Do you know why the Wifi password of many Chinese cafes is 88888888? Do you know why May 20 at 13:14 is a popular wedding time? In China numbers can have very different meanings from what we know in the West. Some Chinese people will steer clear of the number four while trying to collect as many eights as they can. The deeper meanings of numbers can go far back, but have also made a surprising turn with the rise of the internet. In this post we’ll explore the meaning of numbers in China.

Numbers with meaning – what do you mean?

First things first, we can’t understand the meaning of numbers when we don’t understand a little bit about Chinese. This is because the way numbers are used in China has a lot to do with how the Chinese language works. So, this is your introductory crash-course about Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that it distinguishes between different syllables based on four tones (mā, má,mǎ, mà) and a neutral tone (ma). If we only look at initial-final combinations, Standard Mandarin has about 416 combinations that are used (according to the 11th edition of the Xinhua Dictionary 新華字典). If you compare this to the more than 6000 regularly used syllable combinations in modern English, it’s easy to see why tones are so crucial for understanding in Chinese.

Because of this feature of the language, similar sounding words are very common. In Mandarin, these words are described as 谐音(xiéyīn). It explains why some numbers carry more meaning in China: they sound like other words with deeper emotional meaning. Some numbers might carry a positive or negative connotation. Now that we know a little bit more about the language, let’s explore some of the numbers.

Single numbers

Let’s first explore the meaning of the single numbers. Not all numbers have some special meaning, so I will skip the ones without special meaning.

1 – 一

The first number actually doesn’t rely on a similar sounding word. This number can both have a positive and negative connotation as it can mean being number one or being single. A fun fact to note is that November 11 (11-11) is celebrated as Single’s day 光棍节 [Chinese] in China. It is also mainly celebrated as a shopping day with large discounts, similar to Black Friday.

2 – 二

Number two sounds like the Mandarin word for love (爱) which carries a positive meaning. Another positive meaning of two can be two people together. On the other side, two can also mean “idiot” (more about this later). Another thing to note is that Chinese people generally favor even numbers. There’s a Chinese expression which says that “good things come in pairs” 好事成双 [Chinese]. So, when people give gifts, they prefer to give 200 instead of 100. Also, when choosing apartments, they would prefer apartment 126 over apartment 125 for instance. Lastly, when you get offered candy at a wedding, you’re supposed to take two pieces instead of one.

4 – 四

Chinese people, mainly from older generations, especially dislike this number, because it sounds like the word for death  死[Chinese]. The aversion to this number is so strong that apartments  on a floor with a number 4 in it (e.g. 4, 14, etc.) are often cheaper. Some buildings don’t even have these floors, they will go from 3 to 3A, although this is not very common. Besides this, people who believe in the negative influence of the number 4 will avoid doing special things (like getting married) on dates with a 4 in them. They might also avoid buying cars with a 4 in the license plate. Lastly, this number is especially important for Chinese business people, as it might bring bad luck to your business.

5 – 五

Although the number five doesn’t have a deeper meaning such as other numbers it does sound similar to the Chinese character that describes a crying sound 呜 [Chinese]. So, you might see people use this number on WeChat to express whining or crying. For example: “Oh no! I lost my backpack! 555”

6 – 六

Number 6 sounds similar to the character 溜 [Chinese] which means “smooth” or “smoothly”. Chinese people might use this number when they drink alcohol. The sentence: “66大顺[Chinese]” is used to express that you hope everything goes smoothly for your friends. You will also see younger generations use 666 on WeChat. And no, they don’t mean to summon the devil. It’s simply a way of saying “awesome” or “cool”, as it represents “smooth, smooth, smooth”. If you want to get really into it, you can even use the Chinese hand sign for 6, which this emoji beautifully demonstrates.

8 – 八

Opposite to number 4 which has the most negative influence, number 8 has the most positive influence of all the numbers. There are multiple reasons why. First of all, number 8 [Chinese] sounds like the character发 [Chinese] which is short for 发财 [Chinese] or “get rich”. Another reason why 8 is a good number comes from Taoism. The Eight Directions in Taoism八卦 [Chinese] represent the entire universe. Eight therefore represents wholeness. Lastly, the number 8 also looks like the infinity sign. Number 8 is actually so influential that you could write a whole article about only this number. If you want to know more, you can have a look at this article (https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/lucky-number-8.htm).

Number 8 is especially favored by business people, because it will bring good fortune to their companies. Many shops or restaurants will have 8 eights as their WiFi password or have an office on the eighth floor. You will also see people use the number 8 when sending each other 红包 (red envelopes containing money). Sending your friends or family a hongbao with 88.88 yuan is a way to wish them they get rich. People also like to buy cars or get phone numbers with one or more eights in the license plate. Or they prefer houses with an eight in the address.

9 -九

Nine also has a positive connotation because it sounds like 久 which means “long lasting”. It is especially favored to wish couples a long and healthy relationship. You can see Chinese people wishing their just married friends 长长99 (I wish you an everlasting marriage). They can also give each other wedding gifts containing the number 9, like a hongbao with 999. Nine is also seen as the highest single digit and therefore represents wholeness.

Number combinations and Chinese Internet slang

Its not just single numbers that carry meaning. We can also start putting these numbers together to make sentences, or at least something that sounds like a sentence. These are the most commonly used Chinese internet slang [Chinese]. These combinations are mostly used on social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo.

520 – 五二零

[Chinese] 520 sounds similar to the sentence 我爱你 [Chinese] which means I love you. Younger generations even started celebrating a kind of Valentine’s day on May 20 (5-20).

1314 – 一三一四

Related to the previous combination is the combination 1314. It sounds familiar to the Mandarin expression 一生一世 [Chinese], literally meaning “from birth till death” or “forever”. So put the two together and you get 520 1314, I will love you forever. How romantic! So now you might understand why May 20 at 13:14 is a popular time to get married.

7456 – 七四五六

This next sentence isn’t as sweet as the other ones. This number combination sounds like the sentence 气死我了[Chinese], which literally means “you’re angering me to death”.

250 –

The last one isn’t so much a combination that sounds like something else. But Chinese people use 250 to describe someone who’s really dumb. “You’re such a 250!”

Now that you know how numbers work in China, you can impress your friends by toasting with 66大顺,sending them an 88.88 hongbao or responding to their message with 666. Soon they’ll be friends 1314! Which number was most surprising to you? Thanks for reading, 520!

 

By Eline Schaap

Resources

https://www.fluentu.com/blog/chinese/chinese-number-slang/

Article number 8

https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/lucky-number-8.htm

Syllable combinations Chinese

https://www.quora.com/How-many-possible-syllables-are-there-in-Chinese-Mandarin

List of English syllables (p. 44/45)

http://www.ddl.cnrs.fr/fulltext/Yoonmi/Oh_2015_1.pdf

Discussion syllables

https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/36906/how-languages-compare-with-the-number-of-different-syllables-from-all-words