(What about “four”? Do you put yet another line on top of 三 to write number “four”? Actually, no, but that’s another story.)
In traditional Chinese philosophy, three is a large number. As we previously quoted, the Daoist philosopher Lao Zi said: “One gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, and three gives birth to myriad things in the universe.” One is important, two is important, and three is somewhat important; beyond three, it’s just stuff.
A disciple of Confucius stated: “Everyday I examine myself on three counts. In serving others, have I been fully dedicated? In associating with friends, have I been fully sincere? In study my teacher’s instructions, have I practiced frequently?” On “three counts” – why not four, why not eight? Well, there are lots of improvements that we can make in our lives, but three, the most important three, are many enough.
In fact, the great philosopher Confucius himself thought that three is a bit too much. Back in his time there was this public official with a reputation of being extremely upright and meticulous, who, it was said, would consider every issue three times before he makes a decision. Confucius’s disciplines asked their master if this was proper behavior. Confucius responded, “Twice is enough.”
Then there is this popular Chinese maxim, Shì bù guò sān. The Chinese understand that to err is human, so they believe in forgiveness. But they also believe there is a limit how many times a person can make the same mistake. Shì bù guò sān – “matter not exceed three” – means that we should be tolerant toward someone who has just committed an error. We should even endue the fact that the person has made that same mistake the second time. But if the fellow gets it wrong the third time, you can just cross him out or chew him out. In this case, the third time’s a charm, in a bad way.
On the other hand, there is also this Chinese saying – “A smart rabbit keeps three hiding holes.” In this case, three is not so bad.
Good or bad, three is a critical threshold. Be mindful of it.