Counting in Chinese

Chinese abacus

The Chinese number system is easy and straightforward to learn. From earliest times the decimal system has been used in China for counting. When you have mastered the numbers you can easily tell the date and time too. Nowadays the Arabic numbers (0 to 9) are often used when writing numbers but they are given Chinese names. In this section we also give the symbolic associations for each number.

1 One

一 1  One Sounds like: 'ee' as in bee the 'y' is almost silent. (1st tone)

The number one is just one horizontal heng stroke. As in English, 'one' is used in many situations not just in counting, and is one of the most frequently occurring characters in text as in: Yidianr (a bit); Yihuir (a moment) Yixie (a little).

In spoken Chinese the alternative character yǎo can be used in place of . This is because, particularly on the phone the sound can be difficult to distinguish from and other numbers.

2 Two

二 2  Two Tricky for English speakers as it is nothing like the word err and is closer to the sound of the word argh as in the exclamation Ooh Argh! (4th tone)

An extra heng stroke added to 1 makes it 2.

2; Pair

两 2; Pair

In Chinese èr is used only in counting, the alternative liǎng is used in other situations. This is like using pair or couple in English. Two, like all even numbers in China is considered a yin (female) number and associated with the earth. Two is a lucky number especially with regard to love and marriage. The yin-yang system of Yi Jing is all about a choice between two alternatives.

Three kingdoms, sculpture
Modern statues of the leaders of the Three Kingdoms, Langzhong, Sichuan
3 Three

三 3  Three Sounds like: 'san' in sanity (1st tone)

Another heng stroke adds 1 to two to make it three.

It is one of the luckiest numbers and is often found in phrases and slogans. In characters the same element repeated three times indicates very many as in sēn 'forest' made up of three 'trees'. Three represents the trinity of heaven; earth and man. The three main Chinese religions (Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist) have each 3 main teachings sān jiào. Buddhism has many trinities of objects; sayings and deities. Daoism has the trinity of Three Pure Ones. There are three friends of winter: pine, bamboo and plum as well as three abundances: peach; pomegranate and Finger Lemon. For centuries the San zi jing Three Character Classic was the first book children used to start writing Chinese, the exercises all had 3 characters. Village elders were called the ‘Three old worthies’.

4 Four

四 4  Four Sounds like: a shortened form of sir rather than see but with a marked drop of tone. (4th tone)
Chinese Sudoku You can combine learning Chinese characters (numbers and phrases) at the same time as playing a Sudoku puzzle. Click here for more details.

Adding another line would seem logical and the four bar representation was used in the early Shang dynasty written form. However, this does make the number prone to misreading so a different representation was developed. The original design was a square area divided into four quarters, so the character is a box with the character for division inside it.

Four is the most unlucky of Chinese numbers because the character ‘die; death’ only differs in tone to the character for 4.

China was traditionally considered to be enclosed by 4 Seas (the earth was considered square with seas on all sides) and 4 Barbarian kingdoms. The four seasons were separated by four sections : vermillion bird (plum); white tiger (orchid); azure dragon (bamboo) and black tortoise (chrysanthemum). The traditional month was divided into 4 weeks. There are four blessings sì fú: happiness; secure job; longevity and good luck. The four scholar's treasures are ink, paper, brush and ink-stone. A Maoist Communist slogan attacked the 4 olds : ‘old culture, old customs, old habits and old thinking’.

5 Five

五 5  Five Sounds like: a bit like woo but with a drop in tone in the middle. (3rd tone)

The original form of the character five was clearer, as it showed a square with a center making a total of five points. The modern form is modified to show only the bottom left triangle of the square.

It is considered a yang number as it is odd not even. In China there are 5 directions rather than just 4 (north, south, east, west and center). By tradition there are five elements and very many things are classified according to the governing element so there are five tastes, five smells, five classes of creature, five colors. There are five Classic books: Book of Documents, Book of Songs, Book of Changes, Book of Rites and the Book of Ceremonies. There are also five blessings: long life; wealth, health, virtue and a peaceful death. Noxious creatures are also classed as a group of five: snake; toad; gecko; centipede and scorpion.

five fairies motifs
Papercut of Five Fairies or Dancing dolls representing the five directions used traditionally to protect and cure sickness.
6 Six

六 6  Six Sounds like: the start of lieutenant. (Neutral tone)

One way to remember how to write liu is to remember that the character is rather like the Greek letter pi π with a dot on top, and two times pi is approximately six. Like sì (4) and bā (8) it includes a 'cut' stroke that indicates it is an even number and can be divided in two.

Six has fewer cultural associations than the other numbers. Six was considered the 'lucky' number of the first Qin Emperor, and everything had to be in sixes (including the size of hats of the officials). It sounds a bit like meaning ‘prosperity’ and liú meaning ‘flow’ so six of something can represent the wish for affairs to run smoothly. China was considered to have 6 great rivers. The ancient year of 360 days was split into 36 (6 x 6) ten day weeks. There are six emotions in three pairs: love & hate; anger & joy; pain & pleasure.

7 Seven

七 7  Seven Sounds like: 'tchee' as it needs a 't' sound which is not present in English 'ch'. (1st tone)

The character for seven looks like an upside down 'continental' Arabic seven which makes it easy to remember.

The seven stars in China can refer to sun; moon and the five major planets but also to the seven main stars of the Ursa Major (the Plow). The double seventh (Chinese Valentine's Day) festival is held on the seventh day of the seventh month. The old period of mourning was split up into 7 periods of 7 days. The 7 day week was adopted in China in the Song dynasty, replacing the ancient ten day week.

deity, eight immortals, Shandong, Penglai
Statue of the Eight Immortals at Penglai Pavilion, Shandong
8 Eight

八 8  Eight Sounds like: bar (1st tone)

Eight is divisible by two and then by two again and so the representation shows division into two.

Eight is the most important yin number and is quite heavily featured in traditions. Earliest and most importantly there are 8 trigrams in the Yi Jing (I Ching WG) for foretelling the future, the association with eight then moved to the eight symbols of the eight Daoist Immortals (fan; sword; bottle-gourd; castanets; flower-basket; bamboo cane; flute and the lotus). Buddhists have their own selection of eight treasures (sea slug, umbrella, canopy, lotus, vase, fish, endless knot and wheel of fortune). There were Eight masters or gods worshiped in Han dynasty times: Earth; War; Yin; Yang; Moon; Sun; Earth; Heaven and the Seasons. Astrological readings use the bazi eight characters that record the exact hour, day, month and year of the birth. It is the luckiest number and you often see it associated with gambling. There are many gambling web sites with 888 as part of the name. The Beijing Olympics was opened on the 8/8/2008 at 8PM . One reason for the luck may be the similarity in sound to good fortune in Cantonese. There are considered eight compass directions (N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW).

9 Nine

九 9  Nine Sounds like: joe (3rd tone)

The 'iu' sound is a bit confusing as it is tempting to read it as a 'ew' sound which is wrong. The pictograph may represent an object straining forward as if it is trying to reach the number ten. It is rather like the number ten with a stroke to the right.

As 3 is a potent yang number the square of 3, nine, is an even more potent yang number. The ancient Book of Rites identifies nine rites (initiation of a boy, marriage, audience, embassy, burial, sacrifice, hospitality, toasting and military conflict). Land was traditionally split into nine plots and China was reputed to have been divided into nine provinces. The ancient regalia of the 'Son of Heaven' included nine bronze tripods attributed to Yu the Great of the Xia dynasty. The Double Ninth Festival (Chongyang) takes place on the ninth day of the ninth month when people go to high ground and fly kites. The strong yang association of 9 was used heavily in Imperial design, the Forbidden City was reputed to have 9,999 rooms and the large formal doors were fitted with 9 rows of 9 columns of brass studs. There are 9 dragons on the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City. Beijing was designed as an area divided up by a grid of 9 north-south and 9 east-west avenues.

The sound of jiǔ is the same as jiǔ (long time; long life) which makes it a lucky number.

10 Ten

十 10  Ten Sounds like: start of sherlock (2nd tone)

Looks like the Roman numeral ten (X) rotated. The character shi is one of the most common Chinese sounds, and even if you include the ones with the second pinyin tone there are still dozens of characters that sound just the same. It is a case where you may need to see the written character to be sure which one is meant. The very common character shì (for 'is' or 'correct') differs only in tone from shí so you have to be careful with pronunciation.

The symbol indicates completeness in height and width and is appropriate for the completion of the decimal span. The Ten Heavenly Stems (gan) formed an important part of Chinese calendars as together with the Twelve Earthly Branches it forms the traditional cycle of 60 years. An old legend is that the sky was illuminated by ten suns who were brothers, the great archer Hou Yi shot down nine of them so that the Earth could cool to a more tolerable temperature. There are traditionally ten symbols of longevity often found as art motifs: pine tree; sun; crane; water; mountains; clouds; deer; turtle; elixir of immortality and bamboo.

Ten to a hundred

The numbers between 10 and 100, unlike English and French (e.g. eighteen and forty), are regular, there are no special new characters to learn. 'Tens' are followed by shí then the 'units'. So forty five (45) is simply sì shí wǔ and eighty-two (82) is bā shí èr. If the number is a multiple of ten then no units are given: so seventy (70) is just qī shí


As elsewhere in the world a dozen is a popular number. It can be divided into 2;3;4 and 6 parts. There are 12 months in a normal year. Twelve years make up the astrological sequence of animals. There are 12 symbols in the Imperial insignia.


The number 13 is considered unlucky in China, as in many other countries, this may have its origin in the fact that the year divides into 12 and a bit lunar months. So this thirteenth 'part' month is a strange and inconvenient thing. The chinese calendar inserts a whole extra thirteenth month every few years so a regular year has 12 months, the intercalary month was called 'Lord of Troubles'.


Thirty six was a significant number in China. The Qin Emperor's lucky, dynastic number was six and everything had to relate to six. Six times six (36) became an important number. His domain was reputed to laid out into 36 regions and there were 36 barbarian peoples beyond it.

0 Zero

零 0  Zero Sounds like: start of linger (2nd tone)

A character for zero was not used for centuries, zero is not needed in counting or writing numbers as there is a character determining which is the unit (for example sān bǎi as 3 Hundreds rather than '3'; '0'; '0' sān líng líng ). This is the same as in spoken English, it is only in written numeric form that a zero is needed. The character ling was introduced as the character for zero as a raindrop as it is round like a zero and also had the meaning of last part. Qin Jiushao of the Song dynasty is considered the first to introduce 'zero' into Chinese mathematics, by some the lack of a zero was regarded as an obstacle to progress in early Chinese mathematics.

Ningxia, dagoba, Buddhism
The 108 Dagobas on Xiakou Mountain, Ningxia
100 Hundred

百 100 Hundred Sounds like: bye (3rd tone)

bǎi, one hundred, has the same sound as bái (clear, bright) with the same tone. The written form has an extra heng stroke across the top to distinguish it.

The same logical progression applies to the numbers over 100, they have the number of hundreds followed by tens and then units. So 376 is sān bǎi qī shí liù. However there is one exception to this regular pattern the numbers with no tens (101, 208, 502) have a special form using the character for zero 'ling' in the space for tens. So 504 is wǔ bǎi líng sì. Also the liang form of 2 may, optionally, be used in the case of 200; 2,000; and 20,000 but not 20; so 200 can be expressed as liǎng bǎi


1000 Thousand

千 1000  Thousand Sounds like: 'tchen' at the end of kitchen (1st tone)

A thousand has the form of ten with the addition of a dian dot stroke over it. The character is possibly derived from the combination of ten and person indicating ten lifetimes.

There is one new rule to apply, and that is that for numbers with two zeroes as in 2007, there is only one 'ling' for zero, it is not repeated: èr qiān líng qī.

10000 Ten Thousand

万 10000  Ten Thousand Sounds like: won (4th tone)

For centuries wan ten thousand was the largest numeric character in common usage and so is used in many idiomatic expressions for very many as in Wanli Changcheng for the Great Wall literally meaning countless mile fortress. In English, 'million' is often used in a similar way for an unbelievably large number such as one in a million chance or bet you a million dollars. Many translations translate wan literally as ten thousand when a term like infinite, countless, forever or myriad is more accurate. For example the proclamation May the Emperor live for ten thousand years really means May the Emperor live forever.

The character is 'borrowed' from a character that is pronounced the same way, in this case it is wan for scorpion . The simplified written form threw away the scorpion association and chose a stylized form of the Indian good fortune symbol: the swastika .


Large Numbers

The Chinese numbers above 10,000 use a different form, there is no special character for 100,000 and one million 1,000,000. Instead 100,000 is expressed as 10 x 10,000 shí wàn and one million 1,000,000 as 100 x 10,000 yī bǎi wàn.
Following this logic 10,000,000 is 1,000 x 10,000 yī qiān wàn.

When 100,000,000 is reached a new character is available to represent 10,000 x 10,000 亿 . This yi (4th tone) only differs in tone from (1st tone) for one, This demonstrates quite forcibly how important tones are in Chinese, there is a bit of a difference between 1 and 100,000,000!

bank note

Bank notes

To counter the possibility of fraud and fiddling by just adding an extra stroke or two to increase a written value, the numbers printed on bank notes and checks are given a different, more complex form. The Chinese introduced paper notes as long ago as the Tang dynasty (1,300 years ago). The more complex form for numbers is called dà xiě.

1: 2: 3: 4: 5: 6: 7: 8: 9:

The decimal units also need different forms on notes to counter embezzlement. In some cases the simple form is a constituent of the more complex one.

0: 10: 100: 1000: 10,000: 10,000,000:


8 Eight
bǎi 100 Hundred
èr 2 Two
jiǔ 9 Nine
liǎng 2; Pair
liù 6 Six
líng 0 Zero
qiān 1000 Thousand
7 Seven
sān 3 Three
shí 10 Ten
4 Four
wàn 10000 Ten Thousand
5 Five
1 One

Now you have mastered numbers you can quickly read and tell the date and time. See Date & Time for all the details.
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