I was editing a news story written by a Chinese writer.
She referred to 18 families twice in her story, but in different contexts. The second time she had written “more than 18”. It was a little confusing, so I called her.
“It’s different families I am referring to,” she said. “The second referrence is actually 20 families, but 18 is a lucky number in China so I just wrote ‘more than 18,’ instead.”
In China numerology isn’t something just practised by middle aged hippies wearing purple crushed velvet and too much petuli oil, it permeates every part of daily life and is taken into consideration in everything from selecting a mobile phone number to buying a house.
When buying a sim card I had the option of selecting a number from several lists displayed on the counter of the shop (which, by the way was a mobile phone dealer/traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy/western medicine pharmacy/florist/printing kiosk… hey, space is at a premium here).
Phone numbers considered lucky or auspicious, basically any with lots of eights, were more expensive, and phone numbers containing unlucky numbers – like four, were cheaper. Numbers which had already been taken were crossed off in thick black pen.
In multi-story buildings floors 4, 14 and 44 are often left out. Thirteen is often absent too, it doesn’t have any particular meaning in Chinese, but they must figure if so many Laowais consider it unlucky why take the chance?
The reason four is considered so unlucky is because the word four, si, also means death in Chinese.
Numbers can even be insults, if you tell someone they are er bai wu, 250, you are saying they are very stupid.
When practising my numbers for Chinese class I would write the numerals, ie 501 – and then write out the number in pinyin to test myself – wu bai ling yi.
I had real trouble with 6, liu, it’s difficult to pronounce, so to test myself I wrote 666, liu bai liu shi liu.
And as ridiculous as it is, as I wrote it I couldn’t help but associate the number with the western meaning – the devils number, unlucky, the bringer of bad omens. Would writing it in my exercise book bring bad luck? Would my Mandarin study be cursed forevermore?
When I showed my teacher my homework, however, she almost lept out of her chair in excitement and pointed to 666.
Grinning, she told me: “I like this one very much! Very, very lucky number in China!”
“Really?” I replied. “In the west we consider it very unlucky, it’s the devils number.”
She looked at me as if I was nuts and shook her head. “No, this is very good, good for business.”
And the number six hasn’t caused me any trouble since.