HONG KONG (AFP) — In a culture where numbers have their own significance, emperors ruled by heavenly mandate and natural disasters have foretold the end of dynasties, China's massive earthquake has given way to rumour and superstition.
With officials saying the number of people killed in the 7.9-magnitude quake that shook Sichuan Monday is likely to be more than 50,000, Chinese are looking for a cosmic explanation for their misery.
Fantastic theories for the disaster -- as well as January snowstorms, March riots in Tibet and this month's disastrous cyclone in Myanmar -- have become cyberspace currency and geomancers are claiming credit for predicting the event.
In the absence of religion, deemed by the Communists as a vestige of China's imperial past, people look to the heavens for omens and invest numbers with meaning, paying enormous sums for car number plates bearing the lucky number 8, and avoiding flats on the fourth floor as the number rhymes with death.
Even as the government has sought to capitalise on the predilection for portents by scheduling the opening ceremony of the Olympics for August 8, at 8:08pm, some Internet users have given added significance to the fact that the date for each of this year's disastrous events adds up to eight.
May 12, the day of the quake, adds up to eight (5, for May, + 1 + 2) -- is 88 days before the opening ceremony.
"This is how people deal with disasters like this, by finding meaning and hidden significance in numbers and cycles," said Gerome Barme, professor of Chinese history at Australian National University.
"One of the things the government is trying hard to avoid is normal people believing that the heavenly powers are displeased with what is going on here on earth," he said, adding that the 1976 Tangshan earthquake which claimed around 240,000 lives was widely regarded as a precursor to the death of Mao Zedong.
"A lot of energy is going into the propaganda effort, so that the government appears profoundly concerned, active, capable and competent in dealing with a disaster of this scale," he said.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong geomancer Raymond Lo said that according to Chinese astrological charts, 2008, the Year of the Rat on the Chinese lunar calendar, was destined to be one of tumult and disaster.
"This is a year of earth and water, it means the earth is unstable and water is very powerful," he said.
The snowstorms -- which crippled huge swathes of the country from January 25, which also totals eight -- were the first natural disaster of 2008 and involved water, he said. "The earth was unstable, and then the quake comes."
The day of the quake was a "double rat day," he said, with the rat in the northern hemisphere of the lunar chart sitting in conflict with the horse in the south.
"The double rat clashing with the horse on that day meant that something was going to happen," he said, adding that the rat year was always going to be a challenging one for Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, both born in 1942, the Year of the Horse.
The Olympic mascots, five cartoon figures representing four animals and the Olympic torch, are also being linked to disasters that some chatroom visitors believe should have been foreseen.
The antelope mascot Yingying foretold the Tibet riots, the South China Morning Post said, referring to a viral circulating on the Internet.
Huanhuan, the torch mascot, foretold the trouble that plagued the torch's controversial journey around the world, the paper said, adding that Nini the kite was a portent of an April train disaster in Shandong province, home of Chinese kite-flying, and Jingjing the panda, which is found mostly in Sichuan, pointed to the earthquake.
Whatever is foretold by the sturgeon mascot, Beibei, can only be imagined, the paper said, and quoted a Beijing website editor, Chen Wei, saying: "The worst might be yet to come".
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