Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6

This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what an American like me is used to.

An example to prove the point:


I won’t post my own observations in this blog post. Feel free to contribute your own interpretations in the comments (and tell us where you’re from), and, more importantly, ask your Chinese friends to do it and post those results too.

I’ve done this little experiment with a number of people, Chinese and non-, and have gotten surprisingly varied replies (but with some identifiable patterns).

If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl.


John Pasden

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


  1. David Moser Says: April 16, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Once again, Sinosplice sheds light on a long neglected topic in Chinese, this time an orthographic glitch, the pesky 6/4 ambiguity. I don’t know how many times I’ve written a phone number for a Chinese person and they’ve asked “Is this a six or a four?”

    I’m also reminded of the 6/4 anniversary approaching…

  2. If I’d seen the photo without reading the text or knowing the context – all are sixes except for F. Knowing what it’s all about I’ll guess that A, B and D are sixes and the others are fours.

    I’m interested to hear the results. Will they all turn out to be fours?

    (I’m Australian)

  3. Ken Jones Says: April 16, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Native American here. Everything but the last (ex. F) is a six. The second last character is sloppy, but it’s still a six, based on the way I think it was written–one stroke, starting high, moving down, looping. Closing the loop completes the character, although here the pen stays too long on the paper as the stroke continues below the character.

    But she says…only A and B are sixes. So, after we made up from the argument that ensued, we agreed to disagree about it. Fascinating.
    You should see how she writes nine…looks like the letter p–vertical stroke on the left. And I thought I knew her.

  4. My handwritten 6 looks a lot like C and I’m constantly asked that as well.

  5. David Moser Says: April 16, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Results: I asked two Chinese teachers here.

    D, E and F are definitely 4.

    A and B are 6. C is a little iffy. The problem is I had to show them all the examples together in one page. The real test would be to give each of the graphs to Chinese people individually, in the context of a phone number.

  6. Before I even read the article, I glanced at the example and instantly thought, “I’m looking at five 6s and a 4.” I didn’t even question it. It’s 100% unambiguous to my U.S.A. eyes.

    (The Chinese people I know tend to be extremely irritated when I ask them about things like this, so I’m afraid I must refrain.)

  7. The way they teach numeric penmanship in school is insane. No other country writes its numerals in this way. The 9 in particular has an extremely long tail for no reason whatsoever.

  8. I had problems last week with my 7’s (with a little horizontal bar in the middle) being confused for 2’s in a restaurant, so we ended up with all the wrong dishes.

  9. Very timely post! I’ve been wondering what on earth actually counts as a 6 in China 🙂 I flew recently and handed the person at the ticket counter 3 frequent flyer numbers, all of which contained a 6. She got all of them wrong because she typed in 4’s. I still have the paper, and all of them look like B (small loop, connects at the bottom, but doesn’t cross).

  10. As a previous American math teacher of roughly 25% asian students, this is not unique to Chinese. Cursive used to be taught in the US because the quill pen would lose its ink. In the last 20 years, cursive has been slowly removed from the curriculum.

    Many students write with a hybrid of cursive and print, keeping the pen(cil) on the paper for some things and picking it up for others. I have seen 4s from C to F. (Does B look like a nose to anyone else?! =) I would even suggest that C and D be transposed. In D the loop is wider and farther up the initial stroke. Whereas C has a slight bend at 9 and 6 o’clock compared to D which is a round arc.

    Either way, if I couldn’t tell, they got a zero unless it looked like F. I was told that I would need to tell my students the first day what the numbers looked like. I guffawed. By the end of the week, I had laid down a new rule about how they should look.

  11. The last 2 LOOK LIKE “4” to me (native English speaker but not a Native American), but the 2nd to last 4 is probably a “6” in the twisted mind of a Chinese person.

    From a risk reduction standpoint, “4” should always be written with 2 strokes, as in the last example. “7” should also be written “European-style” with a line through it to distinguish it from a “1”.

    Don’t get me started on “9”.

  12. For me (American), I see 5 sixes and 1 four. My wife (Chinese) saw 2 sixes and 4 fours….I’ve noticed this phenomenon too while living in China

  13. To my western eyes, all of them are 6 except F, but in my living-and-teachng-in-China experience, I could see all but A being 4.

    This brings to mind a number of discussions and arguments, but one in particular sticks out. When my son was in kindergarten, the teacher would teach him to write the top stroke on the number 5 low — even touching the curve below it (with the stem continuing above it). I reasoned that if you are going to teach kids to write numbers, you should teach them in a more or less internationally standard way.

    Her unbelievable counter-argument was that “what if the kid wants to grow up and become an accountant?”

    (Accountants in China have to write digits in very specific ways, which are quite different from the “Arabic numerals” we are used to seeing in 外国.)

    I tried in vain to explain to this 20-something teacher who probably had never ventured more than 100km from her birthplace that the kids she was teaching, if they chose twenty years later to be accountants, would very likely not be writing numbers by hand so often, reminding her that (for example) abacus classes are no longer taught in elementary schools, hand-written letters are a rarity already, technology marches on! And it’s very likely that these kids are going to have a lot more exposure to foreign people, culture, technology, and business practices, that teaching them more “international” digit forms would be much more useful to the kids. But I might as well have been telling her how to make source code more readable; all of these concepts were just too foreign to her.

  14. Native US educated. I would say that (E) is really ambiguous. But having just tried to write both a 4 and 6 quickly, a 6 always looks like a 6 but my 4 looks more like (E) than (F). I have gotten into trouble before, unable to discern whether a number I had written was either a 4 or 6. If my writing is really careless, my 5 and 8 sometimes look similar too.

    Any thoughts on whether these number distinctions relate to caoshu/xingshu characters?

  15. Great post. I’ve long struggled with this in China, because the way I write 6 is like B, C, and D above. My Chinese friends are constantly thinking I’m writing a 4. So I have modified the way I write it, consciously trying to make it look like A.

  16. Long Jia Says: April 19, 2013 at 7:49 am

    I write my 6’s like the examples in C and D and am often asked if they are 6s or 4s. The local style of writing 9 is also a bit unusual.

  17. A-E are clearly 6s, and F is clearly a 4. However, I had some really upset students who though I had given them 44s instead of 66s, or students who told me my math was off by a few points i.e. doing the addition to get 76 when I clearly wrote 74 (ahem, 76).

  18. Dutchie living in Honkers. I have a phone number with a lot of 8s (lucky, yeah!). However when writing it down, my Chinese compatriates mistake the 8s for 0s? Does that sound familiar?
    For the abovementioned test, I must agree with the US reactions. There is only one 4.

  19. […] mentioned before in my post “Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6” that I’d have a longer post on this topic. This is it (although not quite as long as I […]

  20. Ryan McLaughlin just shared a photo of the 2014 CNY Gala with a very 6 looking 4 on the 2014 –

  21. I’m a Chinese from North costal part of China mainland, I’d say I didn’t find this problem until I visited America and read some letters. Unbelievable, I didn’t notice this during my 6 years stay in Sydney Area, Australia.

    Here is my thought: let’s start from how to write the 4 and 6.
    A 6 written by myself always start like slash / : stroke from upper right, then to left down end with a small circle. What I went into problem was if I wrote too fast I could make the circle too high to close near the starting point, a 6 may look like a 0. A 6 have the circle enclosed on middle left portion of the written character.

    How to write a 4 in my version, a L and slightly raise up pen, or back to cross point then up then down, may left a stroke between – |, and the Chinese don’t care about it. With a cross, vertical and horizontal cross on right portion of the character are always four. If someone moved the end longer and on left portion, I consider it is bad writing but still a 4 as it have the end pop-out. Our problem, it may look like 9 so on upper part I will try not to enclose.

    This problem could raise from we write hieroglyphic text, the characters we use are easily distinguishable from Arabic Numerals.

    Now here is the point: 4 in English context hand-writing may not have vertical stroke and horizontal stroke connected on upper-right, this is not a concern to Chinese people. 4 in our Thinking, defined by a slash connect to a cross, while the way to draw the cross not matter. We think the any tails stroke out, I mean below the horizontal stroke is indicating this character is a 4. As I mentioned above, a 6 to Chinese people, may tail out of left vertical line over horizontal one.

    Both sides will get confused, Chinese may connect the right and upper point of the cross but won’t hard press the way you writing the 6.

    This is English context people’s practice, so won’t think that far since 4 is not an option in mind when spot the cross have right top connected. Then here is the common Chinese way of judge below: A is 6; B looks like a 6, but it tip on middle of the horizontal line, not to left, bad writing; C and D and E, some would question why press on connection between right to up on paper, am I right on mind are they something other than 4? If they are 6 why do they have tail to bottom?
    Once you cross the line down the bottom, you are no longer 6.
    Most Chinese never think of a 6 would have end finished to below, they do ether go up connect and stop in space, or connect to left.

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