Taboos and Euphemism in Chinese Ⅲ

Historically speaking, many taboos were related to the nobility wishing to maintain their control over the symbols associated with power. More recently, taboos such as mentioning the name of the emperor or one’s ancestors have gradually disappeared.

As a result there are now many less taboos. Those remaining are mostly customary and reflect the cultural hankering for auspiciousness and happiness.

The Spring festival is supposed to be a time of auspiciousness. People try to stay clear of saying things that might invite bad fortune on the family in the coming year. To be extra careful, some rural families will post notes in the house that say, “words of children mean no harm”, to ensure unthinking children do not bring bad fortune into the household.

Different trades also have their own taboo words. Merchants dislike the words “close” for fear it could lead to bankruptcy. Sailors avoid “sink” and “turn over” because they may lead to accidents at sea.

At the beginning of a season, actors avoid saying “umbrella” because in Chinese “umbrella”, san, is a homophone of a word that means “scattered” or “dismissed”.

Where there is taboo, there is its polite cousin, euphemism. Euphemism refers to the use of a more agreeable term in the place of one that may offend the listener. As has previously been mentioned, the word “die” is considered inauspicious, there are more than 100 ways to convey the fact that someone has died, such as 去世,谢世,长眠,寿终,辞世. Similarly, in English there are over 60 euphemisms for  “die”.

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