The number “8” and What Chinese People Have Lost “八”和华人所失去的东西
Why are Chinese people nowadays, even highly educated ones, so superstitious about getting lucky to get rich? 8, 8, 8, everywhere, on phone numbers, car license numbers, etc., you see people sporting at least one number 8. And that’s all because in Chinese 8 sounds a bit like the first sound in “getting rich”. Also, nowadays the Chinese New Year’s greeting is “gong hay faht tsoy” (Cantonese pronunciation), which translates into “Happy Wishes for Getting Rich”. Why is getting rich apparently the only thing on Chinese minds?
It hasn’t always been so.
The number 8 hasn’t always been so popular. When I was a kid in Hong Kong during the early sixties, 8 was not always a good word. In Cantonese colloquialism back then, 8 was often used to mean “being gossipy” or invading other people’s privacy, as in “why are you so baht (8), that you want to know even such and such?” In fact, it came from a negative attitude towards the baht guah (八卦), the hexagram from the I Jing (or I-Ching), which was used for divination. During days past Cantonese, or at least educated Cantonese, had looked down upon fortune-telling using the hexagram and upon the occult in general. It had only been a recent phenomenon in Chinese superstition of the last twenty or thirty years, a phenomenon which started in Hong Kong, to make 8 equal to getting rich and for 8 to be so fervently sought after.
As for the Chinese New Year’s greeting, when I was a kid in Hong Kong during the early sixties, the standard greeting was “gong hay teem ding faht tsoy”, which meant “Happy Wishes for Getting Another Boy and Getting Rich”, and “gong hoh sun hay”, which meant “Best Wishes for the New Year”. I don’t remember hearing just “gong hay faht tsoy” or “Happy Wishes for Getting Rich” – so bourgeois! Please note that, true to Confucian tradition, “Getting Another Boy” came before “Getting Rich” – the traditional family came before getting rich, and getting rich was for the family, not a selfish hedonistic pursuit for the individual himself or herself. Having moved away during the sixties from a society dominated by Chinese culture, after all these years it was at first and still is jarring for me to hear “gong hay faht tsoy” without the “teem ding (getting another boy)” in front of “faht tsoy (getting rich)”.
I believe it is wrong to think that Chinese have always been as superstitious and as anxious about good luck and getting rich as Chinese people seem to be nowadays. Back during the old days we had the intellectual and moral compass and framework of Confucianism. Thanks to that framework, we knew how to act and what to do in life; we knew what things to pursue, what things to reject, and how to pursue and reject them. So we were secure, smart and brave; we weren’t so obsessed with good luck and getting rich. Even as recently as during the early 1960’s we didn’t use to be obsessed with all this stuff; we used to be brave and secure back then thanks to Confucianism.
But now we Chinese have turned our backs on Confucianism and so we don’t have anything. Intellectually and morally we have no compass or framework and so we are insecure. A lot of the time we don’t know what we do that will bring us good things and what we do that will bring us bad things. Often we are so ignorant that we don’t even know what is good and what is bad; we can’t tell good from bad. That’s why we grasp at straws; we grasp at superstitions for somehow avoiding the bad and getting the good. That’s why 8 is now a “lucky number” seen everywhere and why 4, which sounds like “death”, is now an “unlucky number” and not seen anywhere.
I think that what we Chinese need to do is to rediscover and regain the good stuff we used to all possess, integrate it with the modern stuff that is good, i.e. science and the free market, and create a new intellectual and moral framework, where we can be secure, smart and brave again.
Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明