In China, eight is a magic number

The opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics in Beijing will feature thousands of athletes, hundreds of different countries, and, not coincidentally, clocks bearing plenty of the number eight.

With a history of cultural goodwill attached to the number, Chinese officials elected to begin the Beijing Olympics at 8:08:08 p.m. on 8/8/2008. For those counting, that’s one date and time with six eights in it.

Because of its unique pronunciation, eight is considered one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese tradition, said Fengyuan Ji of San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center. A reported record 9,000 Chinese couples plan to tie the knot that day.

In Chinese, eight is pronounced bat, which is very similar to the word for good fortune, which is fat, according to Li.

“The number eight is historically associated with getting wealthier and getting richer,” Li said. “Chinese people considered eight to be very devout. It is certainly one of the most important numbers in our culture.”

Because Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, words and symbols take on special meanings, said Susan Hsieh of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a local civil-rights group. The Chinese culture especially embraces puns and homophones, she said.</p>

“In the evolution of the language, certain words have been selected to bring good luck,” Hsieh said. “Eight is a perfect example of this.”

Wilma Pang, a Chinatown resident running for District 3 supervisor, said she suspects that the importance of the number eight could be tied back to origins in Taoism and Buddhism.

Pang said most Chinese just think the pronunciation of the number bears good connotations, similar to the way the numbers 13 and 666 are treated with disdain in American culture.

Because of the fruitful associations with the number eight, many Chinese citizens make an effort to pluck up items that bear its likeness. License plates and cell phones with plenty of eights are particularly common requests, Li said.

One example of the great lengths gone to for the number came in 2006, when a Chinese man from Chengdu paid the equivalent of more than $270,000 simply to take ownership of the phone number 8888-8888.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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