The symbolic value of numbers Leave a comment

by Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee – 

A short presentation of the first ten numbers, with their characters and their symbolic values.

Numbers play a significant role in Classical Chinese texts. They indicate the quality more than the quantity. The systematic recourse to numerology helps to keep the framework of the discourse in mind, while setting out the processes of life. Without losing sight of the unity ‐ which is the nature of life ‐ numbers show its development, stage after stage. They are the reflection of the natural order.

ONE — UNITY ⼀ / 壹1 YI
Since the origins of writing, the number One has been written with one line, a single
horizontal stroke ⼀. It indicates the number one, alone or added to others; for example, added to ten to make 11.

In the complex written form, One is written 壹, which means to apply uniquely to, to unite; identical, truthful.

A thousand years before our era, yi ⼀, One, was already used to mean more than solely its quantitative value. It designated what comes first or what is one of a kind: the singular man, yi ren ⼀⼈, is the sovereign, without equal, alone, solitary, the one who reigns over the multitude of subjects in the Empire. The sovereign alone is unique, because there cannot be two masters. The sovereign is One, the union and unity of all the beings living in the territory. The One is tied to absolute authority that contains and embraces everything. Containing everything, One is at the origin of every being. Embracing everything, One brings them together. One’s presence gives to each a fundamental meaning, a raison d’être.

The character’s common meanings reflect its richness: One, one alone, unique, but once, first, first of all, reaching out to a singular goal; to be a whole being; to join forces, bring together, conjoin; unify; the same, equal; always the same, constant, invariable; pure, unmixed, unaltered, and thus, perfect; complete; each; every.

Two horizontal strokes⼆together make the character for two. There is neither variation nor evolution in the way it is written. Its sense does not change: two, second, secondly. Fairly early on, however, we also see the idea that two is no longer One ‐ that a disparity has been introduced. This may be difference or divergence. It may also become duplicity or inconsistency.

This is where we get the common sense of the word: two, secondary, second, assisting, twice, doubled, pair, couple, same, equal to. Meanings also include to double; to make two; to divide, to differ, diverge. Mixed, mitigated, impure, inconstant, duplicitous.
Two, in complex written form, is 貳: help, second, to assist, to doubt, to dither.

Although one and one make two in mathematics, and the character looks like one written
twice, the idea of Two ⼆ in no way symbolizes two times One. Since One is everything and can absolutely not be doubled or duplicated, the two strokes should be considered symbolically as the opening of the One, as distinction within unity. They represent a necessary parting, but do not break the commonality of the two elements.

A specific character exists to designate the couple, what is dual: liang 兩, two that make a pair. Formerly, it represented a harness for two horses, a carriage yoked to two animals: ER-2 . The character is used for things that come in pairs, like shoes, or for two partners, two people in close relationship, working in intimate collaboration. Like the Two, the character liang 兩 may be harmony or rescission – rupture. Thus, a double heart, liang xin 兩⼼, may be two brothers, two people connected through a strong and affectionate emotional bond and deep affinity; or, it may be a heart filled with duplicity.

The three horizontal strokes 三 that form the character for Three are a simple representation of three as a number or as the third place in a series. However, since the oracular inscriptions (circa 1400 BC), this character has designated a group of three ‐ people or spirits, for example; three ancestral spirits or three important dignitaries close to the king. Three in complex written form is 參: the triad, a character that signifies to participate, to mix, to form a three-part harmony.

The character Three 三evokes a triad. Symbolically, the Two open to allow the product of the couple to appear in the middle. This is the image of their union. Three 三 is not three times one, but the Three that make One, or the way of considering unity in its tripartite aspect. This is where we get the common sense of the word: three, third, triple, triad, many. Three expresses the product of the couple and shows its co-penetration. It represents all the possible combinations of yin and yang, and as such it is the number of qi 氣 from which emerge the Ten Thousand Beings. Three is the manifestation of One in multiplicity.

In the oracular inscriptions and for centuries, the number Four was written with four strokes stacked atop one another ER-4-1then ER-4-2 and finally 四. Beyond its quantitative value (four, fourth), is associated from the start with a fundamental division: that of the space under the authority of the King. On Earth, the monarch reigns from the center over the Four great regions that spread outward in the Four directions and comprise the Kingdom. Just as in Heaven, the Great Ancestor, supreme power, rules over the Four spirits protecting life on the earth in each of the Four great regions. These spirits are expressed in the Four winds. In complex written form, it is 肆: to spread out, arrange, exhibit.

The classical writing of Four 四 includes the division 八2 within a circle ER-4-3 that becomes a square ⼞. This opens the possibility of all subdivisions, like the eight divisions of the compass rose. From this, we get the symbolic value of Four, as the prototype of all distinctions that lead to the partition of particular moments in time or specific sectors in space. As well, we derive the potentiality of particular moments in time or specific sectors in space.

The Four regions, si fang 四⽅, are all the directions of space, just as the Four seasons, si shi 四 時, are the model for all the moments of time. The character shi 時 is used in reference to season, hour, and every moment qualified by time. Similarly, the character fang ⽅ is used to mean square, territory, direction, quarter, area, place, placement.

From the beginning until the third century BCE, the character for the number five was drawn as a cross, a crossing, an X, most often framed ⼆. at top and bottom: ER-5-1. The classical writing settled upon the form 五. In complex written form, five is 伍: a squadron of five men, a group of five homes.

From the oracular inscriptions, groups of five are attested to as a sacrifice to a group of five ancestral spirits or, in another interpretation, five rituals spread over the course of the year. Groupings by five continue to serve as a principle in significant series: flavors, sounds, colors, planets. A little before the Common Era, five became the base for universal correspondences that establish wu xing 五⾏, five element cosmology. Five is thus the number of the central organization of life, the division and distribution; and the harmonious relationships among the five qi movements that comprise every living being and every phenomenon. It is the number of all series drawn from the model of the five Elements, and of the center. Five regulates the permutations and associations of all qi, organized according to their five notable characteristics.

The archaic characters for six : ER-6-1 suggest closure: the roof, the cover, the interior, the residence. It is later understood as entry, penetration, qualities specific to yin. In complex written form, six is 陸, inferring dry land, continent, terrestrial pathway such as a road.

Six serves to put into action the organization initiated by five. It is the quintessential number of what administers by division and distribution. For example, we see the repartition of yin yang qi into three pairs, whose exchanges at the juncture of heavenly dynamism and of earthly submission form the known universe (called the six junctions, liu he 六合). The division of the services of government and administration is based on the model of the six Ministries. The six continuous or broken lines of the hexagrams represent the intertwining of the yin-yang qi that make the tangible situations of life appear.

Six is the flux and reflux of animating qi, whose exchanges construct and maintain every space where life is realized. Six is thus the base number for the organization of the great animating currents or .lows. For natural phenomena, it correlates to the six kinds of spirits that we offer upon the six ancestral altars. On earth, it is the rivers and waterways. Analogically, in the human body there are twelve meridians regulating vital circulation. In years, there is the cycle of 60 days and of 60 years.

In archaic writings, the number Seven ER-7-1 resembles a cross ER-7-2 upon which the horizontal branch is sometimes quite reduced ER-7-3. We thus .ind a vertical stroke, an ascent, which crosses or cuts a horizontal stroke of lesser importance. This is where we may see emergence, the yang appearing, the young shoot coming up into the world. Towards the end of the third century BCE, the vertical stroke, from its straight position, bent in its lower part, which gave us the classical character for Seven, 七. In complex written form, Seven is 柒: a lacquer tree.

Seven symbolizes the concrete appearance of life force, the vital impulse with its dangers and excesses. All growth contains potential failure. It is necessary to master this force pushing to emerge so that it does not become uncontrolled violence. Seven, qi, is the only number (besides a thousand, qian), that has an aspirated pronunciation.

Seven is a thrust, a gushing forth. It is the emergence of a secret inspiration. Yin-yang and the five Elements constitute its power, and must maintain an interior order to avoid disorder and disaster. There are seven superior orifices (of clear yang), seven emotions, seven Po souls representing the mental as well as corporeal upsurge of life.

The separation into two parts, the origin of multiple repartition (division and distribution)
has been, for all of time, the sign of eight, as obvious in the archaic forms: ER-8-1 then ER-8-2 . Its classical writing, 八 shares much with two ⼆, insofar as we see, and have always seen, a division of what was One. Eight is division, repartition, divisibility. In complex written form, Eight is 捌: to tear, split, divide.

Eight manifests and spreads the qi and the vital spirit; what arises from Seven is everywhere, occupying the totality of space and time. Eight separates and distinguishes the qi. It sets forth and fixes a limit on their expansion. Since it is the double of four, Eight affirms the specificity of vital qi. It sets fundamental rules in place. Some examples of the variation of vital qi with Eight are: Eight trigrams, Eight winds, Eight extraordinary meridians.

Nine is the arrival of completion. Everything has been set forth, organized, achieved. In Nine months, the seed planted in the earth has grown into a plant, ready to be harvested. It has matured using all the resources its roots have to offer and nothing can make it grow more, or lighten the weight of its wealth. Nine is the number that expresses total unfolding, the greatest expression of yang, but also exhaustion, growing old. The interpretations of its writing vary in function with the meaning we wish to retain. We may see here the wilting or the unfurling of the plant. The oldest writings display a hook, a curve: ER-9-1 then ER-9-2. In complex written form, Nine is 玖: black quartz.

Besides its numerical meaning, jiu 九, the character for Nine, is also used to mean a large number forming a complete whole, lots of things assembled together. It is homophonic with the character jiu 久: what has lasted a long time, or is antique, sometimes infers oldness. Its presence in several characters gives them a sense of gathering together. This is true for jiu 鳩, the turtle dove, a character formed from bird ⿃ and Nine 九, and which also means to unite, assemble, gather. Or, also the character kui 馗, which means a junction where the Nine roads come together.

The primitive writing for the number Ten is a vertical stroke: ER-10-1. Later, a bulge or a small
horizontal stroke was added : ER-10-2, probably to avoid any possible confusion from a simple slip of the writing utensil. In complex written form, Ten is 拾: to gather, assemble, arrange.

The quantitative value appears to have dominated for centuries. Even if the vertical trait may evoke Heaven, or the movement between Heaven and Earth, only progressively does the symbolic content of these notions become enriched. The cross, designated by the classical character for Ten ⼗, may be understood as the intersection of a north–west line with an east– west line. The Four directions and the center are thus represented. It is the totality of what is expressed on Earth, the perfect arrangement. However, vertical associates easily to Heaven, as horizontal associates easily to Earth. If we consider the crossing of the vertical line with the horizontal one, the classical writing of Ten ⼗ may be easily interpreted as the totality of what comes and descend from Heaven as well as the totality of what is received and spreads across the Earth, as the totality of Heaven–Earth. Ten thus takes the meaning of whole, of a complete and perfect whole, in the image of Heaven–Earth.

Ten thus also puts into unity all the differentiated elements of the composition of life. It is likewise the number of man, one of a kind, expressing the unity of cosmic life.

1 The first character is the usual one. The second is a more complex form, which is used in order to prevent against confusion or fraud, for instance, in contracts, financial agreement or records. The character for the complex form has the same pronunciation as the main character.



Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee is an internationally recognized author and scholar in the field of the Chinese medical classics. Beginning in 1976, she collaborated with scholars Fr. Larre and Dr. Jean Schatz on publications on Chinese philosophy and classical Chinese medical texts. Her published works include numerous texts in French and Italian.

Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee believes that the real knowledge of the Chinese vision of life is useful not only to understand Chinese medicine from a scholarly point of view, but also to deepen one’s practical approach and clinical skill. This is the reason why she always reads, translates and explains texts that present a precise pathology and its diagnosis, treatment or a reflection on the nature and meaning of human life or anything in between.



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