If you have been around Chinese for any length for time, you cannot help but notice that many of us are very particular about anything that has to do with numbers. I don’t even know if it’s really “numerology” as is understood in the West but it really has to do with how a particular digit is phonetically sounded out.
The Chinese culture is very superstitious. It is taken for granted that there are ghosts, goblins, and spirits living in our midst. This attitude has diminished slightly in modern times with the concerted effort of the Chinese government since the establishment of the Peoples Republic to “re-educate” the population to abandon some of the more obvious unscientific and irrational thinking. But superstitions associated with numbers still persist. Today, in the Chinese communities of very modern and technologically advanced metropolis in Asia such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore or in North America such as San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto, you will probably not see joysticks and incense burning at the entrance of businesses to ward off evil spirits, but real estate agents will attest to the fact that they cannot possibility sell a house with address “5358 4th Street” to a Chinese family.
The hang-up with numbers among Chinese is a direct result of the conjunction between a superstitious culture and a monosyllabic language. Each word in the language has a monotonic sound and is represented in writing by a single character. But then many different characters or words have the same sound so if you just hear one character or word pronounced, you cannot pin down the meaning. In other words, homonyms are numerous in the language. The equivalent in English would be words like “see” and “sea” or “break” and “brake” which when just sounded out cannot be properly identified unless they are put in a phrase or sentence. Now, consider a language where every word has that problem. It is therefore not surprising that most Chinese jokes are puns and play on rhyming words.
In addition to the monosyllabic nature of the spoken word, it is also tonal and inflection dependent, i.e. the same sound when uttered with rising or falling tone or inflection will have a different meaning. Of the many dialects in China, the Cantonese dialect has the most possible tonal variation for the same sound – basically with the same sound, say it four different ways tonally, you get four different concepts (written out differently.) Some sounds have as many as 7 possible tones and inflections – while 3 or 4 are common. Take the sound “ma.” When said with a flat tone, it means “mother,” from flat to low, it means “horse.” When pronounced with a low to high inflection, it means, “to scold or chastise” and from low to a lower inflection it means “jute or hemp.” [ok, find a native Cantonese speaker and ask him/her to sound out “ma” the different ways and challenge yourself to figure out the difference – it’s subtle.]
Understanding this linguistic aspect of the culture, one can appreciated why many Chinese superstitions are fantastic associations of words and phonetic play on words. The word for bat is “fook” which phonetically is the same as the word for “good luck” and the word for deer is “luk” which is a phonetically the same as the word for “promotion and career success” and is also phonetically identical to the number “6.” So the tradition gift for a college graduate would be embroidery or posters with bat and deer motive and any gift sets of six of anything is good. The word for “tangerine” is phonetically the same as the word for “gold” so during Chinese New Year feasts, we give each other tangerines. When we say “Here’s some tangerine for you” it is completely phonetically indistinguishable from saying “Here’s some gold for you.” Even though I grew up with this type of thinking, I cannot say how much of this is taken seriously or just fanciful word play. But when it comes to homonyms or words that just rhymes with numbers, it is taken as serious as the incest taboo!
Because of the difference in pronunciations of the numbers in different dialects, superstitions associated with numbers differ in different regions of China. But by far, in Southern China, where Cantonese is the predominant dialect, superstitions associated with Cantonese pronunciation of the numerals are numerous. This is also true of Chinese communities in all major cities in Southeast Asia, Canada and the U.S. where Cantonese speakers are in the majority. So, here are the homonyms and rhymes of the 9 digits when sounded out in Cantonese:
One – “yat” – means “certainty” when used in a sentence.
Two – “yee” – homonyms with word for easy.
Three – “sarm” – rhymes with “sarn” – life, to give birth.
Four – “say” – rhymes with “saay” – to die, death.
Five – “ng” – homonym with word for not; prefix to negate any verb or make opposite any adjective like “un-“ in English.
Six – “luk” – homonym with word for career success, promotion. Also homonym with word for deer.
Seven – “chut” – the number is associated with death!
Eight – “bard” – rhymes with “fard” – to prosper and accumulate wealth.
Nine – “gauw” – rhymes with “gow”- enough or sufficient. Also homonym with word for dog.
Ten – “sup” – not a problem in Cantonese but in pronounce in Mandarin, it’s a homonym with word for death and rhymes with “four.”
So now we can have some fun with numbers. You certainly don’t want to live on 4th street (“death” street?) and of course 2nd street is always good (“easy” street.) Combine the digits and you can really max out with good fortune living in house no. 368 on 2nd Street (“life, career success, and prosperity” on “easy” street.) If you have to rent an office in a professional building, go for Suite 288 (“easy to prosper” and “prosper.”) and stay away from Suite 2424 (“easy death, easy death.”) Precede any good number with the digit 5 and things become problematic – so 58 is “no prosperity” and 53 is “no life” or worst yet “infertile.” While 13 may be an unlucky number in the West, 14 to the Cantonese is “certain death.” Advice to the uninitiated: when in doubt, string on the 8’s – the more the merrier and you can’t go wrong whenever a number has lots of 8’s.
What you have to realize is that because rhythms and homonym are such an integral part of the spoken language, you cannot avoid thinking about “death” every time you say “four” or think “prosperity” whenever you say “eight.” It is then necessary to make sure that bad words don’t come out of your mouth if you can avoid it at all. You avoid numbers like 4, 5 or 7 and go for 3’s and 8’s if you have a choice to select anything that has numbers. If you live on 4th street, you cannot avoid giving directions to visitors on how to get to “death street.” The problem compounds if you already have the predisposition to believe that ghosts and spirits surrounds you. Why tempt fate by saying “death”, “certain death”, “no life”, “no prosperity”, “enough career success” etc if you can avoid it at all. When you give out your telephone number to a potential client, do you really want to say “die, die, die” if the last 3 digits of your telephone number is “444?” When I accompany my mom to the doctor, I cannot possibly tell her we are going up to Suite 414 (“death, certain death.”)
From my personal experience and observation, most of the Chinese population in the U.S. are fairly well educated and are a little less superstitious then their countrymen in the “old country.” However, that is not true of Chinese business owners. They are a very superstitious lot when it comes to numerology which may influence their ability to make money – lots of money. There is no end to their quest for business addresses, telephone numbers and auto license plates with the correct lucky, good fortune, prosperity-inducing digits. Houses and business addresses with good, lucky numbers can fetch a higher selling or rental price if the buyer is Chinese. Stories abound in Asian business centers of business tycoons who paid over a million US dollars for lucky number license plates or telephone numbers.
So, here’s a couple of moneymaking ideas for you if you live in a community with lots of Chinese. If you have a cell phone number or license plate with lots of 8’s, 3’s, or 6’s and no 5’s to negate all the good stuff, try auctioning it off – some Chinese business owner will buy it from you for sure. You can be certain that all personalized license plates in California with lots of 8’s, 3’s and 6’s have been purchased by Chinese. If you work in auto sales, discount a $20,000 car to $18,888 for a Chinese propect and you’ll make the sale! Now, the Real Estate Sale Agent of the Year Award should go to the agent who can sell a house with address No. 5358 on 4th Street to a Chinese family! House number “no life/infertile, no prosperity” on “death” street is a no sale but to a diehard skeptic like me it may be a bargain. Find me one.