The Chinese language is characterized by an abundance of homonyms, which has resulted in some words being viewed as having positive or negative connotations according to their homonymic meanings. The result is a system of superstitions which regards certain numbers as bringers of good luck or of accidents.
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 superstitions — or taboos — which manifest themselves in a kind of self-censorship 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 especially 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 also true: a word that has other, more auspicious meanings are considered to be bearers of good fortune.
One thing that should be kept in mind is that regional dialects and accents affect these superstitions, whereby people in a certain region may consider that two words sound exactly alike, while people in other areas don’t.
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 connotation to the number itself. One word that has the same pronunciation with a number includes yào, which means “want” or “will,” and is a homonym of the word commonly used to denote the number one in the spoken language, yāo. In the written language, 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 their 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 considered to bring good luck and success. However, for the most part the luckiness of a number is directly linked with the word’s similar sounding negative or positive meanings. Sometimes a number may also be regarded as both, a fortunate and unfortunate one, which is the case of the number six, liù.
There are also festivals that are linked to a certain date. The number nine jiŭ has several meanings in Mandarin Chinese. The most auspicious one is “long-lasting.” Nine is also linked with a nationwide celebration called the Chongyang which 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 double 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 double nine festival.
In addition to the number nine, which is lucky due to its reference to longevity, Mandarin Chinese has also two other numbers that are a desired addition to license plate or telephone numbers: six and eight.
The number six, liù, is considered to be a very auspicious number because it is a homonym of the word for “flowing” or “smooth,” liū. This is the reason why the Western ominous number combination 666 does not get the hairs on the necks of Chinese people to stand up.
The “devil’s number” is a particularly lucky one in the Chinese language, as it sounds close to the words meaning “things are going smoothly.” People often pay extra to have this string appear in their telephone number. Basically, it seems that the more times a lucky number is repeated one after another, the more potent will its fortune-bringing effect be.
Number sequences composed of different numbers may also have positive or negative connotations, for example, 168, yāo liù bā, can be translated as “want smooth prosperity,” or “road to prosperity.” 518 can be read as “I will prosper.” Other variations using the same numbers include: 5189, “I will prosper for a long time” and 516289, “I will get on a long, smooth prosperous road.”
The most fortunate number in the Chinese official language of Mandarin is the number eight, which means “prosperity,” “fortune” or “wealth.” That’s about as lucky as you can get! The Beijing Olympics are due to commence on 08.08.2008, at eight o’clock in the evening, which will certainly guarantee that the Games will be carried out under the most auspicious of circumstances.
In China, it is common to see customized license plates bearing as many number eights as possible. Most large companies and hotels also try to fit as many number eights in their street addresses or telephone numbers as money can buy. Most telephone companies and car registration authorities have adopted a policy of charging extra for each number eight wanted by the customer. Someone has even purchased the telephone number 8888-8888.
As mentioned earlier, the most unfortunate number in the Chinese culture is the number four, due to its similar pronunciation with, among others, “death.” Some companies even skip this number altogether when bringing out new versions of their products to the market.
In Hong Kong, some high-rise residential buildings have chosen to omit the entire number four from the selection of floor numbers, which results in a quirk that a building may have 50 floors according to the buttons in the elevator but only 36 in reality. So strong is this “tetraphobia,” or fear of the number four, that its presence in an apartment number or street address can even have a decreasing effect on the value of the property.
Other inauspicious numbers include five and six and certain number combinations. Five,wŭ, can, in addition to its numeric meaning, either be seen as also meaning wŏ, “me,” or wú, “not,” “nothing.” The latter meaning gives this number a slightly negative connotation.
Fourteen is by far the most feared number in Chinese superstition. The combination of the words, shí = ten and sì = four, can mean “accidents” or, when both numbers are read separately, yāo sì, “will die.” Add a five in front, and the death wish is made even more personal, as the string 514 is pronounced the same way as “I will die,” wŭ yāo sì. Not the best combination for anyone with a tendency to believe in superstitions!
Today, Chinese hotels are often missing the thirteenth floor, which is proof that the Western superstition of regarding the number 13 as a bringer of bad luck has been added to the list of numbers or number combinations with fortune bringing or repelling connotations in China.
But, when you get on an elevator in a Chinese hotel, you will not find yourself on the 14th, but on the 15th floor once you pass floor number 12 due to the inauspiciousness of the number 14. This demonstrates clearly how the Chinese have adopted Western mindsets while keeping a tight grasp on their own traditional beliefs.