Shake the dice

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Throughout South East Asia, and most particularly in China, cultures have a strong reliance on superstition, a deep connection with symbolism and an historic attention to ritual. This manifests itself in a number of interesting customs from a popular addiction to gambling along with theories on the luck or otherwise attributed to numbers.

Historically China has been known as a gambling place and with due reason since it is where the games originated. While in Europe there are gamblers devoted to games like the popular Black Jack, Baccarat and Roulette, in China you can’t walk into a casino without seeing Mahjong, Fan-Tan or Pai Gow.

Chinese Mahjong is a game for four players involving skill, strategy, and calculation, along with a certain degree of chance.  Fan-Tan involves a square marked in the centre of an ordinary table, where players then bet on the numbers, setting their stakes on the side of the square that bears the number chosen. Pai Gow is poker (also called double-hand poker) and can be played with playing cards holding poker hand values or with Chinese dominoes.

It’s your lucky number

Numerical challenges are part of the thrill of gambling and from the very biggest to the very smallest, the ancient Chinese were highly specific in their delineation of numbers, with the words tsai which translates as 100 trillion/ cheng 10 trillion and chien a trillion right down the word hsien for one hundred millionth / sha one billionth and ch’en one ten billionth; they even had a word daoshu meaning to count backwards.

Numbers are even more prominent a consideration when it comes to luck. The number two is pronounced “Yi” which means “Ease“ and is very similar to “Yu” which means “Bountiful”. The number six is pronounced “Liu“, which sounds like the word for “slippery” which can mean “everything goes smoothly”. The number 666 is considered one of the luckiest numbers; it can be seen prominently in many shop windows and people often pay extra to get a mobile phone number that has this string of digits.

Likewise in terms of good fortune is the number eight which in Mandarin is pronounced “Batt” in Cantonese, and “Ba” in Mandarin, which is very close to the word for “Prosper” (“Fatt” in Cantonese and “Fa” in Mandarin). Similarly, the number nine is pronounced “Gaau” in Cantonese, or “Jiu” in Mandarin, and is the same as “Forever” or “Permanence” in both languages. Hence why you see many aquariums in Chinese restaurants or pictures of fish. Usually there are 8 or 9 fish. ”8 fish” sounds like “Bountiful prosperity”, “9 fish” sounds like “Permanent Bounty”. Even “889” or 999 is an auspicious number. It can mean “Prosper, prosper permanently.

The Chinese particularly like car plates with numbers 118 which is pronounced “Yat yat fatt” in Cantonese and sounds like “Everyday prospers”. 1128 which means “Everyday easily prospers” and 888 is “prosper, prosper, prosper”. However, car numbers like “1164” are not popular because it can be interpreted as “Yat yat look say” which can mean “Everyday roll over and die”. A carplate of a Hong Kong owner (i.e. Cantonese speaker) with just the numbers 32168 translatesclose to ‘sang yee yat low fatt‘, meaning ‘a very profitable business all the way’.

So 2,6,8,9 are good luck numbers. The number 4 however denotes bad luck. The Koreans, Japanese and Chinese (both in Cantonese and Mandarin) avoid the number 4 since in all languages it has a very similar pronunciation to the word for death. Chinese and Korean buildings often do not have a fourth floor replacing the number 4 (sa) with the letter ‘F’. Some Asian airports even eliminate Gate Four as well. Likewise the number 1414 is especially avoided because when spoken it can be interpreted as the words “definite death, definite death”.

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