When we first investigated the possibility of living in Taiwan, I heard from my mother and several others about the virtues of Taiwan. One of them was that Taiwan had preserved Chinese tradition and culture better than China itself. I have seen a lot more signs of religious and traditional beliefs here, from both individuals as much as institutions. For example, every Monday, many businesses bring out onto the sidewalk a metal container where they burn yellow paper, which symbolizes money in the afterlife. The metal container is accompanied by a small table of offerings to the ancestors, which invariably contains oranges and some products that would be considered good presents in Taiwan, like Coke and Lays potato chips. Small shrines and temples to Buddhist and other deities are everywhere — smaller ones can be found inside people’s living rooms and kitchens, and bigger ones sandwiched between clothing shops, and occupying prime spaces on large street corners. It’s very much a part of modern day Taiwan.
One sign of a strong culture could be a strict adherence to traditional taboos, in which my mother has indoctrinated me thoroughly. For example, don’t send old people clocks as a present — the Chinese character for clocks, 钟 (zhong1), sounds the same as another character, 终, meaning final or end, so it sounds like you’re cursing them to die. Also, don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl; that’s how they prepare a bowl of food for the dead (maybe because it looks like incense sticks that way?), so it’s a bad omen. Do you see a trend here? And definitely don’t give a couple an umbrella as a present, because the umbrella (伞, san3) is pronounced very similarly to 散, the character which can mean to split up.
So the number 4 is the odd one out here (ha) because its Chinese character 四 (si4) sounds similar to the character for death, 死. The most interesting thing is that there’s a name for this aversion – tetraphobia (fear of the number 4). The Wikipedia article for tetraphobia also explains that because of the influence of the Chinese language on nearby cultures, other dialects and languages including Shanghainese, Hakka, Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Vietnamese also have the similar pronunciation between those two characters, and hence, tetraphobia. (On a tangentially related note, fear of the number 13 is called triskaidekaphobia, and fear of the number 666 (the Number of the Beast) is hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia. I got a little lost in Wikipedia while researching this…)
Some interesting examples of how 4 is shunned include the Dorsett Hotel where we stayed in Hong Kong. Not a Taiwanese example, but even better. I wish I had taken a picture of the hotel elevator, because the number of floors they omitted was startling. There was no floor 4, for example, and moved straight from 3 to 5. There was also no floor 13, as a nod to the Western sensibilities of the place. And then there was also no floor 14 or 24, which seemed a little bit like overkill. It also of course had the side effect of inflating the number of floors that the Dorsett had, which might have been a plus? Here’s a good blog post with examples of buildings in Malaysia which omit the fourth floor or otherwise put an F where the 4 should be.
Another place that bowed to this traditional taboo was the hospital. Chinese people tend to be pretty wary of hospitals in general, as a place that you go if you’re healthy. It’s almost as though you’re tempting fate. Steve noted, during my hospitalization at Kaohsiung Municipal Ta-Tung Hospital, that there was no fourth floor. Instead, there was a 3C floor which took its place. It took him a long time to figure out, because the hospital had the correct number of floors, and some floors could be two-level, after all. At the counters where you wait to pay your hospital fee, there is also no counter 4 – just 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.
Finally, restaurants and businesses tend to err on the side of safety when it comes to lucky and unlucky numbers. For example, they often have in the back some sort of small shrine to minor Buddhist deities, including the god of wealth (财神, Caishen), or you will spot on a shelf or cabinet a small Japanese lucky cat figurine (a Maneki-neko), with one paw upraised as though to beckon forward fortune or business. At many casual Taiwanese restaurants, you bring a menu slip to your table, which has a number, and you put the table number on your menu slip when you order your food items. It comes as no surprise that many restaurants, including one of our frequently visited lunch spots, do not have a table 4. Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere!