Chinese language Chinese-American Family ghosts

Numbers Game

When I was a lawyer, people thought I was some sort of mathematical genius because I could read a profit and loss statement. That is to say, I could never calculate a discounted cash flow but I could act like I understood investment banker talk.

Out here in the real world, however, most everyone is better at numbers than I am. So now I’m not ashamed to say that numbers confuse me.

two Chinas

Nabu in qipao
Nabu. Image source: unknown

Take, for example, the significance of Double Ten. My Nabu claimed October 10 as her birthday but I have reason to believe that’s not true. After all, my grandmother never would say how old she was and, after she passed, we found various forms of ID listing a wide range of birth years.

It’s possible that it was all an innocent mistake. In her day (circa 1919), China had officially switched to the Gregorian calendar. But the people continued to use the lunar calendar to calculate birth dates and holidays. Nabu could have been born on the tenth day of the tenth month by the lunar calendar. October 10 sounds about right.

Why then the fudging years? Around the same time the lunar calendar was officially thrown into the bin, the idea was to do the same with the Minguo calendar. That calendar counts years starting with the founding of the Republic of China. For us in the West, that’s 1912. In China and Taiwan, that’s ROC year 1. So Nabu wasn’t being vain about her age. She just didn’t want to do the math.

Flag of Taiwan. By User:SKopp ([1]) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In my befuddled mind, it wasn’t just Nabu who was born on Double Ten. I thought the People’s Republic of China was founded then, too. Of course, I was wrong but close. The two China’s celebrate their National Days in October. October 1 belongs to Mao Zedong while Double Ten is celebrated in Taiwan.

Maybe Nabu was being patriotic by choosing October 10 as her designated birth date. After all, the Chinese are crazy about their numbers.

lucky numbers

Mom called me the other day. She said I made a mistake in my blog post. We had twelve dishes at her birthday banquet, not eleven. Apparently, I forgot the soup. She took the opportunity to teach me some new numbers rules for banquets.

She said, you need one dish for each guest plus one. For birthdays, you round up to the nearest even number. For funerals, you want an odd number of dishes. That’s to show that one of us is missing.

In Mandarin, the character for four (sì 四) sounds uncomfortably similar to the character for death (sĭ 死). That’s why you won’t find a 4th, 14th, or 40th floor in a Chinese skyscraper, just as most Western real estate developers will avoid having a 13th floor.

To the Cantonese, the number 6 (luk) sounds like good (juk). They find nothing devilish in the combination 666. For all Chinese, 8 is the luckiest number because bā (八)  sounds like fā (發), which means to make a fortune. Drive around any Chinatown in the world and you’ll see vanity plates with eights.

small change

The last time I was in Los Angeles, I found a treasure coin. Mom kindly called to explain that, too. She said, can you see the four characters that circle the front of this coin (here, shown on the left)? The two vertical ones proclaim this coin to have been minted during the reign of the Kāngxī Emperor (康熙 1622-1723). The horizontal characters read tōngbăo (通宝), which Mom translated literally as all treasure, a so-called cash coin good for value anywhere in the kingdom of China.

Mom wanted to know what was on the reverse side of the coin. She said it might be the year the coin was minted. But even I can read numbers and these were not them. So I got onto the internet. Lo and behold, Kangxi tongbao is a term of art.

Now I know that my coin is brass, not bronze. Its face value is one wén (文). In the 18th century, three wén would buy you a steamed bun, sixteen wén a bowl of noodles and 2400 wén for a year’s school tuition. It was common to string wén into groups of 100, 500 or 1000 to make it easier to pay. Hence, the hole in the middle of the coin.

If my coin had been minted in one of the provincial mints, say, in Taiwan, it might be worth something today. But the inscription on the back of my coin, written in Manchu, says it was minted in Beijing by the Ministry of Public Works. According to the folks at Coin Community, I can get 50 cents to one US dollar for my Kangxi Tongbao.

So numbers-wise I didn’t make out like a bandit. But I’m feeling lucky all the same.

By Karen Kao

Winner of the 2022 Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest, nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and the VERA, author of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. Words (soon) in Hippocampus, Kenyon Review, Tahoma Literary Review and more.