Double happiness: Chinese and South African culture

  • 27 February 2015 | Roela Hattingh
Double happiness. Image courtesy of Joanne Wan

Double happiness earrings. Image courtesy of spicychocolate

Double happiness on a sign. Image courtesy of Tai Toh

If you search for information on 'double happiness' in Chinese culture, this is what you get: a character that is often seen on doors, one that is used on wedding gifts, as a brand name in fashion, jewelery, cigarettes, matchboxes and soy sauce, and often featured as decoration on many items by Chinese luxury brand Shanghai Tang.

The story of double happiness has its origins during the reign of the Tang dynasty when a young man travelled to the capital city for an examiniation. According to the terms of the exam, the candidate with the highest score would become a minister in the royal court. However, on his way to the city, the young man fell ill, and was taken in by a herbalist, who, together with his daughter, nursed him. Inevitably, the young man and the herbalist's daughter fell in love but, once he had recovered, the young man had to continue on his journey. As he left, the girl wrote down the right hand part of a couplet for the man. He left with promises of returning to marry her.

The boy did well in the exam, using his love's words to respond to the emperor when asked to complete the other half of a couplet. His response impressed the emperor who gave him the job as minister in the royal court.

The young man stayed true to his word and returned to the village to married her herbalist's daughter. On their wedding day, the bride and groom both wrote down the right hand part of the couplet that had kept them together. This became the double happiness symbol.

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There are many differences between South African and Chinese cultures: from how, what and when we eat, to how, what and when we speak; to the festivals that we celebrate and how we celebrate them. A traditional wedding dress in China would be red, and white is the colour most associated with death. In South Africa, we typically wear black to funerals and brides wear white, though this varies greatly from culture to culture. In China, if you were to compliment a host or hostess by speaking about a beautiful artifact in their home, they would feel obliged to give it to you. This typically does not apply in South Africa.

But there are some qualities that we do share. We offer food and drink to make people feel welcome. We ask about journeys. We help where we can and are true to our word. We value people.

In 1871, Sir Edward Tylor defined culture as 'that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.' The Tang dynasty story epitomises some important aspects of Chinese culture: selflessness, honour and integrity among them. Many of these are values upheld in South African culture too.

Surely, even though they are vastly different, the joining of our two cultures can be seen as a double happiness? 

We hope that you enjoyed the insights that we shared on China this month. Keep an eye on our website for insights on the United Kingdom in the month to come.