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From what I've Googled so far, there are lots of claims that the number 4 is considered unlucky in Chinese. 四 is understandably considered unlucky in Japanese and Korean because it sounds identical to the Sino-Xenic word for "death", 死 (in Japanese in particular, with the exact same accent pattern). In Chinese, this claim is a lot less convincing. Many articles, including these shoddily sourced ones from Wikipedia, Chinese numerology and Tetraphobia, stop short at claiming it "sounds similar to", "is nearly homophonous to" or "sounds a lot like" the word for "death". However, as this table displayed in the Tetraphobia article shows, 四 and 死 have different tones, except only in Shanghainese; even the supposed photo evidence is said to have been taken in an elevator in Shanghai. In most other dialects (see Wiktionary entries for and ), they always have different tones. In Mandarin, the syllable represents not just 四, but at least 53 other different characters, so if 四 is "unlucky" merely because it sounds "similar" to 死, what makes it especially different from those 53 characters? Or are they all "unlucky"? If we go back to Middle Chinese, 四 sounds identical to 肆 (which is, admittedly, used as an alternative to 四 in modern financial contexts), so is 肆 "unlucky" too?

So my question is, is 四 really "unlucky" because it sounds "similar" to 死? If so, why do only and sound "similar", but not for example? Is tetraphobia common in most dialects, or only in Shanghainese?

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    if you doubt it, you’re foreigner lah 😼 “ 近年,香港部份住宅樓宇連**40至49樓也全部跳過,即39樓的樓上已經是50樓**,如凱旋門[3]、萬景峯[4]等; 香港的國際金融中心IFC中,**沒有14、24、34和44樓**,同時出於對13的忌諱,亦沒有13樓。換言之,由12樓直接跳到15樓。” zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/四的禁忌#香港 Apr 24, 2022 at 11:03
  • @水巷孑蠻 I am a "foreigner lah" ✌ and I am doubting. I read a bit about Sinitic and Sino-Xenic languages, but I don't actually speak Chinese. Apr 24, 2022 at 11:18
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    @THummus You'd think someone somewhere must've done decent amounts of research on this superstition if it's supposed to be that common. Compare this NatGeo article on Friday the 13th and this one on the Chinese number 4. The difference in authoritativeness is astonishing. One features mathematicians and historians, the other reads like an amalgamation of blog posts. Apr 25, 2022 at 2:38
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    @Vun-HughVaw Oh I see what you mean now. "Sounds similar to death" might be the reason people cite, but that might not be the reason it was originally considered unlucky. Similar to how folk etymologies are often cited by native speakers, despite not being accurate
    – T Hummus
    Apr 25, 2022 at 2:49
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    @Vun-Hugh Vaw Yes, academic / authoritative researches in this area is sorely lacking. Hence I could only speculate. Generations of Chinese speakers merely took it for granted that it means what it means and left it at that. As for formal academic researches, well, imagine the reaction of an all Chinese University Funding Committee or a doctoral thesis candidate asking to do researches into why, how and whatnot the 4 is considered unlucky in certain historical / cultural traditions of some Chinese groups owing to its similar vocalization of the word for "death" You want to give it a try? Apr 25, 2022 at 3:23

4 Answers 4

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"...if 四 is "unlucky" merely because it sounds "similar" to 死, what makes it especially different from those 53 characters?"

My speculation, and too long for the Comment section, hence written here.

The number 4, (in fact all numbers), is easy for all levels of Chinese society to relate to as not every Chinese know all the 53 characters, but every Chinese, literate or not, knows numbers. Thus, I surmise, numbers rather than words are given these particular connotations.

And different dialects have their own negative / positive numbers.

13 sounds in Cantonese like "definitely alive", 6 in Hokkien sounds like the English word "Luck", and 14, (not just 4), in Cantonese sounds like "definitely dead"

And finally, the Chinese like to play around with numbers to euphemistically represent ideas, especially negative ones, like, 三长两短 = "3 long, 2 short", which, as you should know means meeting with such a serious calamity that might lead to possible death. But why "3 long, 2 short"? Well, a coffin, minus the cover, has 3 long & 2 short planks of wood, (2 sides & 1 bottom), and the (2 short ones at both ends).

Of course you could find, from the 53 words you mentioned that may have similar sounds to represent these ideas, but for ease of recognition and commitment to popular memory you just cannot beat the numerals. Which is why bus services anywhere in the World have service numbers next to words to indicate its destination or route. Thus even if you are a foreigner or illiterate, you know that bus #393 goes to, say, 高楼街道, even though unable to read 高楼街道. Also numbers could be seen clearly farther away than words.

And Chinese people, especially those in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore like "168" for car their numbers because 168 sounds, in Cantonese, like "一路发", "Prosperity all the Way", and you should know why "164" is a no-no.

But then again the Malay population of Malaysia likes "444" for their cars. Why, because 4 sounds like "Dapat" which in the Malay language, means "Got it", i.e. got whatever your heart desires.

And no Christian would have 666 for a car number as it is the number for the Devil, and also, 666 sounds like "sick, sick, sick". But to the Hokkiens, 666 sounds like "Luck, Luck, Luck"

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  • And in recent years, 666 has become a famous Internet buzzwords that means "amazing".
    – Krahmal
    Jun 24, 2022 at 6:58
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No necessary. It's common during engagement ceremony for the groom-to-be family to give four gifts, typically tea, cans, etc., to the bride-to-be family. Surely four cannot be considered unlucky in ceremonies like this.

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  • That's a good point. There are tons of things related to the number 4: 4 cardinal directions, 4 symbols (dragon, tiger, sparrow, tortoise), 4 heavenly kings, 4 seasons, 4 gentlemen, 4 tones, 4 seas, 4 dragon kings, 4 great beauties, 4 books & 5 classics, etc. Apr 24, 2022 at 13:45
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    I think the negative connotation of 4 here stands on its own because it sounds like the word for "death", not "4 kinds of things" Apr 24, 2022 at 14:05
  • @Wayne Not sure what you mean. What about the examples of 14, 24, 34, 40-49 樓etc. that 水巷孑蠻 cited?
    – joehua
    Apr 24, 2022 at 14:13
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    It is what the 4 sounds like that carries the negative connotations, not 4 per se. Thus 14, 24, 34, 49, sound like, in Cantonese, "definitely dead", "easy to die", "life, death", "long dead" respectively. Thus if your housing Unit is located on, say, the 14th Floor, then your answer would sound like in Cantonese, (when asked which floor you live in), "I live on the definitely dead floor" So it is not the number 4 per se that carries the negative connotations when used as a mere measurement of unit, but the negative "soundings" that is heard when spoken. Apr 24, 2022 at 14:32
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    Giving 4 gifts is different from talking out loud about the four gifts. "We're so happy for you, here, one, two, three, DIE."
    – Beanluc
    Apr 26, 2022 at 18:36
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Let's just make this fairly simple, Chinese people like to 图吉利. (It's like being lucky with numbers and names... like getting rich is 发发发 or 888 if you want to pack a red packet, not very close in pronunciation right?)

So yes, from what I grew up with, "4" is considered ”不吉利" exactly because it sounds like death since it is "si" (The tone literally does not matter, it just sounds alike and therefore considered unlucky).

Anything with that sound can be considered unlucky, but other words like "饲" or "私“ or ”似“ etc., are not used in housing or things more connected to life (you get the idea) as often as numbers like 4.

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    Yes, and there are people who deliberately exaggerate the tonal inflection of 4 to make it sound even more like "death" to make a point. So, I think it is therefore not helpful to talk only about the "inherent nature" of the number 4 per se, but what it sounds like in certain situations in our understanding of its negative connotations. Your point about "The tone literally does not matter, it just sounds alike and therefore considered unlucky" just about sums it up. Apr 24, 2022 at 15:03
  • "The tone literally does not matter, it just sounds alike" This is the part that I don't find convincing. The Chinese languages are known to have tones as a phonemic feature. Look up any demo of tones and you'll get examples of different syllables that differ only in tones, like mā, má, mǎ, mà. To dismiss something as vitally important as tones altogether is really odd. Also "connected to life" seems too vague & subjective. What about compounds like "私用" or "私人"? I'd argue they're intimately "connected to life", cuz I surely wouldn't wanna confuse "private person" with "dead person". Apr 24, 2022 at 16:03
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    @Vun-HughVaw For compounds, I believe "si" loses the connotation of "death" because it doesn't stand alone and could not be interpreted as 死. The number 4 stands alone in daily conversations and like elevator floor levels, so it can be interpreted that way. Same with other things like 发 can be 8, but 法律 is in no way has the same meaning as “发” (You get the idea). These are the way that I grew up with, the tone does not matter when you want to 图吉利
    – De Rien
    Apr 24, 2022 at 16:19
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    @Vun-HughVaw Sounding alike is not sounding the same and sounding the same is not necessary for human imagination to take place, see: puns.
    – xngtng
    Apr 24, 2022 at 21:55
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In my daily life, I find that numbers are quite important when it comes to the license plate( sound in Chinese of 4 is like die and 8 is like luck). I think, unlike other things that people can not control the number, license plate numbers are what people can choose and people will say it many times. A similar situation is floor number.

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  • Human beings, perhaps owing to a lack of natural bodily protection and inborn weaponry, unlike animals, require some form of external agency for survival. Hence the need to develop weapons and clothing. This need extends to psychological comfort as well, and thus having "lucky", auspicious numbers for cars, house numbers, etc, and having tattoos, war paint, wearing fearsome masks, etc, satisfy this need. Not being controversial, but religion with a powerful being or numerous beings watching over us and defeating our enemies supply the same need. Apr 28, 2022 at 13:41
  • You should provide reasons for one considered "unlucky" and the other reprints "lucky".
    – r13
    Apr 29, 2022 at 18:40
  • sound in Chinese of 4 is like die and 8 is like luck
    – wznmickey
    Apr 30, 2022 at 5:06

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