Though Taiwan is a thoroughly modern society built on reason and technology, vestiges of the old ways, or non-scientific customs and taboos from bygones days are alive and well in everyday life. Some may call these cultural taboos superstitions, but before being overly judgmental, consider the prevalence of triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) in western architecture. While most Americans, for example, would laugh at the idea that this obscure phobia impacts their lives, the fact that many buildings – even modern skyscrapers – skip from the 12th to the 14th floor is evidence that the superstition is alive and well.
Here are a Seven Taiwan taboos you ought to know about when traveling in Taiwan.
1.Don’t point at the moon with your finger
Chang’e is the Chinese Goddess of the moon, and though luminous and beautiful, she’s also considered somewhat shy. According to legend, pointing at the moon offends the goddess, who may retaliate by cutting the pointer’s ear.
And speaking of showing respect to ethereal beings…
2.Knock on a hotel room before entering
Though it may seem strange to knock on your own hotel room door before entering, in Taiwan it makes sense. There may be spirits inside, and the knock is a courteous way to give them a moment to finish their business and vacate the premises.
And on the subject of spirits…
3.Don’t stick chopsticks upright in a bowl
After praying with incense, Taiwanese people place the sticks upright in a brazier to allow both fragrance and prayers to ascend to the spirit world. Mimicking this gesture with chopsticks in a rice bowl in Taiwan is like making the sign of the cross with a french fry in a devoutly Catholic nation.
And speaking of slightly confusing analogies…
4.The color red is fraught with meaning
Everyone is happy to receive a hongbao, or red envelope, as this is how money is traditionally gifted. But if you see a red envelope lying in the street, picking that up may lead to an unwanted marriage with a ghost. Red is generally considered an auspicious color (gamblers will often wear red underwear for luck) but red ink should be avoided, as the ink symbolizes blood.
And on the subject of gambling…
5.Never pat a gambler on the back
While in the west, patting your buddy on the back to congratulate them on winning (or console them for losing) is a perfectly normal gesture. Your Taiwanese gambling friends will not appreciate the gesture, however, as the Mandarin word for back (bei) sounds like a slang term for for bad luck (also bei).
And speaking of homophones worth knowing…
6.Avoid the number 4
What 13 is in the west, 4 is to Taiwanese. The Mandarin word for death (si) sounds the same as the word for “four” (si again). While some buildings have fourth floors, others do not (and rent in fourth floor apartments in those that do is sometimes discounted). Hotels and hospitals almost never have fourth floors. Also It’s considered inauspicious to give a gift containing four of anything.
And on the subject of inauspicious gifts…
7.Don’t give a clock as a gift
Gifting a clock is considered very bad luck, as if the giver is reminding the recipient of their mortality, as if to say “Your time is running out!” This said, should you chose to tip your tour guide with a Rolex GMT Master II (or even a mid-range Cartier) they’ll probably accept it quite happily, taboo aside.
Interested in delving deeper into Taiwanese religion, myth and heritage? Sign up for our Vintage Taipei Tour and explore the temples, traditions and culture of Old Taipei.