The roles which numbers play in Chinese custom, belief and culture is second only to food. This strongly belief in numbers reflects very clearly the Chinese's affinity with homonyms. It is believed that numbers can determine a person's fate- for example in the naming of a child.
Certain numbers are considered lucky, some are 'neutral' (meaning that they do not possess any significant denotation), and others unlucky.
In Chinese communities around the world, eight (8) is considered the most fortuitous of numbers, making it much coveted for addresses, phone numbers and bank accounts, as the Chinese's and Cantonese's articulation and pronunciation for eight (ba for Mandarin and paat for Cantonese) sounds similar to the word that signifies 'prosperity' (fa for Mandarin and faat for Cantonese).
Moreover, to the staunch followers of Chinese beliefs, this number not only portends to just metaphorical prosperity but literal wealth and confidence. This is because the number 8 can be 'sold' on numerous occasions for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. For example, in Hong Kong, a personal license plate with the number eight can cost millions of dollars, according to California developer Raymond Cheng, who was born and reared in the former British colony. Cheng also added that a single eight on one's license plate gives one status.
Since the '70s, with the influx of moneyed immigrants to the state from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the traditional tenet about the number eight has moved beyond the gates of Chinatowns to become an American suburban fact of life. When one of us visited the Golden State during the winter of 2005, he noticed that most Chinese home buyers, including his uncle, who was residing in San Gabriel Valley, California, routinely look for an eight in a street address, viewing it as an added value. Some try to have their home address changed to include an eight while many pay to get as many eights as they can in phone, fax and license numbers.
Alternatively, the Cantonese also deem nine (9, pronounced as kau) as a lucky number as it sounds like 'sufficient' (pronounced as gou) in their dialect tongue. However, the number nine is not also popular to the Chinese as it is an odd number.
Conversely, four (4) is a very unlucky number as in Chinese it sounds like the phonetic sound of 'death'. Thus Chinese adhering to the customs try to avoid the number four in, for example, car number plates, house addresses, etc.
Seven (7) can also signify death, and one (1), loneliness.
However, the most unlucky number in Chinese belief, as considered by many, is fourteen (14), which is widely infamous for corresponding to the phrase, 'guaranteed death'. It is touted by many as the Chinese's identical twin to the Western's iniquitous number 13.
However, in this case, the number '1' does not represent 'loneliness' anymore, but rather 'guaranteed'. It is also most interesting to note that for the number '14', its meaning remains unaltered regardless of the way which it is read, whether following the English format of reading from left to right or suiting the traditional oriental style of reading from right to left. Yet the reverse way of reading '14' is not to be confused with another number, forty one (41).
When the Chinese decide to buy almost anything, they take numbers into heavy consideration, because they feel that the numbers must signify something good so as to represent good health, good luck and good fortunes. This can be especially evident when the Chinese purchase lottery tickets.
In Singapore, where the citizens are predominantly Chinese and where gambling, via a local lottery format known as 4-D (D is the abbreviation for digit) is the national tradition, the Chinese ensure that the numbers which they purchase represent good fortunes. Sometimes, they compose new meanings for the numbers to make themselves feel more confident of winning.
Another avenue in which we can observe the role of numbers in the Chinese beliefs is during festive seasons, especially the Lunar New Year, which can be considered to be the most major occasion on the Chinese's calendar. When Chinese exchange oranges during the Lunar New Year, they exchange two, four, eight, or even sixteen oranges at a time. This is because the Chinese believe that all things should come in pairs. More evidence where Chinese show their numeral beliefs are as follows:
- During the Lunar New Year, when relatives and friends go visiting, every household would present their tidbits in an octagonal container. The container will be divided into 8 portions, where each portion will be filled with a different tidbit.
- The number eight doesn't have the same appeal to the Japanese or Koreans--whose cultures have been influenced by the Chinese--but all three cultures are united in their avoidance of the number four. Because of this, many buildings in Asia do not have a fourth floor. The architect deliberately names the second storey of the building as the first floor, so the forth storey of the building will be called the third floor. The fifth storey onwards will then be 'correct as it will be known as fifth floor, and so on. The ground storey will not be called first floor but rather, ground floor. This practice is more commonly found in hotels than commercial buildings.
- Many people become the victims of Chinese numerology when they are unable to sell their property in areas where the district codes contains a 4 in it. However, many others gain from the consequence of this phenomenon when they are able to inflate the price of their properties which have the digit 8 on its address.
Daniel T.C. Liao, a ranking Taiwanese government official who served as the director of the Chinese Cultural Center in El Monte, says this belief follows wherever Chinese go.
"Orientals in general and Chinese in particular believe in sounds and figures that reflect good fortune and good luck," Liao says. "It doesn't cost you anything to believe in good luck. If you have a license number with an eight, you drive more comfortably. If you live in a house with an eight, you live more comfortably. Thinking that you are blessed, you perform better."
The 7th day of the Chinese Lunar New Year is everybody's birthday!