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Following The Lucky Number

By Ian Williams, NBC News Correspondent

Qian Li looked a little nervous as she walked arm in arm with her groom, passed a long row of fish tanks and into the packed restaurant. Her friends and family clapped and cheered, shouting encouragement and wishing them a life of love and happiness.

It was a few hours before the opening of the Olympic games, in the southern suburbs of Beijing, and the smiles on their faces suggested the happy couple was pretty confident of good fortune. After all, it was the eighth of the eighth of the eighth, and they had deliberately chosen the date.

Banquet halls across Beijing have been booked for months; more than 16,000 couples in Beijing alone tied the knot Friday, some simply because it was the Olympics; most because the number eight is regarded as a lucky number, a number they associate with wealth and prosperity. And 08-08-08 comes around only once every hundred years.

"It's great to have all the numbers linked together," Qian Li told me. "We will have a happy life."

We'd travelled from the reception to a central Beijing maternity hospital, where doctors told us they were expected up to sixty deliveries Friday, up from 35 this time last year. Chinese press photographers crowded around one of the early deliveries as he was pushed with his sleeping mother across the maternity ward (rather appropriately, on the eighth floor).

"Of course they all want a lucky baby," one doctor told us.

There were big lines at post offices in the capital today, for 08-08-08 stamps, and from jewelry to car number plates, there's been a rush for the number eight.

China has been following the numbers for centuries; it's deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. Officially the communists don't believe in religion or "superstition", and tried hard to outlaw both; in practice they're thriving. One recent survey of government officials in southern china found that more half of them believed in some form of mysticism.

It's all meant a boom in business for fortune tellers. We'd visited Master Jiang Nan, as he was laying out the destiny of a young woman, hanging on his every word. He told me that most of his clients are young. He told the woman she should keep some fish and turtles at home, but not to lose track of the numbers.

"the numbers mean everything," he told her. The number four is to be avoided because in Chinese it sounds like "death", and seven is little better because it sounds like "gone". None is more auspicious than the number eight, which in Chinese is "ba", and sounds like "fa" (prosperity).

That so many young people are following the numbers is sometimes attributed to China's spiritual vacuum, so many people looking for something to cling to in times of rapid and often painful change; in truth numerology has deep historical roots in China.

Nobody knows that better that Raymond Lo, possibly China's foremost expert in destiny and Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese system of arranging objects. I met him at a tea shop in Hong Kong, where he told me that many factors from Chinese astrology contributed towards good fortune.

"The number eight is dominant during the current twenty years," he said. "That means it is now the most significant number, but sometimes it may be positive or negative."

And the number eight is not having a great year.

There were crippling snow storms on the 25th of January this year, and the figure in that date - 1 + 2 + 5 - add up to eight. It's the same story for the Tibet riots which began on March 14th. The figures in the date add up (3+1+4), and the May 12 quake in Sichuan (5+1+2).

Figures that have shaken some bloggers here, but certainly didn't prevent today's rush to the alter in Beijing, where today at least was about the magical, Olympian number Eight.