Superstitious? I Say Not

I recently posted a blog regarding the fact that the upcoming Year of the Sheep will undoubtedly lead to a lower birth rate and some Chinese mothers on the verge of giving birth will choose cesareans if their baby doesn’t arrive naturally before the new year begins on February 19, 2015.

Since that time I have had several Western friends note that this ‘superstition’ is all a bit illogical since the birth would not be natural and whoever or whatever creates the bad luck associated with being born in the Year of the Sheep would know.

That, however, is deductive logic. Cause and effect. You can’t ‘cheat’ the natural order of things.

But that’s not how the Chinese look at the issue. They are inductive logicians and, to them, there is no bowing to or ‘cheating’ the natural order, since no one can really understand the natural order to begin with (The Way in Taoism), which is why there is only what is and what isn’t. To the expectant mother it matters little why the child was born in the Year of the Horse (positive) or the Year of the Sheep (not so good). It only matters in which year the child was actually born. Results are all that matter.

‘Superstition’ is actually not a word you can use in its Western sense when referring to the Chinese. The word implies illogical thinking. To the inductively-minded Chinese, however, there is nothing illogical whatsoever in what they believe. And technically speaking, they’re right. Within the realm of inductive logic there is no such thing as superstition. There is, as Yoda might say, only do or don’t.

In a similar vein, you may have heard that the Chinese put a lot of stock in numbers. This flows from the dual reality that they are inductive in their thinking and that the spoken Chinese language offers so many homonyms – words that sound similar but mean different things.

That is why you will often hear the word dui (pronounced do-aye) so frequently in a conversation. It means ‘correct’ and is used so frequently because when you are carrying on a conversation in Chinese you must ask a lot of questions to determine the context in which words are being used.

Because of this homonyms can exist beyond a single word, creating the opportunity for good or bad luck to be associated with a sequence of numbers, making the rules of numerical superstition very difficult for the uninitiated to grasp.

The Chinese are typically tetra phobic given that the word for 4 sounds a lot like the word for death. Fourteen is possibly the worst possible number as it is a homonym with ‘will die’ and the number 514 is a homonym with the phrase ‘I will die.’ Who wants that?

The number 8 is the Big Kahuna of good luck as its spoken variant is a homonym with the words for prosperity, wealth, and fortune. The number 6 can also be lucky since its spoken variant is a homonym with the words for flowing or smooth, although it’s a notch below 8 because it is better to be rich than flowing and the number 6, as I understand it, can have bad connotations when used in combination with certain other numbers.

As always, the Chinese have figured out a way to commercialize the superstition. When you buy a mobile phone or a license plate you get to choose your number, but the cost of the number will be based upon the value of the numbers you choose. A mobile phone number ending in 4444 would cost virtually nothing – if it even exists. A number ending in 8888 would cost a king’s ransom since the number of occurrences simply multiplies the good luck associated with the number.

Again, I have often been asked, “Don’t people staying on the 5th floor know that they’re really staying on the 4th floor?” (Chinese hotels seldom have a 4th  or 14th floor.)  Of course they do. But they’re not. To the inductive logician, they are staying on the 5th floor, even though it is 4 floors above ground level.

Do you remember the Summer Olympics held in Beijing? They began at 8:08 p.m. on 8/8/2008. I assure you that was not a coincidence.

And as one who flies frequently between China and the U.S. I noticed on one flight that the normally full flight I take was almost empty and there were no more than a handful of Chinese on board. And then it hit me: I was flying on 4/14/14. Few Chinese would take the chance of flying on an airplane on such an unlucky date. (Obviously the flight was uneventful.)

So what are we to make of all this as Westerners? In the end I’ve decided that there is nothing to make. There is no superstition in China. There is only truth. The ‘truth’, however is inductively defined; meaning that only the result matters. The Way, as noted, what we call ‘the natural order of things’, is unknowable to the historically Taoist Chinese.

This is a very hard concept for most Westerners to understand. But that’s because they approach the issue deductively.

At times I’ve wondered if inductive logic isn’t a bit like fatalism. Ultimately, however, I’ve concluded that they are very different concepts. Fatalism implies abdication. The Chinese abdicate nothing.

Personal accountability is higher on their list of priorities than it is for most Westerners.  ‘Trying’ means little. Achieving the desired result is all that matters. That’s pretty ‘accountable’ in my book.

The whole fascination with numbers is beyond my mental capacity to truly understand having been raised as a deductive thinker. I am, however, convinced that there is no more or less ‘real’ support or detraction for it than there is for the Western concept that we determine our own destiny through our thoughts and our actions.

I’ve actually taken a bite at the apple. I have to admit that my lucky number used to be 17. I’ve been to Vegas a few times and the 7 is obvious but I always thought that was too obvious so I picked 17 instead.   (I admit to being a bit of a maverick/contrarian.)

When given the chance now, however, I have to admit that I always request the number 18 rather than the number 17.

I don’t live my life by that kind of thinking, but I don’t dismiss it either.

That doesn’t mean I ‘believe’ it. It only means that I have come to accept that the natural order of things is, in the end, a bit unknowable, in my experience.

Superstition is a deductive concept.  To the Taoist Chinese 'The Way' is truly unknowable.  There is only 'is' and 'isn't.'
Superstition is a deductive concept. To the Taoist Chinese ‘The Way’ is truly unknowable. There is only ‘is’ and ‘isn’t.’

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.