It’s the lunar new year, and in the festively lit Wedding Card Street, or in other romantic corners of town, couples are showing up with 99 roses – or even 999. In Hong Kong, ‘tis the season to tie the knot. When it comes to life events which are as major as marriage, numerology plays a fundamental role for Chinese people in channelling auspiciousness. But while the number eight conveys prosperity as introduced in our previous article, what does the number nine have to do with love and life?
In Cantonese, the word for nine (gau2 九) is pronounced the same way as the word for everlasting (gau2 久). This is also the case in Mandarin as both characters are pronounced as jiu, which explains why this numerological phenomenon is also observed in other regions of China. There are a number of blessings for lovers featuring the character 久, such as tin1 coeng4 dei6 gau2 (天長地久, “the sky is long in distance and earth is long in time”) and coeng4 coeng4 gau2 gau2 (長長久久, “double in length and everlastingness”). They are expressions to wish that a couple can be lifelong partners who stand the test of time.
The number nine carries this symbolic weight when people give each other tokens of love or wedding gifts. In modern times, someone pursuing love declares his or her eternal affection through the number of flowers given to the pursued. In traditional Chinese marriages, the groom gives a red packet to the bride’s family containing 9,999 or 99,999 dollars to show his sincerity – and his hope for an everlasting marriage.
The use of nine goes beyond marriages, however. Since it confers longevity, and is the largest digit on the yang set of numbers (the odd numbers from 0 to 9 in ancient Chinese numerology), the number nine was favoured by emperors as the symbol of a long life and reign, as well as superiority. Emperors were addressed as gau2 ng5 zi3 zyun1 (九五至尊, “the most supreme of nine and five”), with the number five being “the centre” and nine implying authority. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the imperial robe was embroidered with nine dragons – eight on the chest, sleeves and central bottom area, as well as one hidden in the collar.
When it comes to architecture, the Forbidden City in Beijing—home to royal families in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties—has 9,999 and a half rooms. There are nine rows and nine columns of doornails on each gate. The three major halls, Hall of Preserved Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony and Hall of Supreme Harmony, are all at a height of nine zhang and nine chi, referring to ancient Chinese units of measurement; one zhang is around 3.33 metres and three chi equals one metre.
In Cantonese cuisine, there is a famous type of banquet called gau2 daai6 gwai2 (九大簋, “the nine big containers”). These are feasts of elaborate dishes organised by aristocrats or the powerful to demonstrate their wealth, show respect to guests, and wish for auspiciousness, as they celebrate joyful occasions such as weddings, childbirth and longevity. Nine dishes make up the meal, each symbolising nine natural elements: wind, clouds, thunderstorm, rain, sea, fire, water, earth and sky, all fundamental to a good harvest. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Guangdong in 1986, the People’s Government of Guangdong Province hosted a nine-dish banquet at the White Swan Hotel to give the royal visitor a hearty welcome.
So, when it comes to love and life in Chinese culture, nine plays an irreplaceable part in deciding where you live, what you eat and how you walk down the aisle. If you missed out on celebrating Chinese New Year, don’t worry. The numerous applications of nine are there to keep all your auspiciousness flowing throughout the year.
This article makes use of the jyutping system of Cantonese romanisation.