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Author: Qian Kan
  • Video
  • 5 minutes

Chinese at the tip of your tongue: Culture behind the numbers

Updated Wednesday, 23 August 2023
Just like in other cultures, numbers have hidden meanings in Chinese culture too. Discover the philosophy behind the figures.

Chinese at the tip of your tongue: Culture behind the numbers

Dr Qian Kan
Like in most other cultures, numbers have hidden meanings in Chinese.  For instance, Chinese regard numbers six and eight as lucky numbers.  Six signifies smooth.  Eight, pronounced bā, sounds very similar to the word fā, which means to get rich or good fortune.  More importantly, eight lies at the heart of the Chinese belief system, which centres around an eight-sided diagram called bā guà.

Bā guà was designed by Chinese philosophers about 5,000 years ago, in which the eight elements represent constant changes in the universe.  There are eight diagrams in bā guà representing eight related concepts, such as heaven, lake, fire, water.  At the centre of bā guà is the yin and the yang symbol.  The bā guà was seen as guidance of life in the old days, and has been given numerous applications such as planning the layout of the city and diagnosing in traditional Chinese medicine.  That is probably why the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opened at 8pm on the 8th day of the 8th month in 2008.

Number four is not a good number in Chinese culture.  In many hotels you won’t even find a fourth floor and that is because the pronunciation of number four sounds like the word for to die or death. Sì.  Sǐ.

So you can imagine, car licence plates with number eight are very popular and they demand a very high price.  When negotiating prices in the market, many Chinese people use one hand to signify numbers.
Yī, èr, sān, sì, wŭ, liù, qī, bā, jiŭ, shí.

If you want to learn how to write the numbers from one to ten on a mobile device, you can free download the Open University’s “Chinese Characters First Steps” app, following the link on the website.

Dur: 3’30”


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