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Unlike an alphabet that represents only sounds, Chinese characters express a concept. Even though these characters are a system of symbols used to write, they’re richer in nuances and meanings.
Some Chinese characters evolved from pictures, as evident from the oracle bone inscriptions during the Shang dynasty. By the Han dynasty, from 206 BCE to 220 CE, they had lost most of their pictorial quality, and later transitioned into the modern-day script we know today.
Much of the symbolism of Chinese characters is derived from homonyms—words with the same sound but different meaning. For instance, in Chinese the number eight is a lucky number because the word eight sounds like the word for wealth.
Since some Chinese characters have unfortunate homophony, they’re also avoided in gifts, such as pears that sound like separation, or clock that sounds like the phase that means attending a funeral.
In Chinese culture, it’s a tradition to give gifts decorated with symbols.
Ài – Love
Pronounced as aye, ài is the Chinese character for love in all aspects, such as the love between lovers, friends, siblings, as well as a patriot’s love for his country. In its traditional form, it includes the character xin, meaning heart, suggesting that the symbol means to love from your heart. In the West, “I love you” is a popular expression of love. In Chinese, the expression translates as “Wo ai ni,” though some families rarely express these words.
Xi – Happiness
The Chinese character xi means joy or happiness, but it’s typically written twice, which becomes shuangxi or double happiness. In traditional Chinese weddings, the double happiness symbol (囍) is commonly featured on the red bridal gown, called cheongsam or qipao, wedding cakes, chopsticks, and invitations.
The double happiness symbol became popular during the Qing dynasty, when the wedding area of Emperor Tongzhi was decorated with it. By the time of the wedding of Emperor Guangxu, the symbol was being depicted on royal robes and ruyi scepters as a symbol of love and good luck in imperial ceremonies. Today, it’s also a popular motif used during anniversaries, and regarded as a feng shui cure for love and marriage.
Fu – Blessing
One of the most popular characters used in Chinese New Year, fu means blessing, good luck, and good fortune. The tradition of displaying the symbol on walls and doors originated from the customs of the Song dynasty, which stretched from 960 to 1127 CE. In modern times, the character is also displayed upside down, because the reversed fu is homophonic with fu comes, or blessing comes.
In a legend, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty planned to kill a family who had insulted his wife, Empress Ma. He marked their door with the Chinese character fu, but in order to avoid bloodshed, the empress instructed every family in the region to display the same character on their doors. One illiterate family displayed the character upside down.
When the soldiers went searching for the marked family, they found the character on all the doors and didn’t know which family to kill. In anger, the emperor said to kill the family with the upside down fu. Empress Ma, in consternation, quickly intervened, saying that the family had intentionally pasted the fu upside down, as they had known that the emperor would be coming there on that day – didn’t it mean that they thought fu (blessings) was coming? Luckily, this logic appealed to the emperor and he spared the family. Since then, the upside down fu became associated with luck.
Interestingly, the pronunciation of fu for good luck has the same pronunciation as the word bat, which makes the creature a lucky symbol. In fact, a group of five bats is a traditional Chinese symbol for blessings—love of virtue, long life, health, wealth, and peaceful death. However, the words good luck and bat are written in different characters even though they have the same pronunciation.
Lu – Prosperity
In feudal China, lu literally meant the salary of government officials who had the highest social status next to the emperor. Therefore, it also meant wealth and prosperity during the era. Today, the symbol is still believed to bring monetary fortune, so people use it as decoration for attracting wealth.
Shòu – Longevity
A character for longevity, shòu is commonly used at birthdays to wish the celebrant a long life. Sometimes, it’s featured on embroidery, ceramics, jewelry, furniture and so on. The Chinese character is also associated with Shouxing, the god of longevity.
Legend has it that Shouxing lives at the South Pole, as the South is the region of life while the North is the region of death. The Chinese believed that he had the power to control the life span of mortals, so offerings were given to him to ensure a long life with happiness and good health.
Jiā – Home
In Chinese, jiā is the symbol for family, home, or house. Originally, it was a pictograph of a pig inside a house, and the modern character is still associated with a swine under a roof, represented by the characters shǐ and mián respectively.
In the past, families who raised pigs were considered to be wealthy, and the creatures themselves are a symbol of prosperity, so the symbol also suggests a well-off household. Pigs were also used as animal sacrifices to family ancestors, so they also embody respect for the family.
De – Virtue
In Chinese philosophy, de is the symbol of virtue, referring to a person who may positively influence others. It’s also a homophone of the verb that means to take hold of, suggesting that one’s moral power may change someone else’s mind and heart.
It played a significant role in imperial China when the emperor cultivated his de by performing rituals in order to gain the favor of the heaven and retain the heavenly mandate for his reign.
Ren – Benevolence
In Confucianism, ren embodies the quality of benevolence, goodness, and humanness. Since it’s a homophone of the word for human being, the symbol suggests that every person should act with benevolence towards others.
The term ren originally meant handsomeness, but Confucius taught that a gentleman doesn’t need a fine appearance, but goodness in their relationships with other people. According to the philosopher Mencius, the second sage of Confucian tradition, ren meant compassion within the human mind and heart.
Yì – Righteousness
In Confucian philosophy, yì means righteousness or being able to do the right thing. It involves thinking and acting from one’s own perspective and maintaining one’s integrity. For the Chinese, it matters to understand the big picture before giving an opinion or judgment.
One of the prominent figures who embodied the virtue of yì was Bao Zheng, a judge during the Song dynasty. Unlike others who used torture to force confessions, he solved cases through investigation, fought against corruption, and punished corrupt high-ranking officials.
Lǐ – Propriety
One of the ethical principles which regulated society in ancient China, the character lǐ or propriety means conforming to the rules of proper conduct. However, the concept is broad as it involves ideals like loyalty, respect, chastity, and so on. In Chinese culture, it had to be practiced by all members of the society.
Back in the day, lǐ was established between the relationship of monarch and subjects. In modern times, it applies to the relationship of husband and wife, the elder and the young, the teacher and students, and so on. It also involves showing loyalty to superiors, and the superiors treating the inferior with respect.
Zhì – Wisdom
The Chinese character for wisdom, zhì is about having knowledge and experience in order to give a good judgment on situations. In the Analects of Confucius, it serves as a guide for someone on discerning the crooked and straight behavior in others. In soliloquies about several virtues, Confucius described a wise person as being never confused.
Xìn – Trustworthiness
The Chinese character for trustworthiness and fidelity, xìn is all about having honesty and integrity in everything you do. In the Analects, Confucius explains that if someone is trustworthy, others will likely rely on him. When it comes to good government, trustworthiness is more important than food or weapons. It’s one of the virtues a ruler needs in order to manage his people—without it, the state won’t stand.
Xiao – Filial Piety
In Chinese culture, xiao is the attitude of respect, obedience, and devotion for parents and elder family members. It might mean that one will put the needs of his parents first before himself, his spouse, and children. In some localities in China, especially in Qindu district of Xianyang, newlyweds are required to sign contracts to support their parents after the age of 60.
Dao – The Way
One of the Chinese symbols with several interpretations, dao represents a way in a sense of a path or a road which one travels—or the particular way of a thing. It can also refer to the Cosmic Dao, the Way of the Cosmos, which is thought to be a greater guide to life.
The dao had a great significance in the classical thoughts of the Warring States periods of the Zhou dynasty, from 1046 to 256 BCE. In the philosophical text Daodejing, the Cosmic Dao is said to be the source of the universe.
Chinese characters are symbolic, but their significance comes from linguistic coincidence. While characters xi (喜), fu (福), lu (祿), and shòu (寿) are regarded as lucky symbols, the Confucian virtues ren (仁), yì (義), lǐ (禮), zhì (智), and xìn (信) express deeper concepts that are significant to the Chinese culture. Just keep in mind that the sound of some Chinese words has negative associations, so they’re generally avoided in gift giving.