One phenomenon worthy of note to the student of the Chinese menu is the use of certain numbers in the names of dishes. Three (三/sān) and eight (八/bā) turn up particularly frequently, for example as 地三鮮/dì sān xiān ("three fresh things from the earth") and 八珍糯米雞/bā zhēn nuò mǐ jī (eight-treasure glutinous rice with chicken).
The frequency with which these numbers appear is not coincidental — in Chinese culture, as in many other cultures, some numbers are considered to be particularly "lucky". There's some information on this on Wikipedia. shuripentu, who has guest-posted here before, tells me:
I'd say the most important numbers in terms of (un)luckiness are 8 (very lucky), 4 (unlucky), and 14 (incredibly unlucky). If the random witterings I've heard on the topic are indeed true, people will go out of their way (sometimes considerably so) to acquire 8s and avoid 4s and 14s (and apparently also 24s, 34s, etc.).
Numerological superstitions do seem to be a lot more common and more deeply ingrained into Chinese culture than most Western cultures I've come across. Not that most people seem to take those superstitions hugely seriously, but they certainly seem to consider them and talk about them more often in general, and it doesn't seem to be so unusual for such considerations to affect people's decisions. For example, if someone here [in the UK] were to avoid buying a house because it's number 13, I would think it somewhat unusual, whereas if someone in Hong Kong were to do the same with a number 14 flat, I would think they were being silly but I wouldn't think it was odd.
According to Slanted magazine, a Chinese wedding banquet should include eight courses, due to the lucky connotations of the number. Relatedly, some people think that a meal should always include an even number of dishes; the ChineseTones website states that an odd number of dishes "would be appropriate only for occasions such as the meal after a funeral."
Below are the Chinese numbers from 1 to 9, along with 10, 100, and 1000. (I've stopped at 1000 because that's the largest number I've ever seen on a menu!) If you know these, and you also know the rules for combining them to make other numbers (see Wikipedia for these), you can count from 1 to 9999.
|一||yī||1||used on menus as 一品 (yì pǐn), which I think means something like "first-rate", i.e. best quality|
|二||èr||2||not usually used on menus; 雙 (shuāng) or 兩 (liǎng) is more commonly used to denote a pair of things|
|三||sān||3||appears frequently on menus; more on this later this week|
|四||sì||4||occasionally used on menus as part of other words; see earlier post|
|五||wǔ||5||used on menus in a couple of contexts; see earlier post|
|六||liù||6||not generally used on menus|
|七||qī||7||not generally used on menus, though you may see it as 七喜 (qī xǐ), or the soft drink Seven-Up|
|八||bā||8||frequently used on menus due to its lucky connotation; I'll post about 八 at greater length at some point|
|九||jiǔ||9||not generally used on menus|
|十||shí||10||I've only seen this on one menu, as 十香醉排骨 (shí xiāng zuì pái gǔ), which translates as "ten-fragrance drunken ribs"|
|百||bǎi||100||occasionally used on menus; see the bottom of my post on 白/bái|
|千||qiān||1000||used as 大千 (dà qiān), literally "big thousand", to denote a spicy sauce, e.g. 大千乾燒魚 (dà qiān gān shāo yú), a deep fried whole fish in spicy hot sauce; it also appears in the name of a type of tea, 千日紅花茶 (qiān rì hóng huā chá), literally "thousand day red flower tea"|
(NB there's lots more about numbers in the comments to this post!)