Daily Anecdote: Numbers Game

From San Francisco to Shanghai, Chinese everywhere are obsessed with numbers. A quick read through my mini glossary here will not only equip you to prosper in life with the aid of auspicious numbers (if you believe the popular superstitions), it might also help you engage in some naughty business.

The digit with the biggest and bestest reputation is “8,” which in Cantonese is spoken as “baht,” a near homonym to “faht” (“prosper”). Chinese people routinely and happily pay up to decorate their car plates with as many eight’s as possible, to live at #8 on Eighth Avenue, and to secure a phone number with the triply potent “888” sequence.

A lesser known happy number is “6,” which in Mandarin indicates a smooth journey. Six is commonly paired with eight, like in the number string “168” (roughly translating to “a swift road to prosperity”). Wishing your Chinese friends “one hundred sixty-eight” will surely bring smiles to their faces.

Among the amorous young the number “9” is also significant. “Jiu” means both “nine” and “everlasting,” an unfortunate coincidence that hits hard at Chinese men’s wallets come Valentine’s Day when their ladies hope (or expect) to be gifted with a bouquet of nine hundred and ninety-nine roses. Imagine what would’ve become of the floral industry had the number “0” meant “long lasting” instead.

Numbers can carry a lot of good meaning in Chinese but there are also inauspicious ones. Chinese avoid the number “4” like the plague, for it sounds morbidly similar to “death.” Being a bad Chinese I don’t pay much attention to filter unlucky numbers out of my life. I still remember my mother’s mortification when I moved to New York and told her to call me at my new home line, 646-414-4450. My randomly assigned phone number was the Chinese equivalent of 1-800-DIE-DEAD.

Another bad digit you want to avoid offending your significant other with is “7,” connoted with “anger.” When bound-foot grannies sit down to tell their granddaughters’ fortunes with a stack of cards you can just see their brows furrowing deeper as more seven’s appear. While it’s a lucky number in America, in China the appearance of seven augers “a lifetime of anger and frustration.”

A strange and inexplicably disdained number sequence is “250.” In mainland China, to call someone two-fifty (either as a noun or adjective) is to suggest that they are a blundering moron. I’m not sure how this evolved but it makes daily commerce a tad more difficult as sellers and buyers dance around the number, careful to charge RMB249 or RMB251, but never two hundred and fifty yuan.

These are some of the older, more traditional number superstitions. In popular culture and chat (or text) speak there are plenty of meaningful digits, the equivalent of English acronyms like “LOL” and “BRB.” Take “521” for example, which is read as “wu er yao” but accepted as short hand for “wo ai ni” (“I love you”). Another cutesy phrase is “7758,” which sounds out as “qi qi wu ba” but slurs into “qin qin wo ba” (“kiss me”). If romantic and touchy feely expressions aren’t your thing you can always opt for proposing a “419” to your online chat buddy or pub pick up. That’s “four one nine,” or “for one night” (one night stand) to the young and number savvy!

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