Inspired by the 1990s Taiwanese TV show, Meteoric Garden, teenagers all over China stay up late to watch meteor showers when the skies permit, cuddled up with their lovers to make wishes from burning meteorites.
Or, you could just throw some coins. That works just as well.
In days gone by, making a wish (许愿) was a painstaking process. One generally needed to make a wish by going to a monastery, offering incense and money, petitioning the wish to a deity, and even going through monk-led rituals. If the wish came true, one needed to go back to the monastery and thank the god who granted it, or “return the wish (还愿)”.
While the old practices are still alive and well in China, most people need a modern, convenient way to get lady luck on their side.
It is certainly much easier to throw coins, and as long as you believe the object you’re throwing it at has unearthly power, well, you might get your wish granted. If not, no harm done.
Still, it’s hard to tell what objects are deserving of your small change. The eligible objects come in many varieties and share few characteristics. You can find coins and notes piling up around ancient coffins, covering the bottom of monastery ponds and ancient wells, resting on the arms of Buddhist sculptures, and, in many cases, the choice of location is beyond all reason. These odd but common places for wish-granting coin-throwing include a dinosaur skeleton in the China Nature Museum, which used to be the office of Republic warlord Zhang Xueliang and the site of a murder—not what you would call auspicious.
As for the reasons for the trend, they’re something of a mystery. It may have to do with Chinese habits of dropping some change into the donation boxes in monasteries, but a more likely explanation attributes the phenomenon to a film beloved to Chinese, perhaps even more so than in the US: Roman Holiday. The film was dubbed into Chinese in 1987, when Chinese society was finally opening up and was more curious than ever about Western culture. That generation remembers the film as a classic, and the scene at the Fontana di Trevi, where the two protagonists linger to throw a coin, was translated into “Wish-Making Pond (许愿池)”, and Chinese people quickly embraced this new wish-making methodology.
“The Wish-Making Pond” phrase became widely adopted, evolving into an all-inclusive term that includes all ponds, sinks, and vats in historic locations and monasteries. Basically, any objects that contain water are the Chinese Fontana di Trevi.
This behavior was further encouraged by Chinese tour guides as a cheap way to give tourists gratification. In the 1990s, group tours became all the rage and under-qualified guides led China’s new tourists through historic sites with their red little flags. Instead of offering insights into the sites’ cultural significance, guides spread made-up superstitions: “touching the stone tortoise’s head gives good health to your family”, or “throw a coin into the shrine and you’ll be rich”. One can still run into such guides today busy misleading luck-hungry Chinese tourists with their tales.
Ponds with turtles always seem to have extra charm, even appearing in TCM hospitals. In folk beliefs, turtles are a symbol of longevity and good fortune. The Analects recorded that a man once built a temple to house his turtle and was satirized as being foolish by Confucius. But to hell with Confucius, we all need that sweet, sweet luck. More than 2,000 years later, the superstition still exists; in fact, it has gotten worse. People chuck coins into aquariums and zoos at tortoises and turtles alike, annoying and frightening them for good luck. The tortoise sector of an aquarium in Dalian is so thickly paved with coins that the tortoises have difficulty moving around. The coins shooting into water are often aimed at the animals’ heads, causing injuries and threatening the habitability of the water.
Even the Amazon water lilies in Daming Lake in Jinan are considered to be auspicious—their giant, round leaves densely shot through by coin-sized projectiles. It has also been reported that a toilet in a middle school in Fuzhou was designated as a wish-making pond by the students, filled to bursting with coins around examination time.
Other than the pond and its derivations, ancient tombs are also considered to possess supernatural powers. This may have to do also with the Chinese traditional belief that everything, even a tree or stone, can have a soul, and if it exists for long enough, it can turn into an immortal and manipulate the tides of fate. Both Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber start with an ancient stone coming to life. As such, centuries-old coffins are also respected for their possible powers. Notes and coins mount to high piles in the Ming Tombs in Beijing, and it is not just limited to the tombs of historically important royalty. Some wooden coffins from the Warring States period (475 BCE – 221 BCE) in a museum in Yichang, Hubei Province, are constantly overflowing with sheer respect for their age.
“Spare Change and Wishes” is a feature story from our newest issue, “Mental Health”, coming out soon. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.