The Meaning of Numbers in China

By Natasha Cohen22/03/2022 Chinese Culture

You might already know about lucky and unlucky numbers in China. But do you know why they’re considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and how they’ve evolved into a modern-day code for communication?

For example, the number eight (八, ‘bā’) is a lucky number because it sounds like the 发 ‘fā’of 发财 ‘fācái’, which means to make a fortune or become rich. In fact, it’s such a popular number in China that the Wi-Fi password of many hotels there is 八个八 ‘bā gè bā’: eight eights (88888888).

On the other end of the spectrum, the number four (四, ‘sì’) sounds a little too close to the word for ‘death’ (死, ‘sǐ’) for comfort, making it an unlucky number. The aversion to the number four is so common in East Asia that it’s been given a name – tetraphobia. So people often avoid giving gifts in fours, and some lifts in buildings even omit the fourth floor (similar to western buildings that skip the 13th floor due to 13 being ‘our’ unlucky number).

So if you’ve ever gone out to eat dimsum with a friend and been frustrated that you can’t easily share a basket of three dumplings, now you know why there aren’t four.

But if someone sends you a text saying ‘88’, they’re not necessarily wishing you luck.

Nowadays, numbers can also be used as slang on social media or text – or, more specifically, numeronyms.

A numeronym is word made up of numbers, usually as a kind of ‘soundalike’ abbreviation. For example, ‘88’ (八八, ‘bābā’) means ‘bye bye’.

Here are a few more:

39 ‘sān jiǔ’: Thank you (sounds like the English word)

58 ‘wǔ bā’ = 晚安 ‘wǎn’ān’: Good night 

065 ‘líng liù wǔ’ = 原谅我 ‘yuánliàng wǒ’: Forgive me 

246 ‘èr sì liù’ = 饿死了 ‘è sǐle’: Starving (literally ‘hungry to death’)

360 ‘sān liù líng’ = 想念你 ‘xiǎngniàn nǐ’: Miss you

520 ‘wǔ èr líng’ = 我爱你 ‘wǒ ài nǐ’: I love you

555 ‘wǔ wǔ wǔ’ = 呜呜呜 ‘wūwūwū’: The sound of crying  

687 ‘liù bā qī’ = 对不起 ‘duìbùqǐ’: Sorry

898 ‘bā jiǔ bā’ = 分手吧 ‘fēnshǒu ba’: Let’s break up

995 ‘jiǔ jiǔ wǔ’ = 救救我 ‘jiùjiù wǒ’: Save me!

1314 ‘yī sān yī sì’ =  一生一世 ‘yī shēng yī shì’: Forever

7456 ‘qī sì wǔ liù’ = 气死我了 ‘qìsǐ wǒ le’: I’m so angry (literally ‘angry to death’)

Be careful not to confuse 520 with 250 though, because 250 means ‘simpleton’ or ‘moron’. But not because it sounds like a similar word or phrase – it’s a reference to folklore. There are several versions of the story, but here’s one of the most popular ones.

During the Warring States Period, the emperor of the state Qi had a wise counsellor called Su Qin. One day Su Qin was assassinated, and the emperor came up with a plan to catch the murderer. He lied and announced that Su Qin was a spy, and that he’d give a thousand taels of gold to the assassin if he revealed himself.

Four men came forward and claimed they were behind Su Qin’s death, and asked for the gold to be shared equally between them. So after the emperor executed them, the number 250 became another way of calling someone foolish. So make sure you text your loved one the right number!

Want to learn more about how numbers play an important part in both past and modern Chinese life? There’s no better way to do so than in the country itself. Check out Lingoinn’s homestay courses, which can be tailored to suit your needs.

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