Subscriptions



Superstition or Modernity?

On the Invented Tradition of Lucky Mobile Phone Numbers in China

This paper is sponsored by Asia Culture Academy, Seoul, South Korea.

Introduction

1The belief in the magic of numbers can be found everywhere in Asian cultures. For instance, in the present Chinese culture: people are very superstitious about numbers that are divided into lucky (e.g. 8) and unlucky (e.g. 4) ones. From the date people choose to get married to license plate numbers of cars, the preference to lucky numbers in social life suggests that certain numbers are culturally more valuable than others. Coincidently or not, in Korea, there are also lucky numbers, like 7, which are believed to bring good luck, and bad numbers like 4, which are widely avoided.

2More recently, with the rapid diffusion and penetration of mobile phones in China, the superstitious claims based on numbers have found a hotbed in the new technology. These superstitious claims based on numbers have found another outlet in these new technologies. The enthusiastic embrace of mobile phones and the widespread invocation of lucky mobile phone numbers have become a trendsetting popular culture in China. In 2006, a mobile phone number that ended with the digits 8888, and was enlightened and sanctified by abbots in Shaolin Temple was auctioned for 81,000 Yuan.

3When the mobile phone has become an icon of China’s accelerated twin processes of modernization and globalization, the social craze for lucky mobile phone numbers seem to signal an opposite wave towards rationality, the core ideology of modernity. In this context, it is legitimate to ask: Is the unflinching belief in lucky mobile phone numbers a continuity or renewal of Chinese traditional culture? Is the mysterious ethnoscape a manifestation of sub-cultures against modernization?

4Greatly influenced by Chinese Confucianism, Korea bears cultural proximity to China to certain extent. However, in South Korea, where over half of the entire population use a mobile phone (Kim), the belief in lucky numbers has not so extensively penetrated into the mobile phone market. Thus, South Korea seems to provide a mirror for investigating Chinese society in terms of continuity and changes as far as mobile phone and lucky numbers are concerned.

5This qualitative research tries to explore the socio-cultural roots of the social craze for lucky mobile phone numbers in China. Can such phenomenon be found outside of China in other locations in the region?

6Whilst in Korea on an Asia Cultures Academy fellowship I began to observe some similarities between Chinese and Korean relationships to numbers and superstition. Both countries boast high mobile phone penetration rates and are centres for the manufacturing, production and exporting of global mobile technologies. Both countries, also, demonstrate particular modes of contextualising the mobile device into everyday life. During this Korean fellowship, I was prompted by these observations to conduct a qualitative cross-cultural comparison between individuals in both China and Korea to ascertain what types of rituals and associations could be paralleled. This sample study is not meant to be indicative of all Chinese or Korean experiences but, rather, a meditation on some of the ways in which tradition is used to localise and domesticate mobile technologies.

7In tracing the continuity and changes of the social practice of lucky numbers, I take South Korea, which has a certain cultural proximity to China, as a comparison with China for this study. The findings, which were based on semi-structured interviews with informants from both China and South Korea, suggest that this invented tradition is a consequence of severe social transformation and the rise of consumerism in China. My analysis also reveals that the invented tradition of lucky mobile phone numbers is not a superstition against rationality, but a manifestation of modernity.

Literature Review

1. Traditions and Invented Tradition

8Traditional Chinese culture has a whole system of supernatural claims ranging from an individual’s birth, marriage, and death (such as geomantic omen, eight characters about one’s birth, etc.). As far as numbers are concerned, 3, 5, and 9 are culturally favored numbers: 3 is the most prominent figure which generates everything on earth according to Taoism; 5 means five essential elements of the cosmos and was incorporated into the theories of Chinese herbalism; 9 is a homophony with longevity which is a basic component of Fu Lu Shou culture (material secularism).

9However, the traditionally favored numbers 3 and 5 do not stand out as lucky numbers in the everyday lives of most contemporary Chinese people. In an age dominated by market economy thinking, 6, 8, and 9 are more frequently regarded as lucky numbers. Among these, 8 is the luckiest, and is adulated for its power to bring good fortune and generate wealth.

10Although the belief in the magic power of words has existed in Chinese culture for a long time, the social craze for lucky numbers is a recent phenomenon. It originated in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, right after the open-up policy, which itself signaled a nationwide shift towards the pursuit and worship of wealth and fortune. Unlike the Western belief in the number 13 as an ominous sign, which is deeply rooted in the history of Christianity, the current Chinese numerology is originally eradiated from a provincial/local culture to the whole country and diasporas Chinese. The basis for associating numbers with auspice mainly lies on pronunciations or homophony. For instance, in Cantonese, the number of 8 sounds the same with “fortune” (发). The number of 6 sounds like the word for “to flow” (溜) which means “everything goes smoothly”.

11Applying the concept of “invented traditions”, the seemingly traditional superstitions in lucky mobile phone numbers are seen as being constructed and emerging within a datable period with great rapidity (Hobsbawm and Ranger). “The peculiarity of ‘invented’ traditions is that the continuity with it [its past] is largely fictitious” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1). Hobsbawm further argues that invented traditions occur more frequently at times of dramatic social transformation when old traditions are evaporating. Indeed, the ongoing social economic reforms in China appears to have uprooted individuals from “the hold of traditions”, resulting in a social “anxiety” (Giddens 17-39).

12In this context, religion and supernatural claims are practices of daily habits which relate to “ontological security”, one of the key concepts elaborated by Anthony Giddens. He also points out that “creativity, which means the capability to act or think innovatively in relation to pre-established modes of activity, is closely tied to basic trust. Trust itself, by its very nature, is in a certain sense creative, because it entails a commitment that is a ‘leap into the unknown,’ … “. (41) Hence, associating numbers with fortune is closely associated with ontological security and control of anxiety.

2. Colonialization of Life-World and Symbolic Tokens

13The Chinese and Korean terms for the mobile phone, shou ji and hyu dae pon, respectively meaning the hand phone, indicate its “portability” and “personal accessory” to human bodies that enable a person to stay within their social networks anytime, anywhere (Ito). Inasmuch as the mobile phone affords person-to-person connectivity (Wellman) and increases individuality (Fortunati), it also establishes itself as an instrument of self-expression or expression of individuality. In China, the connection between digits and individuality is strengthened by commercial agents in the process of global consumerism.

14As a dimension of modernity, the essence of capitalism is the process of consumerism or commoditization that established itself as “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (Jameson). The penetration of the flow of capital into the areas of culture and unconsciousness heralds a transition from use value and exchange value to “symbolic value” by which the “real” has been reduced to the free-floating and self-referential signs of its existence (Baudrillard; cf. Turner).

15It seems appropriate here to recall what Karl Marx foretold two centuries ago, that when post-traditional society experienced a commercialization of traditional cultures and values, people would eventually live in a society where “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (6). To be sure, the free market principle “opens the world’s spiritual arena as an opportunity for spiritual exploitation” and appropriation (York). Thus, the modern age experiences a process of demystification and disenchantment.

16Similarly, Habermas stresses the corrosive effects of the state and the market on the socio-cultural life-world. He deals with the “colonization of the life-world,” arguing that cultural consumption and “pulverisation” of the cultural sphere may lead to the decline of public sphere and cultural impoverishment (555). “Commodification is one of the “marks of colonization when play the primary role in the the action-coordination of any life-world institution” (Cohen and Arato 135). The colonialization of this life-world is pervasive and intangible, resulting in a situation where people emancipated from traditional ties and institutions become dependent upon the market “in all dimensions of living” (Beck 131-135).

17The pursuit of lucky mobile phone numbers can be viewed as a form of “conspicuous consumption”, associated with social status (Veblen 68-101) and presentation of social identity. In this way, lucky mobile phone numbers are endowed with social meanings in respect to social distinction and “impression management” (Goffman 249-255). As such, mobile phone numbers function as “symbolic tokens” to a certain extent (Giddens 18). This process manifests the disembedding mechanism of modernity (Giddens).

18Thus, based on the symbolic values constructed and recognized by the mobile phone market and consumers, the consumption of intangible commodity like lucky mobile phone numbers enables us to investigate the hybrid interaction between the global trend of consumerism and the utilization of local, traditional cultural resources. As consumers of commodities where the global and local are thus interconnected, mobile phone users achieve hybrid identities. Hopefully, “where there is consumption there is pleasure, and where there is pleasure there is agency” (Appadurai 7). From this perspective, we may see the opposing orientations between the colonialization of life-world and the autonomy of individual actors.

Methodology

19The research presented here is exploratory and qualitative in its approach. Semi-structured interviews and convenience sampling are applied. Specifically, 10 Chinese informants and 10 Korean informants were selected based on the balance of their gender. Semi-structured interviews with Chinese informants were conducted via online, using in particular the internet-based instant chatting service OICQ (A popular Internet chat software in China).

20The on-line interview is effective since informants are able to negotiate and seek clarification with interviewers when they fail to understand questions, while interviewers are also empowered to delve into detailed issues though instant chatting. Alternatively, semi-structured interviews with Korean informants were carried out face-to-face. Two versions of questionnaires (both in English and Korean) were provided and informants were given the choice of answering in either language.

21Semi-structured interviews were chosen mainly for the purpose of overcoming language barriers (in the case of Korean informants), and spatial restraints (in the case of Chinese informants, where I was able to include informants from both southern and northern provinces).

22One limitation of the present research method was the age distribution of potential informants who were familiar with the use of the chatting service OICQ. That is, the age bracket of Chinese informants for this research was limited to 25 to 38, since most OICQ users tend to belong to this younger cohort. Thus, I was not able to compare the difference between older and younger generations.

Findings and Discussion

1. Personal vs. Social

23Previous studies reveal that the mobile phone is essentially an individual technology. As the mobile phone affords person-to-person connectivity (Wellman) and increases individuality (Fortunati), it establishes itself as a way of expressing personal identity. Interviews in China and South Korea show similar results. Both groups of informants have invented ways to personalizing mobile phone numbers.

24For example, Sungniang, a Korean graduate student put out her mobile phone and showed me through the keypad how some of her friends’ mobile phone numbers were made special:

25

One of my friend has a number specially arranged into a form of diamond, you see, 2684. Another [friend] has a number just in opposite order, and also in a form of diamond: 2486. Another has a number ordered to a Korean alphabet L, that is 1478. And some other friend whose family name is Kim, chose her mobile phone number: 1236, which is in the form of the Korean alphabet ﹃, the first syllable [of her family name].

26Although 7 is regarded by all Korean informants as a lucky number due to the Western influence, it should be pointed out that in Korea, mobile phone users are allowed to choose the last four digits free of charge when they purchase mobile service. This is significant because more personal and diverse spaces are available when the digital resources are not mobilized and utilized by collective forces. Thus, many mobile phone users deliberately select numbers that are personally significant and coincide with their birthdays or marriage anniversaries. Most of my Korean informants state that the appreciated mobile phone number is the one easy-to-remember.

27

[My mobile phone number] is related with my phone at home. [My] house phone number is: 9972, then my phone number is: 9961. Of course if it is just the same with my house phone number, it would be better. But that number was not available when I registered to KTF [one of the mobile service providers in South Korea].

28On the other hand, there are also cases among Chinese informants who associate personal meanings with their mobile phone numbers. A 33-year-old anthropologist says:

29

I don’t want to spend extra money on selecting a distinguished mobile phone number. But I will try to choose a significant one among the free choices. My current mobile phone number is meaningful because it is 5165, pronounced like ‘I desire 65’ which is the year my husband was born. Therefore, these four digits bear the weight of my love to him. I like the number very much. (Yanzi)

30However, most of Chinese informants highly evaluate the number of “8”. For example, one informant, a PhD-holding associate professor, admitted that she is quite superstitious and adores the number of “8” without particular reasons:

31

My mobile phone number ***8776685, sounds like ‘as a wife, I will make a big fortune smoothly’. I do believe in the number of 8 and 6. No reason! No…And 4 is a taboo to me. I will pay extra money to get the number I like. And this number is the one I really like and will not change it wherever I go. (Hua Xi)

32Both groups of Chinese and Korean informants were asked what their impressions would be of a set of mobile phone numbers ending with 8888 (in the case of China), or 7777 (in the case of Korea), which are the luckiest numbers in their respective cultures. Their answers were dramatically and systematically different. Most Korean informants considered phone numbers with “7777” as little more than an easily remembered number, whereas their Chinese counterparts regarded phone numbers with “8888” as a sign of high social status. Apart from acknowledging that the host is probably quite rich, half of the Chinese informants went as far as trying to infer the implicit meaning of the number they were shown:

33

This guy is probably a business man, and superstitious and traditional. He pays much attention to business and [is] little bit unconfident. (Yanzi)

34

This guy must be an extremely successful man (niu ren). (Liu Hui)

35

This is really a nice number. I feel quite amazed, ah! This guy must be a very capable man. I wonder why he has this number. (Feng er)

36Their answers to this question reveal that this particular number is quite impressive, since they all assign positive associations with it in terms of identity and social status:

37

It seems to me that mobile lucky number indicates one’s social identity. People unconsciously or consciously choose something, and these [imply] their desires and expectations out of their sub-consciousness. (Yanzi)

38

Lucky numbers are convenient to remember and sometimes they represent our identity. Generally, people who have better and broader social relations tend to have better numbers. For example, my rich friends have numbers like 6789, 0789, 3488, 4588. And my own number is 3488, same with my motorcycle number. (Lee xian)

39While there are similarities in how lucky numbers are given attention among different cultures such as China and South Korea, differences related to the social practices and functional consequences connected to these lucky numbers are much more striking and thought-provoking. In South Korea, there’s no such a thing as number selection fee. The lucky numbers are open to all mobile phone users. Korean mobile phone users more likely personalize their mobile phone numbers. Thus, the merits of luckiest number of 7 in Korea are not collectively adored or pursued, remaining no more than a lucky number.

40However, in China, lucky numbers have become a scarce resource, meaning that capital determines their distribution. Indeed, the social craze for lucky numbers is further legitimized and promoted by commercial institutions. The number selection fee in China (practiced mainly by mobile card retailers) appropriates and exploits the symbolic values of numbers by associating them with social status. Within this socio-cultural context, people – whether they are superstitious or not – tend to recognize the social functions of those privileged numbers as markers of success and wealth.

2. Continuity and Change

41The East Asian culture has developed by sharing common grounds with Chinese Confucianism ethics (Chong). Korean culture, under the influence of fundamental principles of ancient Chinese science and philosophy, bears much similarity to Chinese culture such as the deeply rooted paterfamilias social structures. Moreover, 80% of Korean vocabulary has its origin in Chinese. As a result, Korean and Chinese languages have many words that have similar pronunciations. For example, the number of 4 is detested in both cultures because it sounds like death. One Korean informant tells me that Korean people are so superstitious about the number of 4 that they even try to avoid using 4 for labeling the floors or apartments in some buildings.

42Meanwhile, we find similar evidence of this dislike in the response of this Chinese informant, an anthropologist. She elaborates:

43

I particularly reject and hate numbers ended with 4. ‘54’ means ‘I will die’, ‘74’ means ‘[my/his] wife will die’, ‘24’ means ‘my son will die’. (Yanzi)

44When people in both cultures have access to the selection of their preferred numbers either free or by means of payment, they spontaneously turn away from unlucky ones. For those Chinese informants who are less wealthy or not willing to pay extra fee, they more likely have numbers encoded with more unlucky ones. Nonetheless, these “victims” of the mobile service market demonstrate a positive creativity in interpreting the unlucky numbers.

45

I don’t mind having a number ended with 4444. Anyway, it’s special and easy to remember. I don’t want to spend money like water, you know, I cannot afford such a luxury. (Zhou Jia)

46Inventing ways to associate unlucky numbers with positive interpretations is not a new or novel practice for Chinese people. For instance, the number of 4 should be interwoven into auspicious combinations such as “four seasons blessed with fortune” if it can not be avoided. This kind of creative combination greatly alleviates the anxiety felt by those individuals who are excluded from selecting more desirable number combinations due to financial constraints.

47From this creative interpretation of the unlucky number, I gained new insight into the recent superstition surrounding the magical and mystical allure of the number of 8. Instead of being an ungrounded claim based on tenuous linkages between certain numbers and auspicious incidents, the popularization of lucky numbers is borne out of faddism and fetishism. Accordingly, instead of being overwhelmed by the uncontrollable unknown power, mobile phone users display their agency and autonomy in manipulating the arbitrary meanings of numbers, thus relieving their anxiety.

48

I believe in lucky numbers. My own number is 13**8888888. [The incident that makes me believe in lucky number is that] my colleagues have numbers ended 110 and 119, [which] greatly impressed clients. I think those who have more 8s more likely have better networking…They may spend a lot of money on the number, but in return, they may be rewarded by more profits. (Wei Xiao)

49In the age of market economy, belief in lucky numbers is practical and material rather than superstitious. From a matter of pure belief or disbelief, the number of 8 becomes popular by giving off an aura of wealth that is adored and recognized by population across classes:

50

I don’t really believe in lucky numbers. My number ends with 8, because personally I like the [number of] ‘8’. It’s so cheerful. But I also don’t care if I have number ended with 4444 because it is easy to remember. You know, mobile phone number is related to your identity. Only rich guy will buy high-priced special number. Those who have number like ***88888 are certainly very rich people. (Wei Da)

51This trend of fetishism becomes more visible if the historical social context if we consider the socio-historical context in which it emerged, as well as how it is related to changing social values. As a Chinese ballad goes: In 1950s, it was wise to marry a hero; in 60s, a poor peasant; in 70s, a military man; in 80s, a college graduate; in 90s, a rich guy. This enables us to trace back the dramatic changes of social values that have occurred in China in the last half a century. Especially from 1960s to 90s, severe social transformations have taken place during a transition from Cultural Revolution and planned economy to reforms and opening to the outside world. With the market economy develops in China, financial well-being becomes the priority in the agenda of the nation as well as individual families. Indeed, money becomes the only standard for measuring success in the present Chinese society.

52Diachronically, the enthusiastic consumption of mobile phones in China is a continuation of popular worship at the altar of high-tech and material culture. In the 1980s, a man who as preparing for his wedding was expected to purchase “4 major items” (bicycle, watch, sewing machine and fan). On the one hand, while these 4 items have continued to change over time (TV, washing machine, refrigerator, and stereo set in 1990s) in tandem with societal and technological progress towards a more advanced and modern society, on the other hand, Chinese people have never failed to associate cultural and social meanings to the newly introduced technologies that become symbols of wealth, success, and social status. In a similar fashion, the intangible commodity of lucky mobile phone numbers has developed to function as a label of social distinction when the device permeated every strata of the population.

3. Imagining Success and Symbolic Tokens

53The mobile phone has rapidly penetrated into every aspect of daily life due to its “portability” and power to connect a person to social networks anytime, anywhere (Ito). Different from “door-to-door connectivity”, the era of “person-to-person connectivity” suggests an increasing importance of mobile phone numbers as accesses of daily communication (Wellman).

54In both cultures, informants show a similarity in their reluctance to change mobile phone numbers. One Korean informant Choe (female) says:

55

There is no reason for me to change my mobile phone number. All of my friends know my number. If I change, I will cause inconvenience to them and myself. I have to inform them all. Besides, I think I’m satisfied with this company’s service.

56The Chinese informant Wei Xiao regards the mobile phone number as a core platform for his work:

57

I haven’t changed my number for 4 years. You know, if you change your number, it means you will lose some of the clients’ information. The more you change the number, the more possible you lose contact with some of them. If I stay in Shenzhen for my job, I will never change it. If I move to another city, it is quite possible for me to have a new number.

58Indeed, increase in domestic migration within China has become the main reason that people will change their mobile phone numbers, in that roaming service charges are very expensive.

59

I constantly change my mobile phone number. Each time I move to a new place, I have to get a local service. I have had 3 numbers in the last two years. Actually, the cost of changing mobile phone number is very high. I lost contact with many of my friends in Beijing when I got a new number here in Changsha. The reasons for change are mainly because of migration to another city due to job-jumping. Sometimes, I also hope I can change my number if I don’t want to be harassed by people I don’t like. But the main reason is location [change]. (Yanzi)

60A stable mobile phone number indicates the routine maintenance of social networks. By the same token, the frequent change of mobile phone numbers may lead to loss of contact and contract. To some degree, permanent mobile phone numbers even imply the user’s credibility. Mobile phone numbers are thus become symbolic tokens that bracket time and space. Considering the current trend where mobile phones are starting to be linked to personal services such as credit cards, library cards and certain kinds of VIP (membership rewards) cards, it is not illogical to predict that mobile phone numbers are poised to become even more tightly interwoven into the presentation of ones social identity.

61In terms of mobile phone numbers as symbolic tokens, the difference is that in China, mobile phone numbers convey implied information beyond of mere connectivity. As discussed above, lucky mobile phone numbers are apparatus of impression management (Goffman); accordingly, they are a way of imagining success which has become important in determining or measuring an individual’s happiness:

62

Many rich bosses have these kinds of number. I think numbers also represent class and money. As far as I know, those rich bosses and government officials I met in my life tend to have more lucky numbers. I will not spend 10,000 yuan to have a lucky number. But, you know, if I am rich enough, I will buy that number too. Who knows? (Fenger)

63The junior publisher works hard to become rich and successful:

64

I don’t really like my [present] mobile phone number. But you have to pay more for a good number. And I have to save every penny for my apartment amortization now. I guess I will pick up a good number ended with 88 if I make more money next year. Lucky mobile phone number is a game played by successful people only. I want to be successful, or at least to make such an impression. Ha ha. (Liu Hui)

65Thus, mobile phone numbers function as symbolic tokens in the present Chinese society. Mobile phone numbers bracket time (because the steady mobile phone numbers indicate the accumulation and maintenance of social networks and the frequent change of phone numbers may result in loss of contact and contract) and space (because lucky mobile phone numbers offer an aura of success and power beyond of spatial restraints and across social classes). In this context, based on their symbolic values, the conspicuous consumption of lucky mobile phone numbers suggests a new social stratification or polarization in an economy market era.

Conclusions

66The dual purposes of this study are to answer the question of whether a belief in lucky mobile phone numbers is an old superstition or a manifestation of modernity, and to explore the socio-cultural roots of the phenomenon. The findings not only support that this invented tradition is a part of the process of modernization, but also reveal how the particularistic conditions in China interact with the universal mechanism of modernity.

67The complex interaction of the past and the present increases the difficulty in mapping out the contours of continuity and innovation of belief systems in numbers. However, the cases of China and South Korea, who have a certain cultural proximity but manifest different social practices regarding lucky mobile phone numbers, provides a valuable comparative perspective in exploring the socio-cultural roots and implications of the newly constructed social craze for lucky mobile phone numbers in China. In all, the dramatic difference between these two countries in terms of pursuing lucky mobile phone numbers suggests that this is an invented tradition that is itself a consequence of two key factors: severe societal changes and the legitimization of commercial agents in China.

68First, the invented tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger) in lucky mobile phone numbers has become highly fashionable trends in the popular culture of China because it is compatible with the ongoing social transformation in China. When a country is strongly driven to “build prosperous material civilization” and firmly determined to discard feudalistic religions or superstitions as unscientific and irrational ones, individuals and the society as a whole begin to seek for spiritual sources that can provide a sense of “ontological security” and stability (Giddens 35-69).

69The fetishism and faddism of lucky mobile phone numbers in present Chinese society reveal that the social structural vacuum in imaginary domain is filled up by widespread worship of gods of fortunes. That is, associating numbers with fortune and interpreting of unlucky numbers positively are creative activities by which people are provided with ontological security. By selecting numbers, mobile phone users demonstrate autonomy and spontaneity in expressing their desire to command their future and fortune.

70As discussed above, when the possession of wealth signifies success, lucky mobile phone numbers acquired as a form of conspicuous consumption become a way of imagining success. The social meanings of lucky mobile phone numbers in China thus suggest a national priority and social anxiety towards “being rich”. As a result, the old superstition in the magic of numbers is transformed into a new “superstition” related to “fortune” that is regarded as bulwark against insecurity and the unknown, especially in an era of social reforms.

71Second, by exploring and exploiting symbolic values of lucky mobile phone numbers, commercial agents of mobile phone market assist in transforming the supernatural belief into cultural commodities. This is the very part of the colonialization of life-world (Habermas). When they are associated with culturally specific meanings, mobile phone numbers are empowered to connect a mobile phone user with his/her social identity. The dichotomy between tradition and modernity is blurred because of the colonialization of life-world when cultural resources are accessible to the principle of profit maximization. Therefore, rather than transforming a hierarchical society to a liberal one, this process demonstrates a new social stratification or polarization based upon the distribution of wealth and resource, which is also applicable to the distribution of mobile phone numbers.

72The empirical research also reveals that belief in lucky numbers in old time is superstition, but now is rationality and a manifestation of modernity. The new “superstition” in wealth and re-sacralizing of commerce results in a real opposition between tradition and commercialism rather than between superstition and rationality. This suggests the universal mechanism of modernity and its concomitants such as global consumerism.

73More specifically, on the one hand, the decision of selecting the lucky mobile phone number is part of individualization accompanying modernity (Beck); on the other hand, lucky mobile phone numbers are legitimized by commercial establishments which are no less than faces/images of modernity. As discussed above, lucky mobile phone numbers are often rationally used as a symbol of success and wealth to distinguish meanings of social status. In so doing, lucky mobile phone numbers become symbolic tokens that not only are used to maintain and develop social networks, but function to manage personal impression and convey meanings of social distinction. As symbolic tokens, mobile phone numbers transcend the restraints of time and space to certain degree, and thus manifest disembedding mechanism of modernity (Giddens). This indicates clearly that the invented tradition of the social craze for lucky mobile phone numbers is not a sub-culture of superstition against modernity, but a very expression of it.

Appendix

Interview questions

  1. Do you believe in lucky numbers? What are the lucky numbers in your local place?
  2. Is there any incident that makes you believe certain number is lucky?
  3. Did you choose the last four digits of your mobile phone number?
  4. What is its meaning and do you like it?
  5. Would you like to pay for a lucky phone number at a higher price?
  6. What other functions lucky numbers have?
  7. If a person has a mobile phone number ends with 13*****8888 (in the case of China), or *****7777 (in the case of Korea) what will be you impression to him/her?
  8. Would you mind mobile phone numbers with 4444? Why?
  9. Can you tell me if anyone in your family or among your friends who has a(n) lucky/unlucky number?
  10. What do you think of the phenomena that people pay more than 10000 yuan (1200$) for especially lucky phone numbers?
  11. How often do you change your mobile phone number? How many times have you ever changed the phone number in past two years?
  12. Why do you want to change (or keep) the phone number?

74(Thanks to Dan Su for allowing me to use some of interview questions she designed in her research. See: ‘The Economy of Lucky Numbers: When Old Superstition Meets New Media’. In International Conference on Mobile Communication and Asian Modernities II, 2005.)

Table: Socio-demographic characteristics of Chinese and Korean informants

75


Chinese informants

     
Name Gender Age Occupation
Wei Xiao Male 25 Salesman
Wei Da Male 26 Office clerk
Li Xian Male 29 Administrator
Liu Hui Male 29 Publisher
Zhou Jia Male 35 Shopkeeper
Yang Ming Male 30 Office clerk
Jiang Lin Female 24 Graduate
Xu Jin Female 30 Housewife
Feng er Female 31 Pharmacist
Yan zi Female 33 Anthropologist
Hua Xi Female 38 Associate professor
Korean Informants      
Sungniang Female 27 Graduate
Choe Female 26 Office clerk
Hey Female 22 College senior
Ryung Female 21 College senior
Hanna Female 50 Cook
Woo Male 22 College senior
Kang Male 22 College senior
Hui Male 28 Company clerk
Wen Male 30 shopkeeper
Yong Male 35 Company clerk

(Note: In this list, pseudonyms are used to protect the informants’ privacy.)