China's rapid economic rise on the world stage could vault it to world superpower status in the very near future. But, alarmingly, the Chinese remain very superstitious indeed. Recent example: Beijing scheduled the start of the Olympics for a date and time thought luckiest in Chinese numerology: 8/8/08 at 8:08 pm—down to the eighth second, according to some reports.
When Nancy Reagan used an astrologer to plan some of Ronald Reagan's activities in his Presidency, it was hushed up and minimized. But Time ran a cover story May 16, 1988, The First Lady's Astrologer. In the same issue, White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan was quoted as calling the situation "probably the most closely guarded domestic secret of the Reagan White House" (Good Heavens!). Star consultant Joan Quigley had to assure the public that she did not advise on policy, only the celestial weather.
Clinging to primitive superstitions is weird for a people who have enthusiastically embraced science and technology. China claims to graduate 600,000 engineers annually. Chinese students are known worldwide for a powerful ethic of scholarship second to none. So haven't they heard that science is based on reason?
Ancient cultural beliefs that have no basis in fact have been largely discarded in the West.
But not so in the People's Republic.
"As the world turns its gaze to Beijing for Friday's opening ceremony of the Olympic Games—set to begin on 8/8/08 at 8:08 p.m.—a record throng of 9,000 Chinese couples also will be lining up to get married. It's no coincidence that the world's athletes will be marching into the Olympic stadium at the same time that history's biggest bridal registry becomes the great wall of wedding china.
"It's all about the power of 8.
"The number is viewed as so 'auspicious' among many Asian cultures, and has become so entwined in native superstitions, that Friday's collision of those figure-8/8/8s is expected to reverberate all the way from Shanghai to Silicon Valley." [Lucky number inspired China to start Olympics at 8:08 p.m., 8/8/08, By Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury-News, August 7, 2008]
And Chinese immigrants' exposure to the rational West doesn't seem to help. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on August 7 that many local Chinese used the date to schedule weddings:
"The number eight is considered so lucky that weddings on Friday, Aug. 8—8/8/08—are in high demand. Minutes after the city clerk's office in San Francisco started taking reservations, the date was booked.
"There were people camping out on our reservation system, waiting for the clock to hit midnight," said Karen Hong Yee, the director of the office, which takes reservations up to 90 days in advance. "We tripled our current capacity and are doing 128 weddings that day."[ Thousands to wed on 8/8/08—'luckiest day', By Leslie Fulbright]
Weddings scheduled for 8/8/08 were reported among Chinese residing in Palos Verdes California, Chicago (x4 the normal number of weddings), Seattle, and Manhattan, to name a few. An enterprising Las Vegas hotel offered a wedding package for 8/8/08 costing $888.
Crazy eights doesn't end with marriages.
I called my first pet dog Lucky, but I was only nine at the time (or maybe I was eight).
Chinese will pay extra for purchases containing numerals believed fortunate. In 2003, Sichuan Airlines spent more than $300,000 for a phone number comprised of eights. A house with an eight in its address can be an extra attraction to a prospective homebuyer who is Chinese. Cupertino Properties, a realtor near San Jose, California, presents an online page about feng shui and Chinese numerology.
However, the fondness for eight is an Asian thing, period.
In the English-speaking, pool-playing world, "behind the eight ball" is a slang expression meaning in a difficult situation, so eight is not universally seen as fortunate or even positive. Nor do many Americans plan their activities based on what the Magic Eight Ball says.
Similarly, eight was a bad number for Old West lawman and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok, when combined with aces. The card combination—aces and eights—is remembered as the Dead Man's Hand, because Wild Bill was holding those cards when he was shot in the back of the head at a poker table in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876.
Chinese don't like the number four because it sounds like the word that means death. Elsewhere, however, four finds favor because of its symmetry and stability. The psychologist Carl Jung thought that the combination of a square and a circle represented wholeness and signified completion when appearing in dreams.
In other China irrationality news: Superstitious Olympic nation hopes eclipse signals the end of an unlucky year (Irish Times, August 2, 2008).
"A total solar eclipse, which is caused when the moon blots out the Sun by passing directly between it and Earth, had peasants in ancient China banging drums to scare off the dragon they believed was taking a bite out of the moon. Dynasties rose and fell on the strength of eclipses.
"One week before the torch is lit in the Olympic stadium in Beijing, a total eclipse of the Sun has darkened the Chinese skies. China may be run by sober-suited Marxist-Leninists but superstition runs deep in this ancient country and the eclipse has been seen as the latest bad omen in a year marked by bad luck. The belief is strong that natural disasters and events like eclipses portend trouble for the country's rulers. "
For, as it happens, the supposedly fortunate year of 2008 has not lived up to its billing for China. There were natural disasters like the January blizzard that paralyzed much of the country just as people were traveling home for the New Year and the terrible May 12 earthquake in Sichuan that killed more than 69,000.
In March, there was more bad news: Tibet protests against China heated up, including violent clashes in Lhasa.
This was supposed to be China's great year, in which it would be recognized by the world's people for its increasing power, but in a nice Olympics way.
The PRC leadership hoped that a positive image portrayed by an ultra-modern Beijing would perform a major makeover. The foreign barbarian press and public would hopefully forget all the bad news about poisoned products, child labor, planet-covering pollution, animal cruelty, currency manipulation to skew trade, the destruction of Tibet and general Communist-style tyranny.
Here's a memo to Beijing—a couple lucky numbers won't erase decades of tyranny.
It may seem nitpicky to point out Chinese cultural oddities like superstition. But when the home country of a "model minority" is cranking up to become a major superpower, little quirks have a way of becoming magnified. One reason cited for the over-the-top Chinese anger at the Tibetan protests was the PRC's anger at the disruption to the all-important harmony: "We're welcoming the world, and don't screw it up with annoying ideas of democracy."
So I asked an online Magic Eight Ball, "Will the Chinese have a lucky Olympics?" and the answer was "Outlook not so good."
There you have it! The Eight Oracle has spoken!