Are numbers just numbers? Well, not really. Everyone has their own favorite number, it could be a birthday date, your wedding day, a number that brought you luck in the past, wherever the reason may be, one thing is certain is that they are not just simple numbers for us.
Chinese people also do the same, but a step above, in the sense that sometimes they communicate not only with words but also with numbers!
The Chinese language has a very unique grammatical structure, where each word is constructed as an isolated block of meaning and more characters together are just like the pieces of a puzzle. If you think about it, numbers are quite similar in this regard, all of them have a meaning which is the quantity they indicate, but they can be separated and combined to create different numbers.
What if some numbers sound similar to real words? Bam, then you have a match made in heaven. You can literally write a sentence in Mandarin using just numbers.
For example, try reading aloud 520 in Mandarin, what does it sound like? Well, 520 is homophonic to “I love you” in Chinese! In fact, the 20th of May (520) is pronounced （wǔ èr líng）which sound very similar to 我爱你（wǒ ài nǐ）I love you, that is why the 20th (and 21st) have been labeled as the Internet Valentine’s Day（网络情人节）.
Ok, we get the part about Valentine’s Day, but why “internet”? Unlike International Valentine’s Day (February 14th) and Chinese Valentine’s Day (七夕) which are primarily for “real” lovers who are in a confirmed love relationship or even married, 520 is more about expressing your love to your crush, what in Mandarin is called 表白（confess one’s love）.
And since it may be too difficult for many to say “I love you” face-to-face, some people decide to use Chinese social media （like WeChat, Weibo, QQ…） to confess their feelings by typing messages with 520 or 521, maybe even attaching a gift ! Here comes the business side of this special day. And as an old Chinese saying goes: “only when there is demand there can be business”.
Companies such as florists, chocolate brands, travel agencies, jewelry, cosmetics & fashion brand have used this online phenomenon and turned it into an efficient marketing strategy to engage with Chinese consumers. At the same time, with the popularity of e-commerce, many people choose to buy their Valentine’s Day gift online to express their feelings and hope for the best.
520 is not the only way to communicate in Mandarin, you can also take note of another expression 5201314! 520 means love, whereas 1314 represents 一生一世 yīshēng yīshì (for a lifetime). So, if you say 5201314, you are saying “I love you for a lifetime”.