Belief in the baleful or beneficent influence of numbers is ubiquitous in Chinese culture, says Wenran Jiang of the University of Alberta's China Institute.

"It's a kind of Chinese numerology, not a science, a philosophy or an art," Jiang says.

"Think of it as a superstition that almost everyone pays attention to ... especially when it comes to groups of numbers and how they sound, and what they add up to."

Chinese numbers and what they sound like

 0  you
 1  want or will
 2  love
 3  life
 4  death
 5  I or unity
 6  smoothly
 7  wife or family
 8  rich
 9  long time or forever

Those combinations can include 518, which when spoken in many Chinese dialects sounds like the phrase "I will prosper."

In Hong Kong and southern China, the local Cantonese tongue makes the numbers 289 resemble "easy long-term prosperity" making that combination especially valued for an address, a bank account or a cellphone number.

Similarly, people avoid the numbers four and combinations of digits that add up to that amount.

The Chinese word for four, spoken in some dialects, sounds like the word for death.  Other numbers, including seven and in some areas one, are also not popular.

Jiang says China's recent economic growth and advances in education have, if anything, made devotion to numerology even more alluring.

"This practice lives on in modern China. People go on with their lives, use technology and science, but when it comes to weddings, meetings and other things, when they have a choice, they go with the lucky numbers," he says.

'Even I do this'

Laughing, Jiang points to his own phone number which contains two pairs of lucky numbers. "Even I do this," he says.


People hold a Chinese flag after the dawn flag-raising ceremony in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Aug. 8, 2008. The date is considered to be lucky by many Chinese. (Greg Baker/Associated Press)

"Think Friday the 13th in Western society.  Many people [in the West] do fear it or try to avoid it. It's the same with the numbers [in China]. It does no harm but maybe does some good."

Some in China worry that this year's Olympic lucky numbers may have been misinterpreted.

The fact that the numerical dates of the Sichuan earthquake (May 12 or 5/12) or the worst day of the recent riots in Tibet (March 14 or 3/14 ) add up to eight, or the luckiest single digit of all, has worried some who follow numerology.

To Chinese fortune teller and Hong Kong-based feng shui master Raymond Lo, using Western numbers to denote the year is where people have been led astray.

"The Western calendar calls this year 2008 but in Chinese we call it the year of the rat," Lo said.

"The year of the rat is actually made up of two elements … earth sitting on water…and this … is like a mountain which is floating in a sea which means the earth is unstable."

But Lo is definitely in the minority in today's China.

The pursuit of lucky numbers, and avoidance of their unlucky counterparts, has never been more intense or widespread, Jiang says.

It's also obvious that traditional numerology enjoys some degree of support from China's Communist authorities, who once campaigned to eradicate superstition from their society.

Who else in a rigid, centrally controlled country like China could have approved the decision to start the Olympic Games opening ceremony at eight minutes past the eighth hour of the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008?