written by: davidmakofsky
• edited by: SForsyth
• updated: 8/2/2012
Superstitions represent one of the links of our contemporary culture to the society of our ancestors. This is especially true of the Chinese culture. The article investigates numerical traditions, which can affect both business and family matters in China.
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Culture and Bad Luck
Many cultures contain good and bad luck superstitions associated with numbers. In China the issue of luck is associated with the sounds of words in the language. Comparing Western and Chinese culture, it is interesting how Chinese “luck" symbols are associated with the oral and visual aspect of the ancient Chinese pictographic language. The association of bad luck with numbers is serious business, and it has a profound impact on the way Chinese conduct their lives
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Verbal Expressions of Bad Luck
麻烦 máfán (a as in father, mafan): A Chinese person will say, what a bother, what a burden.
Even worse, 不走运bù (u as in wood) zǒu (ou as in go) yùn (u as in wood).
bù zǒu yùn really is, literally, bad luck.
走运zǒu yùn is good luck, and with this you strike it rich.
To make this negative, Chinese adds 不bù a character which negates what follows.
灾祸 zāi (ai as in kite) huò (uo as in wall) is another way to express misfortune.
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Unlucky Numbers in Western Culture and Chinese Culture
Western culture has created the word triskaidekaphobia, meaning a phobia or fear associated with the number 13. In Christian tradition, it has been said that Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, was the 13th or last to sit at the table. The combination of “Friday" and “13" is also associated with bad luck, and perhaps this has something to do with the crucifixion of Jesus (Friday) and the number 13.
In Chinese culture in particular and Asian culture in general, this aversion is associated with the number 4. In Chinese 死 sǐ (‘i’ as in thunder) means “to die" while 四 sì, a completely different character, means ‘4’ (‘i’ as in thunder).Even though the characters are different, both are pronounced in a similar manner, with a tonal difference. The situation is more pronounced with 十四 shí sì, the number fourteen. The counterpart character is 誓死 shì sǐ , or dare to die
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Unlucky Four in Practice
As we might well expect, the effect of having a very common unlucky number is great – funny, tragic, and interesting at the same time.
Consider buildings: Just as some Western buildings may skip the thirteenth floor, Chinese buildings will skip the fourth floor. Other anecdotes include the fact that in Hong Kong, some high-rise residential buildings miss all floor numbers with "4", e.g. 4, 14, 24, 34 and all 40-49--36 physical floors.
In Singapore during the early 2000s, Alfa Romeo introduced a new model, the 144. Due to poor sales, the company changed the model number of the product.
For giving money as gifts, wedding sites advise their clients not to give $40 as a gift, or any amount that includes the number four. Gift-givers must also avoid any household sets of four items as wedding presents.
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Phobia and Heart Attack
In fact, there may be a phobic fear in Chinese and Asian culture associated with the numbers 4 and 14. Medical researchers have studied cardiac arrest in a variety of Chinese cultures to see if there is any association with the combination of the 4th or 14th day of the month and heart attacks. The findings are hardly conclusive, but the there has been persistent interest in the problem.
Anna Salleh ABC Science Online collected some sources associated with medical studies: See Associate Professor Nirmal Panesar from the Chinese University of Hong Kong reporting their findings in Medical Journal of Australia, and “Study finds link between coping with stress, heart disease, ABC News Online"