The Unluckiest Lucky Number

Symbolizing prosperity, eight is the luckiest number in Chinese numerology. Bank accounts, addresses, and license plates with healthy doses of eights fetch top dollar. The Beijing Olympic Games are scheduled to begin on 8/8/2008 at 8:00 p.m.

That many eights may have been too much of a good thing, one of our translators remarked the other day. The opening ceremonies' supposedly auspicious date has been preceded by a tragic run of hard luck.

When we touched down in Beijing, China was in the middle of a three-day mourning period for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. For Americans who lived through 9/11, the visceral reaction has been eerily familiar—intense patriotism, stories of heroic relief workers and volunteers rushing to the scene, an outpouring of personal generosity and donations.

“Everyone I know has donated money, even my son and I,” said Yuan Xiwen, a 79-year-old former government employee I met in Beihai Park. “We are all Chinese, so no matter how young or old you are, you should contribute your help to Sichuan province." Yuan then cautioned my translator not to say anything to foreigners that might make China lose face.

Like many other Chinese I spoke to, a bubbly young woman working in a Houhai coffee shop praised the government’s handling of the crisis. But she also echoed whisperings of discontent. “I wonder if there should have been some kind of prediction about an earthquake of this magnitude,” she said. “I think the government could have warned about this, but they didn’t.”

In the days after the quake, speculation of this sort sped across the Internet. Our translators tell us that at our next destination, Xi’an, rumors are circulating that the government has predicted strong aftershocks, prompting residents to sleep outside for fear their homes could crumble around them.

“Good luck seldom comes in pairs but bad things never walk alone,” warns an old Chinese idiom. After ice storms snarled the nation's travel over the lunar new year holiday earlier this year, rioting in Tibet drew a critical gaze from around the world, and now the Sichuan tremor has killed nearly 70,000, I couldn’t agree more.