Around the world luck comes in many forms. As part of a three-part series examining how different peoples and cultures perceived luck, we take a closer look at the top 6 Asian and Chinese good luck charms, their origins and what they mean to those who hold them dear.
Also known as the welcoming cat, lucky cat, money cat, happy cat, or fortune cat, Maneki-Neko originated in Japan and their name literally translates to “beckoning cat.” These cuties are considered to bring good luck to their owners, especially when it comes to financial matters, and are often displayed in the front windows of shops, restaurants, and other businesses.
The origin of the maneki-neko is uncertain, but a few folktales tell the story of how the lucky cats came to be. The first says that the owner of a poor shop took in a starving, sickly cat even though he could barely feed himself. To show his thanks, the cat sits outside the shop and beckons in customers, thereby bringing the owner prosperity for his charity. From this point on, the beckoning cat was considered a symbol of good luck for small business owners. Another story says that one day a nobleman passed a cat that seemed to be waving to him. The nobleman stopped to see it, thinking the waving was a sign. Taken off his path, the nobleman realized he had avoided a trap that had been set for him ahead. Since then, cats have been considered wise and lucky spirits.
While the maneki-neko might look like it’s waving to folks from most Western countries, according to Japanese body language he is actually beckoning – the gesture in Japan involves holding up the hand, palm facing down, and folding the fingers down and back repeatedly. Some cats made for Western markets will have the paw facing up, in a beckoning gesture that is more familiar to Westerners, but the traditional maneki-neko will always have a downward-facing beckoning paw.
The beckoning paw is thought to determine the fortune the kitty brings, with the left paw bringing in customers and the right bringing wealth and good luck. Others believe that one is for wealth and the other for luck, and still others believe that a lifted left paw brings in money, while a lifted right paw protects it. In addition, it’s believed that the higher the raised paw, the greater the luck. This is why, over the years, the cat’s paw appears higher and higher.
In addition, the color of the cat is symbolic. The most common color is white, followed closely by black and gold. White cats bring happiness, purity, and positive energy. Black is believed to keep evil spirits away, while gold brings wealth. The luckiest of all is the calico cat, which combines white, black and gold. Other colors include blue for academic success, pink for love, green for good health, and red for success in relationships.
Today, the beckoning cats are most often made of ceramic or plastic, but antique cats were made of wood, stone, porcelain, or even cast iron. Along with ceramic and plastic, you can find wood and papier-mâché fortune cats. The most expensive maneki-neko are made of jade or gold. The kitties made of plastic usually feature battery- or solar-powered moving arms, whereas the others are still. Either way, putting one of these cuties in your home or business will beckon good luck and wealth into your life.
Ganesha, one of the most worshipped Hindu deities, is considered the god of wisdom and success, and known as The Remover of Obstacles. He is depicted as a man with the head of an elephant, but he is not the only deity or important figure associated with elephants. Indra is known in Hinduism as king of the gods, the god of lightning and thunder, and has a sacred white elephant named Airavata. Like Indra, Airavata is known as the king of all elephants, and guards the entrance of Svarga, where Indra lives.
Maya, also known as Queen Mahamaya, was the mother of Siddhartha Gautama, who founded Buddhism. According to legend, she dreamt a small white elephant carrying a white lotus flower in its trunk approached her and walked around her three times. It then entered her right side and Maya immediately woke up. Ten months later, the future Buddha was born from Queen Mahamaya’s right side, and many believe that it was Siddhartha Gautama who entered Maya’s womb through the white elephant.
Elephants are prevalent in many different cultures and religions, and are overwhelmingly known to symbolize strength, power, stability, fertility, and wisdom. They are considered symbols of good luck and protection as well. In the home, having an elephant carving or picture that faces the door is said to bring good luck into and protect the home. Elephant sculptures in the entrance hall are said to invite knowledge, longevity, and success. And because of the strong bond seen in elephant families, elephant charms are believed to improve the respect and love among members of the family.
Business owners or company leaders may have a couple elephants by the entrance to the building because they are believed to provide stability and wisdom for the business or company. Stability and wisdom bring increasing wealth, so the elephants are considered good luck for financial success.
There are differing opinions on whether the elephant’s trunk should be up or down. The majority of people believe the trunk should be up, since a downward facing trunk is unlucky for the owner. However, others believe that if the trunk is down, the elephant lets good fortune flow freely. Either way, bringing an elephant into your home or business could help bring good fortune and wealth into your life.
While the Western world often associates bats with Halloween, witches, and haunted houses, in China red bats are thought to be lucky, and are associated with blessings and good luck. The Chinese words for “bat” and “fortune” are homonyms, meaning that they sound the same but have different meanings. Because of this, red bats are considered to bring good luck and are often worn as lucky charms and featured in many Chinese paintings.
Five red bats is the luckiest combination, because they represent the five good fortunes: health, wealth, longevity, virtue, and a peaceful, natural death. Chinese mothers used to often sew bat-shaped buttons made of jade onto babies’ caps to grant a long, healthy, joyful life. The color red signifies joy, and is also a Chinese homonym with the word “vast” – so a “red bat” sounds like a “vast (or good) fortune.”
In art, red bats are often shown flying upside down. This is because the Chinese phrases “upside-down” and “to have arrived” are another pair of homonyms. So, to say, “The bat is flying upside-down,” sounds the same as or similar to “Good fortune has arrived.” In addition to paintings, bats can be seen on silk fabrics and woven onto brocades, costumes, and even seen on utensils used in weddings, birthday parties, and other events.
Red bats are thought to ward off evil and bring prosperity and wealth. In ancient China, they were painted onto pottery and walls, woven onto the robes of emperors, and carved into wooden furniture and golden thrones.
In Christianity, the frog symbolizes spiritual evolution due to the frog’s transition through its life stages of egg, tadpole, and amphibian. The Australian Aborigines and some Native American cultures believed the frog brought thunder and rain, and the Chinese painted images of frogs on the drums used to summon rain. Frogs were considered good luck for travelers in Japan, as the Japanese word for frog is a homonym for “return” – travelers would carry a frog amulet with them to ensure a safe trip and journey home.
Ancient Egyptians believed that frogs were a symbol of life and fertility, since millions of frogs were born after the annual flooding of the Nile that brought life-giving water to the otherwise barren lands. Their goddess of fertility and childbirth, Heqet, was depicted as a frog or a woman with the head of a frog. Pregnant women in Ancient Egypt wore Heqet amulets for protection and a successful labor and birth.
Frogs and toads were often companions of wise wandering men in Chinese folktales, knew the secrets of immortality, and shared them with their human friends. Ch’an Chu, the three-legged money frog, is a popular statue that is believed to attract and guard its owner’s finances. The Japanese believed that by keeping a small frog amulet in your purse or wallet, the frog would ensure that your money always finds its way back.
From the Chinese Chun Qui period (770-476 BC) on, crickets were kept as symbols of good luck and virtue. The cricket culture in China is over 2,000 years old and has involved keeping crickets for their beautiful song and for the cricket fighting sport. They are considered to be bringers of luck and happiness with their chirping.
It was common during the autumn for the ladies of the Chinese imperial palace to catch crickets and put them in small golden cages, which they placed near their pillows to hear their songs at night. The custom was eventually mirrored by the common people, and gained real popularity during the Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD). There are a great number of Chinese poems and stories that feature the sometimes cheerful, sometimes melancholic chirp of the cricket.
During the Song dynasty (960 – 1278 AD) certain species were carefully selected and cricket fighting thrived as a popular sport. Fights occurred between males, and both crickets had to be of the same weight to fight – they were even weighed with a small scale before the match could begin. Numerous Chinese emperors were heavily involved in cricket fights, with many being held at the royal palace itself. Cricket fighting is still popular today, and judges of the fights follow a set of guidelines and strict rules that date back to the 13th century.
The Chinese believed that crickets were protectors of the home, because they stopped chirping when a stranger was near. Because of this, it became customary to offer a cricket when someone was moving into a new home. They were also considered a symbol of prosperity due to the fact that they lay hundreds of eggs, which aligned with the belief that the greatest success in life was to have as many children as possible.
When the storm comes, the bamboo bends with the wind; when the storm ceases, the bamboo resumes its upright position. In this way, the bamboo plant demonstrates that being flexible and adaptable in difficult situations is essential to remain whole.
In Chinese culture, the bamboo, plum blossom, orchid, and chrysanthemum are known as the Four Gentlemen, and represent the four seasons. The pine, bamboo, and the plum blossom are revered for their perseverance under harsh conditions, and are known as the Three Friends of Winter. The bamboo plant plays such an important part in traditional Chinese culture that it is regarded as a model for the gentleman’s behavior. It is upright, tenacious, and has a hollow heart, and people give the bamboo the characteristics of integrity, elegance, and plainness.
According to the ancient poet Bai Juyi, a gentleman does not need to be physically strong, as the bamboo is not physically strong, but he must be mentally strong, upright, and perseverant as the bamboo. Like the bamboo is hollow-hearted, he too should have an open heart, and never indulge in arrogance or prejudice.
The bamboo plant is also important for Buddhism, which was introduced into China in the first century. Meat and eggs are not allowed in the Buddhist diet, as the philosophy forbids any cruelty to animals. So the bamboo shoots became a nutritious alternative to animal products, and many Buddhist temples still have bamboo groves. Asian cuisines have incorporated various ways of preparing the plant over thousands of years. Bamboo shoot has been a traditional dish on the Chinese dinner table for millennia.
The most popular plant in China, bamboo is also used in Chinese medicine to speed healing and reduce infections. It has come to represent luck, achievement, and even money, along with symbolizing flexibility and adaptability. According to Chinese Feng Shui, if you set a bamboo plant in the southeast area of your home, you will increase your luck.
Panda bears are also known to be rather fond of bamboo. These lovable, cuddly creatures dwell deep in the bamboo forests of central China, a symbol of peace, harmony and friendship. Couple that with a bit of bamboo luck and get 1,000x your bet when 5 show up in Tiger Treasures.
None of these things tickle your lucky fancy? Have a pin through some other good luck symbols and lucky animals around the world. With 5 reels and 25 pay lines, dragons, tigers, gold ingots, and more may be just what your luck needs today!