Wondering why this English flashcard for the word “Thirty” that appears in our Sept 2011 issue has a child next to the character for the number ten (十) and not the character for three (三)?
The number 3 in Chinese, san, is considered lucky because it sounds like sheng (生), or “give birth.” Chinese highly value family and, traditionally, fortune came in the shape of strong healthy babies (like the one on the flashcard). Children were seen a good source of labor for family farms and once grown up they could provide security and income for their aging parents.
Why associate “giving birth to a healthy baby” with a number? Chinese is a language with words that rhyme a lot. Because four tones are used to differentiate sounds, less varied constructions of vowels and consonants are needed to make words. This phenomenon plays a huge role in Chinese culture, allowing for humor and superstitions to arise from a wealth of rhymes.
Superstitions associated with numbers in China are an important part of everyday life. For example the number 8, ba, rhymes with fa “get rich” so phone numbers with many 8s are in high demand and are more expensive than others. If you live in China your building probably doesn’t have a 4th floor because 4, si, rhymes with death, si.
This obsession with numerology can be found anywhere and everywhere. So if you’re looking for security in old age, a life of good fortune, or just a strong healthy baby, let your superstitious side prevail and get yourself a mobile number with a lot of 3s.