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4 - Tetraphobia

Fear of certain numbers is called "arithmophobia" or "numerophobia." Different cultures are afraid of different numbers - in the West the number 13 is considered unlucky [Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13], and in the United States aircraft designation systems normally skip this number. Tetraphobia is an aversion to or fear of the number 4. Some have suggested that the Chinese skipped the number "four" in designating military aircraft because of the link between "four" and death.

Numbers play a role second only to food in Chinese custom and culture. It is believed that numbers can determine a person’s fate- for example in the naming of a child. Certain numbers are considered lucky, and others unlucky. The luckiest number in Chinese culture is eight, as the Chinese for eight sounds like the word for ‘lucky’. Four, conversely is a very unlucky number as in Chinese it sounds like the word for death. Thus Chinese adhering to the customs try to avoid the number four in, for example, car number plates, house addresses etc. Seven can also signify death, and '1' loneliness.

Traditional Chinese culture has a whole system of supernatural claims ranging from an individual’s birth, marriage, and death (such as geomantic omen, eight characters about one’s birth, etc.). As far as numbers are concerned, 3, 5, and 9 are culturally favored numbers: 3 is the most prominent figure which generates everything on earth according to Taoism; 5 means five essential elements of the cosmos and was incorporated into the theories of Chinese herbalism; 9 is a homophony with longevity which is a basic component of Fu Lu Shou culture (material secularism).

However, the traditionally favored numbers 3 and 5 do not stand out as lucky numbers in the everyday lives of most contemporary Chinese people. In an age dominated by market economy thinking, 6, 8, and 9 are more frequently regarded as lucky numbers. Among these, 8 is the luckiest, and is adulated for its power to bring good fortune and generate wealth.

One of the peculiarities of the Chinese language is that it has a very large number of written characters but a much smaller number of spoken sounds. As a result, many Chinese characters share the same pronunciation, i.e. are homonyms. Four is considered an unlucky number because the words for "death" and "four" have similar pronunciations in Mandarin, Cantonese [and Japanese]. Many hospitals and other buildings used by Chinese don't have a fourth floor, as some Western buildings don't have a 13th floor. Also, things like dishes and utensils, which are sold in sets of four in the United States, are sold in sets of five in China.

Chinese aircraft and aviation engine designation series begin with the number 5. But this may not have precluded the designation of the Y-4 [Chinese copy of the American C-47 transport] or the H-4 [Chinese copy of the Soviet Tu-4 bomber]. The Mikoyan MiG-17F might have been designated the J-4; versions include J-4 and JJ-4 (MiG-17U); though these designations are questionable and not widely attested.

The phobia of four is not absolute. In 1978, the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping recognised the need for general reform and had embarked upon the national strategy of 'Four Modernizations', in agriculture, industry, science and technology and finally, national defence. And the Four Divine Creatures, also known as the Four Heraldic Animals, Four Directional Animals, and Four Symbols, symbolize the four directions and an associated season as follows: Vermillion (Red) Bird - south and summer; White Tiger (baihu) west and autumn; Azure Dragon (qinglong) east and spring; black tortoise coiled around by a snake known as the Black Tortoise (Black Warrior) (xuanwu) north and winter. The Four Gentlemen (sijunzi), also known as the Four Plants of Virtue, include the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. Each of these plants represents one of the seasons. The orchid represents spring. The bamboo represents summer. The chrysanthemum represents autumn and the plum represents winter. The four plants together represent a year.

Before the Revolution it was said that most Chinese had no clear idea of any one religion. Their beliefs (if their faith may be called a belief at all) was made up by a strange combination of all that is unnatural and mysterious to be found in the faith of all of the several sects. They paid equal devotion to the gods of each. Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Mahometan, Jewish, Catholic, and Atheistic ideas, combined with a superstition that made every circumstance in life to portend some evil or good. The belief that trees, brooks, and stones were endowed with real intelligence, and can injure or benefit man as they may happen to feel, was far from being a poetical one. It kept the soul in constant alarm and loaded the mind with care. When combined with other ideas, that the heavens, the earth, the sea, the sky, paradise, and hell were filled with wrangling, fickle, avaricious gods, whose only occupation was to fight over the disposition that shall be made of man here and his soul hereafter, it became doubly terrible.

A belief in lucky numbers pervaded the whole arcana of Chinese life and literature. In obedience it would seem to an impulse the influence of which is distinctly marked in literary traditions. The doctrine of the hidden properties and harmonies of numbers imbues the earliest recorded expression of Chinese belief. It would seem that the popular saying "There is luck in odd numbers" meets with as much belief in China as in England. The number 3 is, with an odd exception relating to marriage ceremonies, deemed auspicious. Thus Chinese speak of the 3 decades of heat, the 3 powers united in nature (t'ien, yang and yin), the 3 systems of doctrine, the 3 forms of obedience, the 3 mental qualifications, the 3 powers of nature (heaven, earth and man), and so on, to say nothing of the phrases in which the same number is pressed into service to express real or assumed historical, geographical, and other facts, such as the "3 kingdoms," the "3 armies," the "3 rivers," the "3 heroes," "Three Represents".

Many of these have of course a reference to popular superstitions. Five and Seven appear to be the favorite numbers in this respect. All the forces and phenomena of nature are based upon the number five:- there are therefore, Five active organs: the stomach, the lungs, the liver, the heart, and the kidneys. Five colours: Yellow, White, Green, Red, Black. Five varieties of taste: Sweet, Acrid, Sour, Bitter, Salt. Five elements: Earth, Metal, Wood, Fire, Water. Five planets: Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury. Five regions of heaven: Centre, West, East, South, North. And so on throughout nature. And similarly as sounds belong to the phenomena of nature, there must be five of them.

Seven, it will not be forgotten, was the perfect number of the Hebrews. Not only was creation the work of seven days, but there was a seventh day sabbath, a seventh month sabbath, a seventh year sabbath, and of a seven times seven years sabbath, or years of jubilee. In some accounts animals entered the ark by sevens; there were seven years of famine; seven years of plenty ; seven priests with seven trumpets, surrounding the walls of Jericho seven days ; Balaam commanded seven altars to be prepared for the sacrifice of seven oxen and seven rams ; silver was purified seven times; seven women took hold of one man ; a man was possessed by seven devils; and in the Revelations, there are seven churches, seven candlesticks, seven spirits, seven stars, seven lamps, seven seals, seven angels, seven vials, seven plagues, seven thunders, and of a dragon with seven heads, and seven crowns upon his heads.

The Chinese not only consider five a more perfect number than seven (with the exception of the followers of the Indian Budhists, who, in Imperial China, were only a tolerated sect), but they had no weeks or weeks of only five days, if the customary interval between one market day and another in country districts may be so called.

"The number five holds tremendous significance in nearly all Buddhist traditions. It refers to the Five Colors (Goshiki), the Five Senses (Goshiki), the Five Wisdoms (Gochi), the Five Buddha (Gobutsu), and a host of other important philosophies. The number five is intimately associated with the Chinese theory of the Five Elements, a concept underpinning the Zodiac Calendar, the latter serving as the preeminent calendar of old-world Asia. Indeed, China’s five-element theory is generally thought to predate Buddhism, but in later centuries its influence is dressed predominantly in Buddhist garb. There are dozens of concepts associated with the number five." [Number Five in Buddhist Traditions]

The Five Relationships (Wu Lun) are the basis of the Confucian model of social order and reflect the dream of a well-ordered, harmonious society. That harmony is based on the underlying principle of cosmic order, reflected in social order when everything is in balance. In a given situation, each person is in one of the role categories in the hierarchy of relationships. The Five Relationships are: 1) Emperor to Subject; 2) Father to Son; 3) Husband to Wife; 4) Elder Brother to Younger Brother; 5) Friend-to-Friend. Each role has its own duties and responsibilities. If everyone properly fulfills them, then society will be harmonious and all will benefit. The Five Relationships (wu lun in Chinese), formulated by classical Chinese thinkers such as Mencius and subsequently sanctified by Zhu Xi and other neo-Confucianist metaphysicians, governed proper human relations: that "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals; the others were based on authority and subordination.

In mid- to late Western Han Dynasty a scholastic impulse to group things by fives, in imitation of the Five Phases, worked to suppress mention of a Music classic in connection with the Confucian corpus, possibly resulting in the incorporation of a Music text (an abridged version of the earlier classic?) into a text on rites. For a while under Han, even ardent Five Phases proponents like Jia Yi had emphasized groupings by six, symbolizing the Five Phases and their supreme overlord, the Dao. Gradually, however, talk of six yielded to talk of five, for by this final change, ostensibly devised to restore the old rubric of the Five Classics. Six may have devolved into five by a relatively simple mechanism: the six powers (= Heaven, Earth, and the four directions) became five (the four directions plus the center) by the elevation of the sixth power, Heaven or Dao (symbol of the ruler), above the five.

The number seven, however, is as portentous in China as in the Western world. Besides the Sabbathaical use of the number, it enters so largely into the popular sayings of the people that one is tempted to suppose anything but an accidental or independent origin for its adoption. Thus the Chinese speak of the seven passions, the seven spirits; they wish a bride seven children; there are seven lawful reasons for divorce. The "Seven Joys" is a common tea-shop sign. There are the seven Famous Persons of the Bamboo Grove. Seven hands and eight feet is a common expression for "too many cooks spoil the broth," and a jury was once commonly termed in Hongkong the "seven strangers."

The Maoist revolutionaries were no strangers to numbers. The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention were the rules of discipline laid down by Comrade Mao Tse-tung for the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army during the Second Revolutionary Civil War. They formed an important part of the political work of the Red Army and played a great role in building the people's armed forces, handling relations within the army correctly, forging unity with the masses of the people and laying down the correct policy of the people's army towards captives. From the earliest days of the Red Army, Comrade Mao Tse-tung required the soldiers to speak politely to the masses, pay fairly for all purchases and never impress people into forced labour or hit or swear at people.

The Three Main Rules of Discipline are as follows:
        (1)  Obey orders in all your actions.
        (2)  Don't take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.
        (3)  Turn in everything captured.

The Eight Points for Attention are as follows:
        (1)  Speak politely.
        (2)  Pay fairly for what you buy.
        (3)  Return everything you borrow.
        (4)  Pay for anything you damage.
        (5)  Don't hit or swear at people.
        (6)  Don't damage crops.
        (7)  Don't take liberties with women.
        (8)  Don't ill-treat captives.

There is a widely spread tendency to believe in lucky numbers. The mystical properties of numbers, and the doctrine of chances, have both something to do with this matter. Card-players have a number of crotchets of this kind- 'luck under the deuce,' bad luck under the nine of diamonds, an even number for the trump card. One theory says that even numbers are unlucky, because each can be divided into two, thereby denoting death and dissolution. Gemetria was a science of numbers that involved many mystical attributes of numbers. The Gnostics, for instance, believed that from God emanated 365 angels, one as a guardian for each day of the year; these were called "Abraxas" because the Greek letters of this word signified 365.

Four, as the first square, was highly revered by the Pythagoreans. They swore by it, but ten was the more holy as the symbol of the absolute. One plus two plus three plus four make ten, and four contains the smaller numbers. Therefore, since its contents made ten, it was sacred. Besides, four represented the four elements, the four cardinal points; it stood for equilibrium and for the earth.

Four, as it forms a square, is a noble number, and the great fountain of nature; for are there not four elements, each having four properties! Fire is hot, lucid, penetrating, and subtile; air is humid, transparent, light, and yielding; water is cold, white, ductile, and powerful ; earth is thick, black, dry, and ponderous. There are four cardinal points of the compass, four virtues, four evangelists, four patriarchs, and four rivers environed the earthly paradise. Men have four rights: natural, ciril, national, and military. War requires four things: money, weapons, provisions, and ammunition. A general should have four qualities: courage, wisdom, eloquence, and nimbleness. A bride should have four also: she should be well-born, well-bred, welllooking, and well-dowered.

The Four-Leaved Clover derived its significance from the fact that its four leaves are arranged in the form of a cross. Moreover, its comparative rarity and its very abnormality (if one may so express it) made it seem noteworthy or remarkable. If a person shall wear a bit of this plant he can detect the presence of evil spirits. It also brings a good fortune. A four-leaved clover enables a maid to see her future lover. The four-leaved grass (true-love, one-berry, herb-paris, or leopard's bane) is another mystical cross-leaved plant concerning which much might be said. The quaint St. Andrew's cross (Ascyrum crux-Andrea) is a very interesting plant, with cross-like flowers. Strangely enough, it appears to have no folk-lore attached to it.

St. Augustine held the number eleven to be an evil number, a transgression of ten, which is the number of the law. That thirteen is unlucky is no modern superstition. Thirteen is an unlucky number in the West, because the 13 (Jesus and his twelve disciples) sat at table together just before Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified. Many hotels have no rooms labeled 13; there was no "station 13" on the railroad in the World's Fair Grounds in St. Louis in 1904, and an accidental company of thirteen at a banquet or at table will cause consternation and uneasiness for not a few, and that even among people whom we do not ordinarily consider superstitious.

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Page last modified: 31-12-2018 18:38:29 ZULU