Numbers with cultural significance in China

If you missed it, the first blog post in our series on symbolism in China covered shapes in Chinese culture. We’ll be discussing numbers today, as it is one of the things our clients ask about most often when it comes to what they should and should not include in their branding activities.

ONE

The number one is non-divisible. Like one single apple, you can’t break it into two pieces without cutting it open. Throughout Chinese history, “one” has been employed to stand for “unity”, or “concentration”. Today we have countless terms starring the number one, such as:

  • “一心一意” (yī xīn yī yì: “One heart,  one mind”, meaning “absolutely focused”.
  • “统一” (tǒng yī): “Consolidated into one”, to unite.
  • “一致” (yī zhì): “to look like one”, meaning to have consistency.

TWO

The number two generally means “paired”, which is great because people find loneliness to be less desirable. When giving people wedding gifts, it’s a custom to present them in pairs. Additionally, the number (verbally) might be employed as an adjective or a verb in northern Chinese provinces to mean “dumb” or “silly”. Be aware when people are talking about you along the lines of,  “that TWO-ISH guy”, “look that TWO-ISHNESS”, or “did you just TWO’ED”. They probably aren’t being nice.

THREE

Three is the limit in Chinese culture. There’s a saying “事不过三” (shì bù guò sān, “nothing should occur repeatedly more than 3 times”). The English equivalent would be “three strikes, you’re out”. Usually when people say this, they are giving you a warning, meaning “don’t make the same mistake again”. Also, three is traditionally a generic number to mean there is *a small group* of people. For example, you might find many Chinese idioms that go “three people etc etc”, they don’t mean exactly that 3 people. It just means “more than one person”.

FOUR

This number didn’t have much cultural significance until quite late in Chinese history. It’s really just a pun. “四” (sì, “four”) and “死” (sǐ, “to die”) sound pretty close. A similar situation exists in Japanese too, where the number four could be read either “shi” or “yon”. Since the “shi” variation could mislead people into thinking about “death”, most people just stick to the “yon” sound. Unfortunately, the same number only has one pronunciation in Chinese, therefore superstitious people might tend to avoid it, just like some westerners who steer clear from the number thirteen.

Five

Surprisingly there’s not a lot to talk about this number. Its only significance is to work together with 9. Please see the entry for number 9 for details.

SIX

Six is a lucky number. There’s quite some complicated logic behind that. You see, in the most formal form of Chinese writing, six is “陆”, which could either  be read as liù (“six”), or lù (“land”). When pronounced as the latter, it sounds the same as 路 lù (“path”). Consequently, two characters in the well wishing, “路路大顺” lù lù dà shùn (“every path cleared”) were replaced with the number six, thus becoming “六六大顺” liù liù dà shùn (“six and six clear your path”). Based on such far-fetched theory, many people regard six as a great omen for getting what they seek, or achieving what they want. This might seem ridiculous, but many things do happen this way here.

SEVEN

Following the same principle as the number four, this one is another unlucky number, but is just  mildly unlucky in comparison to the number four. Seven is pronounced “qī”, which is close to “气” (qì), the character that means “anger”. Nobody likes to have his temper aroused so frequently. Superstitious people might feel relatively annoyed by this number. In certain provinces, if your mobile phone number has a 4 or a 7 in it, the phone carrier might subsidize some of your account balance, just in case no one wants such numbers. Do ask your carrier about this, and take advantage of the superstition.

EIGHT

What do you see here? I see a huge sheet of money stuck to where the license plate should be.

The all-famous Chinese lucky number. The reason why it’s lucky is again just a pun, just like the other lucky or unlucky numbers. “八” (eight) reads “bā”, which is very close to “发” (“fā) in certain dialects, such as Cantonese. Now, “发” has many meanings, the most prominent of them being “to prosper”, especially in a financial sense. Usually phone numbers and license plates with multiple instances of 6 and 8 are worth A LOT MORE than their “less lucky” peers.

NINE

"The Majesty of Ninety-five", a brand of very expensive cigarettes made in China.

Nine is supposed to be a number of limitations. Unlike three, nine represents the farthest possible reach of mortal effort even more so. It’s the largest possible single-digit number, and has been supposed to be the top of numbers of Yang throughout Chinese history. Heaven (Chinese version, of course) has nine layers. Ninety-five is supposed to be the number for emperors because nine is the top of all numbers of Yang (unmatched majesty), and five is in the right middle of the numbers of Yang (balance). In idioms and sayings you will frequently find references to the number nine. Usually such instances figuratively mean “extremely large in number” or “countless”. Also, this is about the only place in Chinese culture where the number 5 comes into the spotlight. That’s why we didn’t give the number an detailed entry.

TEN

Ten is the number of perfection, because obviously, it’s the end of a counting cycle in the decimal system. Chinese people usually say “十全十美” (shí quán shí měi, “ten wholesome, ten beauties”). They actually mean “as wholesome and perfect as it could possibly be”.

ONE HUNDRED

As the next milestone in the decimal counting system, one hundred in Chinese culture means “all of them”. One example is “百年” (bǎi nián, “one hundred years”). When used as a verb, it serves as a very polite and respectful way of saying “to die”. In such cases, the term should actually be interpreted as “this person has lived all of his years”. Similarly, the idiom “百无禁忌” (bǎi wú jìn jì, “one hundred not forbidden”) actually means “there’s no taboo in all of them ways”.

THREE THOUSAND

This number has been repeatedly employed by the Chinese people throughout history to figuratively mean “a very, very large number of things”. It’s hard to nail a cause for this phenomenon. Buddhism usually uses this number in the same way, but it had already been so before the introduction of Buddhism into China. For example, people always say that Confucius taught “three thousand students”. Frankly, this is impossible. Can you imagine one man who lived about 1,500 years ago, by all accounts not a rich guy, somehow managing to train so many students in his limited life span (slightly over 70 years)? That was way before the invention of projectors, microphones, loudspeakers, or the internet. And this is a guy who was constantly in exile from one state to another, without a constant venue to hold students or even live in.

Ten Thousand

Although Chinese have even bigger units for counting, “ten thousand” is usually employed in daily conversation to stand for “the biggest possible”, or “the absolutely upper limit” in daily conversation. The reason might be that in those ancient days, it was very unusual to come by things in tens of thousands. Even in the modern Chinese language, a lot of terms have reference to that number. For example “万全之策” (wàn quán zhī cè, “a plan of ten thousand awesomeness”), and “万万不能” (wàn wàn bù néng, “you ten thousand, ten thousand, can’t”). For this meaning, sometimes it’s also used as a upper limit to mortal efforts, much like the number 9. For example, the Forbidden City in Beijing has 9999.5 rooms in total. This is suppoed to be a “modest” act of the emperors, effectively saying “See? I’m having half a room short of ten thousand, technically still one tiny step below the gods.” However, at the same time, people used to chant “万岁” (wàn suì, “(live up to) ten thousand years”) when praising the emperor. This renders the modestly cut half room kind of pointless, because no emperor brags about how many rooms he has in his house, and every one of them gets the “ten thousand years” chant several times a day.

Well, these are the most significant numbers in Chinese culture. As to exactly how you would be able to put them into business usage, well it could vary in many ways. Remember we are talking about numbers in culture, not in mathematics, so there’s no such one and only definitive answer. For the most obvious part, you can use them in daily conversation,gift planning too, branding activities, as well as in graphic design. Enumerating such scenarios will result in another series of posts. If you are interested in putting such knowledge into practice, just drop us an email, and we will guide you through the rest.

Article by Kane Gao, Illuminant’s head of research.

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