Lucky and Unlucky Numbers in Chinese Culture

Most cultures have their lucky and unlucky numbers. In the West, many people from various countries believe that the number 13 brings calamity (with Friday the 13th being an especially unlucky day), whereas 3 and 7 are usually seen as benign. Most Western fairy tales, for instance, use the numbers 3 and 7 in a positive way. What about China, you ask? Such a big country has numerous (pun intended) superstitions, many of them surrounding numerology.

For most of the lucky and unlucky numbers in Chinese culture, their meaning comes from the fact that they sound like something that is perceived as auspicious or unlucky. Many of the meanings come from Cantonese, so that some of them are quite difficult to understand for non-Cantonese speakers, let alone us poor foreigners…

Let us bring some light into the murky waters of this subject. This way, you will be able to dazzle all onlookers at the next party with your vast knowledge of Chinese numerology!

2 – Good Things Come in Pairs.

Two is a positive number, as the Chinese believe that “good things come in pairs”. Therefore, it is lucky to repeat characters (you can observe this in many brand or even company names). In the case of happiness (喜, ), this has even produced its own separate character (囍, a combination of two 喜), which is used in abundance in Chinese weddings.

6 – to Stay or not to Stay.

Six (六, liù) is seen as positive because its pronunciation is very close to the characters 流 (liú, meaning to flow) and 留 (liù, meaning to stay) and sounds fairly similar to 路 (lù, meaning road), which all have good connotations.

7 – Lucky East and Lucky West.

Seven (七, qī) is one of the few instances where a lucky Chinese number coincides with a lucky number in the West. The Chinese like the number 7 because it sounds close to the Mandarin word 起 (), which translates as “arising”. It is also close in pronunciation to 气 (), which stands for life energy or life essence.

8 – the Luckiest of the Lucky.

But by far the luckiest of numbers is the number eight (八, ). I think this is strange, since its pronunciation is actually further away from the lucky counterpart (in this case we are talking about the character 发 – , meaning prosperity or wealth) than many of the other lucky numbers. But maybe it is because the number 8 also sounds similar to the word for 100 (百, bǎi) and the number itself resembles the mathematical symbol for infinity. And who doesn’t like infinite prosperity and wealth? The eight is seen as so positive that you can see its significance in hundreds of instances in daily life in China. To name a few:

– cell phone numbers and car plate numbers involving many 8s (and 6s) are much more expensive than those without those auspicious numbers. Two examples: Sichuan Airlines purchased a phone number consisting solely of eights for CNY 2.33 million, and a man in Hangzhou wanted to sell his license plate with the number A88888 for CNY 1.12 million.

– the Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing began on August 8th, 2008 (08/08/08) at exactly 08:08 and 8 seconds pm local time.

– many flights to and from China bear many 8s (Air Canada from Shanghai to Toronto: AC88, KLM from Hong Kong to Amsterdam: KL888, Etihad from Abu Dhabi to Beijing: EY888, United from Beijing to San Francisco: UA888,…)

– while products in the West are often priced at XX,99, products in China are often sold at a price that ends with an 8.

9 – the Everlasting Emperor and its Dragon.

Nine (九, jiǔ) is also considered a lucky number in the Middle Kingdom, as it has been associated with the Emperor of China (the Emperor was called the dragon and the Empress the phoenix) and in turn with dragons, which are auspicious animals. Another reason for 9 being considered lucky is that it is pronounced exactly like 久 (jiǔ, long lasting).

4 – Unlucky Number.

The unlucky numbers in China can be almost solely reduced to everything to do with the number 4. Four (四, ) sounds almost like 死 (), which means death, so this number is avoided like the plague. And, by association, all the numbers connected to 4 are avoided as well – 14, 24, 34,… Most product names try to find different model names that do not involve the number 4. The Citroen C4 for, instance, has been renamed C quatre (French for four) for the Chinese market. Many buildings do not have the floors to do with the number 4 (no fourth floor, no 14th floor,…). And phone numbers or license plates with many 4s in them are cheaper than their more auspiciously numbered counterparts. So if you are not superstitious, grab on to that phone number ending in 4444 – it will cost you nothing and is really easy to remember!

5 – the Sad One.

Five (五, ) sounds a little like 不 (), meaning not, so it is usually seen as a less auspicious number. Its pronunciation can also be likened to someone crying, so it is used for expressing sadness, especially in number-related Internet slang.

13 – Import of an Unlucky Number.

The number thirteen used to not have a bad meaning in China, but because of Western media import, it has slowly started to be considered unlucky here as well. This leads to the funny situation that a building’s floor numbering might jump from 12 to 15, as both the 13th and the 14th floor have been omitted.

18 – the Exception to the Rule.

We have heard before that in China, basically, everything associated with the number 8 is considered lucky. Not so the number eighteen. The reason is that hell is supposed to have 18 levels, so most Chinese will avoid the number 18 like the devil.

If your head is swimming, don’t worry – in case of doubt, ask for clarification in the comments and I will be happy to explain the meanings of lucky and unlucky numbers in Chinese culture to you. Also feel free to pass on this post to those you know who might be interested.

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