Cantonese slang tend to have several things in common: they are always colourful and descriptive, and most of the time, they don’t make a whole lot of sense at face value. Take for example m4 saam1 m4 sei3 (唔三唔四) — literally “not three not four” — which is also known as bat1 saam1 bat1 sei3 in (不三不四) in formal, written Chinese. “Not three not four” is a pretty meta expression, used to describe something that doesn’t make sense, or is neither one thing nor the other – a sentiment that is perhaps more accurately represented in English as “neither fish nor fowl.” Sometimes, it can be used to describe a dubious individual or situation.
Although its modern day usage remains prominent — it is heard everywhere from Hong Kong comedy films to casual conversations among friends — the term has surprising historic origins. The concept behind the use of “three” here is related to philosophies in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text with widespread influence throughout East Asia. It dictates that the number three denotes wholesomeness, since the sky was said to equate to the number one and the ground equated to the number two. Add these two up and you get the number three.
As for the number four, this was believed to represent thoroughness in ancient times. Some say this derived from the expression si6 si6 yu4 yi3 (事事如意), literally “everything as one wishes,” which gave rise to an expression of the same meaning that is a homophone of the original: sei3 sei3 yu4 yi3 (四四如意), or “four four as one wishes.”
Curiously, contrary to four being considered unlucky in modern Chinese culture, the number has actually been widely used throughout history to categorise groups of notable people or objects precisely because it represents thoroughness. The collection of Four Books, for example, refer to classic Confucian texts published prior to 300BC. More recently, you have the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop — Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai — a reference to the original Four Heavenly Kings, a group of Buddhist gods.
All of this is to say that, without three and four, someone — or something — is not quite right.
One of the earliest records of the term was found in Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classic Novels (another example of “four”) in Chinese literature, which was first published in the late 14th century. The novel follows the journeys of Song Jiang, an outlaw who lived in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The text uses “not three not four” to describe a group of people who can’t make up their minds between decisions — neither here nor there.
These are no doubt difficult ideas to wrap our heads around, given their historic origins and religious affiliations. Yet perhaps there is something to be said about how relatable the description is: we can all understand how it feels to confront illogical decisions and questionable characters.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.