It is certainly the largest annual mass underwear change in the world. This week, as many as 100 million Chinese will take off their red underwear for the first time in a year and change into other colors. Meanwhile, 100 million other Chinese this week will pull on red underwear and wear no other color for the next twelve months.
It’s not fashion that rules this process, but supersition. This week is Chinese New Year. Wearing red underwear is meant to provide protection against misfortunes likely to target the one-in-twelve Chinese who this year will celebrate their 本命年 (“benming nian”), or birth year . This is a Rabbit Year. Everone born during a previous Rabbit year is likely going to take some precautions this year, including the red underwear. A red string bracelet or belt are also commonly worn by people during their birth year.
One’s birth year isn’t automatically going to be unlucky. But, there’s thousands of years of folk tradition that says people should extra mindful. This extends across most aspects of daily life. Many Chinese will try to avoid making larger life changes, or consequential business decisions, during their birth year. I have one client, for example, whose founder was born 72 years ago, in a Tiger Year. The company is booming. The founder had numerous offers during 2010 to sell his business for a significant sum, or start work on an IPO. He chose to do nothing but wait things out. Now that Rabbit Year is dawning, he is ready to start considering his exit options. And, of course, changing back to a more neutral color of underwear.
As a Westerner, it takes some getting used-to, this notion that one’s birth year may come freighted with potential misfortune. After all, in all belief systems except possibly the Nihilists, one’s birth is considered a blessing. But, in Chinese tradition, the anniversary of one’s birth year is a time when things can go especially awry. Or worse. The red underwear is meant to act as a kind of lightning rod, attracting an added flow of good luck during the year.
Red, of course, is associated with happiness, prosperity and good fortune in Chinese culture. Two of the more common sights in stores and on streets in China this time of year are crimson-colored envelopes and similarly-colored underwear. The envelopes, of course, are used to hold the cash handed out as New Year gifts to family and coworkers. The new underwear for men, women and children, in all sizes and styles, is the flight suit for those about to traverse their birth year.
There’s also quite a lot of red underwear on sale this time of year in the US and Europe. But, it’s generally of the skimpy and sexy Victoria’s Secret variety, given by husbands and boyfriends as a Valentine’s Day gift. That custom is catching on rather quickly also in China, where Valentine’s Day is celebrated twice a year, on February 14 and also usually sometime in August (the date changes every year according to the lunar calendar), when the traditional Chinese version known as 亲人节 (“Qinren Jie”) falls.
Underwear is less commonly given as a Valentine’s gift in China. However, fathers, brothers, husbands and boyfriends are supposed to buy red underwear for the women in their lives about to enter their birth year. Love in China is often expressed as a protective impulse.
I tended to view the mass changeover of one-twelfth of China to red underwear as a quaint superstition, one of the evermore scarce expressions of an antique and thoroughly unscientific traditional culture. But, over the last year, I saw at first hand the kind of mischief and harm that can target people during their birth year.
Last summer, I got word that another client of mine, one of my favorite people in China, was arrested while trying to cross into Hong Kong. He was accused of paying a bribe to a senior government official in one of China’s less developed inland provinces. He was taken from the Hong Kong border to a prison in the province’s capital, then held in detention for over three months while his friends and family raised the money to free him.
Under Chinese law, paying a bribe is treated more leninently than accepting one. But, it also signals rather emphatically the person has money.
I saw him soon after he got out. He was a shambles, gaunt, with a prison buzzcut and clothes that no longer properly fit him. I offered to help out his new venture, unrelated to the one that landed him in jail.
I invited him for lunch again a few weeks ago. He was his old self again, brimming with vigor and good cheer. As soon as the tea was poured, he proposed a toast, “To a happy Year of the Rabbit, and a quick end to the Tiger Year, my birth year.” We never discussed directly his time in prison, or even that I knew about his ordeal. He’s elated to be out of jail – and, by all appearances, almost as happy to be out of his birth year.
I glanced down at his feet. He was wearing red sox.