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Think Global, Respect Local

The foundation of successful trade is ‘understanding’: customers, product, commercial terms and conditions, logistics, language, markets and culture. An important aspect of language and culture is the meaning of numbers. Most of us have been encouraged to believe that the use of numbers is globally consistent, but in China ‘8’ has special meaning.

Most of us have been encouraged to believe that the use of numbers is globally consistent, wherethe meaning of an '8' means the same in Australia as it does in China. Flowing from recentexperience where colleagues from Australia and China thought they were communicating with theuniversal language of numbers but ended up with different views and crossed wires, we thought aninsight into numbers from a cross cultural perspective, might be interesting and relevant.

China's amazing economic growth has come to the everyday awareness of consumers around theworld, as they come into contact with goods manufactured in China, from Nike shoes to Lenovo(previously IBM) PCs. China' 1.4 (2007) billion population is influencing global' views throughbusiness, education, media, sports and politics, at an accelerating rate, as we can see with exampleslike the Olympic previews in Beijing, which is still a year away. With nearly 10% of the worlds’population in China, adding their perspective and nuance to could shift meaning of even traditionalconcepts like numbers. Consider if each person in China influences just 4 people outside of China,then China could influence nearly ½ of the world’s population.

Through ExpatriateConnect' support of Australian trade with China, we have seen a growingcuriosity into Chinese culture and protocols translating into a groundswell of interest to learn moreabout 'how to do business' with China. To share insights that could assist Australians in globaltrade, ExpatriateConnect (see provides a range of export training andmentoring programs. Ning Chen a recent Chinese university graduate of the ICMS/Macquarie hascollaborated with ExpatriateConnect on this article and in developing training materials to assistAustralians in preparation for doing better business with China.

The foundation of successful trade is 'understanding'. Understanding of customers, product,commercial terms and conditions, logistics, language, markets and culture. One aspect of languageand culture is the meaning of numbers.

The Beijing Olympic ceremony will be held on 8/8/08 and open at 8:08:08 pm. While the Chinese government did not chose 2008 for this event they did choose the auspicious date and commencement time. The pronunciation of 8 both in Mandarin (fa) and Cantonese (fat) are similar. Fa or fat (發) can be translated to mean wealth or sudden fortune, in English. Therefore, most Chinese believe that 8 is a lucky number, which can lead to prosperity.

During Chinese New Year, the most frequent greeting is 'Gong Xi Fa Chai (Mandarin)' or 'Kung Hei Fat Choy (Cantonese)'. Chinese people typically say this to wish each other good fortune in the New Year. Traditionally, the Red Envelope (also called LiShi in Chinese, which is lucky money) is distributed from married adults to children during the New Year season. Nowadays, the Red

Envelope has been widely used as present on many special occasions throughout the year; it can also apply to business situations. People may put various amounts of money into a red envelope depending on their relationship with the recipient; typically a lucky number amount of money is involved. For example, it could be $888 which implies triple wealth. Or it could be $1688 which

suggest enjoying ongoing or continuous, good fortune.

Like with most cross cultural lessons, there are multiple levels of meaning based on situation or context, thus consider the following examples as a broad brush of general observations regarding numbers and their generalised meaning.

Observations of Chinese numbers and their common view

The positive perspective: (Desirable Usage):

  • 1 - unity
  • 2 - double/pairs, double happiness (囍); Easy (Cantonese)
  • 3 - live, activate
  • 6 - slippery, everything goes smoothly
  • 7 - together
  • 8 - wealth, sudden fortune (multiple 8s even better)
  • 9 - long, lasting
  • 168 - towards prosperity
  • 178 - create wealth together
  • 328 - Business prosperous
  • 518 - I will become wealthy
  • 888 - Triple prosperous or extremely wealth
  • 666 - things going super smooth


The negative perspective: (Undesirable Usage):

  • 4 - death
  • 5 - myself, me; no (Cantonese)
  • 7 - ghostly number (due to the tradition, e.g. funeral meal contains 7 dishes); Male genitals (Cantonese, curse language)
  • 14 - going to die; definitely die (Cantonese)
  • 9413 - 9 out 10 chances will die and only 1 out of 10 chances will survive


Unlike in the Chinese culture, 8 does not have special meaning to most Westerners, while 7 often does. Religious influences on western beliefs has subtlety woven meaning of 7s based on the stories of creation taking 7 days, this has evolved to 7 being considered as a lucky number – especially for James Bond 007. Boeing introduced its first aircraft the 707, in 1958 which became the first in a series 707, 727, 737, 747, and the new 767 which reflect the positive or lucky aspect to the number.

Generally, Australians consider 7 is a lucky number. This is supported by behaviour in gambling and selecting dates to get married, in Australia more people chose to get married on 7/7/07 than other days in 2007, three times as many. In contrast Australian seems to like 12 – when buying roses or rolls. A dozen roses can represent love and good luck. On the other hand, 13 is typically

viewed as an unlucky number (except by bakers for their dozen with one extra) – some say due to the biblical meaning of Friday the 13th.

Knowing a bit about numbers can assist business people in positioning their pricing (include an 8), or choosing the date for meetings. As the old age reminds us 'when in Rome, do as Romans do'.


  • www.chinatradegateway/tradecentre