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I'm familiar with the reasons for these superstitions, but I can't find any estimate of how old they are. Is one older than the other?

  • I should add that homophones are much more abundant in Chinese languages than in say English. This is perhaps why such superstitions (and more generally puns) are also far more common. (8 lucky and 4 unlucky are merely two of very many examples.) – Kenny LJ Jul 15 '17 at 5:29
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The superstitions are probably quite old, because they originate in the spoken language.

The Chinese word for four, written "si" in Roman characters, is a homonym with the word for "death" and therefore unlucky.

(My father (an immigrant from China) once warned me not to read a book behind someone playing a game unless I wanted him to lose because the Chinese word for book, written "shu" is a homonym for "lose.")

Edit:

I was reminded by Kenny LJ that the Chinese word for eight, written "ba," is a homonym of a word for prosperity or "development." Slightly mispronounced, it is part of the Cantonese New Year's greeting, "gong hei faat choi," which literally translates to "good wishes for developing wealth."

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  • Japan has the same superstition. The modern Japanese word for "4" is "shi", which was borrowed from Chinese I believe in roughly the 7th century, which implies this superstition is that old. Japanese often uses an alternate word ("yon") based on ancient Japanese just to avoid "shi" in some contexts. – Gort the Robot Jul 13 '17 at 21:37
  • The homonym for "eight" 八 (ba1 in Mandarin and baat3 in Cantonese) is "prosperity" 發 (fa1 in Mandarin and faat3 in Cantonese). In other Chinese languages too they are similar in pronunciation. – Kenny LJ Jul 14 '17 at 0:15
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    Sources would improve this answer; just because the basis for a superstition is ancient, doesn't mean the superstition is also ancient. If it truly was, then there ought to be ancient evidence for the superstition as well. – congusbongus Jul 14 '17 at 2:41
  • There just needs to be a better answer. This one just repeats the origin of the superstition, which OP already stated that s/he knew. Further, basing it solely on the pronunciation of Mandarin would make it very recent by Chinese standards. Present Mandarin is an ROC/PRC construct based on the Guanyu of the Ming and Qing Empires. Before the capital was in Beijing, its dialect wasn't the national standard: Luoyang and Xi'an's were. And they weren't remotely the same 1000 years ago, let alone 3... – lly Mar 2 at 16:33

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