Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Fear of death and the conservation of numbers

I mentioned that the word "four" in Mandarin, sì, is very close in pronunciation to the word "death", . This is deeply rooted in their culture -- to the point that it is bad form to give a someone a gift with four of something; sets of things like tea cups more often had six rather than four items. I've heard that phone companies offer discounts to subscribers who accept numbers with a 4 in them.

(FWIW you don't give a clock to somebody either, because "give a clock" - gĕi jĭ shí zhōng - is close in pronunciation to "attend a burial" - chū xí zàng lĭ. Watches, however, are okay. But that's another story.)

The apartments where we stayed in Shanghai were a vivid illustration of four-phobia. I couldn't figure out why the elevator buttons didn't line up properly -- they didn't seem to be multiples of anything, and I always had to search to find the right button. I suddenly recognized why -- not only did they omit the 13th floor, like many older American buildings do, but also the 4th, 14th, and 24th floors.

So when you stood on the nominal 26th floor of this building, you were actually only twenty-two stories above the street. And inside, there was no apartment "4" on any floor -- 1-2-3-5-6-7.

It reminded me of the passage in Hebrews, which says that He [Christ] also Himself likewise partook of the same [flesh and blood nature]; that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death … and deliver those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15) It was palpable over there.

Until I was free of that same fear, I didn't realize how great a burden it was to carry.

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

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