surfer, muppet, gun, redrum, fist

I recently stumbled across Copperpoint’s awesome reference to the Chinese “hand gestures” for numbers 6 through 10 (via Meg). I felt the method really needed a visual aid, so I took the liberty of creating one (complete with an awesome Shanghai background). I also realized that if Copperpoint’s message was to be taken from just funny to useful, it needed some more mnemonics connecting the gestures with the numbers and/or the Chinese words for them. So I took the liberty of creating those as well. It was a bit of a stretch in some cases, but here we go anyway…

6: Hang Loose

Surfer. The surfers in Hawaii make this hand gesture, which means “hang loose.” So while the surfers are hangin’ loose in Hawaii, you can be hangin’ liùs in a Chinese market (liù means 6). Also, the numeral “6” looks sort of like a growing wave (whereas “9” looks like a crashing wave, which is no good to surfers), so that can remind you of surfers too.

7: Kermit's Head

Muppet. It’s like a muppet skeleton. A muppet bereft of flesh. The shape of a hand in a puppet even looks kind of like a “7,” doesn’t it? What are muppets, if not tools to deceive (欺骗, or “七”骗) children and pull them into that make-believe world? I just hear the amazed children now, going “gee…” ( means 7).

8: The Gun

Gun. It definitely looks like a gun. You ever had a double-barrell shotgun in your face? Me neither, but the muzzle kind of looks like an 8 on its side. And what sound does a gun make? Bang! ( means 8).

9: Redrum! Redrum!

Redrum. The foreshadowing of the violence to come. 10 is the fist, and 9 comes right before the fist, so it’s very similar to the fist. And do you remember the name of Jack Torrance’s little boy in The Shining? Well, can we just pretend it was Joe, because that sounds an awful lot like jiǔ (9). Thanks.

10: The Fist

Fist. 10 is completion and power. 10 is also the number assigned to the “perfect woman” (that only bad, bad sexist men would ever use). And what do those sexist men do over a “ten?” They fight each other. With their fists. And then the last guy standing gets the girl (hey, she’s pretty, but not too bright), and he goes gaga over her, so whatever she asks him to do he just says, “sure” (shí means 10).

Ok, this may seem like a completely ridiculous exercise, but I can assure you that after exerting that much “brain power” over it, I will never, ever forget those hand gestures. (I used to forget them a lot.)

There is another page on Chinese Number Gestures at, but I should warn you about that page first:

1. He doesn’t have the cool cityscape background photos for his hand photos.
2. His photos are small, and you can’t click on them to see a huge version on Flickr that you just might need.
3. He has photos for numbers 1-5 as well, but if you don’t know those already you’re dumb.
4. His thumb doesn’t have that cool backwards curve to it that mine does (or is he just trying to hide it?).
5. The one he has for 10 I’ve never seen before.

Go to the Wikipedia entry for more info on issues like “number gestures in Taiwan vs. the mainland” (but not awesome pictures).

Finally, to close, I would like to share a link for an “ancient Chinese number system” which supposedly allowed the Chinese to count up to 100,000 on one hand. I don’t really understand how this is supposed to work short of sticking acupuncture needles in your hand (which would require an extra hand). It appears to me to be complete and utter bullshit. Enjoy.


John Pasden

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


  1. In some parts of China, “three” is extending the remaining three fingers, while the thumb and index finger forms a circle. Most “three” I have seen in US is by extending the middle three fingers.

    Also, closed fist with extended thumb could also mean “ten” in some parts of China.

  2. Cool photos 🙂

    Another thing to note: The number of fingers to “show” is 10 minus the number. So, for example, for number 7, you have to show 3 fingers, which is the muppet. This only works for the numbers from 7 to 10 though.

  3. you have funny looking hands.

  4. they look entirely too excited for chinese number time.

  5. Mainlanders do that for nine!!?

  6. I’ve seen the “I’ve got my fingers crossed!” chinese tools 10 before, also occasionally the fist. By far the most common ten I see here in Anhui is the “vampire deflecting two handed finger crucifix”. I had thought that was the default ten on the mainland with the fist in second place followed by the fingers crossed.

  7. Hey John, I also stumbled on Copperpoint’s numbering system via Meg. Look at us all hooked up in the China Blogsphere eh?

    Thanks for taking the time to put this together, and love the Shanghai background.

    One thing that really should be noted about handsigns for the newbie (niu bi?) is two should always be made with your index and middle fingers, not your thumb and index finger. I totally forgot about this as it’s been a while, but I had some friends explain to me that they kept asking for two and getting eight.

  8. Lantian Says: June 7, 2006 at 9:22 am

    Okay, I think I’ve got numbers 1-5 down, but what does ‘redrum’ mean anyway? I think your best work was in ‘qi’ and muppet, for some reason that never really stuck in my mind, now I think my muppet is going to go ‘qifu’ a bunch of kids. I think nine looks like a hangman post for the cat that lost nine lives. That was lame. I always ‘mishear’ nine (jiu) versus seven (qi) when I get these prices quoted to me, dunno why. I’m going to try miming muuppet and hangman to myself the next go round and see if it helps.

  9. The ten I always get in Ningbo is the index fingers from both hands crosed to make it look like the character for ten. You guys across the bay in Shanghai are weird man!!!

  10. @Rob: Up here in the North we use the fist nearly always. I do however remember a woman, in desperation to get me to understand she was saying “SHI KUAI!” forced me into wondering if she thought I was going to drink her blood.

    @Lantian: Really? Ni bu zhidao “redrum” ma? Take your computer to the bathroom mirror and look at the word.

    @John: Though “the violence to come” for jiu is pretty good… personally I just use ‘redrum’, connect the more literal sound of the words “red rum” … remember rum is jiu … and close my eyes and hope with tones. 😉 Actually I don’t do any of that… because if I’ve been in China this long and still have troubles with 1-10… ummm… people should not trust me with the education of their children.

  11. Down here in the south people often use the upside-down “L” with their left hand to express 7. Obviously it looks like a seven. I never saw this when i was in Hangzhou or Shanghai. Do people in the north do it?

  12. Adam, I usually see the “warding off a vampire” for ten in Taiwan, too. This is amazing there’s so much regional variation in counting!

  13. Capturing all ten in action would be a worthy challenge for amateur photographers, and would make a good flickr photoset.

  14. You can really confuse Chinese people by consciously mixing up the handsigns with the spoken language. Its fun if not really useful to send more aggressive retailers into cognitive overload.

  15. chengdude Says: June 7, 2006 at 7:22 pm

    Vampire-warding ten in Sichuan Province, too.

  16. Finger-crossing ten (on one hand) is pretty standard here in Tianjin, but the fist gets raised too.

  17. Lantian Says: June 8, 2006 at 12:53 am

    About ‘redrum’, ohh, or should I say “hho”. Wo tai ben. It was really heavy carrying my computer to the bathroom, felt a shock too. Thanks humanaught. Wo mingbai le.

  18. For ten I have seen all three hand-gestures. The vampire-warding cross is obvious but some of us have the subconscious rule that all numbers should be signed with (fingers from) one hand only, thus the poor “十” effort with the index finger and middle finger from the same hand.

    @jeff, I’ve never seen that left-hand figurative seven, I don’t think, and I am from the north.

  19. thanks for this. I asked my teacher about that some time ago but only managed remember the six. 😛 This will be useful when I go shopping.

  20. […] Six hand gestures you should know before coming to China. Technorati Tags: good links […]

  21. Another subconscious rule of my own. From my research as a kid I concluded that it was cool (not right or wrong but simply cool) to always sign the numbers in such a way that all the odd numbers were done with the palm side (inside) of my fist facing outward, towards my listener, while all the even numbers done with the back side of the fist facing outward (palm side facing myself). This is cool because this way one can do the entire sequence of 1 through 10 (at least 1 through 8 anyway) in a fluid hand acrabat of palm-back-palm-back-palm……

    For what it’s worth I followed that rule, precisely and enthusiastically. I do not know if others do it as well but my observations on many cultured friends (whatever that meant back in 4th-5th grade) seemed to confirm my suspicion. Up until now I never have told anyone about this discovery — did not find it necessary and thought surely I would never for the life of me have an audiance with whom to share this!

  22. Hui Mao Says: June 9, 2006 at 5:52 am

    At least in the Northeast, some people use the thumb up gesture (thumb sticking up with all other fingers closed) for 10 and a similar gesture for 9 except with the thumb bent.

  23. It’s all been said above I guess – but in Nanjing, the fist is ‘5’ and the vampire-crossed index fingers are ’10’. My own personal shortcut favourite is the extended middle finger – meaning ‘tai guile’ 🙂

  24. Lantian Says: June 11, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Is there a homegrown Chinese version of ‘the bird’, one that is recognized throughout the country across dialects, regions, class, gender—you know like ‘the bird’ in English?

  25. In Taiwan the redrum is used both for the number “9” as well as indicating someone died (usually with a little wiggle). Don’t know if that’s true in the mainland though.

  26. Thanks for pointing me to the counting-differences page. I learned to count in taiwan and I thought I was doing it wrong ever since I’ve met Dalu ren. :S

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