Sunday, May 4, 2014


Why the preference for digits over letters? It mostly has to do with ease of memorization. To a native English-speaker, remembering a long string of digits might seem harder than memorizing a word. But that’s if you understand the word. For many Chinese, numbers are easier to remember than Latin characters. Sure, Chinese children learn the pinyin system that uses the Roman alphabet to spell out Mandarin words (for example, the word for “Internet,” 网络, is spelled wangluo in pinyin). And yes, Arabic numerals (1-2-3) are technically just as much a foreign import as the Roman alphabet (A-B-C). But most Chinese are more familiar with numbers than letters, especially those who didn’t go to college. To many, “” might as well be Cyrillic.

This kind of number-language has become an infinitely malleable shorthand among Chinese web users: 1 means “want,” 2 means “love,” 4 means “dead” or “world” or “is,” 5 means “I,” 7 means “wife” or “eat,” 8 means “get rich” or “not,” and 9 means “long time” or “alcohol.” The numbers 5201314, for example, mean 我爱你一生一世,or “I will love you forever”; 0748 means “go die”; and 687 means “I’m sorry.” (See here for more examples.) Chinese has plenty of other number-based slang, such as erbaiwu, or “250,” which means “idiot,” or “38,” pronounced sanba, which means “bitch.” And of course there’s the association of certain numbers with good or bad luck, and the subsequent demand for addresses and phone numbers with lots of 8s (“get rich”) and minimal 4s (“die”). Back in 2003, a Chinese airline paid $280,000 for the phone number 88888888.

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