The Chinese Have Given the Number 4 a Bad Rep

from the CBD Tarot de Marseille by Yoav Ben-Dov (cbdtarot.com)
from the CBD Tarot de Marseille by Yoav Ben-Dov (cbdtarot.com)

I grew up trained to fear the number 4. In any scenario where I had to be assigned a number, I would sit there praying that the number 4 would not appear in my assignment and dreading that it would. If my seat number in the exam room had a 4 in it, I’d take it as an omen of impending failure.

I’m not the only one. There’s a name for it: tetraphobia. If they’ve got a name for it, it means I’m not alone. The Taiwanese and South Korean navies avoid assigning the number 4 to their ships. In Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and many other parts of East Asia, you’ll hardly ever see a 4th floor. It’s the 1st floor, 2nd, 3rd, and then 5th. For a race stereotyped to be good at math you’d think they’d know how to count. Hospitals don’t have a 4th floor for sure, and no room number in those hospitals will have a 4 in it.

To the Chinese, 4 means death. 4 means bad luck. 4 means misfortune. 4 means you’re going to suck at life. 4 means you are not a Chosen One. Chosen Ones never get number 4. They get, well, 1. Or 8. Chinese people love the number 8 the way tarot readers love the Ace of Cups or The World card. As for The World card, by most counts it is the 22nd card in the Majors and the theosophic reduction of 22, 2 + 2, is 4 and so take that tetraphobic Chinese people!

I guess back in the day in Chinese grammar schools, the concept of homonyms got glossed over. Everybody there missed the lesson on how a homonym is when two words sound the same but have different meanings. Different. So even though pronouncing the number 4 in most East Asian languages and dialects sounds the same way one might pronounce the word for death, the two words should still retain their different meanings.

Not so to the Chinese. Just because the number 4 sounds like the word for death, suddenly 4 means death. There’s some serious issues with logical reasoning there, which is hilarious to me, because in the Western tradition, 4 means logic, rationality. More on that later.

When I first started study of the tarot, especially when reading with a Marseille deck, numerological associations for the number 4 tripped me up. The numerological association for 4 seemed all too clear: you were doomed. 4 in batons? You’re doomed to fail at work. 4 of cups? You’re doomed to fail in love. You get the pattern. Growing up in the Chinese culture meant I hyperventilated just a little when the number 4 appeared in my life.

Tarot helped me overcome that fear of the number 4. Don’t laugh. I’m serious.

The_Fours_in_Tarot

The Emperor might not be all sunshine and rainbows, but it is still a strong card with an empowering message. In western numerology, 4 symbolizes stability, like the four legs of a table or chair, the four corners of the universe, the four elements, the telegrammaton YHVH. 4 is the number of rationalism. Hey, I like rationalism– 44 means great power and physical vigor. 444 is said to be an omen of the Divine’s presence.

When four Fours appear in a tarot spread, there will be peace and order. The Four of Wands in the Rider Waite Smith deck is all about prosperity. The Four of Cups: introspection. Introspection is hardly death and doom. Four of Swords: repose, recuperation; not your preferred state of being but there is a positive message latent in the card–the loved ones awaiting your return depicted in the stained glass window, the secret weapon underneath you– whereas the number 4 according to the Chinese is straight up bad, no nuances.

Those of Life Path 4 are indispensable to a society. They’re our builders, our planners, our architects, the designers of all social constructs. People of Life Path 4 make things happen. Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates are all 4s. Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, J. P. Morgan, Paul McCartney? All 4s with 4s littered throughout their numerology charts.

Even more intriguing is how 4 is so not a big deal even in traditional Chinese metaphysics. Take the I Ching hexagrams. Hexagram 4 suggests naiveté, not death. Hexagram 14 is abundance, validation, all good stuff, like the Four of Wands. Hexagram 24 hints at progress. Hexagram 34 is a powerful, positive omen. So okay, Hexagram 44 is getting a bit darker. Entropy ain’t great news, but still. Hexagram 54 is back to positive again. I’m using the terms positive and negative very loosely here, by the way, as neither tarot nor the I Ching can be characterized with absolutes. And Hexagram 64 is like the Judgement card, give or take huge liberties with the interpretation.

The Four Pillars of Destiny (四柱命理學), which is said to date back to the Song Dynasty, is founded on the idea that there are four components to mapping out a person’s destiny chart. That destiny chart, based on month, day, year, and time (the four pillars) of birth, is supposed to be a playbook of your life. Four for life, people, not four for death!

Understanding quells fears. It is now my dedicated mission to alleviate tetraphobia among the Chinese. Or– okay– at the very least, the Chinese in my arm’s length social network…

5 thoughts on “The Chinese Have Given the Number 4 a Bad Rep

  1. I used to live in China and studied Chinese as an exchange student many eons ago. I remember that 4 was a big no no. What was stunning to me was that 6 was such a fortunate number, everything had 666 on it from hats to even cigarettes. We used to joke about how apt that there actually is a 666 brand of smokes as they are indeed from the Devil 🙂

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    1. That’s a hilarious story and made me smile this otherwise cold, gray, dreary morning! Thank you for sharing! It reminds me of my sister’s wedding. Her soon to be husband was white and I thought how nice would it be to give him a crash course on our culture, and so I gifted him with a red envelope of $666. Fortunately, he thought it was hilarious and didn’t freak out. (His family is from the deep South and uber conservative Christian.)

      Also, I totally now want to pick your brain about all your cool stories from China as an exchange student!

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  2. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Takig a few minutes and actuasl effort to generate a really goodd
    article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a loot and never seem to get anything done.

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  4. As a quasi-linguist, it makes sense to me that the I Ching does not exhibit the superstition about the number four. A quick check of Wikipedia says that the I Ching was composed 2500 to 3000 years ago. In the development of the Chinese language, some scholars believe that the tonal system was not fully developed at this time, or, in fact, did not exist yet. Time tends to wear away sounds. At the time the I Ching was written, the word for four and the word for death still would have had some final (different) consonants that have since eroded away who vestiges only remain as the modern tones. Much like Latin apis (bee), habet (has), ad (to), a (by/from) all eroded into the sound “a” by Middle French, and not being able to support so many homophones, two were lost and had to be replaced with other words and only two remain.

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