Reading through old stories for my Chinese New Year post last week I thought it was time to talk more about Chinese number slang. I mention at the end of my post on the traditional calendar that certain numbers “mean” certain things. 1 = will happen/want, 2 = love, 4 = death, 8 = prosper, 9 = longevity. I mentioned that there is often no fourth floor, or apartment four, in Chinese buildings. But there’s a lot more to it than that!
At the time I neglected to mention the number 6, which sounds like the word 流 (liù/liú) meaning flow, way, movement – also considered auspicious; 16 could mean “will go smoothly”. 168 is a very lucky number especially in a financial context – prosperity will flow! Combinations of 6 and 8 are particularly popular for those in business, especially finance.
Something else I didn’t go into is the range of modern number slang terms – strings of numbers that mean certain things. 5 sounds like the pronoun “I/me” (wǔ/wǒ) and zero is used in place of the pronoun “you” (líng/nǐ) – which adds all sorts of possibilities. So 520, for example, means “I love you”. Very different from 250, which is an old way to call someone and idiot (half a half wit).
As texting has gained traction lots of other number shortcuts have become common, especially among couples or groups who are familiar with each other’s number slang. 94 is used to show agreement – as it sounds like a Chinese phrase means something like “for sure” or “it definitely is” (jiǔ sì/jiù shì). Instead of Os and Xs for hugs and kisses, there is 7 and 8 (qīn/qī and bào/bā) although this isn’t universally used.The number 3 might be used in place of the verb “to miss” (sān/xiǎng) – therefore 530 could mean “I miss you”. 510 can be used to mean “I want you” (the word 要 yào falls somewhere between the English words “want” and “will”). A phrase meaning “always and forever,” 一生一世 (yī shēng yī shì), is represented by the numbers 1314 (yī sān yī sì) which makes particular sense in the many areas where “sh” is commonly pronounced “s”. This can then be combined with 520 to make 5201314 – “I will love you forever”.
Since we’ve already got two different homophonic-ish uses for the number 8, why not add a third?! 88 is a way to say “goodbye” when texting. Chinese people use “bye bye” a lot – so much that I started doing it myself! Actually, they now use the character 拜 bài for “bye” so 拜拜 bàibài means “byebye” (拜 on its own is a concept word meaning “worship”). 88 also looks a little like 白白 (báibái), which obviously sounds like 拜拜 bàibài. And it all sounds a little like 8 repeated – bābā.
All of this number crunching makes phone numbers a bit of fun in China. When you go to buy a sim card, the seller will present you with a list of phone numbers to choose from. They are categorised by price – the more auspicious the number, the higher the price. (That means a lot of my foreign friends have 4 and 14 in their phone numbers!) I chose my last number because it sounds good when spoken aloud in Chinese – it almost sounds like a jingle – so it was easy to memorise, easy to recite to Chinese speakers, and easy for them to get instantly. Sichuan Airlines famously spent over 2 million yuan (around $300,000) on a phone number – 88888888, eight eights. In 2006 there was an auction of 10 phone numbers blessed by the abbot of Shaolin monastery, with profits going to support an orphanage. One, ending in four 8s, went for more than $10,000!
Companies often try to play on numbers to make something memorable. McDonalds’ delivery number (and website) is 4008-517-517 – with 517 sounding like “I want to eat” (wǔ yao qi/wǒ yao chi). That’s why I still remember the number two years after I last called it! Papa John’s has 4008-88-7272, with the 72 sounding like “go on, eat!” (qi er/chi a) which they even highlight on promotional materials. (This blog has a post with more on lucky numbers, including a pic of the Papa John’s number.)