What?! The Chinese language not only uses characters for words, but also for numbers? Yes. Although not as easy as 1, 2, 3, the Chinese numeral system proves easy enough even without ever having studied Chinese.
Fear not, the Arabic numeral system (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) is also used in China, but it’s still important to be able to understand Chinese numerals, as they are extremely common on signs, menus, and literature.
一 (yī): one. Sometimes 幺 (yāo) is used in place of 一, especially when reading a string of numbers out loud, as in exchanging phone numbers.
二 (èr): two. Oftentimes 两 (liǎng) is used to say “two.” For example: you would never say “I’d like 二 (èr) dumplings, please.” Instead, you would say, “I’d like 两 (liǎng) dumplings, please.”
三 (sān): three
四 (sì): four. The unluckiest number in Chinese because it sounds like the word for death, 死 (sĭ). Thus, you never give or order items in fours. You’re out to dinner in a group of four? Then you would order three or five beers, not four. Oftentimes buildings do not have a fourth floor.
五 (wǔ): five
六 (liù): six
七 (qī): seven
八 (bā): eight. The luckiest number in Chinese culture. Remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics? The opening ceremony happened on 08/08/08 at 8:08pm. 八 sounds similar to “prosper” or “wealth,” 發 (fā). People pay extra money for phone numbers containing the digit 8.
九 (jiǔ): nine
零 (líng): zero
To make numbers 1-99, you simply combine the first ten. Examples:
17 → 十七 = 十 + 七
27 → 二十七 = 二十 (20) + 七
75 → 七十五 = 七十 (70) + 五
Beyond numbers 1-99, additional characters are used:
百 (bǎi): 100
千 (qiān): 1,000
万 (wàn): 10,000
700 → 七百
7,075 → 七千七十五
70,000 → 七万
Hand Gestures for Numbers
In China, unique hand gestures are used to depict numbers 1-10. In most cultures, two hands are required, since you must use both hands to put up enough fingers in order to display numbers 6-10. In China, only one hand is required.
Ten can also be signaled by making a fist with one hand. The Chinese number gestures enable you to signal to a shop owner you’d like to buy 8 of something without putting down your cup of coffee. Using these gestures in combination of other gestures, pointing, and facial expressions, is extremely helpful, as you can communicate without necessarily knowing how to speak the language.
In order to create ordinal numbers, you just have to place 第 (dì) in front of the number. This is easier than in many languages, where a unique word must be learned.
There are actually two (not one) sets of characters for Chinese numerals: the set we’ve already covered, which is used for everyday writing, and another set used in financial contexts. This set is known as 大写 (dàxiě). Since the everyday set of numeral characters are geometrically simple, they are easy to manipulate, thus resulting in easy forgery, similar to a child being able to easily alter an “F” to an “A+” in the English language.
A forger could easily change “二十” (20) to “五千” (5,000) by adding just a few strokes. If one were to use the 大写 numeral set, it would be impossible: 贰拾 (20) and 伍仟 (5000). The 大写 numeral set is also referred to as “banker numerals” or “anti-fraud numerals.”
Now that you’re a pro with Chinese numerals, give this well-known tongue twister a whirl.
四 十 是 四 十 ， 十 四 是 十 四.
sì shí shì sì shí , shí sì shì shí sì.
Forty is forty, fourteen is fourteen.