1992 / 10月
Sunny Hsiao /photos courtesy of Council for Cultural Planning and Development /tr. by Phil Newell
Congratulations! Mr. Chang, today is your 80th birthday, and is also a good day to bring a daughter-in-law into the house. Let me calculate for a minute here and get you a good expression. To celebrate: Living in harmony as one group, The coming of two happinesses to your door, The mutual support among three generations, All as you wish for the four seasons, The approach of the five fortunes, Six-six everything goes smoothly, Seven sons and eight sons-in-law, Many things through the nine wishes, and Perfection ten times over.
There is a set of famous streets in Kaohsiung City in Taiwan, which all begin with numbers. They are Yihsin (One Heart), Ersheng (Two Sacreds), Santo (Three Mores), Ssuwei (Four Upholds), Wufu (Five Fortunes), Liuho (Six Realms), Chihsien (Seven Virtues), Pateh (Eight Moral Precepts), Chiuju (Nine Wishes), and Shihchuan (Perfect Ten) Streets. This sequence of auspicious street names gives people a warm feeling when they hear it, and brings more than a little luck to the residents.
Many foreign visitors can't help but exclaim that the Chinese are really creative, and can line numbers up so "auspiciously."
Chinese not only use numbers to appeal for good fortune, they also bring them out to chew people out: "You 250 [fool], you do things neither three nor four [without any order or out of touch], and still you dare to say that I'm 13 points [stupid] and 3-8 [scatterbrained]."
Although it isn't really possible to know where these came from, one thing is for sure: numbers are intimately related to the daily life of Chinese!
Origins in the Book of Changes: In antiquity, people kept tallies by tying knots in ropes, and only employed numbers and words later on.
From natural phenomena and life experience, people gradually came to recognize the signs of change in a particular matter. For example, there was the ancients' saying that "If the moon has a halo it will be windy, and a damp plinth foretells rain." It is inevitable that there will be misfortune in life, so people began to adopt ways to attract the auspicious and expel the malicious. Add to this that people have psychological activity and the ability to link things together in their minds, and a whole set of auspiciousness-attracting and evil-expelling habits took shape.
The I Ching or Book of Changes is a compilation which records the experience of people in ancient times with luck and divination. In the Book of Changes, each number has some significance: one is the tai-chi or "great supreme," two is the "two rituals," three is for the "three powers," four for the "four directions," five is for the "five pathways," six stands for the "six realms," seven for the "seven rules of government," eight means the "eight trigrams," nine is for the "nine chains," and ten is the "ten depictions."
We often say "three yang make good fortune" to describe the hope that misfortune will be held at bay and good luck will follow. It is a saying often used at the New Year and symbolizes a new beginning, and finds its origins in the Book of Changes. Yang is the positive force in the universe, and there is enormous yang and very weak yin (negative force) in the first, second, and third of the ninth trigrams. So the three yang are very positive.
Li Heng-lih, chairman of the International Taoism Scholarly Foundation, who feels that numbers have no connection with fortune good or ill, says that the only significance numbers have is what people ascribe to them. Trying to say that a given number is either auspicious or ominous is mere superstition.
Still, unlike the western sensitivity to the number 13, Chinese have a whole philosophy built up around numbers, which is spread or experienced in real life.
Yuan Chang-rue, head of the Anthropology Section at the Taiwan Provincial Museum, raises the theory of "identity supernaturalism." He states that Chinese people believe that similar sounds can produce similar outcomes, so that "identity of pronunciation" has become the foundation of many allegedly beneficent numbers.
The vast influence of identical pronunciation: For example, in Cantonese the pronunciations of "eight" and "success" are very close, which makes the number significant for Cantonese. But for Fukienese it has no function.
Taiwanese have many taboos around the similarity of the sounds for "four" and "death," but Hakkanese couldn't seem to care less.
The study of names and the nine-boxed-paper, a very widespread belief among ordinary people, involves surmising a person's personality and fate according to the number of strokes of the pen in the three characters of the name. In the West and Japan, a type of fortunetelling has been developed based on adding together the numbers of the year, month, and day of one's birth, and using it to assess the person's fate. Others are able to roughly guess a person's personality from their favorite numbers.
The popularity of auspicious or lucky numbers is related to the idea of the pursuit of harmony in names by, for instance, using the radical or character for "metal" to compensate for apparent lack of "metal" in the person, or using the "water" radical to make up for a deficiency of same. Li Heng-lih points out that numbers can be divided into sheng and cheng types, the former being one through five and the latter being six through ten. In this scheme, one and six are for water; two and seven are for fire; three and eight belong to wood; four and nine signify metal; and five and ten are for earth. If you divide them up by yin and yang, the negative and positive forces, one, three, five, seven, and nine are all yang, and two, four, six, eight, and ten are yin.
If a person's celestial branch or stem as determined by their date and time of birth (the pa-tzu or "eight character horoscope") come under "wood," then it is necessary to add "water" to feed the wood. So one could choose one or six as lucky numbers. Which one would be better? If the person comes under yin wood, then it would be better to choose the number one, which symbolizes both yang and water.
Gods can be alone, but people cannot: One is the number marking the beginning, and also has the meaning of "independent" or "alone."
Tong Fung-wan, a professor of theology at Taiwan Theological Seminary, points out that in Taiwan people prefer even numbers which symbolize "fortune comes in pairs." They are more wary of one, three, five, seven, and nine. Because the character for "odd" in Chinese (tan) also means "alone," people are not very fond of it. But although people like even numbers, the gods can be alone. Thus in odd-numbered months holidays have been stipulated to help people get by, from New Years (first day of the first month on the lunar calendar) and Tomb Sweeping Day (third day of the third month) to Dragon Boat Festival (fifth of the fifth), Chinese Valentine's Day (seventh of the seventh), and Old People's Day (ninth day of the ninth month in the lunar calendar).
At weddings, when Chinese people give "red envelopes" with gifts of cash, they only send even amounts, like 1,200 or 3,600. Because the pronunciation of "four" is close to that of "death" in Taiwanese, if you send 4,400 to the bride and groom, people won't be grateful and might even criticize you behind your back for failing to understand basic manners. At funerals, on the other hand, people usually give offerings with the last digit being odd, so as to avoid ill fortune not coming "alone."
Happiness comes in pairs: In the book Popular Chinese Customs Professor Lou Tzu-kuang notes that when people got married in ancient times, betrothal gifts would include a document recording all the details of the accompanying gifts. The writing style was rather meticulous. Thus, for example, chickens or ducks would be written as "Four wings of poultry." Gold bracelets would be written "Gold bracelets becoming a pair." Candles would be written as "Festive candles with double glow." No place would odd numbers be allowed.
When inquiring into the other's name and the "eight character horoscope" of the other party, it would be written for instance: "The groom [or bride] is in the beginning of the sixth month of his [her] twentieth year, having been born at such-and-such an hour. . ." The number of characters in the Chinese text would always have to add up to an even number; if they were short one then an "auspicious" character would be added.
The writer Hsiao Min adds that because the character for "odd" also means "incomplete," when she was in her old home in Peking, they would always make sure that the number of steamed rolls made for New Year's was even in order to make a good beginning.
Chuang Po-ho, a scholar of folk traditions, argues that Chinese have always been rather inclined to the number three. Just open up a Chinese dictionary and there are sayings using three or multiples thereof sprinkled everywhere. They are even more numerous in local sayings and slang.
He points out that one reason Chinese like three is that it stands for "many." In Lao Tzu it is said that "Tao gave birth to the one, the one gave birth to the two, two gave birth to three, and three gave birth to the ten thousand things." From nothing to something, or something to infinity, "three" plays a critical role.
Huai Nan Tzu points out that in making offerings to the dead, three bowls of rice was considered in accordance with ritual; and in expressing an offering three gestures were appropriate.
"In the hopes of Chinese people in their lives, 'more' is considered to have an auspicious meaning, so the term 'there mores' naturally arose," says Chuang Po-ho. In widespread folk depictions, the "three mores" are the three fruits including the bergamot orange, the peach, and the pomegranate, signifying "more fortune, more years of life, and more sons." Buddhists, on the other hand, describe the three mores as "more closely associating with friends who will be good for you," "more inhaling of mild fragrance from prayer incense," and "more self-cultivation to correct bad habits."
Elevators without fourth floors: The scholar Su Hsueh-lin has written that in ancient China the numbers four and 72 were perhaps both mysterious numbers, and moreover that "four" was a symbol for the great earth.
But in Taiwan four is not especially well looked-upon. Hospitals and hotels normally have no fourth floor, and the numbers in the elevator just skip right from three to five. It's probably only in places where Chinese people live that this type of facility is necessary. Also, the price of an apartment on the fourth floor is usually cheaper.
In general, Chinese assign little good or bad significance to "five."
"May the five fortunes approach your door" is a saying often seen at festive occasions. The five fortunes are long life, wealth, health, an ethical life, and a peaceful death.
Besides this, the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, earth) provided a framework for people of former times to classify natural phenomena. Confucianism also says that five implies the concept of "the mean."
The writer on geomancy Li Jen-kuei points out that Confucians believe that five is very close to the path of the golden mean of "adopting the middle between two extremes," and also promotes the thought of the "five pathways." As a number, five has two at the front and two behind, with one in the middle. "This middle figure has two assistants on each side, and is unbiased in the middle. Thus five fits in well with the idea of the 'mean' always promoted by Confucian scholars," he has written.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of how accurate this is, few people ever suspect anything bad about the number five. The only exception is that in playing the Taiwan drinking game of guess-fingers, the probability of five coming up is higher than for any other number, so there is a slight "taboo" that rules that one cannot call out this number.
One six eight, on the way to success: Where did "66 everything goes smoothly" come from? Lin Mao-hsien, executive secretary of the Chinese Customs and Handicrafts Foundation, contends that it might have something to do with playing dice. Six is the largest number on a die, so wouldn't one win by coming up with two sixes?
According to informal statistics, not many people take seven to be a lucky number. According to the old text Yu Hsiao Ling Yin, when someone first dies the mourning period should be seven days. "Doing the sevens" is the custom at funerals in Fukienese areas. For the first seven days after someone passes away, to the seventh seven days, there are appropriate rituals for each. Some people, because the number seven can easily bring to mind "doing the sevens," plus the fact that the seventh month of the lunar year is "ghost month," don't like it. In Taiwanese "3-7" refers to the 30-70 division of money between a prostitute and her pimp, so it cannot be lightly employed.
The fondness for "eight" comes, most people would say, from the Cantonese. In Cantonese, eight and "success" are similar in sound. And in North China, there is the saying that "if you want to succeed, don't stray from eight."
Hongkong, where most of the population is Cantonese, is perhaps the place where faith in numbers is strongest. Li Heng-lih analyzes that it is a very crowded, very competitive industrial metropolis. Businessmen are especially obsessed with success or failure, so they have to include auspiciousness in consideration of any affair like opening a factory or signing a contract. If they can choose a day with eight in it, then they have a "successful" beginning. Nine symbolizes smoothness and endurance, while six, as noted, is for "66 everything goes smoothly."
In the 1980's, lucky numbers went from Hongkong into Kwangtung Province in mainland China, as this trend began to spread from south to north.
Liu Cheng-feng, columnist for the China Times, noted in one report that the last four digits of the phone number of the Canton Hotel are 8168, a homophone for "success and yet more success." Most of the shoe stores in the Lungfu Building in Peking use "auspicious" prices on their tags. One of the fastest movers is one whose tag is 168, which symbolizes "the road to success." And when businessmen stay in hotels, they like to stay in rooms 518,688, or 816. One hotel in Canton even has a higher price on rooms with lucky numbers.
Mainland numbers fever in Taiwan: When the stock market was all the rage, the Jih-sheng Securities Company spent NT$600,000 (over US$23,000) to buy the license plate ending in "8888." Now that the stock market is bullish no longer, during bidding for license plates for personal cars this fall, the highest price fetched by "8888" and "6666" was only NT$55,000.
In mainland China, the first time the city of Chungking auctioned off telephone numbers, a mobile phone number of 900-8888 drew a bid of RMB50,000. In the auction held in Shanghai in March of this year, the starting price of numbers ending in 8888 was RMB30,000, and one sold for RMB46,000. A number ending in 2222 was bought for RMB37,000, because in Shanghai dialect it sounds like "come, come, come, come." The record was set on May 18 (the numerical date of which, 5-18, is a homophone for "I will succeed"), when a Hangchow mobile phone number 901-688 was sold for RMB129,000 (over US$25,000).
At the auction of telephone numbers in Peking in August of this year, in just one morning 48 numbers were auctioned off for a total amount of RMB1.04 million. That's about 400 years' salary for the average worker earning about RMB200 a month.
Believe it or not, it's up to you: Nine generally refers to a great majority or large number. In former times people often used nine to say "a great many."
Because nine is an extreme number, Chinese have the saying that it is inauspicious to run across nine. Especially for older men, the 69th and 79th birthdays are celebrated as the 70th and 80th instead. Many people also believe that a young man of 29 is at the decisive point in life.
When people use lucky numbers to symbolize wealth and fortune, or peace and benevolence, any number can be explained in such a way as to make it fit. Aren't "everything starts with one and comes around again," "seven generations living together," and "wealth flowing across the four seas" all pleasing to the ears?
Although that's easy enough for us to say, there are still plenty of people who play the lotteries or play the ponies, running near and far, burning incense to the gods, looking for a lucky number that belongs only to them!
New Year's painting: "Completeness of the two things fortune and longevity."
New Year's painting: "Three yang bring good fortune."
New Year's painting: "Harmonious as one unit."
New Year's painting: "Five fortunes welcome the coming of spring."
New Year's painting: "One hundred sons and one thousand grandsons."
The sign "Eight eight perpetuity" (pa pa-chiu) is a play on the sound of the word eight, meaning that this shop hopes for perpetual success. (photo by Diago Chiu)