Monday, 25 March 2013

Unlucky four: religion in China

Numbers and religion? How could math and faith have anything in common? In China, quite a lot.

There is much to tell about numerology and Chinese religious practice (and even a little to remember about numbers in Western doctrine). This series aims to explore the dimensions of Chinese religious practice that sometimes gets lost in the news, and very few things get lost - even though they are obvious to almost everyone in China - as much as numbers.

The first thing to understand with regard to numbers is that some are 'auspicious,' () or lucky, and others are quite 'inauspicious,' () or unlucky. A few others are just, plain in-between (). This may seem quite strange to the Western observer, but even Western traditions have numbers that have greater or lesser connections to fortune. Nothing in the Biblical tradition compares to three - think of the trinity - and other cultural patterns emphasise sevens, elevens, fours (at least in leaf-clovers), and more.

It is even more complicated in China, a country that professes, at least outwardly, to be secular and a-theistic (in the strict meaning of the term - beyond theism). Theism is safe (for now) but 'on-the-ground' experiences with the secular and 'rational' are a little different. The best way I can begin to explain it is to describe an encounter not in a temple, but rather in a Motorola phone store.

It was 2010, and I was in the heart-of-the-heart-of commercial Beijing - the Wangfujing shopping plaza, which is filled with massive bookstores, cutting-edge fashion shops, and as many camera and phone vendors as you can imagine in a six-block radius. I walked into the store and said that I needed to buy a phone. I planned to be in China for some time, and wanted countrywide calling while I explored sacred mountains, rivers, and inlets all over the People’s Republic.

"I would like to buy a phone," I said. I was asked to choose from among a large array of physical formats, and picked a nice clamshell operation that fit my needs at the time. "How much will that be?" I asked. "Well, you need to pick a number first," was the reply. I knew the drill better than I am, or was, letting on, but bear with me. I played dumb.

"Why do I need to pick a number? Back home, they just give me one."

"No, you need to pick a number." She handed me a big book.

"Well, let’s take 17102447244!"

"Are you sure?"

"Why not?"

"Well, those numbers aren’t very…well, very good."

"What do you mean? They are just numbers."

"Well, it will be less expensive, but those numbers will make people very uncomfortable. They will be afraid to call you."

"How is that possible? They are just numbers."

"No, they are, well…well, more than that. They are pretty unlucky."

I asked how much a 'lucky' number would cost, and it was much more expensive (it had many threes and eights). How was that possible? Lucky numbers make callers feel better, and cost more? Yes, precisely. Numbers in China have enormous consequences for bottom lines in all sorts of businesses, and they appear in a wide range of religious texts, as well. Numbers such as three, five, six, eight, and nine are quite positive, and a phone number with an array of them will give many people a powerful (and economically useful) tingle down their spines. Two, four, and seven are much less compelling, and even have the potential to make people profoundly uncomfortable.

The reasons for this are complicated, and we will only begin to scratch the surface today. This is a theme to which we will return in the coming weeks, so powerfully does it influence everyday life in China and the pages of China’s most revered religious teachings. Numbers will never be far from our thinking in these posts, and no number is as ill positioned and despised as the number four. Why is this? What did four do to anyone?

It has little to do with the number itself. In this case, it is the sound. Imagine that.

The word for 'four' () has the same pronunciation as the word for 'death' (). That the two characters have absolutely nothing in common has not prevented at least a millennium of cultural practice in China (and Japan and Korea) from regarding the sounds with dread. In many Chinese hotels, the floors go from one to two to three…to five to six…and beyond. Four is skipped. It sounds like 'death,' and most people would prefer to be somewhere else.

Of course, you are probably thinking, quite rightly, of Western hotels and business enrepôts that omit the thirteenth floor. You would be correct in making the connection, but even that does not convey adequately the power of a 'death floor,' as contrasted with an 'unlucky thirteen floor.' And it is all - every bit of it - based on sound. Yes, sound. Pronunciation. 'Four' and 'death' sound alike.

Just about a fortnight ago, a golfer in Illinois, playing the fourteenth hole during a nice early-spring day, fell into a deep sinkhole and was barely rescued from probable death, having fallen eighteen feet in the course of hitting his approach shot. News reports noted the golfer’s unlucky fate, as well as his fortune when compared to a Florida napper who fell to his death in a sinkhole just a few days earlier. My Chinese friends saw it entirely differently. On Facebook, more than one Chinese reader pointed out the 'obvious.' Of course, the posts noted, he fell into the sinkhole on the fourteenth hole. Fourteen says, unequivocally, 'surely dead' (十四; 是死). I cannot even begin to convey the knowing 'likes' for this idea.

My response was a twist on that, and my Chinese friends appreciated it, at least from the tone of their comments and 'likes.' I wrote that the fourteenth hole was a challenge, but a bigger dread was room #244. In almost every dialect in the Chinese-speaking world, 2-4-4 sounds like 'you-dead-dead.' It is difficult to imagine a situation more inauspicious than this.

And don’t even get me started (yet) on why I always seem to get placed on the fourth floor of hotels in China. As one Chinese friend told me, "Oh, that’s our culture; it’s not yours. It doesn’t matter if you are on the fourth floor, because it’s not your culture."

Four (and two) have their problems, but they are just the opening volleys in a strategic patterning of numerology in China. We will return to numbers every few weeks, and the enormously complex picture of numbers and religiosity will build from there. @sima1085


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