Chinese Numbers: The Complete Tutorial on Numbers in Mandarin
Chinese numbers are an incredibly important part of our daily lives.
Admit it, whether you want to haggle at a wet market or give the taxi driver your address, you can’t do without knowing how to express numbers in Chinese.
The good news?
Even though Mandarin Chinese is a complex language, learning its number system is remarkably easy. I’ll show you how with this simple, thorough tutorial.
This article is not just another number chart. This is a look at the logic behind the Chinese numbers and how you can use them in real-life situations.
Not only am I going to teach you how to count, write, and pronounce Chinese numbers up to billions and even trillions, but we’ll also look at how to say your age, phone number, dates, time, price, and almost any number-related topic you can think of!
I’ll walk you through some trickier aspects of Chinese numbers like counters, answer some common questions. And if you’re still interested in a little bonus, I’ll teach you some cool Chinese number slang that’ll make you sound like a native from day one!
The goal of this article is to teach you everything you need to know about Chinese numbers, and it’ll do it with no nonsense, no fluff.
So no ifs, ands, or buts! Let’s dive right in!
Table of Contents
Chinese Numbers & How to Count in Chinese – An Overview
Before learning the art of counting in Chinese, there are a couple of things you need to know.
First of all, numbers in Chinese are represented by Hanzi (Chinese characters) – the writing script of the language that dates back over 3000 years. Pronunciation for these number characters uses the official romanization scheme in China called “Pinyin”.
Second of all, people in China and other Chinese speaking countries don’t always use Chinese numbers. Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3…) are widely used for the same reason other cultures adopted their use – they are easier to write and understand.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the Chinese number system. In many contexts such as traditional ceremonials, media, commerce, finance, and law, the numbers are often written in native Chinese characters.
The last thing to note is a bit tricky. When you count things in Chinese, you have to put a word called “counter” between the number and the noun. I’ll talk more about counters in a moment, but what you need to know now is that counters specify what kind of things you are counting in Chinese. There can be people, animals, long objects, flat objects, abstract ideas, etc.
That being said, you are now ready to learn the Chinese numbers!
Basic Chinese Numbers: 1 to 10
Like the rest of the world, the Chinese numbers are strictly based on the decimal system. And the key to learning Chinese numbers is all about mastering the numbers 0 to 10 – they are the building blocks to all larger numbers.
So let’s start with the basics. Here are the cardinal numbers in Chinese from 1 to 10, plus 0:
And this is how you count to 10 in Chinese using Chinese characters and Pinyin. Each number is represented by one unique character and pronounced one syllable.
That wasn’t hard, was it?
Look how simple the characters are for the numbers 1, 2, 3! One horizontal stroke 一 stands for 1, two horizontal strokes 二 stands for 2, and three horizontal strokes 三 stands for 3!
Then, of course, you can’t keep writing horizontal strokes forever! The numbers from 4 to 10 don’t follow the rule, and you just have to learn them – though I’ll share some simple tricks to help you memorize them later in this article.
Now, if you’ve learned to count to 10, counting to 100 will become a piece of cake! It’s easier than you’d expect! Just wait and see.
Zero in Chinese
For zero in Chinese, the standard, formal character is 零, but a simple, big circle 〇 resembling the Arabic numeral 0 is sometimes used as well.
The zero in Chinese can be used to link two number units, similar to the way we use “and” in English. For example, instead of saying “one year and three days”, the Chinese people say 一年零三天 (yì nián líng sān tiān), literally “one year zero three days”. (More on that later).
How to Pronounce Chinese Numbers
So how do you say the Chinese numbers? If you have trouble pronouncing these words, then take a look at this video:
Just remember, Chinese is a tonal language. If you change the tone of a word, the meaning will likely change too! For instance, “一 (yī)” means “one,” but “亿 (yì)” means “hundred million.” They are just one tone apart. So pay close attention to the tones when you read the numbers out loud.
If you want to learn perfect Chinese pronunciation, I suggest you start with the Pinyin system. It’s an incredibly useful tool for foreigners to learn the sound of Chinese using the Roman alphabet. We’ve written a detailed guide to help you get started. Read it here.
But if you’re not a stickler for perfect pronunciation, here are a few quick tips to help you get by:
- 零 (líng): sounds like the “lin” in “link” (rising tone)
- 一 (yī): sounds like the “ee” in ”bee” (flat tone)
- 二 (èr): sounds like a yawn but need to roll back the tongue (falling tone)
- 三 (sān): sounds like the “san” in “sand” (flat tone)
- 四 (sì): sounds like the “s” in “smart” (falling tone)
- 五 (wǔ): sounds like the “oo” in “oops” (dipping tone)
- 六 (liù): sounds like the “lieu” in “lieutenant” (falling tone)
- 七 (qī): sounds like the “chee” in “cheese” (flat tone)
- 八 (bā): sounds like the “ba” in “bar” (flat tone)
- 九 (jiǔ): sounds like “Joe” (dipping tone)
- 十 (shí): sounds like the “shi” in “shirt” (rising tone)
Lucky and Unlucky Chinese Numbers
Now, an extra note on the basic numbers 1 to 10 in Chinese.
As people in the West consider the number 13 to bring bad luck, Chinese people consider the number 4 to be unlucky because its pronunciation “sì” is very similar to the word for “death” – 死 (sǐ). Thus, Chinese people avoid this number as much as possible.
If you ever travel to China, you’ll notice the number 4 is missing in many places. There might not be a 4th floor or 14th floor in a building, or a room 104 between 103 and 105.
On the other hand, 8 is considered an extremely lucky number in China because its pronunciation “bā” rhymes with 发 (fā), the word for “get rich” or “prosper”. Some people will go to great lengths to incorporate 8 wherever possible. For example, a license plate with a string of 8 in it can easily cost more than a car, yet people bid for it because it’s perceived as a symbol of wealth and power.
Besides 8, 6 and 9 are also lucky numbers in Chinese. 6 is associated with “smooth going” for its similar sound to 流 (liú) – which means “flow”, and the number 9, being the highest single-digit number, is a symbol of “longevity” and “eternity”.
Counting to 10 with One Hand: Chinese Number Gestures
You don’t want to miss this next part: Chinese number gestures.
Do you know how easy your voice can be drowned out by the crowd amid the noisy hustle and bustle of a Chinese tourist attraction, market, or restaurant? If you don’t want to yell out the numbers all the time, you can use your hand.
Chinese number gestures are said to have been made as a way for ancient business people to communicate discreetly in public places or to avoid misunderstandings caused by dialects. Now, these special expressions through hand are used everywhere in China for commercial and day to day communication. Many Chinese locals are convinced they are universal across cultures!
So, it’s not only useful but also necessary to learn the gestures if you plan to visit China.
And the best part is…
You can signify the numbers one through ten using just one hand!
So here’s a quick guide on how to do that.
- 一 (one): extend your index finger.
- 二 (two): extend your index and middle fingers.
- 三 (three): close your index finger and thumb, and extend the other three fingers like an “ok”.
- 四 (four): hold your thumb in your palm and extend the four fingers.
- 五 (five): extend all five digits.
- 六 (six): extend your thumb and little finger.
- 七 (seven): touch your thumb with index and middle fingers.
- 八 (eight): extend your thumb and index finger like a gun.
- 九 (nine): make a hook with your index finger.
- 十 (ten): show your fist. (You can also signify ten by crossing both index fingers to form a “十”).
Here’s a picture showing you all the Chinese number gestures.
Chinese Numbers 1 to 20
With the basics settled, it’s time to start learning the Chinese numbers 11 to 20. Just so you know, once you get past number 10, Chinese numbers start to follow a clear pattern.
Take a look at the below chart for the numbers 11 to 20. You’ll see how easy it is to say them in Chinese.
Unlike English, you don’t have to learn unique words like “eleven”, “twelve”, “thirteen” and so on. There are no new characters to introduce here either, as all the numbers are represented by the same characters for 1-10. And the pattern is simple – it’s all about compounding and adding the basic numbers:
From 11 to 19, it’s ten (十 shí) plus the other number.
So, 11 in Chinese is literally ten-one, 12 is ten-two, 13 is ten-three, and so on up to 19.
For the number 20, you need to count the tens rather than doing the adding. So instead of saying “ten-ten (10+10)” for 20, you say “two ten (2 x 10)” – 二十 (èr shí), similar to the way how 200 is said in English: “two hundred (2 x 100)”.
Chinese Numbers 1 to 100
If 20 is “two ten”, you can pretty much guess how the other numbers for the multiples of 10 are said in Chinese.
So 30 is 三十 sān shí (three ten), 40 is 四十 sì shí (four ten), and so on all the way up to 90 – 九十 jiǔ shí (nine ten). Here is a chart with all of the 2-digit numbers ending with zero.
You will sometimes see the Pinyin version written out as one word instead of two, like èrshí instead of èr shí for 20, and sānshí instead of sān shí for 30, as Chinese likes to squish certain Pinyin together to make them look more like one word.
The other numbers under 100 follow the same logical pattern. All you need to do is count the tens first (two ten, three ten, four ten, and so on), and then add the next number one through nine.
- 21 is 二十一 èr shí yī (two ten – one)
- 32 is 三十二 sān shí èr (three ten – two)
- 99 is 九十九 jiǔ shí jiǔ (nine ten – nine)
You can guess the rest.
Then hundred comes with a new character: 百 bǎi. To say 100 in Chinese, you say 一百 yì bǎi (one hundred).
Here is a rundown of the numbers 21-100 in Chinese that includes both characters and Pinyin.
|21||二十一||èr shí yī|
|22||二十二||èr shí èr|
|23||二十三||èr shí sān|
|24||二十四||èr shí sì|
|25||二十五||èr shí wǔ|
|26||二十六||èr shí liù|
|27||二十七||èr shí qī|
|28||二十八||èr shí bā|
|29||二十九||èr shí jiǔ|
|31||三十一||sān shí yī|
|32||三十二||sān shí èr|
|33||三十三||sān shí sān|
|34||三十四||sān shí sì|
|35||三十五||sān shí wǔ|
|36||三十六||sān shí liù|
|37||三十七||sān shí qī|
|38||三十八||sān shí bā|
|39||三十九||sān shí jiǔ|
|41||四十一||sì shí yī|
|42||四十二||sì shí èr|
|43||四十三||sì shí sān|
|44||四十四||sì shí sì|
|45||四十五||sì shí wǔ|
|46||四十六||sì shí liù|
|47||四十七||sì shí qī|
|48||四十八||sì shí bā|
|49||四十九||sì shí jiǔ|
|51||五十一||wǔ shí yī|
|52||五十二||wǔ shí èr|
|53||五十三||wǔ shí sān|
|54||五十四||wǔ shí sì|
|55||五十五||wǔ shí wǔ|
|56||五十六||wǔ shí liù|
|57||五十七||wǔ shí qī|
|58||五十八||wǔ shí bā|
|59||五十九||wǔ shí jiǔ|
|61||六十一||liù shí yī|
|62||六十二||liù shí èr|
|63||六十三||liù shí sān|
|64||六十四||liù shí sì|
|65||六十五||liù shí wǔ|
|66||六十六||liù shí liù|
|67||六十七||liù shí qī|
|68||六十八||liù shí bā|
|69||六十九||liù shí jiǔ|
|71||七十一||qī shí yī|
|72||七十二||qī shí èr|
|73||七十三||qī shí sān|
|74||七十四||qī shí sì|
|75||七十五||qī shí wǔ|
|76||七十六||qī shí liù|
|77||七十七||qī shí qī|
|78||七十八||qī shí bā|
|79||七十九||qī shí jiǔ|
|81||八十一||bā shí yī|
|82||八十二||bā shí èr|
|83||八十三||bā shí sān|
|84||八十四||bā shí sì|
|85||八十五||bā shí wǔ|
|86||八十六||bā shí liù|
|87||八十七||bā shí qī|
|88||八十八||bā shí bā|
|89||八十九||bā shí jiǔ|
|91||九十一||jiǔ shí yī|
|92||九十二||jiǔ shí èr|
|93||九十三||jiǔ shí sān|
|94||九十四||jiǔ shí sì|
|95||九十五||jiǔ shí wǔ|
|96||九十六||jiǔ shí liù|
|97||九十七||jiǔ shí qī|
|98||九十八||jiǔ shí bā|
|99||九十九||jiǔ shí jiǔ|
Chinese Numbers 1 to 1000
The rule for saying numbers in the hundreds in Chinese is the same as in English. You begin with the number one through nine and add the word 百 bǎi (hundred) to the end of it. And when you get to 1000, 百 bǎi becomes 千 qiān (thousand).
Here’s a chart to show you what I mean:
Filling the gaps between the numbers 100 and 1000 is simple too – you just need to stack the numbers together.
- 150 is 一百五十 yì bǎi wǔ shí (one hundred – five ten)
- 268 is 二百六十八 èr bǎi liù shí bā (two hundred – six ten – eight)
- 973 is 九百七十三 jiǔ bǎi qī shí sān (nine hundred – seven ten – three)
There’s only one thing you need to keep in mind:
If the number contains a zero in the middle, the zero has to be read out loud.
- 101: 一百零一 yī bǎi líng yī (one hundred zero one)
- 305: 三百零五 sān bǎi líng wǔ (three hundred zero five)
- 806: 八百零六 bā bǎi líng liù (eight hundred zero six)
You see, whereas in English (at least British English) we’d use “and” as the connecting word in “one hundred and one”, “three hundred and five”, etc, in Chinese you would have to use “zero” to connect the digits (which are not zero).
And if you drop the “zero” there, the number will change to a different one, causing confusion. (You will see more examples of this in the next section)
Big Chinese Numbers: to 10000 and Beyond
Now that you understood the magic rule of always adding and adding and adding to get new numbers, let’s look at the bigger leagues of Chinese numbers. How do you continue after 1000?
|1001||一千零一||yì qiān líng yī|
|1010||一千零十||yì qiān líng shí|
|1100||一千一百||yì qiān yì bǎi|
|1101||一千一百零一||yì qiān yì bǎi líng yī|
|1985||一千九百八十五||yì qiān jiǔ bǎi bā shí wǔ|
|4059||四千零五十九||sì qiān líng wǔ shí jiǔ|
|6700||六千七百||liù qiān qī bǎi|
|8502||八千五百零二||bā qiān wǔ bǎi líng èr|
|9999||九千九百九十九||jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ|
As you can see from the above chart, the rule of repeated adding and compounding is still valid for counting after 1000: you begin with numbers one through nine followed by 千 (qiān) and finish by saying the last three digits.
To make sure you understand how the bigger numbers are formed in Chinese, let’s take a closer look at one of the complex examples: 9999.
In Chinese, 9999 is 九千九百九十九 (jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ), literally nine thousand (9 x 1000), nine hundred (9 x 100), nine ten (9 x 10), nine (9). I would say the format is very similar if not the same when compared to English!
One thing worth pointing out:
Remember for the number 101, you need to read aloud the zero? Same concept here. Whenever a Chinese number has a zero or a string of zeros in between other digits (that are not zero), it must be said with a zero (just once!).
I know it sounds like a tongue twister, but it shouldn’t be hard to comprehend. A simple trick is to think of the 0 or 0s in the middle as the “and” in British English numbers (we only say it once, right?)
yì qiān líng yī
one thousand and one
Literally, “one thousand zero one”
(You only need to read out one zero)
yì qiān líng shí
one thousand and ten
Literally, “one thousand zero ten”
(You only need to read out the zero in the middle)
You see my point, right?
Ten Thousand in Chinese
Now, if you are an English speaker, things can get slightly trickier when you get to 10000 – there is this specific word or number unit in Chinese that you have to get used to: 万 (wàn), which means “ten thousand”.
Unlike English where the zeros are packed up by thousands in big numbers, Chinese pack the zeros into 万 (wàn) – “ten-thousands”.
→10,000 (English split)
→1,0000 (Chinese split)
So, instead of “ten thousand” for “10,000”, it’s “one wan” for “1,0000”, and instead of “two hundred thousand” for “200,000”, it’s “twenty wan” for “20,0000” in Chinese.
You can use 万 (wàn) to count up to 99,999,999 (or by Chinese split: 9999,9999): simply say a number up to 9999 followed by 万 (wàn) and then finish by reading the thousands when applicable.
Here’s a chart to illustrate my point.
|20,001||2,0001||二万零一||èr wàn líng yī|
|35,080||3,5080||三万五千零八十||sān wàn wǔ qiān líng bā shí|
|250,000||25,0000||二十五万||èr shí wǔ wàn|
|7,850,000||785,0000||七百八十五万||qī bǎi bā shí wǔ wàn|
|99,999,999||9999,9999||九千九百九十九万九千九百九十九||jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ wàn jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ|
Million, Billion, and Trillion in Chinese
In English, we use a new word to describe each new 1000 package. If you think about it, a million is essentially a thousand thousand, a billion is a thousand million, and a trillion is a thousand billion.
In Chinese however, the zeros are packed up by ten-thousands rather than thousands, so there’s no need to create a unique character for million. A million is simply 一百万 yì bǎi wàn (one hundred wan).
You can keep saying numbers in the “wan”s for larger numbers, for example, ten million – 一千万 yì qiān wàn (one thousand wan), fifty million – 五千万 wǔ qiān wàn (five thousand wan).
When you reach a hundred million (or “one wan wan”), you’ll need to use a new character – 亿 (yì). To say 100 million in Chinese, you say 一亿 (yí yì).
Once you go beyond 100 million (一亿 yí yì), the pattern starts to repeat itself all over again – it’s just more adding and compounding.
So for billion, which is essentially “ten 100 million”, it’s 十亿 (shí yì) in Chinese. And for 10 billion (a hundred 100 million), it’s 一百亿 (yì bǎi yì).
Try to test yourself with this table.
|100,000,001||1,0000,0001||一亿零一||yí yì líng yī|
|2,600,000,000||26,0000,0000||二十六亿||èr shí liù yì|
|35,087,000,000||350,8700,0000||三百五十亿零八千七百万||sān bǎi wǔ shí yì líng bā qiān qī bǎi wàn|
|999,999,999,999||9999,9999,9999||九千九百九十九亿九千九百九十九万九千九百九十九||jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ yì jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ wàn jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ|
I know it’s a bit heavy in math, but you can see 亿 (yì) works the same way as 万 (wàn) does, only it’s another 4 places to the left of the comma.
And finally, when another 1000 package starts, a new character 兆 (zhào) kicks in. You can use it to say a trillion – 一兆 (yí zhào) and even larger numbers in a similar manner to 亿 (yì) and 万 (wàn).
jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ zhào jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ yì jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ wàn jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ
Of course, new numeric words continue at every four zeros, but after 兆 (zhào), they become rarer and rarer. So we are not going to dig any deeper.
How to Remember Chinese Numbers
And now, you’re looking at all of these numbers and thinking, “How on earth am I ever going to remember all of this?”
But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! These tips and tricks will help Chinese numbers stick in your head.
How to Remember the Sounds?
People new to Mandarin Chinese often find it hard to memorize the pronunciations of new vocabulary words, because they sound nothing like their English counterparts.
If you are struggling to remember the Chinese number sounds, try accompanying the sounds with some visual cues. The Chinese number gestures I’ve shown you can be a powerful tool, for example, it’s easy to associate the hand gesture for 5 with the “wǔ” sound (think slap someone and say: wu—oops, sorry).
Be creative with mnemonics. It can be a funny sentence, a play on the word, or anything that helps you to remember.
For instance, if you know some basic Chinese words, you’ll notice the numbers 7-9-8 sound a lot like 去酒吧 (qù jiǔ bā), which means “go to the pub” – a good way to remember both the numbers and the phrase!
Once you get 1 through 10 under your belt, practice the number system with random strings of numbers, rather than counting in order from 1 to 100. This proves to be an excellent way to develop your listening and speaking skills, since going through numbers 1 to 100 will cover all the Chinese tone combinations!
How to Learn the Number Characters
If you are serious about learning Chinese numbers, you should learn their corresponding characters as well.
The good news here is that they are really not many number characters (only 16 different characters are used up to a trillion), and they are all just simple characters with basic stroke combinations. So if you’re starting out to learn Chinese characters, the numbers are actually a great place for you to start to get used to the shape and strokes of the characters.
Also, characters will help you memorize the numbers faster than using Arabic numerals, which you’ve already associated heavily with their English pronunciations.
There is a useful app called Skritter that you can utilize to learn these number characters and practice writing them on your mobile devices. All of the characters are presented in a spaced repetition system complete with Pinyin and English explanations. There is also a variety of practice activities, making it easy for you to memorize the new number words.
How to Learn the Big Numbers
Let me guess, you find it practicable to juggle with small numbers in Chinese. But when you get past 10000, the amount of zeros there just start to get out of control.
Lucky for you, I’ve got a few simple tricks to help you master this aspect of Chinese numbers.
Trick 1: Use Chinese Split
The easiest way to say big numbers in Chinese is to rearrange the numbers into chunks of 4 digits with commas, and then replace the commas from right to left with “万 (wàn), “亿 (yì) ” and “兆 (zhào).
Take the number 135,478,096 for example,
Here’s how you solve this:
Step 1: split the number the Chinese way
Step 2: replace the right comma with “万 (wàn)”, and the left comma with “亿 (yì) ”
Step 3: read out each group of the number
yí yì sān qiān wǔ bǎi sì shí qī wàn bā qiān líng jiǔ shí liù
There you go!
Easier now, isn’t it?
Trick 2: Use Cheat Sheet
Alternatively, you can use our cheat sheet to remember the different number names in the Chinese numeric scale in sequence (e.g. unit-ten-hundred-thousand-ten thousand). You’ll notice these numbers all get their own names:
|Number||English Numeric Name||Chinese Numeric Name||Pinyin|
|100000||hundred thousand||十万||shí wàn|
|10000000||ten million||千万||qiān wàn|
|10000000000||ten billion||百亿||bǎi yì|
|100000000000||hundred billion||千亿||qiān yì|
Let’s try it out on the number 6548912789000.
This reads, 六兆五千四百八十九亿一千二百七十八万九千 (liù zhào wǔ qiān sì bǎi bā shí jiǔ yì yì qiān èr bǎi qī shí bā wàn jiǔ qiān)
Trick 3: Memorize Meaningful Numbers
One more simple way to make large numbers stick is to pick a few numbers that have special meaning to you, memorize them, and use them as the basis for working out other numbers.
For example, one million is 一百万 (yībǎi wàn). If you can just memorize that, then going to 五百万 (yì bǎi wàn) – five million, and 一千万 (yì qiān wàn) – ten million will be a lot easier and quicker, since you don’t have to go through the process of counting the zeros and splitting the number every time you stumble across a large figure.
Here are some examples that might work well for you.
liǎng wàn qī qiān sān bǎi qī shí wǔ
27,375 (days the average person lives in the U.S)
sì shí wàn
400,000 (U.S death toll from the coronavirus when Trump left office)
sān yì sān qiān wàn
330 million (U.S population at 2019 Census)
qī shí bā yì
7.8 billion (world population as of 2020)
yì qiān jiǔ bǎi sì shí bā yì
$198.4 billion (Elon Musk’s wealth as of 2021)
“Big Writing” Form of Chinese Numbers
The Chinese numbers weren’t that hard, were they?
I would say they are pretty beginner-friendly as the characters representing them are some of the easiest to recognize and write in the language.
But there is just one problem:
The Chinese numbers are so simplistic in writing that forgery has become very easy. Imagine you wrote 三十 (30) on a contract or a cheque. The other party can easily alter it to 五千 (5,000) by adding two strokes to 三 (3) and one stroke to 千 (thousand).
To eliminate the risk factor for financial transactions, people in China have come up with a more complex set of characters to represent the numbers in the contexts of banking, accounting and law. This complex, formal version of Chinese numbers is referred to as “大写 (dà xiě)”, literally “big writing”, as opposed to the normal, everyday writing you’ve just learned. (Don’t get it mixed up with the traditional Chinese).
So, here is the chart showing you how Chinese numbers are converted from regular to “big writing” form.
|Number||Character (regular)||Character (big writing)||Pinyin|
Now going back to 30 and 5000, you can see the difference between the “big writing” characters – 叁拾 (30) and 伍仟 (5000) – is so obvious that forgery is completely impossible.
Smart, isn’t it?
Ordinal Numbers in Chinese
So far, I’ve only talked about cardinal numbers in Chinese – one, two, three, a hundred, etc. You also need to learn the ordinal numbers – first, second, third, a hundredth, etc to express order and sequence.
Lucky for you, the Chinese ordinal numbers are incredibly easy! They can be formed simply by adding the prefix 第 (dì) before the number.
So first is 第一 (dì yī), second is 第二 (dì èr), third is 第三 (dì sān), a hundredth is 第一百 (dì yì bǎi), and so on. No exception!
Just note that while English uses ordinal numbers rather extensively, not all Chinese nouns require 第 (dì) to form ordinals.
the second (youngest) brother
the third floor
the fifth date (of the month)
In these cases, you can just use the cardinal numbers to express sequence or order.
Chinese Counters & How to Use Them
Now that you know how to say the numbers in Chinese, it’s time to get to the next level and learn more about the Chinese counters!
As I mentioned earlier in the overview, counters, or measure words – as many call them, are specific words you need to add after the number when counting objects in Chinese.
Can’t wrap your head around it?
Well, this concept should be pretty easy to comprehend. There are plenty of times when we use counter words in English too – you just haven’t realized it.
For instance, we say “a cup of tea”, “a slice of bread”, “ a row of seats”, “a piece of news”, etc. The words “cup”, “slice”, “row”, “piece” are all counters used to quantify the nouns.
Now, in Chinese, this system is much more developed and counters must be used every time numbers are used with a noun. Different counters are used for different kinds of objects, taking into account their shape, feature, or the category to which they belong. In total, there are about 150 common counters used in everyday Chinese. Depending on the objects you are counting, you need to choose the counter word accordingly.
I know, it sounds complicated. It doesn’t surprise me that many learners find counters to be one of the most difficult aspects of the Chinese language.
But stick with me for a moment.
There are some simple rules that you can follow to master this aspect of Chinese. And when you don’t know which counter to use, there is always an easy fix.
So, keep reading!
Most Important Chinese Counters to Know
Some Chinese counters are used much more frequently than others. To help you kickstart your basic Chinese interaction, we’ve written a detailed guide to the most common counters you’ll absolutely need at the beginner phase.
And here is a quick rundown of the top 10 counters in Chinese.
1. Generic Counter
个 (gè) is the most common counter in Chinese. It’s used for people and many non-human items, abstract objects.
Besides, 个 (gè) can be used as a generic, all-purpose counter, that is, you can use it as a substitute when you don’t know or forget the proper counter when counting a specific object. It may not be strictly correct (works like 30% of the time), but you can get by for a while.
yí gè rén
liǎng gè wèntí
(I’ll explain why you have to use 两 liǎng instead of 二 èr here for 2 in a moment)
2. Chinese Counter for People (respectful)
Another people counter 位 (wèi) is frequently used in Mandarin interaction as part of the Chinese courtesy.
Whenever you want to show politeness or respect to the people you’re talking about, switch to 位 (wèi).
sān wèi lǎoshī
sì wèi kèrén
Chinese Counter for Small Animals
Just as 个 (gè) is the generic counter for people and things, 只 (zhī) is the generic counter for animals generally small in size like insects, birds, cats, etc.
wǔ zhī jī
liù zhī hóuzi
Chinese Counter for Larger Animals
For larger animals like pigs, cows, elephants…, 头 (tóu) is typically the counter you need.
qī tóu lǘ
bā tóu shī zi
Chinese Counter for Long, Narrow Things
Long and narrow things like snakes, fish, pants, rivers, or roads have their own Chinese counter: 条 (tiáo).
jiǔ tiáo lǐng dài
shí tiáo lóng
Chinese Counter for Pairs of Things
When counting things that come in pairs, you use the counter 双 (shuāng).
shí yī shuāng kuàizi
eleven pairs of chopsticks
shí èr shuāng xié
twelve pairs of shoes
Chinese Counter for Flat Things
To count flat objects like paper, tickets, tables, beds in Chinese, you have to use the counter 张 (zhāng).
shí sān zhāng yóupiào
shí sì zhāng yǐzi
Chinese Counter for Bound Things
张 (zhāng) is used for sheets of paper, but to count bound stuff like books, you’ve guessed it, you have to use a different counter – 本 (běn)!
shí wǔ běn zázhì
shí liù běn cídiǎn
Chinese Counter for Things with Handles
把 (bǎ) is the go-to counter when you count things with handles or can be easily grasped.
shí qī bǎ sháozi
shí bā bǎ sǎn
Chinese Counter for Vehicles
If your head is not spinning yet, the final counter that cracks the list of top 10 is 辆 (liàng). You use it to count vehicles like bikes, cars, trucks, or carts.
shí jiǔ liàng dàbā
èr shí liàng mótuō
When you want to use the Chinese ordinal numbers with nouns to express “the first something”, “the second something”, etc, you still need to add a counter in between them. For example, 第一辆车 (dì yī liàng chē) – the first car, 第二辆车 (dì èr liàng chē) – the second car.
I know that’s a lot to take! But don’t despair!
Practice using them in real contexts and they’ll soon sink in. And if you forget which counter to use, you can always fall back on 个 (gè) – people will gently correct you if you’re wrong, but you’ll be understood!
Tone for “一” (one): yī, yí or yì?
You probably have noticed that the tone mark on the Chinese number 一 (1) often alternates between yī, yí, or yì. When the tone for 一 changes isn’t random – there are specific rules that cause the tone to change.
Essentially, what tone 一 should be pronounced depends on what context it’s in. Here are the quick tone changing rules for 一.
The default pronunciation for 一 on its own is the first tone (flat).
- 一, 二, 三
yī, èr, sān
one, two, three
When 一 is followed by a fourth tone, you need to pronounce it as second tone (rising).
yí gè rén
yí liàng chē
When 一 is followed by other tones (first, second, or third), it’s pronounced as the fourth tone (falling).
yì tiáo hé
Exceptions to the Rules
When 一 is part of another number (ordinal or cardinal) under 99, the second and third rules will not apply. You still have to read it with the first tone.
dì yī gè rén
the first person
èr shí yī běn shū
Chinese for “Two”: 二 (èr) or 两 (liǎng)?
Now let’s circle back to the example I gave to you earlier when I was explaining the usage of the counter word 个 (gè):
liǎng gè wèntí
You see what’s going on here? The number “two” is represented by the character 两 (liǎng) rather than 二 (èr).
Why is that?
Short answer: when “two” is used before a counter, you must read it as 两 (liǎng) instead of 二 (èr).
Let me elaborate.
Chinese has two characters that correspond to “two” – 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng). Though they are translated the same in English, they have different uses.
Essentially, 二 (èr) is the “two” for numbers. You use it to count, form other numbers, or do math.
- 一, 二, 三…
yī, èr, sān…
one, two, three…
èr shí èr
(forming another number)
èr jiā èr děng yú sì
two plus two equals four
(doing math – more on that later)
两 (liǎng) works differently – it’s the “two” for counters. You use it to say “two of something”.
liǎng gè rén
liǎng zhī māo
liǎng liàng chē
To determine which Chinese number 2 is used in different contexts, the tip is that whenever there’s a “thing” associated, 两 (liǎng) is the go-to one.
Now, I hate to say this, but you’ll find some scenarios where the dividing line between 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) is rather vague – the two words can be used interchangeably irrespective of the rule.
For example, native speakers use both versions of “2” to talk about “200”, “2000” or “2 o’clock”. (You’ll find some articles on the internet bizarrely claiming that you can only use one of the versions, but they’re wrong!)
We’ve written a detailed guide here explaining the difference use of 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) in Chinese, read it through and you’ll become the “2” master!
How to Use Chinese Numbers
You’ve learned the Chinese numbers (great!), but how do you use them? After all, there are many instances where we use numbers in our day-to-day life. Things like time, the date, our age, price, etc.
So here are some examples to help you get started:
To Give Your Phone Number
If you know the numbers 0-9, saying your phone number in Chinese couldn’t be easier, all you have to do is read out each digit one by one.
Let’s give it a shot.
This is how you would say this number in Chinese: bā qī sān liù líng èr jiǔ sì.
Now, in English, when numbers appear consecutively, we normally say double or triple.
five three seven eight, triple two nine
In Chinese, however, you always read out each number: wǔ sān qī bā èr èr èr jiǔ.
Just one thing to note:
When there is a one (1) in the phone number, native speakers often pronounce it “yāo” instead of “yī” to make the sound more distinguishable.
Doubt so? Try saying a few 1 in a row (e.g. 111, 1111, 11111) fast with the “yī” pronunciation, then test it out with “yāo”, and you’ll agree with me!
Besides, in a noisy environment or over the phone, yī (1) can easily get mixed up with another number qī (7) due to their same vowel ending – another reason why you might want to switch to “yāo”!
Let’s give it a try!
bā sān yāo sì liù yāo yāo líng
Now, to ask for someone’s phone number in Chinese, you can say
Nǐ de diànhuà hàomǎ shì duōshǎo?
What’s your phone number?
Literally, “Your phone numbers are what numbers?”
And to give your phone number, you can start with
Wǒ de diànhuà hàomǎ shì…
My phone number is…
|多少||duōshǎo||question word for number|
To Talk About Your Age
Once you know the numbers, talking about age in Chinese will be a piece of cake.
You only need to learn two more words here.
|岁||suì||years of age|
|几||jǐ||question word for small number|
To tell people your age, simply add a 岁 (suì) behind the number.
Wǒ sān shí suì.
I am thirty years old.
Literally, “I, thirty years old.”
See? You don’t even need a verb here.
To ask someone how old he or she is, you can say
Nǐ duōshǎo suì?
How old are you?
Literally, “You, what number years old?”
And if you’re asking a kid:
Nǐ jǐ suì?
How old are you?
Literally, “You, what number years old?”
You can use both questions words – 几 (jǐ) and 多少 (duōshǎo) to ask a specific number. But when you expect the number in the answer to be big, it’s more proper to use 多少 (duōshǎo).
You can follow our complete guide here to learn the various ways of telling and asking age in Chinese.
To Say Dates
With all the different names of months and days to remember, dates are something many people struggle with when learning languages. But Mandarin Chinese can be easy – once you know the basic numbers, you can pretty much say any time element in Chinese.
Before learning about dates in Chinese, here’s some key vocab:
Now, let’s learn how to say the dates in Chinese:
1. Start with the number of the year
When saying the date in English, you start with the month (U.S.) or the day (U.K). In Chinese, however, the elements of the date must be named in ascending order: year + month + day, that is, 年 (nián) + 月 (yuè) + 日 (rì).
The Chinese numeral dates are always written like this: YYYY/MM/DD.
To express the year correctly, you need to read out each digit of the number corresponding to the year, just like the way you say your phone number, and then add 年 (nián) to it.
èr líng èr yī nián
Literally, “two zero two one year”
If you are not yet comfortable with saying a string of numbers in Chinese, you can just say the last two digits instead of the whole number, like:
èr yī nián
Literally, “two one year”
Obviously, the two digits 21 can refer to 1921 or 1821 as well, but as long as the context is clear, people would have no problem understanding the shortened version. (Don’t get it mixed up with 二十一年 èr shí yī nián which means “twenty-one years”!)
2. Say the month
After saying the year, you’ll then say the month of the year. The best part is that you don’t need to learn a new set of words for the months. In Chinese, they are expressed by a simple combination of the numbers 1-12 and the word 月 (yuè) – month.
Thus, January is 一月 (yī yuè) – the first month, February is 二月 (èr yuè) – the second month, and December is, you guessed it, 十二月 (shí èr yuè) – the twelfth month!
3. Say the date
Finally, you need to conclude it with a specific date of the month. Just as when you say the months in Chinese, when you say the date in Chinese, you also use the cardinal numbers (such as “one” or “two”) instead of ordinals (such as “first” or “second”).
The pattern is the same. After you say the number, add the word 日 (rì) – date.
- 31st (of the month)
Literally, “31 date”
Now, let’s go back to the date 2021/12/31 and see if you can work it all out in Chinese.
èr líng èr yī nián shí èr yuè sān shí yī rì
Literally: “two zero two one year, December (twelfth month), thirty-first date”
Or if you prefer the short version:
èr yī nián shí èr yuè sān shí yī rì
Literally: “two one year, December (twelfth month), thirty-first date”.
Easy, isn’t it?
Just one note: in casual conversations, many people use 号 (hào), a more colloquial version of 日 (rì) to express the date of the month. It works the same way.
èr yī nián shí èr yuè sān shí yī hào
Literally: “two one year, December (twelfth month), thirty-first date”.
When someone asks you the date in Chinese, you can start by saying 今天是 (jīntiān shì) – meaning “today is” before the date.
For example, when someone asked you “今天几号 (jīntiān jǐ hào) – what’s the date today?”, you could say,
Jīntiān shì liù yuè shí bā rì (hào).
Today is June the 18th.
In most contexts, it’s acceptable to simply say the date.
You can also combine Chinese numbers with the word “week” to talk about the days of the week in Chinese. If you don’t know how, read our detailed guide here to learn the vocabulary related to days and weeks in Chinese.
To Tell the Time
Telling the time in Chinese is a lot like in English, you say the number that corresponds to the hour first, then the minute.
The key difference here is that in Chinese, you must use an additional word 点 (diǎn), meaning “o’clock” in the middle to separate the hour and the minute.
jiǔ diǎn sì shí
Literally, “nine o’clock forty”
And when the minute is under 10, you have to read out the zero (you can think of it as the “o” in English”)
jiǔ diǎn líng wǔ
Literally, “nine o’clock o five”
In English, we often leave out the word “o’clock” for time on the hour. In Chinese, however, you need to keep it around the clock.
Take 9:00 for example,
- √ 九点 (jiǔ diǎn)
Literally, “nine o’clock”
× 九 (jiǔ)
numeral “9” (having nothing to do with time)
Note that China, like America, uses the 12-hour-system. 19:00 is thus 7:00 clock (p.m). That’s why additional words like 上午 (shàngwǔ) – morning, 下午 (xiàwǔ) – afternoon, and 晚上 (wǎnshang) – evening are used in situations where it is necessary to point out the specific periods of the day.
Unlike the a.m. and p.m. in English, however, you must say these Chinese time words before the time following the “broad to specific” rule.
- 3:00 pm
xiàwǔ sān diǎn
Literally: “afternoon three o’clock”
- 9:30 pm
wǎnshàng jiǔ diǎn sān shí
Literally: “evening nine o’clock thirty”
Because there is neither verb conjugation nor tense in Chinese, native speakers often include a time word like “now”, “today” at the beginning of a sentence to make the context clearer. When they ask you the time in Chinese, they would say “Now, what time?” – 现在几点 (xiànzài jǐ diǎn)?
To answer that question, follow the same pattern: start with 现在 (xiànzài), which means now, and then follow it up with the time, like:
Xiànzài qī diǎn èr shí bā.
Now (it’s) 7:28.
To Say Prices in Shopping
Now, let’s learn how to say the Chinese numbers in prices.
The prices are expressed quite differently in Chinese than in English. To start with, the basic unit or counter of the Chinese currency is Yuan. The official symbol for the Chinese Yuan is ¥. However, in most stores and restaurants in China, you’ll find the symbol represented by the Chinese character 元, which is pronounced yuán.
A Yuan can be further divided into 角 (jiǎo) – 1/10 of a Yuan (like the dime in a dollar), and 分 (fēn) -1/100 of a Yuan (think the cent in a dollar), although the latter is so small a unit that you rarely see it in daily life.
To say the prices in Chinese, you have to indicate the unit of the currency after the number.
yì yuán wǔ jiǎo
one Yuan, five Jiao
If more than one currency unit is included in a price, then the smallest unit can be omitted in spoken Chinese. For example, to express ¥1.50, you can drop the smallest unit – in this case “Jiao”, and just say 一元五 (yì yuán wǔ) – one Yuan, five.
Let’s try this.
shí jiǔ yuán bā (jiǎo)
nineteen Yuan, eight (Jiao)
Jiao, being the smallest currency unit in this price, can be omitted
shí jiǔ yuán bā jiǎo jiǔ (fēn)
nineteen Yuan, eight Jiao, nine (Fen)
Fen, being the smallest currency unit in this price, can be omitted
Did you get it?
Now, when shopping in China, a storekeeper might also express prices in terms of 块 (kuài), which is the colloquial version of 元 (yuán) and is similar to how Americans use “bucks” to mean dollars.
Similarly, another colloquial word 毛 (máo) is widely used in daily life to mean “dime”. Both 毛 (máo) and 角 (jiǎo) refer to the same thing: 1/10 of a Yuan.
Now let’s try saying these prices using the colloquial set.
yí kuài wǔ máo
one Kuai, five Mao
Or if you prefer the short version:
yí kuài wǔ
one Kuai, five
To Express “half of…” and “…and a half”
Like in English, Chinese speakers use the number word 半 (bàn), which means “half” a lot in their daily lives, referring to 50% of something.
How to Say “half of…” in Chinese
Below are a few examples demonstrating how “half of something” is said in Chinese.
- half a cake
bàn gè dàn gāo
- half a chicken
bàn zhī jī
- half a book
bàn běn shū
- half a day
- half a year
I hope you can see the pattern here:
To say “half of something” in Chinese, say the word 半 (bàn) first, then the counter corresponding to that thing. (Words like 天 tiān – day, and 年 nián – year are essentially time dividers, therefore, can be used as counter words on their own)
But why there’s a counter here? You asked.
The answer is simple: 半 (bàn) is usually conceived as a number in Chinese (think 0.5 or 50%). And as long as a number comes along with a noun, you must add a counter in between!
If you simply want to say “a half” with no intention to specify the object, it’s possible – but you’ll need to say 一半 (yíbàn). For example, if someone asked you “你要多少? (nǐ yào duōshǎo) – how many would you like?”, you could answer: 一半 (yíbàn)!
How to Say “… and a half” in Chinese
You can also use the word 半 (bàn) to express “… and a half”. The tip is that you put the 半 (bàn) after the counter.
How does this work? Let’s look at some examples.
yí gè bàn dàngāo
one and a half cakes (1.5 cakes)
liǎng píng bàn píjiǔ
two and a half bottles of beer (2.5 bottles of beer)
sān tiān bàn
three and a half days (3.5 days)
sì nián bàn
four and a half years (4.5 years)
Note that in English, we sometimes use “and a half” to abbreviate the names of big numbers. For instance, instead of saying “one thousand five hundred, we might say “one and a half thousand”. And instead of “two million five hundred thousand”, we might say “two and a half million”.
However, you can’t do it like this in Chinese. Essentially, 半 (bàn) can only be used to express small decimal numbers (0.5, 1.5, 2.5, etc). You can’t use it to express big numbers with a comma (thousands separator). For those numbers, you’ll need to read out their full names.
yì qiān wǔ bǎi
one thousand, five hundred
èr bǎi wǔ shí wàn
two hundred fifty “wan”
To Do Basic Math
I think you’ll agree with me when I say that the simplicity and consistency of Chinese number words make calculations a lot easier in this language (and that probably explains why Chinese students are so good at math, right?)
Now you know all the numbers in Chinese, you can do math fast too!
How to Calculate in Chinese
Before learning about calculation, let’s learn the key math vocabulary in Chinese:
|除以||chú yǐ||…divided by…|
And here’s a list of examples showing you how to use Chinese numbers and calculation words to do basic math.
yī jiā èr děngyú sān
One plus two equals three.
qī jiǎn sān děngyú sì
Seven minus three equals five.
wǔ chéng liù děngyú sān shí
Five times six equals thirty.
qī shí èr chú yǐ jiǔ děngyú bā
Seventy-two divided by nine equals eight.
A good way to practice your Chinese number skills is to work on the Chinese multiplication table with the rhythmic chant. Read here to learn how.
Decimal Numbers in Chinese
In Chinese, the decimal point is called 点 and pronounced “diǎn”.
When you say a decimal in Chinese, you need to read out each individual number after the 点 (diǎn).
sān diǎn èr wǔ
Literally, “three point two five”
Don’t get it mixed up with time expressions in Chinese! Though the colon there (:) is also read as 点 (diǎn), the numbers are recited differently in time. For example, if it’s 3:25 now, you wouldn’t say “三点二五 (sān diǎn èr wǔ)”. Instead, you would say “三点二十五 (sān diǎn èr shí wǔ)”.
Fractions in Chinese
In Chinese, fractions are written with the same dividing line just like in English (e.g. 1/4). The difference is that you must read the denominator (bottom number) first, then the dividing line – 分之 (fēnzhī), and last the numerator (top number).
sì fēnzhī yī
wǔ fēnzhī èr
Percentages in Chinese
If you can say fractions, you can say percentages in Chinese too!
The Chinese percentage sign is written the same as in English: %. When reading a percentage, you simply say the word “百分之 (bǎi fēnzhī wǔ shí)” first and the number after it. So 50% would be read as “百分之五十 (bǎi fēnzhī wǔ shí)”.
If you think about it, the Chinese readings for fractions and percentages follow the same pattern. The reading for 25% is pretty much the same as 25/100. You just have to shorten 一百 (yì bǎi) – the denominator in the fraction to 百 (bǎi) in the percentage.
Bonus: Using Chinese Numbers Like a Native
Wow, that’s a lot of information! (I know!)
I would say the above is more than enough to cover the daily use of numbers in Chinese. I even included some fairly technical math terms for this level, just to keep you on your toes!
But if you’re still in the mood for more advanced content, though, keep reading. The following tutorial will help you use Chinese numbers like a real native speaker, guaranteed!
Remember when I said how you can leave out the smallest unit of currency when you express a price in Chinese?
Here’s a quick recap.
shí jiǔ yuán bā (jiǎo)
nineteen Yuan, eight (Jiao)
The smallest currency unit in the above price is 角 (Jiao) – ten Chinese “cents”. Therefore, it can be omitted.
Now, if you translate the shortened Chinese reading directly into English, it would be “nineteen Yuan, eight” instead of “nineteen Yuan, eighty”, as if the last digit of the number – zero is non-existent.
I like to call this phenomenon the “zero omission”.
And if you observe closely the way native Chinese speakers say numbers, you’ll soon realize this “zero omission” phenomenon is prevalent in casual conversations.
Let’s take the number 250 for example.
The standard, formal way of saying the number (which is also what I taught you in the previous sections) would be 二百五十 (èr bǎi wǔ shí). But in real life, many Chinese people will just read it 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ) – literally “two hundred five”.
Two more examples: 2,500 and 25,000.
Let’s read them in the standard way first:
èr qiān wǔ bǎi
èr wàn wǔ qiān
Now let’s hear from native speakers:
èr qiān wǔ
literally “two thousand five”
èr wàn wǔ
literally “two wan five”
You see what’s going on there? The strings of zeros at the end of these numbers are totally omitted.
Let me lift the veil for you so you won’t be confused.
Essentially, numeric words in the Chinese counting scale (e.g. 十 shí, 百 bǎi, 千 qiān) are considered number units.
- 十 (shí): unit for 10s
- 百 (bǎi): unit for 100s
- 千 (qiān): unit for 1000s
And when you read out a Chinese number that ends with a zero or zeros, the smallest number unit can be left out completely – just like how the smallest currency unit can be dropped in a price.
Let’s look at the numbers in the previous examples again:
èr bǎi wǔ (shí)
Literally, “two hundred five (ten)”
十 shí (ten), being the smallest unit in this number, can be omitted
èr qiān wǔ (bǎi)
Literally, “two thousand five (hundred)”
百 bǎi (hundred), being the smallest unit in this number, can be omitted
èr wàn wǔ (qiān)
Literally, “two wan five (thousand)”
千 qiān (thousand), being the smallest unit in this number, can be omitted
Look how neat the numbers have become without the zeros! Amazing, isn’t it?
Now, you might still remember that earlier on in this tutorial, I mentioned that if a number contains a zero in the middle, you have to read out the zero.
- 205: 二百零五 (èr bǎi líng wǔ)
I’m sure you can understand why now – if you drop the zero in 205 and pronounce it 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ), it’d become 250!
The Scale of 1-10
Bizarre as it may sound, when it comes to ordering a steak in China, you’ll need to use numbers.
Unlike in English, the Chinese waiter will usually ask how well you like your steak to be cooked on a scale of 1-10:
Jǐ fēn shú?
Literally, “What degree of “cooked-ness?”
Your basic answer options are:
yì fēn shú
Literally, “1 degree cooked”
sān fēn shú
Literally, “3 degree cooked”
wǔ fēn shú
Literally, “5 degree cooked”
qī fēn shú
Literally, “7 degree cooked”
Literally, “fully cooked” (Don’t say 10 degree cooked in this case)
For medium-rare, you could also say 半熟 (bàn shú) – “half-cooked”. Other numbers (2,4,6,8,9) are generally not used to describe the “cooked-ness”.
You can also use numbers to express the degree of “sweetness” you desire when ordering drinks.
For example, in a bubble tea shop, the staff might ask you how much sugar you’d like in your tea by saying:
Jǐ fēn táng?
Literally, “what degree of sugar?”
And your usual options are:
sān fēn táng
Literally, “3 degree sugar“
wǔ fēn táng
Literally, “5 degree sugar“
(You can also say: 半糖 bàn táng – half sugar)
qī fēn táng
Literally, “7 degree sugar”
Chinese Number Idioms
Believe it or not, 成语 (chéng yǔ) – those thousand-year-old idiomatic expressions derived from ancient Chinese history are still a rich part of the modern Chinese language – they are considered the collected wisdom of the Chinese culture, and contain the experiences, moral concepts, and admonishments from previous generations.
Slip some Chengyu into your daily interaction with locals and you’ll sound smart and polished!
The best part? Chengyu is not complicated at all – many of them are simply formed by numbers. And those seemingly random number-character combinations can convey profound meanings.
So here are my top 10 Chinese number idioms to get you started!
数一数二 (shǔ yī shǔ èr)
“count one, count two”
This is not a command. The number expression 数一数二 (shǔ yī shǔ èr) means someone or something can be counted as the best or the second-best in their field or is simply among the best.
Tā shì shìjiè shàng shǔ yī shǔ èr de shùxuéjiā.
He is one of the best mathematicians in the world.
一五一十 (yī wǔ yī shí)
“one five, one ten”
The original meaning of this all-number Chengyu is “count in every five and every ten”. Now you can use it to express “include every little detail”.
Tā yī wǔ yī shí de gào sù le wǒ.
He told me the full details.
三心二意 (sān xīn èr yì)
“three hearts, two minds”
Ancient Chinese people considered the heart as the center of reason, thought, and emotion. But having three hearts and two minds in one body certainly wouldn’t make a person more decisive. So this Chengyu can be used to describe the state of being restless and confused in thoughts or action.
Juédìng hǎo le jiù bú yào sān xīn èr yì.
Once you’ve made up your mind, don’t waver.
丢三落四 (diū sān là sì)
“lose three, forget four”
Do you know anyone who’s always losing this and forgetting that? Well, this is the perfect Chengyu for you to describe your scatterbrained buddy.
Wǒ de dìdi zǒngshì diū sān là sì.
My younger brother is such a scatterbrain.
五湖四海 (wǔ hú sì hǎi)
“five lakes, four seas”
Legend has it that China was once surrounded by four seas. So the four seas along with the five inland lakes in China came together to represent all the places in this country or even the world.
Wǒmen de tuánduì chéngyuán láizì wǔ hú sì hǎi.
Our team members are from all over the country/world.
五花八门 (wǔ huā bā mén)
“five flowers, eight gates”
“Five Flowers” and “Eight Gates” were the names of two shifting military formations in ancient China. Now the Chengyu is used to describe something variable and capricious.
Tā biān le wǔ huā bā mén de jièkǒu.
He came up with all sorts of excuses.
七嘴八舌 (qī zuǐ bā shé)
“seven mouths, eight tongues”
Can you imagine how much noise can seven months or eight tongues make? Right, this Chengyu is used to describe a situation where everybody is trying to get a word in.
- 消息一公布, 大家就七嘴八舌地议论起来。
Xiāoxi yì gōngbù , dàjiā jiù qī zuǐ bā shé de yìlùn qǐlái.
The moment the announcement was made, a lively discussion started – everyone was eager to put in a word.
十有八九 (shí yǒu bā jiǔ)
“ten there’s eight nine”
Literally, “eight or nine (times) out of ten”, this Chengyu is similar to the English phrase “ten to one”. You can use it to express a strong possibility.
Tāmen shí yǒu bā jiǔ huì shū.
Ten to one they’ll lose.
千方百计 (qiān fāng bǎi jì)
“a thousand methods, a hundred strategies”
This Chengyu means accomplishing the purpose by any means necessary. A similar expression in English would be “by hook or by crook”.
Wǒ huì qiān fāng bǎi jì zài zhè zhōu wánchéng zhèxiē gōngzuò.
I will get the work done this week one way or another.
万众一心 (wàn zhòng yì xīn)
“ten thousand people, one heart”
This Chengyu is quoted by Chinese media all the time to encourage people to unite in one thought and purpose.
Quán guó gè dì rénmín wàn zhòng yì xīn kàngjī xīnguān yìqíng.
People from all over the country united as one body and one faith to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Chinese Number Slang
In English, we often use texting slang like BTW, LOL, and CU when chatting with our friends online.
Chinese people too, have created hundreds of different texting slang, or internet slang, words, and texting abbreviations as a form of shorthand to convey ideas with the least amount of time and effort.
One of the most intriguing forms of Chinese slang is the use of numbers to represent words and phrases with similar sounds.
Now let’s check out some of the most popular Chinese number slang in 2021.
520 – I Love you
520 is the most commonly used number slang in China.
The numbers 5-2-0 (wǔ èr líng), when said out loud in Chinese, sounds similar to the expression 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ), which means “I love you”. This number combination is so popular that the younger Chinese generation has made May 20th (5/20) the new Valentine’s Day in China.
1314 – Forever
If you are serious about professing your love, you can say 520 1314.
1314 sounds a lot like the Chinese idiom (yes, another Chengyu!) 一生一世 (yì shēng yí shì) which literally means “one life, one lifetime”.
So 520 1314 stands for “I Love you forever”!
518 – I’ll be rich
Chinese people love money. Well, who doesn’t?. But they even have a god of Money: 财神 (cáishén) – he is one of the most popular gods to worship in China of all time.
And if you too want to get rich, use the number slang 518 as often as possible like the locals!
Why? 5-1-8 sounds like the expression 我要发 (wǒ yào fā) – meaning “I’ll be rich!” (try pronouncing 一 as ”yāo” here). Well, if you dare to dream it, you can do it!
88 – Bye bye
This should be an easy guess: the Chinese numbers 8-8 sounds like the English “bye-bye”. (it can also be represented by Chinese characters: 拜拜 bái bái )
You can also sign off with 886 – 拜拜喽 (bái bái lou) to convey a more casual, chirpy tone.
818 – Gossip
818 is the homophone of 扒一扒 (bā yi bā), which is a lighthearted way of saying “gossip about someone or something” (not necessarily in a hurtful way though).
Jīntiān wǒ yào bā yi bā wǒ de qián tóngshì.
Today, I’ll tell you the (dumb) stories of my former colleagues.
94 – Right on point
94 sounds quite similar to the expression 就是 (jiù shì), which means “exactly right” or “on point”.
So if you are fully on board with someone, simply text 94.
748 – Go die!
The Chinese numbers 7-4-8 (qī sì bā) represents 去死吧 (qù sǐ ba), which literally means “Go die!” but can also be interpreted as “Go to hell”.
How do I know this? Well, I got a lot of it from my girlfriend every time she was mad!
250 – Moron
In northern China, people like to describe those simpleminded and reckless people as “250”.
There are different anecdotes associated with the origin of 250. My favorite one is that back in the old days when the Chinese packed money, they would put 500 silver coins in one envelope, which is called 封 (fēng). So if 500 is 一封 (yì fēng) – “one envelope”, then 250 would be respectively 半封 (bàn fēng) – “half an envelope”.
Guess what? It sounds exactly the same as another word 半疯 (bàn fēng), meaning “half crazy”!
666 – Awesome
The Chinese number slang 666 (liù liù liù) which is now widely popular among young netizens in China is used to describe someone or something cool, awesome, or dope.
666 in Chinese has nothing to do with the Devil but is simply the homonym for 牛牛牛 (niú niú niú), meaning awesome, impressive, or 溜溜溜 (liù liù liù), meaning skilled or smooth. It was first used by Chinese League of Legends gamers to express awe and respect for good gameplay. Now, you can use 666 to wish someone good luck or congratulate them on a job well done.
- Your friend: 我要参加HSK考试了!
Wǒ yào cānjiā HSK kǎoshì le!
I am going to take the HSK exam!
Remember the Chinese number gesture for 6? You can also express 666 by waving it around!
996 – Crazy Workload
996 is the short name for the so-called “996 office schedule” commonly practiced at China’s big tech companies, that is, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; 6 days a week, plus overtime.
Tā zài yì jiā jiǔ jiǔ liù gōngsī shàngbān.
He works in a company with relentless work schedules.
Sounds awful, isn’t it?
But it can be worse. Some people unfortunately have to work around the clock. Hence, another similar number slang – 007 (0:00 to 0:00, 7 days a week)!
U1S1 – In all honesty
U1S1 is one of the newest Chinese internet slang in 2021. It’s the abbreviation of the popular expression 有一说一 (yǒu yī shuō yī), literally, “(if you) have one, say one”.
You can add U1S1 at the beginning to emphasize your sincerity when expressing your opinion (it could be pleasant as well as unpalatable), for instance:
- U1S1, 他唱得真不错。
Yǒu yī shuō yī, tā chàng de zhēn búcuò.
To be honest, he does sing very well.
FAQ about Chinese Numbers
Before I wrap things up, let’s quickly go over some of the most commonly asked questions about Chinese numbers.
This is an ever-expanding list, so if you have a question I haven’t covered, feel free to ask!
Yes. Like the rest of the world, Chinese people use Arabic numerals widely in daily life. But there are many contexts such as traditional ceremonials, media, commerce, finance, law where people still use the Chinese numbers represented by characters.
It’s easy to count to 3 in Chinese. To say “one”, say “一 yī” (like the “ee” in “bee” with a flat tone). To say “two”, say “二 èr” (like yawning with a falling tone but roll back your tongue). To say “three”, say 三 “sān” (like the “san” in “sand” with a flat tone).
You can opt to pronounce the Chinese number 一 as “yāo” when reciting a string of numbers containing 1 that has no mathematical meaning such as a phone number, ID number, address, or zip code to help listeners hear it more clearly. This practice is, however, totally optional.
When the number 2 is followed by a counter, you need to read it as 两 (liǎng). Essentially, 两 (liǎng) is the 2 for counters and you use it to express “two of something”.
If the number is precisely 100, you should use 一百 (yì bǎi).
yì bǎi rén
one hundred people
yì bǎi kuài
one hundred Yuan
If the number is between 100 and 200, you should use 一百 (yì bǎi) as well.
yì bǎi wǔ shí tiān
one hundred and fifty days
yì bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ běn shū
one hundred and ninety-nine books
You use 百 (bǎi) as part of a larger number, like 三百 (sān bǎi) for “three hundred”.
The number 101 in Chinese is 一百零一 (yì bǎi líng yī). Note that the zero (零 líng) in 101 must be read out, otherwise, the number will change to 110.
The number 200 can be read as either 二百 (èr bǎi) or 两百 (liǎng bǎi) in Chinese. 两百 (liǎng bǎi) is slightly more colloquial but essentially there is no difference in their use.
Similarly, you can read 2000 as either 二千 (èr qiān) or 两千 (liǎng qiān), and 20000 as either 二万 (èr wàn) or 两万 (liǎng wàn). 20, however, must always be read as 二十 (èr shí).
Both 二点 (èr diǎn) and 两点 (liǎng diǎn) are correct ways of saying “2’o clock” in Chinese, although 两点 (liǎng diǎn) is used more often in colloquial Chinese.
The Chinese word for “half” is 半 (half). To say “half of something”, you need to add a counter word before the object, for example, 半个苹果 (bàn gè píng guǒ) – half an apple.
To say 0.5 in Chinese, say 零点五 (líng diǎn wǔ), literally “zero point five”.
The Chinese for one hundred percent (100%) is 百分之一百 (bǎi fēnzhī yì bǎi), but you may also say 百分之百 (bǎi fēnzhī bǎi) as the short version.
The word for thousand in Chinese is 千 (qiān). To say one thousand, you say 一千 (yì qiān).
You can say any number from 1001 to 9999 with 千 (qiān) by reading out the first number, then the word 千 (qiān), then the rest of the number. If the number contains zero(s) in the middle, for example, 1005 or 1050, read out a zero (零 líng). When you get to ten thousand, say 一万 (yí wàn).
Large numbers in Chinese are broken down into units of ten-thousand, so million is 百万 bǎi wàn (hundred ten-thousand), billion is 十亿 shí yì (ten hundred-million), and trillion is 兆 zhào.
All natural Chinese numbers up to a trillion can be represented by 16 unique characters. They are:
- 零 (zero)
- 一 (one)
- 二 (two)
- 三 (three)
- 四 (four)
- 五 (five)
- 六 (six)
- 七 (seven)
- 八 (eight)
- 九 (nine)
- 十 (ten)
- 百 (hundred)
- 千 (thousand)
- 万 (ten thousand)
- 亿 (hundred million)
- 兆 (trillion)
Final Words about Chinese Numbers
Numbers are one of the most important things you’ll need to learn and memorize in your language learning. Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of Chinese numbers, it’s time to get out there and practice!
Never underestimate the value of perfecting your skills to deal with numbers. It takes a lot of repetition of course, but once you get these patterns down, you will become a next-level learner. Guaranteed!
By the way, if you’re just starting out to learn Chinese, I strongly recommend that you take a structured Chinese course online.
To be fair, it’s possible to learn Chinese by yourself. But you’re dealing with a rather complex language here which is nothing like English or Spanish. It would be far more effective to follow the progression of an existing course than to try putting odd bits and pieces together on your own.
We’ve taken the time to try out dozens of Chinese courses online, some are fabulous while others are horrible. Read our unbiased reviews here and discover our top recommendations!