The meaning behind Chinese numbers


One of the first things we learn when studying a new language is numbers. In the Chinese language, numbers have a rich cultural history. Chinese numbers, like the language’s characters, are based on ideograms (graphic signs that have a symbolic and literal meaning).

Chinese numbers and counting system   

To keep it simple, this article will only cover the numbers 1-10. With this basic knowledge you will already be able to count to 99! The table below will show you the numbers in both Chinese characters and pinyin:

Nummer  Chinees karakter   Pinyin 
0  /  Líng 
2    èr 
3    Sān 
5    Wǔ 
6    Liù 
9    J 
10    Shí 

The Chinese numbers are often seen as being very logical and straightforward. In contrast to many other languages, there are no separate words for multiples of tens. Also, numbers like eleven, twelve, and thirteen don’t have direct translations following the Chinese counting system but are rather made up from the words for 1 to 10.

In Chinese, numbers greater than 10 are counted as sums. This may sound rather mathematical, but it’s actually not that hard. We will give you some examples:

11=10+1 十一 15=10+5 十五 19=10+9 十九

20= 2*10 二十 23=2*10+3 二十三 28=2*10+8 二十八

36=3*10+6 三十六 57=5*10+7 五十七 66=6*10+6 六十六

Double meanings of the Chinese numbers

Another interesting component of Chinese numbers is their sound, or pinyin. In China, many numbers have an extra meaning that stems from pronunciation. The multiple tones used in the Chinese language can easily create homophones (two or more words with the same pronunciation). This is especially present with monosyllabic words (words consisting of only one syllable). Because of this, some Chinese numbers have “double meanings” that are linked to their pronunciation.

Unlucky numbers

Similar to some Western countries, Chinese also has lucky and unlucky numbers. Many see this as merely a superstition, but others consider it a reason to avoid, for example, a certain telephone or house number. In Chinese, the sound of the number four 四 “Sì,” especially in spoken language, can be confused with the word 死 “Sǐ” which means death. The number four is therefore avoided as much as possible in Chinese culture. Some Chinese buildings “skip” this floor in their design, going straight from 3 to 5. You can compare this to the number 13 in the Netherlands, which could also be considered unlucky in Chinese culture as 1 + 3 equals 4.

Lucky numbers

In contrast, the numbers 8 and 6 are seen as bringers of great fortune. 6 六 “liù” sounds the same as 流“liū” which means smooth and is for this reason a very popular number in the business world. So, don’t be surprised if you see the “devilish” 666 used as something positive!

The number 8 八 “bā” is pronounced very similarly to the Chinese word 发 “fā” which means wealth/prosperity and is very popular. The more eights present in a number, the better. For example, a Chinese phone number containing five eights was recently sold for about $ 300,000. In line with this, did you know that the Beijing Olympics took place on 08-08-2008 at exactly 8:08:08 PM?

Although numbers are the first things many of us learn, understanding not only their translation but also their symbolic meaning is an important step to becoming comfortable using a new language in our day-to-day lives. Think of how important it is to express age, time, and dates, as well as phone passwords, barcodes, and data. We encourage you to take the first step to learning more about this topic by following our Instagram page for further information!