Why are Chinese people obsessed with numbers?
In China recently found out that I can’t change my phone tariff to a cheaper one because the digit 8 appears too many times in my phone number. The number 8 (bā 八) is considered lucky in China because in some dialects it has the same pronunciation as the first word in the phrase fā cái 发财 which means to get rich. This apparently makes my phone number a “lucky” one that I have to pay more for. For me it seems pretty damn unlucky that I have to pay more money for basically no reason at all.
Some numbers are considered unlucky not just by me, but by the rest of China too. Like the number 4 (sì 四) which has a similar pronunciation to the word for “die” (sǐ 死) and so people try to avoid phone numbers, car licence plates and other things with the number 4.
The number 1 is an interesting one because it’s pronounced yī when indicating the amount of something but is pronounced yāo when read as a digit in things like phone numbers and bus numbers. Since yāo sounds like the word for ‘want’ (yào 要) the digit 1 is often used to indicate “want”. This means 18 sounds like “want to get rich” and is extra lucky. By contrast 14 sounds like “want to die” and for most people that’s not so auspicious.
Similarly, in many parts of China the number 2 is pronounced è. This is the same as the word for hungry. 24 therefore sounds like “starve to death”, which makes it a pretty unlucky number in a country where a famine killing 50 million people is still in living memory for the older generation.
The lift in my apartment building doesn’t use numbers 14 and 24 because they’re unlucky
The correct Mandarin pronunciation for 2 is èr and this is a sort of funny way of calling someone stupid. You can use it as an adjective. nǐ hěn èr 你很二 (you very two/ you’re an idiot).
The numbers 5 (wǔ 五) and 0 (líng 零) mean “me” and “you” so 510 means “I want you”. If you say it out loud in Mandarin it doesn’t really sound anything like “I want you” so this use of digits is really more like a code that only works in written form. You might see it used in web and email addresses. For example, the estate agent called wǒ ài wǒ jiā 我爱我家 (I love my home) uses the number 5 in their web address to represent the words “I” and “my”. They also use the letter “i” to represent the word ài 爱 (love) because they also sound similar.
Unfortunately I’m not getting paid for this free advertising, I’m just including it as an example of how numbers are used this way in web addresses. If you’d like to advertise on this blog please contact me with a large amount of money, or just make clever use of some numbers on your website.
Other digits that are often given a secondary meaning include 6 (liù 六) which is perhaps second only to 8 in terms of how lucky it’s supposed to be. Prices in China often finish in an 8 or 6 because that will obviously make you feel better when you waste a huge amount of money on something. The number 9 (jiǔ 九) is also an exact homophone for the word “long time” (jiǔ 久) and so that one crops up occasionally. There are also regional use of numbers based on local dialects and, strangely enough, Chinese people seem to love insulting each other with numbers. Calling someone èr (two) is just the tip of the iceberg and the rest will require a whole post of their own.