of the faux pas. In other words, a foreign idiot — something that has always been a good source of humor in China.
In a practical sense, the green hat in China is no longer a sign of a cuckold but a that of a fool.
So rather than hearing people who assume that I cant understand them chattering around me about the color of my cap and how foolish foreigners are and repeatedly being offered unsolicited intro lessons on the superficial elements of Chinese culture, I shelved the hat.
A year and a half later I am now out of China and can proudly wear any color hat I choose once again.