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Deciphering the Meaning of Chinese Numbers

Aug 17, 2007
Many Chinese customs are centered around the belief in the power of certain numbers, and the superstitions surrounding digits in Chinese culture only takes second fiddle to the role of specific foods. The pronunciation of these numbers also reflects the Chinese's affinity with homonyms, where many digits are considered lucky or unlucky based on words that sound similar. This in turn, affects the entire Chinese economy, since folks here will not buy anything without careful consideration of the numerals involved.

Because of the auspiciousness of certain numbers, Chinese will often pay large sums for phone numbers, street addresses, residence floors, driver's license numbers, license plate numbers and bank account digits. For example, a personal license plate with the number eight can cost millions of dollars.

Lucky Numbers

The number 2 (ar in phonetic English) is a positive number to Chinese people. There's a Chinese saying: "Good things come in pairs." It's common throughout the Middle Kingdom to see double symbols in product brand names, which means double happiness and double value. When Chinese exchange oranges during the Lunar New Year, they exchange two, four, or eight at a time.

The number 6, pronounced leo, sounds like the word used for "slippery," which implies that everything will go smoothly. 666 is considered one of the luckiest numbers of all; it's displayed prominently in shop windows across the entire country, and people often pay extra to get a mobile phone number including this string of digits. In Guangzhou, a motorcycle license plate numbered AW666 was sold for 270,000. RMB, (roughly $34,000. USD)!

The number 8 in Mandarin is pronounced bah, which sounds similar to fah, meaning prosperity and good fortune. If you've been to China, you've probably noticed the unusual frequency of this esteemed digit used in the phone numbers of hotels, airlines and most major businesses. Telecommunication companies and car registration authorities charge extra for each number 8. For example, the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Shanghai has the phone number 6252-8888. Northwest Airline's number is 6279-8088; China Travel Services is 6247-8888.

In Chengdu, China, the telephone number 8888-8888 was sold for $270,000. USD. The Summer Olympics in Beijing are scheduled to open 8/8/08, at 8 P.M.

The number 9, pronounce jeo, is also a homonym for the word "everlasting." To the Chinese, it signifies friendship, love, and long life.

The Unluckiest Number

Number 4 (sih) sounds like the word "death," and is therefore considered a bad omen. Many numbered product lines skip the 4, e.g. Nokia cell phones do not have a series beginning with a 4, and most residential buildings skip all numbers with 4, e.g. 4, 14, 24, 34, and 40 - 49 floors. The airlines, trains and buses all bypass this unfortunate number.

Number 14, pronounced shir sih, sounds like "ten die." But it can also be said as ee sih, literally "one-four." Another common way to say one, is yaow. Thus, 14 can be said as yaow sih, literally meaning: "want to die." Not a favorite!

Lastly, research has revealed that more Chinese are likely to die from heart attacks or heart disease on the fourth of the month, obviously due to the superstition related stress evoked by the unlucky number, which in turn, triggers cardiac deaths.

Well, I've covered the basics in lucky and unlucky numbers, but like most things in China, numbers and their meanings are extremely deep-rooted, with many nuances and complexities involved. Consider this a quick crash course. Chinese numerology dates back to the first century A.D. when Emperor Fu His discovered a tortoise shell said to contain a magic number square, which led to the development of I Ching, Feng Shui, Nine Star Ki, geomancy, and Chinese astrology and numerology. Volumes could be written on the subject, and I'll leave that to the mystics and academies.
About the Author
Timothy Green is the co-author of SPEAK E-Z CHINESE In Phonetic English. You can find fun and easy Mandarin lessons, as well as travel and culture tips about China at The Cathay Cafe.
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