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Numbers in Chinese superstition

Stina Björkell | 23.02.2007 09:31
The Beijing Olympics are due to commence on the lucky date of 08-08-2008 at 8 pm
. (Image: Radio86)

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The Chinese language has the distinctive feature of having an abundance of words
that can have many different meanings -- in linguistic terms, homonyms. A good
example of a Chinese word with several meanings is zhong, which can mean either
"center, "end", "clock", "bell", "love" or "sincerity." The fact that a word can
have several, and contradictory, meanings has led to the emergence of some supe
rstitions -- or taboos -- which, manifest themselves in a kind of self-censorshi
p about not using a word on certain occasions even in its positive sense if the
same word happens to have a negatively charged second meaning as well. This is e
specially true during the Lunar New Year celebrations when people try to attract
as much good fortune as possible for the coming year, and thus avoid mentioning
words that might be mistakenly understood in their negative sense. In addition
to the taboos that go with words and their negative homonyms, the reverse is als
o true: a word that has other, more auspicious meanings are considered to be bea
rers of good fortune. One thing that should be kept in mind, is that regional di
alects and accents affect these superstitions, whereby people in a certain regio
n may consider that two words sound exactly alike, while people in other areas d
The significance of numbers
Numbers come into the picture in this language-related taboo system because they
too have other, non-numeral homonyms, which give either a good or a bad connota
tion to the number itself. One word that has the same pronunciation with a numbe
r includes yào, which means "want" or "will," and is a homonym of the word commonl
y used to denote the number one in the spoken language, yāo. In the written langua
ge, the word meaning "one" is yī, which also represents loneliness or unity. There
are other beliefs pertaining to numbers that are not linked specifically with t
heir homonyms. For example, zero can represent nothingness, completion and God.
Like the circle that is used to denote it, it is infinite. The number three is c
onsidered to bring good luck and success. However, for the most part the luckine
ss of a number is directly linked with the word's similar sounding negative or p
ositive meanings. Sometimes a number may also be regarded as both, a fortunate a
nd unfortunate one, which is the case of the number six, liù.
There are also festivals that are linked with a certain date. The number nine jiŭ
has several meanings in Mandarin Chinese. The most auspicious one is "long-lasti
ng." Nine is also linked with a nationwide celebration called the Chongyang whic
h takes place on the ninth day of the ninth month. It is a day when the highest
odd number, or yang number, appears in double and chongyang, literally means dou
ble yang. The Chinese word for "wine," jiŭ, is also a homonym for the number nine
jiŭ. For this reason it is quite fitting that wine should be drunk during the doub
le nine festival.
Lucky numbers

is considered to be a very auspicious number because it is a homonym of the word for "flowing" or "smooth. can be translated as "want smooth prospe rity. in addition to its numeric meaning. Most t elephone companies and car registration authorities have adopted a policy of cha rging extra for each number eight wanted by the customer. Other inauspicious numbers include five and six and certain number combinations. the most unfortunate number in the Chinese culture is the number four." The most fortunate number in the Chinese official language of Mandarin is the nu mber eight. either be seen as also meaning wŏ." "nothing. for example. (Image: Wikipedia) This elevator in a residential building in Shanghai is missing floors number 13 and 14. and the death wish is made even more personal." or "road to prosperity. The combinati on of the words. So strong is this "tetraphobia. which results in a quirk that a building may have 50 fl oors according to the buttons in the elevator but only 36 in reality. Five." Add a five in front. it is common to see customized license plates bearing as many number e ights as possible. that its presence in an apart ment number or street address can even have a decreasing effect on the value of the property." or wú." The latter meaning gives this number a slightly negative connotation. smooth prosperous road. (Image: Wikipedia) As mentioned earlier. a mong others. Fourteen is by far the most feared number in Chinese superstition. Someone has even purch ased the telephone number 8888-8888.08. In Hong Kong. "me." "fortune" or "wealth. "not. Not the best combination for anyone with a tendency to believe in s uperstitions! Western and eastern superstitions combined . Most large companies and hotels also try to fit as many numbe r eights in their street addresses or telephone numbers as money can buy. can mean "accidents" or. M andarin Chinese has also two other numbers that are a desired addition to licens e plate or telephone numbers: six and eight. it seems that the more times a lucky number is repeated one after a nother. Number sequences composed of different numbers may also have positive or negativ e connotations." or fear of the number four. "I will prosper for a long time" and 516289. liù. as the string 514 is pronounced the same way as "I wil l die. when both numbers are read separately. "will die. "death. which is lucky for its reference to longevity. can." Other varia tions using the same numbers include: 5189.2008." Some companies even skip this number altogether when bring ing out new versions of their products to the market. The "devil's number" is a particularly lucky one in the Ch inese language. as it sounds close to the words meaning "things are going smooth ly. some high-ri se residential buildings have chosen to omit the entire number four from the sel ection of floor numbers. which means "prosperity. "I will get on a long." liū. wŭ." 518 can be read as "I will prosper. due to its similar pronunciation with. In China. The number six. Basically. yāo sì. at ei ght o'clock in the evening. the more potent will its fortune-bringing effect be." That's about as luc ky as you can get! The Beijing Olympics are due to commence on 08. which will certainly guarantee that the Games will b e carried out under the most auspicious of circumstances. This is the reason why the Wes tern ominous number combination 666 does not get the hairs on the back of Chines e people to stand up. yāo liù bā." People often pay extra to have this string appear in their telephone number ." wŭ yāo sì.In addition to the number nine. shí = ten and sì = four. 168. Unlucky numbers This elevator in a residential building in Shanghai is missing floors number 13 and 14.

Chinese hotels are often missing the thirteenth floor. but on the 15th floor once yo u pass floor number 12 due to the inauspiciousness of the number 14. when you get on an elevator in a Chin ese hotel. But.Today. which is proof tha t the Western superstition of regarding the number 13 as a bringer of bad luck h as been added to the list of numbers or number combinations with fortune bringin g or repelling connotations in China. . you will not find yourself on the 14th. This demons trates clearly how the Chinese have adopted Western mindsets while keeping a tig ht grasp on their own traditional beliefs.