The Truth About Geckos on Chinese Cars

When you spend a long enough time in China you will start to notice things, such as, why do old people wake up at 5 in the morning to walk backwards through the park?  Why do you get 1 yuan coins in Shanghai but 1 yuan notes in Beijing? One thing I've always wondered about was why so many people choose to put a silver-coloured gecko on the back of their car.

Turns out it’s a pun. Puns are a play on words, usually done by replacing a word by another word that sounds the same but has a different meaning. Puns are a sometimes pretty lame form of humor, often practiced by dads out to embarrass their teenage children. As an example, here is one of the more famous pun jokes told by Mia Wallace in the movie Pulp Fiction: 

Three tomatoes are walkin’ down the street.
Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato.
Baby Tomato starts lagging behind, and Papa Tomato gets really angry.
Goes back and squishes him and says: “Ketchup.
— Mia Wallace

Chinese Puns

The Chinese language is perfectly suited for puns. Chinese has comparatively little variety in available sounds, which means there are many characters with the same pronunciation. For example there are nearly one hundred different characters with the pronunciation yì. If you disregard the tones, which is allowed when making puns, the possibilities become even greater.

So what about the gecko? In Chinese a gecko is called a 壁虎, pronounced bìhǔ . This sounds like 避祸, short for 避免车祸, pronounced bìmiǎn chēhuò, meaning ‘to avoid a car crash.’ So in other words, with a gecko your car won’t become a wreck…Oh god, that was terrible.

Kevin writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese, Chinese culture, and life as a foreign student. He has studied China and Chinese for over five years, first in his home country the Netherlands, then in Beijing, and now attends Fudan University's Chinese Society department.