Ting’s Blog: The Meaning of Numbers in Chinese Culture

‘What’s your number?’
The meaning of numbers in Chinese culture

Numbers in China hold special significance and many Chinese people will make different choices in life simply because of the date, or because a particular number spells out bad luck or indeed, good fortune.

The most auspicious numbers are 6, 8 and 9. These are regarded as the luckiest numbers in China and all their homophones have auspicious meanings.

The number 6
Pronounced as ‘Liu’, means smooth and well-off. In Chinese people’s eyes, it means everything will go smoothly. So, when choosing telephone numbers, people prefer those with number 6s in them.

Six-six-six (666) has similar pronunciation to 牛牛牛 or 溜溜溜 and is used to describe someone or something very special, cool, powerful and impressive. One six eight (168) sounds like 一路发 and means something lucky; success all the way.

The number 8
Has similar pronunciation to 发 (which means wealth and fortune in Chinese), so it is favoured by Chinese people, especially businessmen. They see number 8 as the luckiest number of all, and try to include it in their company address, phone number, or even product price, hoping it will help them to run a profitable and successful business. Like the number 6, having several eights in a phone number or a licence plate can lift its price to sky-high. The telephone number 8888-8888 was sold for USD $280,000 to China’s Sichuan Airlines at an auction a decade ago.

Another reason why the number 8 symbolises good luck is because it is a perfect symmetrical shape. You can cut the number 8 in half vertically or horizontally, and both halves mirror themselves perfectly. Perfect symmetry lends itself to perfect balance, which is considered the ideal in Chinese Astrology. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Olympic games in China started at 8pm on August 8, 2008 or 08/08/08.

The number 9
Pronounced as Jiu (久) in Chinese, means everlasting, the symbol of longevity and eternity. In Chinese culture, it is associated with the Emperor of China. The Emperor’s robes have 9 dragons and the Beijing Forbidden City has a total of 9,999 and a half rooms. For lovers, 99, 999, or 9999 roses are usually sent to represent eternal love.

In contrast, the most Inauspicious numbers are 4 and 7.

Four is regarded as the unluckiest number because the word for 死(death)sounds similar to 4 in Chinese. So Chinese people usually associate it with death. It has a similar connotation to the apparently unlucky number 13 in the West.

Another inauspicious number is 7 which means ‘gone’. It also has the same pronunciation as 欺 (cheat) in Chinese, so in daily life, Chinese people usually avoid using the number. When Chinese people choose a telephone number, 4 and 7 are most disliked. However, 748[七世发] means wealthy for seven lifetimes.

Meanings for other numbers
0 – everything or nothing. It is limitless. Chinese people think everything begins with 0.

1 – the first. It is the simplest number but also the most complex, in terms of its meaning in Chinese culture. It is neither auspicious nor inauspicious. People use it to name the winner. It also has the meaning of beginning, loneliness or single. For example: November 11th is the single’s day in China, as the date has four ‘1s’.

2 – is the smallest even number, meaning ‘double’, ‘twinned’ and ‘again’ and it is most often regarded as a good number in Chinese culture. It suggests harmonious existence and reproduction of good things such as happiness, joy, and luck. There is a Chinese saying: “good things come in pairs”. On the Chinese New Year, for instance, people put up decorations symbolising luck in pairs, usually one on each side of a window or the front door. It is also a custom in many regions of China to send duplicate gifts when married women visit their parents.

3 – is a lucky number in Chinese culture as it sounds similar to the character of ‘birth’ (生 shēng). In every life, there are three important stages: birth, marriage and death. The number 3 is greatly used in Chinese culture, history and more: There are three gorges of the Yangtze River; Three Sages and Three Kingdoms in Chinese history; three halls of the Forbidden City in Beijing…

5 – is also a neutral number. It is lucky as it is usually related to the Emperor of China. There are five blessings in China – wealth, happiness, longevity, luck and prosperity.

Also in Chinese astrology, there are five elements – Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. There are Five Kinds of Main Grain in China. As it has the same pronunciation as ‘无(which means nothing in Chinese), it can also have a negative meaning. It also used to mean ‘I’ because of similar pronunciation with ‘我’ in Chinese. The number 520 in Chinese means 我爱你 and is a great Chinese love word to say today.