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The Symbolism And Status Of License Plates In China

I think of all the things that thousands of dollars could buy, and an auspicious license plate does not come to mind. A license plate with a string of a few 8s in a row does not seem worth 100k to me — then again, I am not a nouveau riche Chinese.

I think of all the things that thousands of dollars could buy, and an auspicious license plate does not come to mind. A license plate with a string of a few 8s in a row does not seem worth 100k to me — then again, I am not a nouveau riche Chinese.

Most license plates in China are a meaningless assortment of letters and numbers which tell little other than if the vehicle is registered as a commercial, personal, or government ride. Standard fare. Though some plates that have a lucky set of numbers can be used to show status, as pleas for good fortune, or can even be read as sayings, idioms, or simple sentences.

The mechanism for this symbolism is a Chinese codex for attributing word meaning with some numbers that is derived from Confucianism, Taoism, folk belief, as well as recent internet slang. This is a system that is far more complex than the Western equivalent of having a license plate that says COOL1, BEERMAN, HIOFCER, or even WEHVFUN, and the impact they have in this society is far greater.

Number/ word associations on Chinese license plates

1 – Yao

Generally, the word for one is yī, but when reading off a string of numbers it is pronounced as yao, which sounds similar to the word, yào (要), which means “to want.” So when placed on a license plate next to other symbolic numbers, “1” can be read as “want.”

2 – Èr

One way to call someone stupid in China is to say they are èr bǎi wǔ 二百五: a 250. This comes from the old saying bàndiàozi (半弔子 or 半吊子), which comes from the ancient Chinese practice of tying coins together through the holes in their centers in strings of 1000, which was called a diao. The old saying, bàndiàozi, means “half a sting of coins,” which is the Chinese equivalent of saying something to the effect of “He’s not playing with a full deck.” Basically, it’s a way of calling someone an idiot. Though when scholars began appropriating this term for themselves to express modesty, the number had to be cut in half again to again to truly indicate a fool. So the new insult became “a 250.” In internet or modern slang this saying has been shortened to simply calling someone an èr, “a two.” Needless to say, this digit is not desired as a prominent part (meaning the first or last digit) of a license plate number.

3 – Sān

The number three is considered auspicious because (I’m told) it sounds like the word shēng (生), which means birth.

4 – Sì

The number four in Chinese sounds similar to sǐ (死), which means “dead.” In a country were over 100,000 people die per year in automobile accidents, it is easy to see why this number is is considered the most unlucky of all to have on a license plate. The number four is thought to be even more unlucky if it’s the first or last character in the string.

While one four is considered unlucky, two in a row can be used to mean “everything.” Apparently, the word sì, meaning four, sounds like the word shì, short for shì shì rúyì (事事如意), which means “all the best” or “everything you want you can get.” So while one four is avoided, two fours is desired.

5 – Wǔ

The number five, apparently, sounds close enough for the word wǒ (我), meaning I, to be used as a stand in for such. This can be used in a plethora of combinations with the other numbers listed here.

6 – Liù

The number six is thought to be lucky because of of the idiom “liu liu da shun” (六六大顺), which basically means “everything will go smoothly.” It can also be used to signify the saying “liù liù wú qióng (六六無窮) which means “six, six is infinite” — which can be taken to mean “six, six is never poor.” The number six can also be associated with the word liū (溜), which is a near homonym and means smooth or fluid. While the number 6 is seen as an auspicious addition to a license plate, a double 6 matches the sayings more closely and is far more valuable.

8 – Bā

The Mandarin word for eight apparently sounds close to the word fā (发), which means “to be rich.” Therefore, the number 8 is used to indicate money, prosperity, or good luck. It is the most desired number to have on a license plate — the more the better.

9 – Jiǔ

The Mandarin word for nine is an exact homonym with the word jiǔ (久), which means forever.

0 – Líng

The word for zero is associated with the word nín (您), meaning “you.”

To be honest, some of the “homophones” listed here seem unconvincing — líng really doesn’t sound much like nín, wǔ and wǒ are very different when you consider the closeness in sound of many other Mandarin words, and sān and shēng are hardly even close. I am not sure of the reasoning for this — maybe as many of these number/ meaning associations are rather ancient the pronunciation of the words in question may have been closer at a more distant point in history? Or perhaps the desire for meaning had the power to stretch the parameters of homophones.

In practice, this numerology can get rather complex. Depending on the type of registration, a Chinese license plate can have a maximum of five numbers, and these can be assembled together for additional meaning or even to be read as sentences, sayings, or idioms. An example would be a plate which has the numbers 09666, which can be read as “You are lucky forever.” Some other popular combinations are as follows:

520 – wǔ èr líng (五二零) > wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你 = I love you

1314 – yi san yi si (一三一四) > yao sheng yao si 一生一世 = Whole life, forever.

168 – yao liu ba (一六八) > yi lu fa (一路發) = Make money all the way.

1966 = Want to be lucky forever.

Many other more original statements can also be discerned from Chinese license plate numbers, such as getting a plate with the numbers 589 (I’m forever rich) or 518 (I want to be rich) or 05966 (you and I are forever lucky).

Number repetitions on license plates are also highly sought after. For the auspicious numbers, the reasoning for this is obvious — the more luck the better — but even non-symbolic or even unlucky numbers replicated in a row is very highly sought. I asked why this was, and the simple response was:

“Because it’s easier to remember.”

The status of license plates

In a country where status symbols were up until relatively recently banned by decree the people here seem to be making up for lost time in a big way. Status symbols in China are huge, and arose from a demand that transcends simple consumption. The richer more people in China become the higher the value of things like auspicious or otherwise highly desired license plate numbers. This has been called a “bragging by the new rich,” and is a status play that some are willing to pay tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for. It is now not uncommon for a license plate to cost more than the car it’s hung on.

Landing a license plate with a string of lucky numbers used to be something that required a connection to a government official and a red envelope stuffed with cash, but in an effort to curb corruption and raise a little funding many municipalities have now resorted to auctioning them off.

Like so, a vanity plate in China means far more than it does in countries like the USA, where specialized places are often regarded as the epitome of corny. When someone rolls around in a Mercedes with a license plate that has some eights in it or “says” something lucky, this is a beacon declaring: “THIS INDIVIDUAL HAS SO MUCH MONEY THAT HE/ SHE COULD BUY THIS RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE LICENSE PLATE.” It’s a show of status, plain and simple, but this show truly means something in this culture which can actually create real opportunities for the purchaser.

Status symbols in China are not a mere matter of vanity.

I recently had a conversation with a girl whose father spent around US$5,000 just for a license plate that ended in 999. I asked her why he would spend this money on something that seemed to me completely frivolous.

“Status,” she replied

“Do status symbols give people a better opportunity for success?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed, and then explained why Chinese people tend to buy mountains of food they have no intention of eating when taking people they wish to impress out to dinner.

In a way, the correlation between status symbols and success can actually become causation. With all other factors being equal, someone who shows the symbols of success may very well find themselves with more real opportunities here than someone who doesn’t.

I then asked her if her father actually believes that his license plate brings him luck. The girl then bashfully looked away for a moment before admitting that he may also believe that the three nines in a row on his license plate are really auspicious.

This luck element of some numbers is something that’s truly ingrained into the fabric of this culture, and some people (particularly those who recently gained fortunes that could easily be lost) really believe in this enough to pay thousands of extra dollars for an auspicious license plate. In a famous case, a man in Hangzhou recently tried to sell his license plate, A88888, for $164,000 USD.

Numerology, or at least the superficial commercialization of such, is big business in China. It’s a way of selling things of intangible value for large amounts of extra money that costs nothing extra to produce. This is to the point that anything that is numbered will have different prices in accordance with how lucky or unlucky the digit combination is considered to be. Mobile phone stores often sell auspicious phone numbers for over $2,000, where a normal number is free. A regional airline in China recently paid $300,000 to have their phone number be 8888-8888. This commerce of numerology encompasses everything from hotel rooms to apartments to addresses to just about anything that’s numbered. Sometimes restaurants will even round off bills that happen to add up to an unfavorable amount.

License plates in China tell a story. This is not a story that is told in the lucky or amiable sayings that are represented in three, four, or five digit strings on pricey plates, but one of a country that rather recently became extremely stratified along class lines. This is a society where a colossal working and peasant class was shaken up, and in the fray many rose to the top. In a single generation China has seen an incredible amount of its poor become its rich, and one of the prime desires of the new rich everywhere is showing off the telltale signs of their ascent and putting up symbolic barriers that stand between their current position and the lowly depths they came from. The status symbols of expensive handbags, clothes, apartments, cars, and license plates tell the story of one of the greatest rags to riches fairy tales the world has ever known.

The value of luxury goods:

A luxury good gets its value from its lack of utility and value. A typical consumer would look at what it costs and what it does and say, “that’s ridiculous.”

When a good like this (and it might be a service as well) comes to market, it sometimes transcends the value equation and enters a new realm, one of scarcity and social proof. The value, ironically, comes from its lack of value.

A license plate with three of the same number replicated.

A license plate with three of the same number replicated.

This plate could potentially be read as "I'm forever lucky."

This plate could potentially be read as “I’m forever lucky.”

An auspicious license plate

An auspicious license plate

Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Status

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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