I recently read China Simplified’s book, Language Gymnastics. It’s a great entertaining introduction to the Chinese language which combines Chinese and foreign perspectives. The book included this passage in chapter 4, which is aptly titled “Sorry, There Is No Chapter Four“:
> Enter a Hong Kong residential tower elevator and you’ll often discover buttons for floors labeled 3A, 12A and 15B–no doubt alternative universes guarded by daemons and fairies. Other times the 1st floor is renamed the “ground floor” (following British conventions) and the 2nd floor is counted as the 1st floor, so then the 3rd becomes the 2nd and abracadabra! — the dreaded 4th floor becomes the less deadly 3rd floor right before our very eyes. Problem solved.
> Whenever a lift whizzes past the imaginary gaps between the 3rd and 5th floors or the double gap between the 12th and 15th floors, I’m taken by cleverness of it all. A property agent can show her clients a breathtaking flat on the “16th floor” without admitting it’s only 13 floors up. Sweet–higher rent and nobody dies. So depending on your perspective, apartment 4D at 1441 West 14th Street is either a deathtrap or the bargain of a lifetime. I say drop that cash and grab that key.
The beauty of Chinese numbers is that they are consistent. You learn the rules, and they just work. Even if you try to get flippant and say 一十 for “10” instead of just regular old 十, no one’s going to get upset.
The consistent beauty of Chinese numbers is made all the more obvious by the relative skankiness of numbers in English. I noticed this because my daughter (now somewhere between 2½ and 3 years old) has pretty much mastered all the numbers to 100 in Chinese, but the teens in English continue to stump her. She can count to 20 no problem, but if you ask her to read a random two-digit number that starts with “1” in English, that’s where the trouble starts. If she’s speaking Chinese, she can read either Arabic numerals or Chinese characters all the way to 100, but doing it in English trips her up especially for the range 11-20. She’s actually much better in the 60-90 range, because they’re regular.
If English numbers were totally regular like Chinese, we’d see these little gems (pretty much all of which my daughter has tried to pull off at one time or another):
Somehow I missed it my whole life, but one of the things that makes the names of the teens so bizarre (aside from the inexplicable “eleven” and “twelve”), is that the digits are represented backwards, only for these 7 numbers. When you see “36” and read it “thirty-six,” the “thirty” corresponds to the 3 on the left, and the 6 to the “six” on the right. So you’re reading the number, digit by digit, left to right. But for numbers like 14, 15, and 16, not only do they sound like 40, 50, and 60, but the order of the syllables better matches 40, 50, and 60 as well. And both the “-ty” and the “-teen” from those numbers originally represented “10,” right? These pairs are essentially pronounced as if they were the same numbers! Confusing as hell. I feel for my daughter.
Fortunately kids don’t realize they have good reason to be frustrated, and just jeep on truckin’.
I 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 was hoping). Again, I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (一、二、三、四、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what foreigners are used to, and present serious potential for confusion and misunderstandings.
4 and 6
This is the issue I mentioned before, and illustrated with this image:
I actually had a hard time finding really good examples of this “in the wild,” but here’s a fairly representative example:
Here are some more “normal” 4s:
This one is the easiest to document, and by far the least recognizable to Westerners, in my opinion. How do you even describe it? Kind of like a cross between a “P” and a “q”? Spot the 9s!
Sometimes it looks like a backwards Z, and other times it looks like a weird curvy thing with a line through it. In an un-5-like way!
As a bonus, here’s an 8 that looks like a 6:
Consider this post a little heads up. If you’re suddenly in a situation in China where you have to be reading numbers, running into these forms can be a little bewildering.
Also, I’ve been trying to collect representative examples for months, and this is all I’ve come up with. (And three of them came from ChinesePod co-host Dilu. Yes, the food-related ones were all me.) If anyone could share additional examples that I’m allowed to post, please email them to me, or link to them in the comments, and I’ll add them here as an update.
This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (一、二、三、四、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.
Humans are such creatures of habit. Take, for example, the matter of salary. In the States it’s always a yearly figure. I have a good idea of how an American can live in $50k a year, or $75k a year, or $100k a year, etc. Likewise, salaries in China are always given per month. I have a good idea what it means to live in China on RMB 1k per month, RMB 5k per month, RMB 10k per month, etc. However, if an American asks me about Chinese yearly salaries, or a Chinese person asks me about American monthly salaries, I am thrown for a loop every time. I have to do the calculations. I don’t have a “sense” for it because I’m not in the habit of thinking about the figures that way. It’s really quite annoying.
Maybe I’m the only one that will ever use it, but I’ve made a little conversion table based on the current conversion rate of US$1 = RMB7.7743. (Numbers rounded to the nearest unit.)
The chart also reveals a shortcut that the non-mathematicians among us may not have been aware of: if you increase the RMB monthly salary by 50%, you get very close to the annual dollar salary. Conversely, if you decrease the annual dollar salary by one third, you get close to the monthly RMB salary. (This would work more precisely if the conversion were still 8 RMB to the US dollar.) Anyway, this might be useful to some people. I should have noticed this long ago.
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…
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.
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…” (qī means 7).
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! (bā means 8).
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.
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 Chinese-Tools.com, 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.
Note that the Chinese Number Tool handles simplified, traditional, and even 大写. The tool can also optionally insert commas in the output. See Mark’s blog entry about it for further explanation. Nicely done, Mark!
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: 亖. 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.
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 一 弌 （all pronounced yī)
2 二 弍 弐 （all pronounced èr)
3 三 弎 （all pronounced sān)
4 四 亖 （all pronounced sì)
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.