Fu Dao Le! Those Chinese Characters on the Door

An upside-down fu on a doorway in Shanghai. © 2007 Sara Naumann

Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in Mainland China. Homes, stores and streets are hung with traditional lanterns, poems and other traditional decorations. One that confounded me when I first arrived was a symbol, a Mandarin character, that was purposely hung upside-down on doors.

So what was the meaning of this strange Chinese character hung upside-down across Mainland China? There are two parts to the answer:

Part 1: Mandarin Chinese Characters

The first part has to do with the Chinese characters themselves. After you have been in China for a while you get used to the Chinese characters - or at least you get used to not being able to read them. You might take up studying some Chinese and then suddenly you'll be all excited when you recognize the word for mountain (shan or 山) or east (dong or 东). That thrill of being able to read something - even if it's just one character out of a dozen in a shop's sign, is rather exciting.

Part 2: Chinese Puns and Homophones

The second part has to do with the language as it relates to the culture. Chinese speakers use a lot of puns and homophones and the words or the meanings of the words are used to represent a different idea. This concept can be confusing.

Here is an example of a homophone and how it's used to illustrate meaning and culture:

The word yu had many different meanings in Mandarin that are interpreted by the character (the way it's written) and the pronunciation (the tone). The word "yu" can have many different meaning. Two are "abundance" and "fish".

There's a Mandarin saying for Chinese New year nian nian you yu which, when written properly in Mandarin characters, means "Every year there will be abundance." Now, switch out the yu (余) for abundance with the yu (鱼) for fish and now you have "Every year there will be fish." What's the result? Chinese tables at Chinese New Year are laden with fish dishes, fish lanterns and other decorations hang throughout the country during the week-long holiday.

And the Upside-Down Character?

Again, it's a homophone, a play on words. The character that is hung upside down is

  • Fu - 福, fu, pronounced “foo”. It means fortune or luck.
  • The pun - In Mandarin, saying Fu dao le means "luck or fortune has arrived". But the word "dao" can also imply to fall down or turn upside-down. So, literally turning the character 福, fu, upside-down is a play on words implying fortune has arrived.
  • On the door - You'll see the character, usually written in gold on a red background, hung on doors across the country by Chinese hoping for good fortune for the new year. The decorations are often left up all year so you may see it at any time. And why not? Everyone needs a little fortune heading their way.
  • Mystery solved? Now you know why that character is turned upside-down on doorways across the country. Now, let's see about the other 20,000 or so Chinese characters you'll need to become fluent...