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Chinese Superstitions: Numbers and Other Cultural No-Nos

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Cultures all over the world have their own superstitions that to an outsider might seem peculiar. Friday 13th is said to be the ‘unluckiest day of the year’ for many people in the west, whilst the number 17 is unlucky in Italy. Superstitions do not just spring up overnight, but are often deeply rooted in history, culture and religion.

Many Chinese superstitions stem from Feng Shui, but there are also many number related superstitions based on the prevalence of homophones in the Chinese language, that can be extremely unlucky.

Lucky Numbers

8

The number 8 is the luckiest number is Chinese culture. 8 in Chinese, is pronounced bā, which rhymes with ‘fā’ , as in 发财 (fā cái), meaning ‘to get rich’. A common phrase used at Chinese New Year to bring about good fortune is ‘八八大发’ (bā bā dà fā) . Purchasable items with the number 8 can be more expensive, from simple things such as mobile numbers, to car registration plates. It’s possible that in ancient China, the number 8 was not considered lucky at all. There are several Chengyu, including 七上八下 (qī shàng bā xià) which means ‘all sixes and sevens’, that suggest that the number 8 was not a positive number. It may have only been within the last century, due to the influence of Hong Kongese culture, that mainland China adopted the number 8 as lucky.

Multiples of 2 (Except for 4)

Multiples of 2 bring harmony, so many decorative items within the home come in twos.

Similarly to the number 2, the number 6 is also important for peace, as it is connected to the word ‘to run smoothly’, 顺利 (shùn lì). A common phrase to wish someone luck, is 六六大顺 (liù liù dà shùn). The number 10 is also lucky, and can be found in the Chengyu 十全十美 (shí quán shí měi) meaning ‘perfection’.

Odd Numbers

There are several different origins of why multiples of 3 are important within Chinese culture. The simplest one being that the pronunciation of the number 3 in Chinese is sān, and sounds similar to the word for ‘birth’  (shēng). According to Chinese culture, there are 3 significant events in a man’s life: birth, marriage and death.

In ancient Chinese culture, numbers ran from 1 to 9, and were then divided into 3 groups of 3. The number 3 became a strong number in China often meaning ‘many’. 许慎 (xǔ shèn), author of 说文解字 (shuō wén jiězì) the Original Han Dictionary, wrote that 三 (sān) or 3 was the ‘sky, earth and human’, and that the Chengu 成语 (chéng yǔ) ‘三缄其口’ (sān jiān qí kǒu) meant ‘to keep silent many times’. He also referred to characters that come in three parts refer to many of something. For example,  (sēn) the character for ‘forest’ has 3 trees and means ‘many trees’. The character  (yáo) meaning ‘embankment’’ is made of three ‘earth’  (tǔ) characters. A hill could be described as being ‘much earth’

Even Confucius valued the number 3 when he said: ‘Three people are walking together; at least one of them is good enough to be my teacher.’

Within Buddhist culture, the number 3 represents Buddha. People toll the bell three times and use 3 sticks of incense when praying.

There are many examples of 3’s in China’s history and culture, such as the Three Ancient Moral Guidelines, that taught rules on obedience, The Three Kingdoms of Wu, Wei and Shu, and a modern example of the Three Gorges Dam.

Based on the ancient Chinese tradition, the number 9 was the highest number and therefore the ‘king’ of numbers. The Emperor of China would be referred to as 九五至尊 (jiǔ wǔ zhì zūn) ‘The King of Yesterday and Tomorrow’ which originated from the idiom 一言九鼎 (yī yán jiǔ dǐng) meaning ‘one word is as heavy as nine tripods’. The number 9 also sound a lot like the word for ‘long’  (jiǔ) and so 9 often represents longevity which is why there are 9,999 rooms in the Forbidden City in Beijing. It is also traditional for a boyfriend to send 99, or 999 roses to his beloved, although tragically pomelo or condoms seem to have become a more popular way of expressing their ‘everlasting love’. Who said romance was dead?

Unlucky Numbers:

4  (sì)

It could not get any worse than the number 4 四 (sì) in Chinese culture, as it sounds remarkably like the word for death  (sǐ). Many buildings will not have a 4th floor, and many people will stay away from rooms, dates or mobile phone numbers with 4s.

In more recent years, people have tried to get away from the negative connotations of the number 4, by connecting it to the tone ‘fa’, in the ‘do re mi fa’ scale. Fa is the fourth syllable in the scale and is now associated by some with 发财 (fā cái) ‘to get rich’.

Colours

Red

The colour red is associated with happiness in Chinese culture and is used in celebrations from Chinese New Year to weddings. If you wear, or are given something red, you will have good luck and fortune for the rest of the year. Traditionally, 红包 (hóng bāo) or ‘red packets’ are given at Chinese New Year with money inside, although nowadays they are given more liberally and are a popular ‘gift’ to give in the messenger service, WeChat. If the New Year brings in your zodiac, you might wear red underwear or clothing to ensure your year will be joyful.

The only time red would not be seen as at a funeral, where it would be seen as disrespectful and extremely unlucky.

Those of you interested in the stock market, may have noticed that the Chinese market has the reversal of colours. So, whilst in the western markets ‘down’ is red, in China red means positive, whilst green is negative.

Black and White

White is a symbol of purity within Chinese culture, but is also often associated with mourning. Similarly, black, although a neutral colour would often be worn at a funeral. Black should definitely not be worn at a celebration, such as a wedding, or Chinese New Year.

Home

Having your home face in the right direction is important for many Chinese people, even in the modern day. I have witnessed potential house hunters check the direction with a compass to make sure the 风水 (fēng shuǐ) Feng Shui of the apartment is good. For good Feng Shui, Houses or apartments should NOT face to the north. However, there also seems to be some connection between the homeowners zodiac and which direction their home should face. The direction of your home is also practical; if your home faces the south, you will have more sun during the winter. Bearing in mind, Chinese houses and apartments do not have heating, this is very much needed!

dragon-hole-building.jpg

Even city planning is based on Feng Shui: buildings built near mountains often have a hole cut out of them, to allow the ‘dragon’ to flow down the mountain and through the building, allowing for good Feng Shui.

At Chinese New Year, traditions and superstitions become even more important, although they can differ dramatically between provinces in China and the north/south divide.

Before Chinese New Year, families will spring clean the home, but during the Chinese New Year period, no one sweeps or cleans the home. Sweeping will get rid of the luck that Chinese New Year brings. In some provinces it is still traditional for both men and women not to wash their hair during this time for similar reasons.

Gifts

When giving gifts to Chinese friends or potential in-laws, it’s important to consider the number you give (multiples of 3 are good, probably stay away from 4 of anything…) but also the gift itself.

Monetary gifts given via WeChat would be a combination of lucky numbers, such as 6.66, 9.99 etc, or a popular homophone, such as 5.21 or 13.14.

There are some big no-no gifts as far as Chinese culture goes, for example, clocks, as they are related to death, shoes or green hats (yes, really). You should also stay away from pears, mirrors and sharp objects. If you’re giving gifts at Chinese New Year, you should also consider the colour, sticking with red and gold as they present prosperity.

If you’re given a gift by a Chinese person, it’s said to be bad manners and unlucky to open a gift in front of them, so thank them and set it aside to open later.

If you know any more Chinese superstitions, please share them with us below!
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