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 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…