Chinese Symbolism - The Meaning of Numbers

Posted by Christine Boado on October 15, 2012

In Chinese culture, many numbers have significant meanings based on the Chinese word that the number sounds similar to. Some numbers are considered auspicious solely based on their phonetic similarity to words in the Chinese language. Chinese people love to have certain numbers appear in their phone numbers or addresses and will even pay extra in order to secure numbers they believe to be auspicious.

In everyday life or business activities it is prudent to be cautious of these meanings but their meaning is even more important in gift giving because the meanings of the numbers are translated into the gift itself. Here are some of the common meanings behind single digit numbers in Chinese culture.

Number (Chinese Character, Pinyin) Meaning
1 (一, yī) Being the first number, the number one has generally positive meanings but is not considered as auspicious as other numbers and has no significant homonyms.
2 (二, èr) A homonym for the word 'love', the number two is said to be lucky for couples. "Good things come in two's" is a common belief in China and manifests itself in the common practice of repeating words in company names and products, such as the famous QQ car.
3 (三, sān) Similar to the word for 'birth' the number three is considered auspicious. In addition, 3 is though to signify family, since the Chinese nuclear family begins with 3 people: father, mother, and child. For this reason it is common to give a gift of $333 as a wedding present as it represents a wish for family.
4 (四, sì) The number four is considered especially bad luck because it sounds like the word for 'death'. The number is so unlucky that most buildings in China do not have a 4th floor.
5 (五, wŭ) Five is a homonym for the word 'I' in Chinese and is played with in numeral sequences. For example, 518 can sound like "I want wealth," and is a number considered lucky. In architecture, the number five is associated with the five elements (water, earth, fire, wood and metal) and so many buildings will have structures repeat five times. The Tiananmen Gate in the Forbidden City has five arches for this very reason.
6 (六, liù) Six has mild good connotations. A homonym for 'fluid' or 'smoothly', the number six appears in many business setting where wishes for a fluidity of wealth or for smooth business transacitions is desired.
7 (七, qī) The number seven symbolizes unity and is a lucky number for relationships. It is one of the few numbers that is considered lucky in both Western and Eastern cultures.
8 (八, bā) Eight is thought to be the luckiest of all the numbers because it is homonymous with the word for 'fortune' or 'wealth.' The number is said to hold so much luck, that merely having the number eight in one's phone number, address or license plate is regarded as auspicious. In the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the opening ceremony was held on August 8 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes after 8pm.
9 (九, jiŭ) The number nine is considered to be a good number because it was often associated with the Emperor of China. Being the largest single digit number, the number nine is said to signify the most one can attain in this lifetime. In Chinese folklore, there is said to be nine heavens. In addition, the number nine sounds like 'long-lasting' and is used in many weddings.

In addition, sequences of numbers or multiples of certain numbers are thought to magnify initial meanings. The number 18 is significant both because it is a multiple of 9, but also because it contains the number 8. In contrast, people will go out of their way to avoid the number 4. The Chinese believe that the negative energy associated with the number four is so great, that even a series of eights can be unlucky is the first or final number is the number 4.

Although the meanings behind numbers may simply be superstitions, it can't hurt to take caution when it comes to choosing numbers. They might not mean much to you but the numbers you choose can make all the difference between giving a gift of prosperity and offering a wish for bad fortune.

  • Gao, Kane. "Superstition | Illuminant.." Illuminant. Public relations and strategic communications focused on China. Offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Sydney and New York City.. (accessed July 26, 2012).
  • "In China, It's All About the Numbers." Weird News from all over Asia. (accessed July 26, 2012).
  • "Numbers in Chinese culture - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (accessed July 26, 2012).

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Comments (2 Comments)
Posted by Lily on November 17, 2013

In Mandarin at least, the number “5” and word “I” are not homonymns. “I” is pronounced wuo and 5 is pronounced wu. Different tones, etc.

Posted by wc on April 13, 2013

good post, educational.
and with references!

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