Number Character Variants

13 Nov 2004

If you’ve studied Chinese characters, you know that each number has its own Chinese character. As a joke, many Chinese-illiterate foreigners boast that they know three Chinese characters: 一 二 三 (1, 2, 3). After 3, though, the characters start getting a little harder to remember.

Or do they? Recently I discovered this little-known character: . It means 4. I didn’t find a similar one for 5, though.

Still, there’s a lot more to Chinese number characters below the surface. One set of “standard variants” are the 大写 (“capital”) characters used on checks and other transactions. Banks require their use on forms. Each digit 0-9, as well as 10, 100, and 1000 has a “capital” form, much more difficult to alter than a 一.

In the following chart, the first column is European numerals (that’s right, I didn’t say Arabic numerals, and I did it on purpose), the second column is the standard Chinese character, and the third column is the “capital” Chinese character.

Chinese Numbers

Still, there are a lot more variants than the official “capital” forms. Check out the following ones. Standard non-capital forms are in bold.

  • 1 弌 (all pronounced yī)
  • 2 弍 弐 (all pronounced èr)
  • 3 弎 (all pronounced sān)
  • 4 亖 (all pronounced sì)
  • 20 二十 廿
  • 30 三十
  • 40 四十

How many more can there be? I don’t know. I’d be interested to learn, though.

Note: The European number system is used everywhere in China and has been for some time. Traditional Chinese numbers are sometimes used as well, however.

Related Link: 大写数字wiki

Update: Thanks to zhwj for his additions to the list.

Share

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. 大写 ? oh…so that’s what they are called. I noticed the numbers on the tickets we buy at the university canteen. We have a ticketing system over here.

    i’m pleased to be able to learn something new today.

    So the ‘capital’ characters are used mainly because they are much more difficult to alter?
    These characters are hard to remember. 😐

  2. Penn State Says: November 14, 2004 at 7:06 am

    Don’t feel bad, most Chinese don’t know the Capital numerical words also.

  3. Yeah, I didn’t know them either. Since they’re used by banks, no wonder they’re called “Capital” numbers.

  4. Two more:
    卌(xì): 40
    苏州码子(草码): 〡〢〣〤〥〦〧〨〩十
        “Suzhou numbers”, old-style numbers once used for bookkeeping

  5. zhwj,

    Cool, thanks! I’ll update.

    Those “Suzhou numbers” are crazy — I’ve never seen them before. What I’m most surprised by, though, is the fact that they’re represented in Unicode. How did you find them in the character set?

  6. Aline,

    If you go to a Chinese bank, look around a bit, and you’re likely to find a list of all the ´óд characters. Banks provide that because they’re required for the forms but a lot of Chinese people can’t remember the ´óд forms.

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: November 14, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Wait a minute–when did these numbers become “European”?!! Indigenous European numerals are:

    I
    II
    III
    IV
    V
    VI . . .

    Of all people to adopt a Eurocentric viewpoint! John, I’m disapppointed . . .

    1, 2, 3, etc. ARE INDIAN NUMBERS, GODDAMNIT!!!

    • Andreas Thomas Says: August 1, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Actually in Europe we call 1, 2, 3 etc. arabic (the arabic numerals used today still relate this origin and the arabs were in the middle ages expert mathematicians) and I, II, III, IV etc. roman (because they were used by the romans)

  8. Da Xiangchang,

    A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In your case it just causes you to get worked up and look silly.

    Look at the link, man.

  9. The Suzhou numbers (1-9) are all listed together starting at #3021 in the CJK 符号和标点 block before the main character list. Good thing, too–I’d hate to have to assign a radical to 5, for example.

    Strange thing–my dictionary (应用汉语词典) lists them under 苏州码子, but the Unicode desigation is “HANGZHOU NUMERAL”. There are TEN, TWENTY and THIRTY listed as well, but my font doesn’t have those definitions, nor does my dictionary, for that matter.

  10. In the sentence “999-99-9999 is my social security number.” should I begin the sentence with a capital 9?

    BTW, 1,2,3, etc. are INDIAN numbers. Indian philosophers also came up with the symbol for zero. Arabic “missionaries’, doing their conversion by conquest, also seized the numbers and promoulgated them as “Arabic numerals”.

  11. “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In your case it just causes you to get worked up and look silly.”

    LOL…I can just see John’s expression as he types this.

  12. Did anyone click on that link?

    OK, I guess I have to explain. Yes, European numerals are Indian in origin. The Indians came up with the concepts of zero and place value. But the numerals we use today are no more Indian than hiragana and katakana are Chinese. Click on the link and you can see that for yourself.

    The cool scholars call the numerals we use in the West “European digits”. I quote: “Incidentally, the numerals 0123456789 are more properly known as European digits.

    It’s not about not giving credit to an innovator, it’s about acknowledging when something has, over thousand of years, diverged significantly in form from its roots.

  13. Penn State Says: November 15, 2004 at 5:52 am

    John,
    I thought they are arabian numbers… can you please explain the difference between Arabian numbers and Indian numbers too?

    zhwj,
    Thank you for bringing that up. The suzhou numbers are actually more popular than the capital numbers.

  14. John I read your original link, it doesn’t give any reason to call them European rather than Indian or Arabic numerals.

    If you think it does, quote that part. Even the most European of the Arabic numerals (the last picture on the page) was done by an Arab. I say, if we varied them a little to make our current version, well, there was so much variation over time within the Arabic itself that we might call ours the European variation, but that’s hardly worth a new name.

  15. Wikipedia has a bit about the Suzhou numbers, and why they were almost known as Hangzhou numbers. I might start using Suzhou numbers all the time, just to be annoying.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_numerals

  16. Actually, all numbers originate in Hangzhou. As do noodles, the fork (which was later replaced by Hangzhou invented chopsticks), separate toilets for men and women, tea, firecrackers, guns (which were later replaced by opium pipes), silk, the wheel, bound feet, Hangzhou opera (often misnamed Beijing opera), kites, paper, ceramics, baijiu, Marco Polo’s insanity, etc.

    http://www.everythinggoodwasinventedinhangzhou.com/

  17. I just realized I forgot to mention a major reason why I chose not to call them “Arabic numerals.” (It was, after all, not all all the point of the post.)

    If you study modern written Arabic, you will learn how to write numbers the Arabic way. And guess what? They’re not 0123456789. They’re quite different. Only 1 and 9 are the same. Even 0 isn’t. Scroll down to “Numerals”:
    http://www.omniglot.com/writing/arabic.htm

  18. Da Xiangchang Says: November 15, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    John,

    Wait a minute–I’ve seen NOTHING on any of the websites you mentioned to back up the claim that “1, 2, 3” were developed by the Europeans. I never said they were Arabic numbers; I said they were INDIAN. Please quote directly from a website to back up your claim. (Although, I wonder if this discussion will degenerate into veracity of sources, sort of like with those fake Killian memos. LOL!)

    All this leads to a bigger point: the Eurocentric viewpoint. Now, credit should be given where it’s due: the West created the modern world. I’m not going defend pea-brained multicultural ideas like Aristotle stealing all his knowledge from the supposedly black Egyptians or stupid crap like that. However, sometimes, there are common Eurocentric myths, like Gutenberg inventing movable type. This is complete horsecrap. The Chinese invented movable type 400 years before Gutenberg, yet every schoolkid in America when asked about this invention will dutifully recite, “Gutenberg!”

  19. Da Xiangchang,

    I’ve seen NOTHING on any of the websites you mentioned to back up the claim that “1, 2, 3” were developed by the Europeans.

    Yeah, so? No one made that claim.

    In fact, I said, “Yes, European numerals are Indian in origin.” That’s not in dispute.

  20. I just looked at the Chinese numerals Wiki that Roddy linked to. Wow, very informative and complete. It doesn’t list 弐 or 亖 or 卌, though.

    Roddy also mentioned in his blog that he doesn’t think the word “capital” is appropriate for the numeral forms used in Chinese banking. I can understand that, but I can also understand the case for it. On the other hand, it’s also likely that “capital” is just used because 大写 also means “capital letter” in Chinese when referring to letters.

    Mandarintools.com and Wiki both use the word “formal” for 大写. So “capital” is not necessarily the best name to use. The problem is that we don’t have this concept for numbers in English. It does seem very similar to our concept of lowercase and uppercase for letters, though.

  21. I’d just refer to them as “clerical numbers.” After all, they’re what were used in official accounts, and they correspond pretty closely to the spelled-out numbers that we write out on checks.

  22. I didn’t mean to say it’s inappropriate, I was just trying to point out that it’s not an a versus A thing. The ABC dictionary uses ‘elaborate’ but ‘clerical’ sounds better to me.

    Roddy

  23. “Arabic Numbers” is best, simply because that’s what everyone calls them. I guess we could all re-name “French Fries” to “Some Deli in New York Fries,” or “Chinese Checkers” to “England Checkers,” but it would be odd.

  24. The easiest thing to learn in Chinese are the numbers.

  25. but how many numbers are there in chinese.??

  26. the same number as in any other language 😉

  27. William K Says: January 13, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Hi folks,
    This thread is interesting and funny too. Here’s my story: in third grade I had a teacher form Hawai’i who claimed that she was Japanese. I wanted to learn Japanese so the first thing that she taught me was the numerals. In later years I found out that the numbers she taught me were Chinese, but she pronounced them ichi ni san shi go roku hichi hachi ku ju, ju-ichi, ju-ni etc. Does anyone know what language she was actually teaching me?

  28. William K,
    What she taught you were Janpanese, but those Janpanese numbers were originated from Chinese characters. That’s why you feel lost…You can refer to the fllowing website.
    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2046.html
    Until very recently,say before 1955, Korean Gov’t abolished Chinese characters(Hanji) in Korean, exactly, Korea also use the same numbers which were borrowed from chinese llanguage, of course, not limited to numbers. So, if you learn Korean before 1955, you would be confused as well.
    Japanese language

  29. This is amazing. Wow, you really are something else John. Go get em!

  30. I learned arabic and only 2 numbers look similar to European numbers. The indigenous people of the middle east (Babylonians) originally used a hexadecimal system, so lets not be nit picking. I, II, III are called Roman Numerals, and arabic doesn’t use 1,2,3; so why not call 1,2,3, European numbers, after all they’re only used in most European languages. Stupid argument. Indian or European, but not arabic – they were the middlemen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *