by: Man-Ping Chu ~



Taboos are established in a society to avoid harmful consequences to their people either because the non-verbal or verbal behavior violates a code based on supernatural beliefs or it violates the moral code of the society. According to Adler (1989), taboos are subject to the environment and they are language-specific. This research was held in the United States to examine whether the Chinese and Korean immigrants in a western society share any taboos in (1) non-verbal phonologically-linked taboos, related to death or separation and (2) verbal animal-linked taboos to describe people. The results show that these Chinese and Koreans share only one phonologically-linked taboo – the number “4”, which associates with “death,” and one animal-linked taboo – the “tiger” for a woman, which is used negatively to hot-tempered females.


In an intercultural setting, good communication requires not only the linguistic and sociolinguistic knowledge of the host language for interaction but also knowledge of the culture and cultural rules which contribute greatly to the content and the process of meaningful communicative interaction (Saville-Troike, 1989). Most people are motivated to adjust their conversation in expressing attitudes and intentions toward others. Though individual variation may exist, people will basically choose appropriate language as a means of reducing the cultural differences between them. Knowledge of prominent language features of a culture like non-verbal and verbal taboos, seldom discussed in language textbooks or in classrooms as part of cultural instruction, is probably essential to successful communicative interaction (Shen, 1993).

Taboos are subject to the environment. They are language-specific; therefore, they are not universal or timeless (Adler, 1978). In many cases, foreign people realize the existence of the rules associated with taboos only after they have violated them. Those who do not observe these social “rules” might face serious results, such as total embarrassment or, as Saville-Troike (1989) has stated, they may be accused of immorality and face social ostracism or even death.

In this paper, two types of Chinese “possible taboos” are examined in the context of Korean culture and language: (1) Non-verbal phonologically-linked taboos from traditional Chinese society that are associated with the “separation” and “death”. Do Chinese and Koreans share these taboos because similar sounds occur so often in their languages? (2) Verbal zodiac-animal-linked taboos in modern Chinese society. Do Chinese and Koreans share more zodiac-animal-linked taboos than either shares with Americans because of the same customs? Data were collected in two ways: questionnaires and interviews.

What is a Taboo?

The word ‘taboo’ in early contexts was primarily used to evoke a breach of good manners. Today the word evokes either attitudes that are outdated and irrational or topics that were deemed unmentionable in the past but are now being openly discussed (Thody, 1997).

“Taboo” is a borrowed word from Tongan, a Polynesian language. To most people, it refers to “forbidden” or “to be avoided” behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal. A taboo is also an expression of disapproved behaviors in a society. Taboos are established because people believe that such inappropriateness will bring harmful consequences to them either because this non-verbal or verbal behavior violates a code based on supernatural beliefs or it violates the moral code of the society (Wardhaugh, 1992). Once taboos are formed in a country, references to them become taboo, too (Shen, 1993).

We may find that taboos occur in all kinds of environments, from ancient to modern society, and at all levels of civilization. Members of each community are psychologically and physically trained and shaped by the community to observe the “rules” closely. For example, Westerners wear black for a funeral and white for a wedding. But in the ancient Chinese weddings, a white dress was not allowed to be worn because white was for a funeral. Therefore, all individuals involved had to wear black formal costumes. Later, the color changed to red. Now under Western influence, white is the customary formal color for brides and sometimes for bridegrooms, too (Shen, 1993).

Non-Verbal and Verbal Taboos

Non-Verbal Taboos

Some non-verbal taboos may seem funny, but severe punishment might have come to those who failed to observe the rules in an earlier time and today as well. Accidents may also result from taboo non-verbal cues (e.g., an inappropriate gesture). For example, In 1988, in Los Angeles, an entertainer from Thailand was reported to have been convicted of the murder of a young Laotian. The entertainer was singing in an after-hours Thai cabaret when the Laotian, a patron, put his foot on a chair with the sole directed at the entertainer. When the cabaret closed, the entertainer followed the man and shot him. The reason was that among Southeast Asians, showing or directing the sole of the shoe to another person is considered a grievous insult (Axtell, 1991).

An incident also took place in Hong Kong a few years ago because of a hand signal miscommunication. A television station there took an annual picture of all the contracted entertainers before the Chinese New Year. As a joke, famous Kung-fu actor Jackie Chan, who recently played the main actor in the movie “Rush Hour,” held his fist with his middle finger stuck out on top of the head of an actress who stood in front of him. When his photo appeared in the newspapers, the station received dozens of calls from Westerners living in Hong Kong complaining about the indecent gesture. To them, when the middle finger is used, there is only one interpretation – indecency. When Chan applied this gesture, he meant to suggest that his friend had grown horns on her head for fun. Chan refused to apologize because his gesture was not intended to be an insult as the gesture is not considered indecent in Chinese Society

Several times, when my Korean informant talked about classic words or terms used in Korean, I could figure out the exact Chinese counterparts merely from her pronunciation. This is not surprising because the cultural influences of China upon Korea over the centuries have left an indelible mark upon both the written and spoken Korean language. It is possible to trace many aspects of Korean language and culture back to ancient China. But not long ago, when my Korean informant gave me a fan as a gift, I was a little shocked.

To many Chinese people, a fan is a forbidden present because it has the identical sound as “separation.” If a person gives a fan to his or her friend, their friendship will stop or diminish from that time. Therefore, it has become a phonologically linked taboo to give friends a fan in Chinese society. One question is if Korean people also have similar phonologically-linked taboos as the Chinese do. The first part of the questionnaire elicits data to see if there are any similarities between Chinese and Korean people on this point because of the similar sounds.

Verbal taboos

In every language there seem to be certain “unmentionables” – words of such strong affective connotation that they cannot be used in polite discourse. Two verbal taboos are probably universal. The first of these are words that deal with excretion and sex. For example, when a woman needs to go to the toilet because “nature calls,” she will ask people where the “rest room” or “powder room” is, although she has no intention of resting or putting powder on her face. Second, in both Western and Asian cultures the fear of death carries over into fear of the words having to do with death. Many people, therefore, substitute words, such as “died” or “death” with expressions such as “passed away,” “went to his reward” or “departed” (Hayakawa, 1982).

People generally like to hear words that bless one’s good health and long life or metaphors that generate positive descriptions of one’s personality and appearance. However, because of different cultural backgrounds, an expression in one country can cause a quite different effect in another. For example, Chinese people would feel horrified or upset if they were told before a performance to “break a leg,” an English expression used to wish one good luck.

In the study in this paper, Chinese animal-linked taboos are compared with those of Korea because both countries have the same twelve animals (i.e., the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the chicken, the dog, and the pig) as part of the zodiac cycle representing a unit of time. At the same time, these verbal animal-linked taboos are also compared with animal expressions in America to see if there are any significant differences.


To this day many Chinese people are superstitious to the extent that they will avoid doing anything that they believe can bring bad luck. Chinese non-verbal phonologically linked taboos are products of ancient days. They were generated from an identical sound or group of sounds which represents evil objects, disasters, and other negative occurrences. (Shen, 1993). Since a large portion of Korean vocabulary comes from Chinese culture, especially Confucian classics, my first hypothesis is that Korean people will have most of the phonologically linked taboos that China does.

A special zodiac cycle, consisting of the twelve animals mentioned above, has been shared by Chinese and Korean people for hundreds of years. One animal represents one year, and twelve years is a complete cycle. In ancient Chinese culture, most of these animals were good symbols. They were quite welcomed and respected. Nevertheless, in modern society in China negative connotations are given to some of the animals, which means some of the animals have become verbal taboos in describing a person’s character or appearance.

Koreans, being so historically and geographically related to the Chinese, probably at some time in the past associated the same meanings to the twelve animals as Chinese people did. Furthermore, it seems likely that meanings would have evolved over the years as they have for the Chinese, but not necessarily in the same direction. The second part of the questionnaire is designed to examine if Chinese and Korean people still come to a consensus on which animal-linked vocabulary words are forbidden and which are acceptable to use in reference to a friend. Regarding verbal taboos, my second hypothesis is that Chinese and Koreans will share more animal-linked taboos than either shares with Americans.


The sample for this study consists of thirty respondents from three countries. Ethnicity was determined through questionnaires in which respondents provided their own label for their background. In all, there were ten Chinese people (seven from Taiwan, one from Mainland China, one from Hong Kong and one from the US), ten Koreans (from South Korea) and ten Americans (three German-Americans, one Italian-American, one African-American, and five Anglo-Americans). Among the ten Chinese people, aged from 25 – 38, are two males and eight females. Among the ten Koreans, aged from 28 - 40, are six males and four females. Among the ten Americans, aged from 27 – 50’s, are four males and six females.

Data collection

Data were collected in two ways: informal interviews and the questionnaire. The questionnaire was culturally determined. To focus on the characteristics of Chinese taboos, questions fell into two categories: (1) non-verbal phonologically linked examples of inappropriate usage, such as homonyms or expressions forbidden to certain groups within Chinese culture; (2) verbal animal-linked metaphors and inappropriate language choices from the Chinese and Korean zodiac.

In the questionnaire, Questions one through six are non-verbal phonologically linked taboos that Chinese people have been aware of for hundreds of years. In Questions 7 through 19 are designed to elicit what animal-linked vocabulary words would be verbal taboos among the Chinese, Korean, and American peoples.

Results and Discussion

Non-verbal phonologically-linked taboos

Because Chinese people yearn to reach or be close to a state of “being blessed” and to stay away from “evil” or “bad luck” as much as possible, they create taboo situations. The phonological parts of taboos mentioned in the first six questions in the Questionnaire are examples of evil-related things: death and separation; thus, they became representative of the Chinese taboo system. Some examples follows:

(1) Chinese: The fan (? shan) and the umbrella (? san) have very similar sounds to the word “? san”, which means “separation”. Korean: The fan (? son) and the umbrella (? san) do not sound similar to the word “? zhok”, which means “separation”. Therefore, the Chinese and Koreans did not share this taboo.

Question 1: It is appropriate to give a female friend a fan as a gift.

Question 2: It is appropriate to give a friend an umbrella as a gift.

The Chinese word ? (shan) is a term meaning “to break up, to dismiss, to dissolve.” It is a “forbidden” word among Chinese performers because their professional survival depends on a continuous succession of contracts; therefore, for them, the very notion of “breaking up” infers the destruction of their career. This tradition is carried to the extent of preventing a performer not only from voicing this particular word, but even from mentioning any term that includes the same sounds, such as “? shan” which means fan, or “? san” which means umbrella. Therefore, 50 or less had no objection to such a gift. The reason was that a beautifully painted fan can decorate the wall and an umbrella is very useful in our daily life. It is also interesting to note that, in ancient China, a fan could be given as a parting present in the hope that the traveler could use it to keep himself cool.

But 90 of the Chinese respondents disagreed or disagreed strongly with giving a friend a clock as a gift. The ones who agreed said they would only give it to a person their age.

One hundred percent of Koreans and Americans all agreed or agreed strongly with giving a clock to a friend. To Korean people, a clock is a traditional and popular gift for a friend when he or she starts a business. The Korean sound for “giving a clock” is “song zhong,” and the sound for “biding farewell to a dying person on his or her deathbed” is “song young.” They sound quite different. To Americans, clocks or watches make lovely gifts and they are long lasting. Certain brands and styles would be more acceptable. One American responded that the fancier, the more appropriate.

(3) Chinese: “Turning over (? fan) a fish ” can be a forbidden action on a boat to avoid the disastrous outcome of a ship being overturned in the ocean. Korean: “Turning over (? zhokban) a fish” is not a forbidden action on a boat to avoid bad luck. Therefore, the Chinese and Koreans did not share this taboo.

Question 4: If eating fish on a boat, it is appropriate to turn the fish over after one finishes eating the meat on the top side.

Fifty percent of the Chinese respondents disagreed or disagreed strongly with doing it. In Southern China, seamen’s families generally avoid voicing “? fan” (a Chinese sound for “turn over”). They associate the disastrous outcome of a ship being overturned in the ocean with the action word for the concept. If fearing what one says might bring the unwanted consequence into reality, the taboo situation is established. To these families, it is also a taboo behavior to turn a fish topside down after one finishes the meat on that side. They envision the fish as the ship that carries their loved ones, so turning the fish over on the dish would symbolize that the ship has capsized in the ocean.

Ninety percent of the Koreans agreed with the action because they thought it would be a way to finish a fish neatly or to see if there is more to eat. They do not associate the sound for “turn over” with the disastrous outcome of a ship being overturned in the ocean through the action word for that concept. Eighty percent of the Americans agreed because they thought it makes sense and would probably be easier that way, especially if the fish has a lot of bones in the middle. The rest who disagreed (20 of the Chinese and 90 of the respondents agreed. Only the number “13” is considered bad luck in American culture. Therefore, a Chinese or Korean patient would react far more strongly to being assigned to a room or a floor in a hospital with the number four than would an American patient assigned to a “Room 13” or “floor 13.” This is the only phonologically-linked taboo that I found shared by these two countries.

(5) Chinese: “Cutting a pear in two halves” (?? feng li) can be another forbidden action among Chinese because it sounds exactly like ?? (feng li), which means “separation”. Korean: “Cutting a pear in two halves” (?? bun yi) does not sound like ?? (bul li), which means “separation”. Therefore, the Chinese and Koreans did not share this taboo.

Question 6: It is appropriate to cut a pear in two halves and share it with a friend.

In one Chinese opera, a fruit merchant claims that his pears will make a marriage happy. But lovers should never cut up or divide pears since the word for “pear” (li) is phonologically identical with the word for “separation” (? li). For the same reasons, relatives or friends will avoid dividing pears among themselves. Therefore, at the end of twentieth century, 50 of the Koreans agreed or agreed strongly. They and the American respondents thought there was no problem with this action and that it would be seen as a gesture of friendship and generosity. Sharing is considered a good thing as it shows that one cares for another. Cutting a pear is the same as cutting any other fruit.

Verbal animal-linked taboos

As mentioned above, Chinese and Koreans have the same twelve animals (i.e., the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the chicken, the dog, and the pig) in the zodiac cycle to represent a unit of time. They are used to convey positive values in both cultures.

Since Asian people have become more and more westernized in the last twenty years, some animal-linked vocabulary words in modern Chinese society have different connotations from what they did in old Chinese culture. These animals were compared among the Chinese, Koreans and American respondents to find if there are significant differences between the East and the West. Which are verbal taboos and which are not? Data were collected in two ways: the questionnaire and interviews.

(1) The rat

The rat is the first creature in the old Chinese zodiac. It was associated with money; when you hear a rat scrabbling around for food at night, it is said to be “counting money”. The term “money-rat” is a disparaging way of referring to a miser. In some old legends, rats can turn into demons, male usually, in contrast with the fox that turns into a female demon.

Question 7: It is appropriate to say to a person’s face that he/she is like a rat.

Fifty percent of the Chinese respondents agreed that it is fine to say to a person’s face that he or she is like a rat, but they claim that it must depend on the tone of voice, the hearer’s age, and the context. The other 50 of them disagreed or disagreed strongly. To them, bulls are stubborn and might mean the person is aggressive. Likewise, cows are fat and sloppy.

(3) The tiger

The tiger is the third sign in the Chinese zodiac. The tiger is a symbol of courage and bravery. Nevertheless, the tiger was so much feared that its very name was taboo, and people referred to it as ?? da chong, meaning “big insect” or “king of the mountains”.

Question 9: It is appropriate to say to a man’s face that he acts like a tiger.

Question 10: It is appropriate to say to a woman’s face that she acts like a tiger.

On Question 9, 80 of the Chinese disagreed with describing a woman as a tiger because it is over exaggerating. Forty percent of them agreed with using it negatively for a woman if she is really hot-tempered.

On Question 9, 50 of them disagreed with using “tiger” to describe a woman even if she were disgraceful or very hot-tempered.

Ninety percent of the Americans agreed or agreed strongly with using it for a man as it implies strong, clever, fast, assertive, initiative, successful, or sexually powerful. It can also be an encouragement to kids as in “Go get’em, tiger.” At the same time, about 80 of the Chinese agreed because the rabbit is a cute animal. They are smart and fast. Twenty percent disagreed because the rabbit is too timid and too dependent.

Fifty percent of the Koreans who agreed also think the rabbit is cute, so it is appropriate to describe a person as a rabbit. The other 50 disagreed as it indicates small, weak, and timid, not very intelligent, or it could be an insult to mean the person has had too many children.

(5) The dragon

The dragon is the fifth creature in the Chinese zodiac. It is one of China’s most complex and multi-tiered symbols. It is said that, like a magic animal, it could fill the space between heaven and earth.

Question 12: It is appropriate to say to a person’s face that he/she is like a dragon.

Sixty percent of the Chinese respondents agreed but they did not know why and 40 who agreed strongly think the snake implies a person’s being double-faced/tongued.

(7) The horse

The horse is the seventh creature in the Chinese zodiac. In Old Chinese, there were many words denoting the different sizes and colors of the horse. The fact that these words have all died out is an indicator of the declining role of the horse in recent history. In old texts, horses stood for success, speed, and loyalty.

Question 14: It is appropriate to say to a person’s face that he/she is like a horse.

Sixty percent of the Chinese agreed if it implies hard work without a rest. Forty percent disagreed because the horse has a very long face. When the Chinese say to a person “the horse does not know its long face,” it means that the person does not know his or her own shortcomings.

One hundred percent of the Korean disagreed or disagreed strongly with describing a person as a horse. They all think it implies that a person’s face is exceedingly long, so it is an insult.

Fifty percent of the Americans agreed if it is a compliment to say that the person works hard as in a “workhorse” or he is “strong as a horse”. It can also mean someone who runs fast. In addition, terms like “stallion” and “stud” used for men are usually considered complimentary. The horse is often used in “You eat like a horse” to imply a healthy or big appetite, or “Stop horsing around” to imply “stop wasting time.” Fifty percent disagreed because a horse might be used to mean a big and ugly woman.

(8) The sheep/lamb

The sheep is the eighth creature in the Chinese zodiac. It is the emblem of filial piety as it kneels when suckling its mother. Sheep were, on the whole, less important than the ox and horse in China.

Question 15: It is appropriate to say to a person’s face that he/she is like a lamb.

Ninety percent of the Chinese agreed because the lamb is a friendly, nice-tempered, soft animal. But it is also used to describe someone being shy and timid because they lack confidence and follow orders completely.

Forty percent of the Koreans who agreed think the lamb is pretty, pure, naïve, and innocent, so it is appropriate to describe a person as a lamb. The other 60 who disagreed think it is not appropriate to use it to an adult. It means he/she is too active.

Only 10 of them agreed with using it in certain contexts. For the other eleven zodiac animals, more than 50 of them disagreed with using the rat, the bull/cow, the snake, the monkey, the chicken, the dog, and the pig to anyone. And other terms like the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the horse, and the lamb can also have bad connotations in certain situations. In order to interact with people of a different culture appropriately, one needs to adjust his/her language to others’ cultural rules for meaningful communication. Most people believe that human beings are above every other living creature in the world because human beings can be educated, cultivated, and have the ability to tell right from wrong and good from evil. To avoid cultural misunderstandings, not to choose any of the animal-linked metaphors for people is highly recommended.

Works Cited

Adler, M. K.. Naming and addressing: A sociolinguistic study. Hamburg: Buske, 1978.

Axtell, R. E.. Gestures: The do’s and taboos of body language around the world. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1991.

Eberhard, W. A Dictionary Of Chinese Symbols. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1983.

Hayakawa, S. I.. Verbal Taboos. In P. Eschholz, A. Rosa, V. Clark (Eds.) Language Awareness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

Korean Overseas Information Service. This is Korea. Seoul: Seoul International Publishing House, 1986.

Saville-Troike, M. (1989). The Ethnography Of Communication: An Introduction, 2nd edition. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1989.

Shen, Y. I.. Cultural influence on language usage: Cases of taboo. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (27th, San Antonio, TX, November 20-22, 1993.

Thody, P.. Don’t Do it: A Short Dictionary Of The Forbidden. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Wardhaugh, R. An Introduction To Sociolinguistics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

About The Author

Man-Ping Chu, an instructor at Chinese Culture University since 1987. She received her Master's Degree in TESOL from San Jose State University, CA. and now is pursuing her doctorate in Bilingual Education at Texas A&M University, USA.

image.aspx? author invites you to visit:







Breast Cancer Awareness!

Save 10% on Iogear GFR204SDP Susan G. Komen SDshow?id=2mmY3FBGCy8&bids=229293.202&type=3&subid=0












Votes: 0
E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of TheBlackList Pub to add comments!

Join TheBlackList Pub