Discussion on the Ancient Mysterious Numbers in China

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Discussion on the Ancient Mysterious Numbers in China

"Mysterious numbers" refer to certain numbers that, beyond their numerical significance, also possess non-numeric qualities. They repeatedly appear in philosophy, religion, mythology, witchcraft, poetry, and customs, carrying a sense of mystery or divine implication. Mysterious numbers are a global cultural phenomenon, existing not only in China but also in other countries, and still exert an undeniable influence on people's lives today.

I. Major Mysterious Numbers

Once purely arithmetic symbols, numbers take on enduring and inherited significance when associated with mysterious concepts, being passed down through generations and accumulated in traditional culture, expressed through various phenomena. For instance, "one," as the beginning of numbers, signifies not just a simple quantity "one," but also carries other mystical and abstract meanings, such as "unity," "Taiji" (Supreme Ultimate), "The Great Ultimate," "Chaos," and "The Dao." The mystical numbers unique to China, considered as such, range from one to ten, as well as specific numbers like twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six, seventy-two, and one hundred and eight.

Generally, mysterious numbers predominantly encompass numbers below ten, as they represent crucial stages of human numerical understanding and are closely linked with religious beliefs, myths, and rituals. These connections make them inherently mystical. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss stated, "This mysterious aura surrounding numbers is limited to the first ten numbers. Primitive nations knew only these numbers, and they used them to name these numbers. For nations that escalated to the abstraction of numbers, the oldest parts of collective representation that formed these numbers can truly maintain the mysterious power of the truth about numbers for a very long time." This discussion focuses primarily on the first ten numbers, i.e., the mysterious numbers.

II. Reasons for the Emergence of Mysterious Numbers

The question of how mysterious numbers emerged and how numbers, originally exclusive to mathematical operations, were endowed with mystical meanings has been a key focus of scholarly research. Various explanations, each different from the next, have been put forth. The theories range from animism, shamanism, to the interpenetrating theory. Although there is no conclusive answer to these questions, many studies concur that numbers originated from ancient people's awe of and admiration for the mysteries of natural phenomena that they couldn't explain.

One significant method of ancient people to comprehend the world was through observing the skies and earth and forming the initial spatial concepts from observing the most prominent celestial bodies – the sun, moon, and stars. Considering the spatial angle from observing celestial phenomena, let's briefly introduce the origins of the mystique of the first ten numbers.

The number "one" originated during prehistoric times when humans lacked abstract thinking. At that time, numbers and objects were intricately linked. "One" did not indicate an individual object but was used to partition or remember people or things as a whole, a product of the integrated consciousness of humans and nature. This phenomenon of integration arose from the earliest cosmological view. Hence, the world was initially described as chaotic, primal energy, an egg, or similar symbols, symbolizing the original undifferentiated state of "one."

The number "two" emerged from the observation of the natural phenomena of sunrise and sunset, forming primitive directional coordinates and establishing the earliest spatial awareness. In ancient China, many ethnicities initially knew the east-west direction and later learned about the north-south directions. The initial two-direction spatial awareness, established from the apparent movement of the sun, imbued "two" with mysterious symbolism.

The number "three" might have initially denoted the sun, moon, and stars. Xu Shen's "Shuowen Jiezi" states, "Three represents the way of heaven, earth, and people."

The number "four" likely arose from early humans' sense of the four cardinal directions, based on the initial two directions in a plane plus the later addition of the two north-south directions, marking the formation of the concept of four-directional spatial awareness. Additionally, the mythology of the "round sky and square earth" formed from the celestial bodies' curved paths and observations of the celestial phenomena further promoted the worship of "four" as a mysterious number.

The number "five" naturally came about from dividing the surrounding outward parts into four directions, resulting in an awareness of the "middle," creating the fifth direction. Since the "four" as a symbol of the universe, it was understood as a cosmological significance. Therefore, the birth of "five," based on the "four," also became a symbol of new cosmology.

The number "six" added the heavens and earth, representing the upper and lower directions on the original four directions, forming the idea of the six-dimensional space. This advancement is the progress from the recognition of a two-dimensional space to a three-dimensional space. The understanding of "six," related to the worship of the sun, was also inseparable from its recognition of space, transcending the boundaries between heaven and earth and, therefore, gaining infinite reverence from people.

The number "seven" is a global mysterious number. In China, its perception likely stemmed from ancient people's understanding of the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper was crucial for discerning directions and seasons, making it an essential celestial phenomenon for people at the time.

The number "eight" originated from the notion of the eight directions of the world, encompassing east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest, north, and northeast. Most countries in the world are not interested in the number eight, but only a few countries like China, India, and Japan hold it in high regard.

The number "nine" in the "Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor · Plain Questions" states, "The culmination of celestial number starts from one and ends at nine." Its mystical nature comes from being the extreme number among the nine natural numbers.

The number "ten" is viewed as the path of the sun's course, which includes the sunrise and sunset, bringing about the alternation of darkness and light, forming a dualistic universe and the heavens, the earth, and humans together to create a three-fold world, in addition to the sun's rule of running from east to north then west and south, making this process described by the formula 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10. Therefore, "ten" can also be considered as the number of the sun.

The above are speculations on the reasons why these numbers were considered mystical by people, based on the observation of celestial phenomena. However, the origin of mystical numbers is not singular but rich and complex. Their original forms are yet to be determined. Many factors entered into the process of their occurrence and development, revealing the emergence of more meanings. "The ten numbers of heaven and earth, while individually may not only refer to heaven and earth, but can also broadly indicate celestial and geographic phenomena. For example, "one" can refer to the Supreme Ultimate, or the Heavenly Emperor, "two" can denote yin and yang, "three" can signify the three realms, and "four" represents the four directions or the earth. These derived forms are all related to celestial phenomena."

III. Modern Significance of Mysterious Numbers

Mysterious numbers represent an incredibly rich facet of traditional Chinese culture. Whether approached from a historical or philosophical perspective or through the lenses of cultural psychology and cognitive styles, researching them can help modern people understand the ancient people's primal thinking and offer insight into the cultural heritage that lies deep within their subconscious. Furthermore, delving into the understanding of these mysterious numbers can assist people in understanding their reputed power of bestowing blessings and avoiding harm. It can enable them to make more rational and objective judgments and decisions.