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Fun With Numbers – the Chinese way

by Yau-Man Chan, Nov 23 2008

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.

29 Responses to “Fun With Numbers – the Chinese way”

  1. sduford says:

    Excellent and very informative article!

    BTW, it’s rhyme, not rhythm…

  2. ejdalise says:

    Life . certain death certainly insufficient

    . . . but useful in geometry . . . and good to eat.

  3. Yau-Man Chan says:

    sduford – thanks for the catch. I’ll fire my copy editor – my daughter – for not catching that!

  4. SarahH says:

    One of my favorite songs is called “Ana Ng” by They Might Be Giants, and it’s about a hypothetical perfect girl who lives on exactly the other side of the world. It was really cool to find out that one of the “ng” meanings is “opposite!”

    Excellent post – it’s weird to think about this being taken so seriously. So much seems to come from different religious roots, and I don’t know that western superstitions/taboos has anything analagous.

  5. Wendy says:

    I live in Vancouver, and the Chinese homonym superstitions are all over the place! You know how some apartment buildings don’t label 13th floor? Well some of the newer buildings here skip the 4th floor too! “Which floor do you live on?” “Oh, death floor.” …Doesn’t sound too good. :)

    I used to work at a Chinese-owned and Chinese-frequented shoe store. After the lunar new year, my manager was worried about business because Chinese people generally don’t buy shoes for a while afterward… Apparently “shoe” or “buy shoe” sounds like some other words that mean you’re bringing hardship upon yourself in the new year.

    My favourite homonym story is that of “fu lai”. Whether you realize it or not, we’ve all seen the pretty Chinese character that means “luck”, and maybe you’ve noticed that many Chinese people hang their “luck” signs upside-down! But why? Well I don’t know my specifics, but the story goes that back in the olden days, an emperor paid a visit to a local village, so everybody hung up their “luck” signs to greet him. Somebody must’ve been in a hurry though, because they accidentally hung their sign upside-down! The emperor demanded to know why the man had been so negligent, and threatened him with death. Luckily, the guy was quick on his feet, and explained that “luck upside-down” or “fu lai” sounds just like “fu lai”, meaning “luck is coming”. The emperor spared his life and it’s been a tradition to hang your “fu” signs upside-down ever since! Luck is coming!

    Very difficult language to learn, what with all the homonyms! But it wasn’t until I started learning a bit of Mandarin that I realized how many homonyms English has, too!

  6. ALok says:

    You got it wrong:
    Ten in canto usually sounds like “sut” which is “certain”.
    So 14 sounds like “certain death”
    and 18 sounds like “certain prosperity”
    Because the numbers are read as “Ten Four” and “Ten Eight”, where as “One Four” would not mean as much.

  7. haha wow my phone number has death written all over it.

  8. In my Mandarin Chinese class we’re taught to pronounce 10 as “shi”, which is quite different than 4 or death (“si”). But it’s true that in many regional accents the sh- is pronounced the same as s-.

  9. TurboFool says:

    Yau-man, I have to applaud you for this and your other posts. While I’m loving the blog as a whole, your posts in particular have been the most fascinating to me as they’ve opened me up to incredibly detailed understandings of a culture that, like most westerners, is extremely foreign to me (no pun intended).

    There are so many projections of the culture in television and literature, most of which are nothing but stereotypes. And when it comes to portrayals of the Chinese mythologies, superstitions, medicines, etc., it’s strangely nearly all extremely positive. We’re given images of pride, and courage, and ancient wisdom, and even the silliest things are still given a level of respect above that of nearly any of our own ideas. The American culture, no matter how xenophobic it gets, still seems to place any Chinese tradition above any logical local alternative (at least in my circles).

    So your detailed accounts of the histories and realities of these practices is truly eye-opening and enjoyable to read about and better understand.

    Thank you for your efforts to educate us and keep them coming!

  10. ejdalise says:

    I guess no one found my reference to Pi all that funny (3.14159). Oh well, that’s 3.

  11. Yau-Man Chan says:

    Thanks Turbo for your comments.
    I’ve been wondering about that attitude myself too. Except for a brief period of “Charlie Chan” and “Fu Manchu” caricature of Chinese and Chinese culture, the media have granted Chinese and all things Chinese enormous respect to the point of being patronizing. They are amazingly uncritical when reporting on Traditional Chinese Medicine, Feng-Shui and every Chinese superstition and pseudoscience nonsense. It’s a naive embrace of “multiculturalism” to the point of accepting all the “cultural baggage” that comes with ancient cultures. “Sinophilia” in the US gets an additional boost from the New Age Movement where Taoism, Chinese Numerology and Feng-Shui are embrace with open arms as just another ingredient to be added to their stew-pot of pseudoscience-based belief system. After all, they already have incorporated other ancient wisdom like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Astrology.

  12. Joe Garavito says:

    TurboFool +1!

    I’ve seen way too many Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Stephen Chow and Chow-Yun Fat movies, so I have noticed the tonal differences in words (can’t understand a single word, but the accent is very clear, especially comparing Mandarin and Cantonese).

    I new the Olympics were slated for August 8th, 2008 at 8pm for the superstitious meaning of 8-8-2008 at 8pm, but this expands that quite a bit.

    Can everyone stop correcting Yao-man’s Chinese? There are different ways of writing Chinese words.

  13. josh says:

    then later your chinese friends will happily go on saying things like:
    lei si le. tired 2 death
    kun si le. sleepy to death.
    la si le. its so spicy (or shes so hot)
    re si le. its so hot. tempurature
    e si le. im so hungry (to death)

  14. Wow, that was fascinating! Thanks so much for an excellent post!

  15. EJ says:

    Very interesting.

    A while ago, I mentioned to my roommate, who is Chinese-American, that there always seemed to be an unusually large number of Chinese and Chinese-American college students living in our building. She laughed and said that it’s no coincidence, the street address is very lucky in Cantonese, but she didn’t explain specifically why.

    According to this article it apparently means one is certain to achieve career success, which would totally make sense.

  16. thesceptic says:

    for fun, here is my cell number – i am skipping the country code…
    06 8886 2815
    if i understand the post correctly, this is pretty good….

  17. AAKKOZZLL says:

    Many would agree that the numbers e, i, pi, and phi have been very lucky for mankind. They are amazing discoveries. Where would we be today without these numbers. It’s equally amazing that it was discovered that they are all related. I’m very curious about how you “feel” about these numbers and how the majority in the Chinese community feel?

  18. mikekoz68 says:

    Hate to say it but i’m losing more and more respect for the Chinese with every post. Not that I think they are….well I had held them to a higher standard it’s sad to see they are just like the rest of the world- superstitious.

  19. Dumpster says:

    Are the ten’s supposed to be zeros?

    So why don’t the Chinese just switch to a base six numerical system where they leave out the four’s, five’s, seven’s, and ten’s?

    I know five’s meaning the opposite aren’t necessarily bad, but why take chances?

    1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, 19,…

  20. Yau-Man Chan says:

    To mikekoz68: I think you’ll find that most “successful” ancient cultures will have an abundance of superstitions which helped them cope with life. With very little contact with the outside world, and not having been colonized, this very inward-looking culture continued to have a superiority complex about where they stood in the world community. By the time the Chinese realized that they were way way behind the West in science and technology, it was too late. The Communist Party went about modernization in a most draconian way – culture revolution, Red Guards and “Re-Education” campaign, all of which did not endear their population to modernity. If you want to know how a great ancient culture like the Chinese did not develop science and missed growing a movement like the Enlightenment that swept Europe beginning in the 16th Century, I highly recommend a book by the late president of the American Anthropology Association Francis Hsu: “American and Chinese – Passage to Difference” The chapter on the Chinese lack of Science and Music is the best explanation I have run across.

    To Dumpster: The Chinese counting system is one to ten and is very consistent. Eleven is just ten-one, twelve is ten-two. Twenty is two-ten, thirty is three-ten. So, twenty five is just two-ten-five. No zeros required. Digit to the left is multiplier and digit to the right is addition. Works great for addition, subtraction and multiplication on the abacus but absolutely impossible when it comes to division!

  21. Dumpster says:

    Ah, that makes sense. Thank you.

    Also, thanks for differentiating the serious part from the silly part of my post. After ten years of using the internet, you’d think I’d remember the cardinal rule that other people can’t always tell what’s serious and what is not when you’re only posting words.

  22. BillDarryl says:

    I had a lightbulb moment this last weekend!

    There are a few Chinese restaraunts in my city with three digit numbers in their names. I always wondered why. I passed one the other day and suddenly remembered this post!

    The three in town I can think of have 1-6-8, 3-6-9, and 8-8-8 in their names. So I check the above list, and sure enough, all are very positive numbers.

    Now as a true skeptic, I certainly can’t say “mystery solved,” but I am proud I got confirmation on my hypothesis!

  23. George Stearns says:

    54 to all.

  24. John Noble says:

    This is very interesting because who, even as a die-hard sceptic, could deny that they probably wouldn’t want to go around telling people they lived in apartment number “death, certain death”?

    Seriously – think about it. Actually imagine that the English word “four”, when spoken, is exactly the same as our word for “death”, and “one” is “certain”. When you say “four one four” you really are enunciating the phrase “death, certain death”.

    It’s often easy as a “rational, level headed sceptic” to dismiss this kind of superstition as nonsense. I’m the hardest sceptic of them all but need reminding every now and then that we humans are just that: we’re human. We’re a bit strange sometimes. We don’t like people thinking about their impending death when they come to visit us; you can be as rational as you like but you wouldn’t like it either. :-)

    Thanks, Yau-Man. Great post.

  25. Mandible says:

    It’s an interesting case of cultural synaesthesia, and one can speculate on its influence on the Chinese propensity to gambling. You also have to wonder why the revolutionaries didn’t attempt to invent an alternative number system. But then the French revolution came up with decimal time, and that hardly lasted ten months. The Chinese aren’t alone in persistent number-based superstitions of course. I once had a pager number 666, which made me a figure of more fear than was my due as a manager of staff well schooled in their Torah/Old Testament. I thanked my lucky stars I was a completely un-superstitious atheist. ;

  26. Brian Ede says:

    We can’t seem to stop ourselves.

    In the course of a longstanding relationship one of my frustrations was the continued references by the in-laws to food as “heaty”, “cooling” etc..
    Asian Superstition!!

    I eventually entered politics for a party which, due to its support for Aboriginal Land Rights etc. was at the time very unpopular. It just ‘may’ have been coincidence but all successful candidates for our party were allocated electorate office phone numbers that ended in 666.

  27. lim says:

    It is also referred to as the pronoun “I”, as the pronunciations of “I” (我, Pinyin: wŏ, and 吾, Pinyin: wú) in Mandarin.So 58 can be both ”I am rich ” and also can be “I AM not rich”..due to dialect in mandarin in cantonese and other.

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