The Chinese are a very superstitious people, strong believers in Good Luck and Bad Luck. Certain colors, like red, are good luck; white is on the bad-luck side. And whenever new buildings are designed, its standard to call in a geomancer to get the ghosts out and make sure the principles of Feng Shui are diligently followed.
Numbers are an especially important source of good or bad luck. The numbers 8 and 28 offer the best luck (I’m not sure why). But then there are the bad luck numbers, notably 4 and 14. I have never been in a building in Beijing that has a 4th or 14th floor. But it’s something I never really thought about — until I was given a new phone number last year.
13XXXX14114 — that’s my number. If only my Chinese had been a bit better at the time, I would have instantly demanded another. You see, the word for “one” in spoken Chinese is “yi” or, whenever you read it in a phone number, “yao,” which also means to want or to need. Then there’s the number 4, which in Chinese is “si” (pronounced kind of like the word “sir” but without the “r”). I didn’t know it at the time, but si has another meaning: to die.
So a few weeks ago I was chatting with a Bloomberg reporter who’s lived here a number of years and he asked for my phone number. When I told him “13XXXX14114” he started laughing out loud. “Do you know what that means?” he asked. “Your phone number says, ‘I want to die, I want to, I want to DIE!'” He was giggling for a good 60 seconds. It was a revelation; no wonder no one liked my phone number.
Now that I’m almost through here in China I figure it’s too late to bother changing it. At least now I know why, for the past seven months, people have recoiled upon hearing my phone number. Remember this when you apply for a phone number in China. No 4’s, and especially no 14’s.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.