Math may be a human construct, but numbers are an essential part of life. From bustling open-air markets to somber business meetings, your grasp on numbers determines your chances of success. So how does one learn Chinese numbers? With the help of the following article, of course 🙂
Reading Chinese Numbers
Chinese Numbers from 1 to 10
Chinese numbers are a pretty simple lot, especially in comparison to English or, Heaven forbid, French. First, we have numbers from 1 to 10:
Don’t they look cute, with their limited strokes and angular shapes! Allow me to instill fear back into your souls: in Chinese, “zero” is written as 零 / líng.
1 to 10 Chinese Number Gestures
The earliest math exercise known to man was counting one’s fingers, but the Chinese took this fine tradition to a whole new level when they came up with a method to signify the numbers from 1 to 10 using just one hand. Take a look:
Some say that this system exists in no small part thanks to the abundance of Chinese dialects: in the marketplace, where different cultures collide, it’s sometimes easier to show rather than tell.
It’s ironic that the gestures vary depending on the region: take a look at these variations from the South
The gesture of the digit 0 is used for showing numbers like 20, 30, 40, etc, where the left-hand shows the tens digit and the right-hand shows the digit 0.
Chinese Numbers from 11 to 9999
The numbers after ten are clear-cut, straightforward compounds:
|11 (ten plus one)||十一||shí yī|
|20 (two tens)||二十||èr shí|
|45 (four tens plus five)||四十五||sì shí wǔ|
…and so on.
Once you hit 99 (how do you say that in Chinese? That’s right, 九十九 / jiǔ shí jiǔ!), learn a new character – 百 / bǎi (hundred):
|101 (one hundred zero one)||一百零一||yī bǎi líng yī|
|410 (one hundred one (ten))||四百一||sì bǎi yī|
|999 (nine hundred nine tens plus nine)||九百九十九||jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ|
Timely addition of 千 – qiān (thousand) will have you covered for another 9,000 numbers:
|1001 (one thousand zero one)||一千零一||yī qiān líng yī|
|3010 (three thousand one (ten))||三千一十||sān qiān yī shí|
|9503 (nine thousand five hundred zero three)||九千五百零三||jiǔ qiān wǔ bǎi líng sān|
So far so good, right? And I bet you already got to the edge of your seat, ready to blurt out that in Chinese, ten thousand must be 十千… and that’s where you’d be wrong.
Chinese Numbers from 10,000 and Beyond
Way before Arabic numbers were in vogue and around the time my ancestors amused themselves by eating birch bark, the Chinese passed the time by refining their positional number system. Here are the results:
(This is not an exhaustive list! Yay!)
It takes some getting used to, but soon enough the knowledge that one million is 一百万 / yībǎi wàn, ten million is 一千万 / yīqiān wàn, one billion is 十亿 / shí yì, will be as close and dear to you as 2 + 2 = 4… or not. In truth, even fluent speakers can struggle with number conversion, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always get it right!
This being said, do your best to memorize the character 万 / wàn – it shows up in many phrases that have very little to do with math, for instance:
- 万岁 / wàn suì (lit. ten thousand years of age) / “Long live …” (the emperor, or the Party, depending on the historical context). You may be more familiar with the Japanese reading of these characters, banzai.
- 万圣节 / wànshèngjié/ lit. ten thousand Saints festival – you guessed it, it’s Halloween!
- 万事如意 / wànshì rúyì / “Best wishes” (lit. ten thousand things as planned), widely used as a blessing
Chinese Numbers in Daily Life
Now that you’ve amassed a great amount of Chinese numbers in your short term memory, let’s try and find some practical use for them!
Using Chinese Numbers to Talk About Days and Months
The days (of the week) are numbered! And so are the months of the year, too. Chinese doesn’t need fancy words like Monday or January: use numbers instead!
For days of the week from Monday to Saturday, use the word “week” (星期 / xīngqí) + relevant number from 1 to 6. But remember: the ever-so-special Sunday is 星期天 / xīngqítiān or 星期日 / xīngqírì, no 七 / qī needed.
|星期一 / xīngqíyī||星期二 / xīngqí’èr||星期三 / xīngqísān||星期四 / xīngqísì|
|星期五 / xīngqíwǔ||星期六 / xīngqíliù||星期天 / xīngqítiān||星期日 / xīngqírì|
For months, pick a number from 1 to 12 and add the word “month” (月 / yuè) immediately after it.
|一月 / yī yuè||二月 / èr yuè||三月 / sān yuè||四月 / sì yuè|
|五月 / wǔ yuè||六月 / liù yuè||七月 / qī yuè||八月 / bā yuè|
|九月 / jiǔ yuè||十月 / shí yuè||十一月 / shíyī yuè||十二月 / shí’èr yuè|
Don’t bother with the measure word: while 六月 / liù yuè means June, 六个月 / liù gè yuè translates to “six months”.
To indicate a date, go from the big stuff to the small stuff: start with the year (four numbers + 年 / nián), then month (number + 月 / yuè), then day (number + 号 / hào or 日 / rì):
- 1996年8月8号 / yī jiǔ jiǔ liù nián bā yuè bā hào / August 8, 1996
- 2021年11月11号 / èr líng èr yī nián shíyī yuè shíyī hào / November 11, 2021
Note that the year reads as four separate numbers: it’s not “nineteen ninety six” or “two thousand twenty one”, but rather “one nine nine six” and “two zero two one”.
Using Chinese Numbers to Talk About Time
The aforementioned logic of “big first, small second” applies to talking about time too: you should mention part of the day first (though it’s okay to go with the 24-hour system too!), hours (number + 点 / diǎn) second, minutes (number + 分 / fēn) third.
- 上午9点10分 / shàngwǔ jiǔ diǎn shí fēn / 9:10 in the morning
- 中午12点 / zhōngwǔ shí’èr diǎn / 12 o‘clock at noon
- 下午5点45分 / xiàwǔ wǔ diǎn sì shí wǔ fēn / 5:45 in the afternoon
- 晚上9点半 / wǎnshàng jiǔ diǎn bàn / half past 9 in the evening
- 19点25分 / shí jiǔ diǎn èr shí wǔ fēn / 19:25
Using Chinese Numbers to Talk About Age
Talking about someone’s age is easy: just take a number of years and add a 岁 / suì after it:
我今年二十五岁 / wǒ jīnnián èrshíwǔ suì / I’m turning 25 this year.
Asking about someone’s age, on the other hand, is trickier. There are two basic ways to ask about someone’s age in Chinese:
1) Subject + 几岁 / jǐ suì ？
你妹妹今年几岁？/ nǐ mèimei jīnnián jǐ suì / How old is your younger sister?
几 / jǐ is a question word that usually refers to numbers no bigger than ten. Therefore, it’s better to use 几岁 / jǐ suì when talking about children.
Now, if the person in question has passed this threshold already, use…
2) Subject + 多大了 / duōdàle？
你今年多大了？/ nǐ jīnnián duōdàle / How old are you turning this year?
多大 / duōdà is a neutral question, so if you want to crank up the politeness level around people of advanced age, say:
3) Subject + 多大年纪 / duōdà niánjì ？
您多大年纪？/ nín duōdà niánjì / How old are you?
You can make it classier by going 您高寿 / nín gāoshòu ？ which literally translates to “Your venerable age?”
Using Chinese Numbers to Count Objects
Chinese may lack the grammatical category of number, but it does have something virtually unheard of in many other languages: the concept of measure words. Measure words are used between the number and the noun, like this:
- 一个孩子 / yī gè háizi / one child
- 两个女人 / liǎng gè nǚrén / two women
- 三条裤子 / sān tiáo kùzi / three pairs of trousers
- 四张桌子 / sì zhāng zhuōzi / four tables
- 五本书 / wǔ běn shū / five books
- 六只猫 / liù zhǐ māo / six cats
- 一双手套 / yī shuāng shǒutào / one pair of gloves
There are nouns in English that can serve a similar role: you wouldn’t say “two dirts”, but “two piles of dirt” is a-okay, because the combination “piles of” functions as a measure word. The difference is that there are dozens of measure words in Chinese: one for long thin objects (条 / tiáo), one for flat wide objects (张 / zhāng), one for books (本 / běn), one for some animals (只 / zhǐ), one for things that come in pairs (双 / shuāng), and so on…
Luckily, there is a catch-all measure word that can go with almost any noun: 个 / gè!
个 / gè will always be here for you if you can’t remember a better measure word to count things in Chinese!
Special Rules and Fun Trivia on Chinese Numbers
The Curious Cases of 幺 and 两
The characters for “one” and “two”: 一 / yī and 二 / èr respectively – are the easiest hanzi in existence. It’s a shame they aren’t used all the time!
For instance, in phone numbers, 1 is pronounced as 幺 / yāo instead of 一 / yī. This way, a row of 1’s will sound like “yāo-yāo-yāo” without turning into an indistinguishable “YEEEE”.
两 / liǎng represents a more grammar-heavy change: it’s used before measure words instead of 二 / èr :
两个人 / liǎng gè rén / two people
Note that this doesn’t apply to numbers that simply have “2” as their final number:
二十二个人 / èrshí’èr gè rén / 22 people
But, one might ask, what about those big numbers, like hundreds and thousands? Do they count as measure words? In truth, there is no definitive answer to this question, so pronouncing 2222 as 二千二百二十二 / èrqiān èrbǎi èrshí’èr, 两千二百二十二 / liǎng qiān èrbǎi èrshí’èr or even 两千两百二十二 / liǎng qiān liǎng bǎi èrshí’èr is all perfectly fine.
Chinese Anti-Fraud Numerals
Things that are easy to write are easy to forge. This simple truth leads to Westerners painstakingly writing out numbers word by word in important contracts, while in China people make good use of the so-called 大写 / – anti-fraud (aka banker’s) numerals, mostly used in financial settings.
Thank god the “zero” – 零 / líng – is complicated enough! In fact, it quite often gets simplified to 〇 in daily life. What a relief!
There are a lot of superstitions tied to Chinese numbers, so knowing auspicious numbers in Chinese culture is a must if you want to surprise someone with a tasteful gift.
The luckiest number is 8: it sounds similar to 发 / fā (as in, 发财 / fācái – get rich) and looks like 囍 / shuāng xǐ, a purely decorative hanzi which literally translates to “double joy” and thus can be seen at every traditional wedding.
Speaking of doubles, 2 isn’t too shabby either: most decorations come in pairs, and gifts should too!
好事成双(lit. Good things come in pairs)
In Cantonese, 6 sounds like “good fortune” and “happiness”, so it’s considered a good number for business. Meanwhile, mainlanders came up with their own meaning for the number 6: it now means “cool”, due to the similarity in pronunciation with the word 牛逼 / niú bī (don’t repeat this, and if anyone asks, you didn’t learn it from us).
Similarly, 9 used to be associated with the Emperor, and also longevity (think 久 / jiǔ – long-lasting), but now it mostly means “wicked cool”: 999 is 六翻了 / liù fānle / cool (6) enough to turn upside down.
Now, the number worth avoiding both in ancient China and the world of today is 4. It sounds like the word “death” (死 / sǐ), so many elevators in China coquettishly hide the fourth-floor button like Something-That-Should-Not-Be-Named.
Idioms with Chinese Numbers
The sheer amount of idioms that contain numbers in the Chinese language is too large for words and definitely too large for this humble article. However, yours truly does have some favorites:
- 一生一世 / yīshēng yīshì / for all one’s life. It sometimes gets abbreviated to 1314 due to pronunciation similarities, and then further expanded to 52571314 (我爱我妻一生一世 / wǒ ài wǒqī yīshēng yīshì / I love my wife forever and ever), the most auspicious numbers in the Chinese language 🙂
- 说一不二 / shuō yī bù èr / to keep one’s word (lit. say “one” and not mean “two”).
- 两面三刀 / liǎngmiànsāndāo / backstabbing (lit. “two faces, three knives).
- 四面楚歌 / sìmiànchǔgē / surrounded by enemies, isolated and without help. This one is classier than the rest: it literally translates to “four sides, Chu songs”, Chu being the Chu kingdom during the Warring States period. Use this idiom when no one lets you cheat on a test.
- 五颜六色 / wǔyánliùsè / every color under the sun, multi-colored (you can tell that not many colors were routinely available to people of the past).
- 乱七八糟 / luànqībāzāo / a hideous mess, complete disarray, or, as the English would have it, “at sixes and sevens”.
- 十之八九 / shí zhī bājiǔ / most likely, vast majority (lit. “8 or 9 out of 10”).
- 百战百胜 / bǎi zhàn bǎishèng / to emerge victorious in every battle (lit. “hundred battles, hundred victories”). And something worth repeating…
- 万事如意 / wànshì rúyì / best wishes (lit. ten thousand things as planned).
Best of luck on the Chinese-learning journey and thank you all for reading! 😀