Faux pas derived from Chinese pronunciation

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The following faux pas are derived from homonyms in Mandarin and Cantonese. While originating in Greater China, they may also apply to Chinese-speaking people around the world. However, most homonymic pairs listed work only in some varieties of Chinese (for example, Mandarin only or Cantonese only), and may appear bewildering even to speakers of other varieties of Chinese.

Certain customs regarding good and bad luck are important to many Chinese people. Although these might be regarded as superstitions by people from other cultures, these customs are often tied to religious traditions and are an important part of many people's belief systems, even among well-educated people and affluent sectors of society.


Giving a clock (送鐘/送钟, sòng zhōng) is often taboo, especially to the elderly as the term for this act is a homophone with the term for the act of attending another's funeral (送終/送终, sòngzhōng).[1][2][3] A UK government official Susan Kramer gave a watch to Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je unaware of such a taboo which resulted in some professional embarrassment and a pursuant apology.[4] Cantonese people consider such a gift as a curse.[5]

This homonymic pair works in both Mandarin and Cantonese, although in most parts of China only clocks and large bells, and not watches, are called "zhong", and watches are commonly given as gifts in China.

However, should such a gift be given, the "unluckiness" of the gift can be countered by exacting a small monetary payment so the recipient is buying the clock and thereby counteracting the '送' ("give") expression of the phrase.

Fans and umbrellas[edit]

It is undesirable to give someone a fan or an umbrella as a gift. The words fan "shàn" () and umbrella "sǎn" (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ) sound like the word "sǎn/sàn" (), meaning to scatter, or to part company, to separate, to break up with someone, to split.[6]

These homonymic pairs work in Mandarin and Cantonese, though Cantonese has a more idiomatic term for umbrellas ("ze1" in Cantonese, ) to avoid precisely this association.


As a book (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: shū) is a Mandarin homophone of "loss, to lose" (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: shū), carrying or looking at a book (simplified Chinese: 带书, 看书; traditional Chinese: 帶書, 看書; pinyin: dài shū, kàn shū) where people are taking a risk, such as gambling or investing in stocks, may be considered to invite bad luck and loss (simplified Chinese: 带输, 看输; traditional Chinese: 帶輸, 看輸; pinyin: dài shū, kàn shū). This bad luck does not apply to carrying or reading newspapers (simplified Chinese: 带报, 看报; traditional Chinese: 帶報, 看報; pinyin: dàibào, kànbào) as newspapers (simplified Chinese: 报纸; traditional Chinese: 報紙; pinyin: bàozhǐ) are not books.[6]

This homonymic pair works in Mandarin.


Sharing a pear with friends or loved ones can be a mistake. "Sharing a pear" (分梨) is a homophone of "to separate, to part, to leave" (simplified Chinese: 分离; traditional Chinese: 分離), both pronounced "fēnlí" in Mandarin. Sharing with distant friends is okay.

This homonymic pair works in Mandarin.


It is also thought to be bad luck to give shoes as a gift. "Shoes" ( xié) in Mandarin is a homophone of "evil" ( xié).[7] Additionally, the Chinese people believe that gifting shoes equips a person to "walk away" from a relationship.

This homonymic pair works in Mandarin only and, other than part of northern China, there is no such superstition in any other part of China.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brown, Ju (2006). China, Japan, Korea Culture and Customs. p. 57.
  2. ^ Seligman, Scott D. (1999). Chinese business etiquette:: a guide to protocol, manners, and culture in the People's Republic of China. Hachette Digital, Inc.
  3. ^ http://www.sohu.com/a/160882715_578225 别人过节喜庆的时候,不送钟表。送终和送钟谐音。
  4. ^ BBC Staff (26 January 2015). "UK minister apologises for Taiwan watch gaffe". BBC. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  5. ^ Susan Kurth Clot deBroissia International Gift Giving Protocol
  6. ^ a b Wong Yee Lee Gifts in Chinese Culture
  7. ^ Gift Canyon Chinese Gifts to Give and Avoid