15 Most Common Chinese Measure Words for Beginners (+Examples)

most common measure words in Chinese

Many learners find measure words to be one of the most difficult aspects of the Chinese language. And no wonder: to use them correctly, you need to pay attention to a bunch of features that do not even exist in English. And whenever you learn a new noun in Chinese, you have to memorize the corresponding measure word that agrees with it.

But don’t worry. We are here to help you!

We’ll make them less scary by analyzing some of their defining features and teaching you the simple rules to use them. To make things easier for you, we’ll start by discussing just the 15 most common measure words in Chinese you’ll hear every day when you begin studying. Later on, we’ll look at how to learn the remaining measure words effectively.

How Measure Words Work in Chinese

The way measure words work in Mandarin Chinese might not seem too intuitive to an English speaker. After all, English measure words are only used in very specific contexts.

On a basic level, measure words are used to specify a certain quantity of a given noun. If that doesn’t sound too clear, here are a few examples from English:

a bar of chocolate
a party of friends
two pieces of news
three rolls of toilet paper
several drops of mud

While English uses measure words rather sparingly, Chinese sentences are just full of them. Chinese measure words are indispensable when counting nouns – in many contexts which wouldn’t require a measure word in English.

The big difference with measure words between Chinese and English is that usually, only mass nouns (uncountable nouns) require one in English, while every noun – even single and countable, requires one in Chinese, that is, every time a number or a demonstrative pronoun like “this” or “that” is used with a noun, you must slip a measure word in the middle.

For example, you wouldn’t just say “a car”, “two cats”, “this cake” in Chinese, you would say “a [measure word] car” and “two [measure word] cats”, “this [measure word] cake”. (there is no additional linking particle like “of” in English)

Different measure words are used for different nouns. In total, there are about 150 measure words in Chinese that are frequently used in day-to-day conversations. Measure words in Chinese can speak to the shape or feature of the object, the category to which it belongs, the type of container it comes in, or are simply arbitrary and you must just know them. (In some cases, more than one measure word may be used for the same noun, and the choice depends on which characteristic you wish to emphasize)

Don’t let the measure word system freak you out, though.

There are some simple rules that you can learn to master this aspect of Chinese. To help you kickstart your growing vocabulary, we’ll start you off with the 15 most common measure words in Chinese that capture the most value for beginners. These core, simple measure words are easy to remember because you’ll hear them everywhere, all the time!

Let’s dive in!

15 Most Common Measure Words in Chinese You Must Know

Here’s a rundown of the 15 most commonly used measure words in daily Chinese to get you going. If your goal is to become conversationally fluent in Chinese, these are the top measure words you must know.

1. Generic Measure Word: 个 (gè)

measure word 个 (gè)

个 (gè) is the most commonly used measure word in Chinese amongst all.

It’s mostly used with nouns for people. The typical construct to use with 个 (gè), and most measure words, is “number [measure word] noun”.

For example,

  • 老人
    yí  lǎorén
    an old man
  • 孩子
    liǎng  háizi
    two kids
  • 学生
    sān  xuésheng
    three students

When the number “two” is used before a measure word, you must read it as 两 (liǎng) instead of 二 (èr). Read here for further explanations.

Many non-human items, abstract objects, and words can go with this measure word as well. For instance,


  • liǎng  zì
    two characters
  • 橙子
    sān  chéngzi
    three oranges

  • wǔ  huì
    five meetings

  • qī  yuè
    seven months
  • 问题
    shí  wèntí
    ten questions

Additionally, 个 (gè) can be used as a generic, all-purpose measure word, which means that you can use it as a substitute if you don’t know or can’t remember the more proper measure word for the noun you’re trying to quantify. It may not be technically correct (works like 30% of the time), but you’ll be understood by native speakers most of the time. And as a bonus, they may even offer up the right measure word so that you can file it away for future reference.

If the noun you are referring to is singular in the sentence, you can omit the number 一 (yī) before the measure word. For example,

  • 你是一个好人。Nǐ shì yí gè hǎo rén.
    → 你是好人。Nǐ shì  hǎo rén.
    You are a good guy.

This rule applies to all measure words.

2. 位 (wèi)

This is another commonly used measure word to count people. Compared with 个 (gè), the word 位 (wèi) is more formal. It’s a good idea to use 位 (wèi) instead of 个 (gè) when you want to show politeness or respect to the people you are talking about.

For instance,

  • 老师
    yí wèi lǎoshī
    a teacher
  • 同事
    liǎng wèi tóngshì
    two colleagues
  • 客人
    sān wèi kèrén
    three guests

And when you go to a restaurant in China, you are bound to hear the waiter say this to you as part of the Chinese courtesy.

  • ?
    Jǐ wèi?
    How many (people)?

3. 只 (zhī)

measure word 只 (zhī)

Just like 个 (gè) is the generic measure word for people, 只 (zhī) is the generic measure word for animals

Here’s this common measure word in action,


  • yì zhī māo
    a cat
  • 兔子
    liǎng zhī tùzi
    two bunnies
  • 虫子
    sān zhī chóngzi
    three bugs

  • sì zhī niǎo
    four birds

  • wǔ zhī jī
    five chickens

Note that the measure word 只 (zhī) normally sticks with smaller animals. For larger animals (pigs, cows, or elephants, for example), another measure word is used in Chinese – we’ll get there in a minute.

Now, 只 (zhī) can also be used to talk about items that come in pairs (one of a pair) such as some body parts, shoes, etc.

For example:


  • yì zhī shǒu
    a hand

  • yì zhī jiǎo
    a foot
  • 眼睛
    liǎng zhī yǎnjīng
    two eyes
  • 耳朵
    liǎng zhī ěrduo
    two ears

  • yì zhī xié
    a shoe

Note that 只 (zhī) is pronounced “zhī” here, and not “zhǐ” like in other contexts.

4. 头 (tóu)

measure word 头 (tóu)

The Chinese measure word 头 (tóu) refers to a head of something. If 个 (gè) is the go-to measure word for small animals, then 头 (tóu) is used for big animals such as livestock as well as some wild animals.


  • yì tóu zhū
    a pig

  • liǎng tóu lǘ
    two donkeys

  • sān tóu niú
    three cows
  • 狮子
    sì tóu shīzi
    four lions
  • 大象
    wǔ tóu dàxiàng
    five elephants

5. 条 (tiáo)

measure word 条 (tiáo)

条 (tiáo) is the measure word for things with a long, narrow shape – fish, snakes, ropes, ties, rivers, roads, pants, etc.

Check these examples:


  • yì tiáo yú
    a fish

  • liǎng tiáo shé
    two snakes
  • 领带
    sān tiáo lǐngdài
    three ties

  •  tiáo hé
    four rivers
  • 裤子
    shí tiáo kùzi
    ten pants

Well, you may argue that some fish doesn’t look long at all, but you still have to use the measure word 条 (tiáo) for it, since it’s the catch-all measure word for all types of fish.

6. 双 (shuāng)

When you talk about pairs of things in Chinese, the measure word 双 (shuāng) is used. The character, as you can probably guess from its structure, means “double” originally.

Here are some examples:


  • yì shuāng xié
    a pair of shoes
  • 袜子
    yì shuāng wàzi
    a pair of socks
  • 筷子
    yì shuāng kuàizi
    a pair of chopsticks

  • yì shuāng shǒu
    a pair of hands
  • 眼睛
    yì shuāng yǎnjīng
    a pair of eyes

Note that 双 (shuāng) is typically used for pairs of things that can be separated. Unlike in English, it is not used to talk about items such as pants, glasses, or scissors which are viewed as one entity in Chinese. Other measure words are used for those nouns.

7. 张 (zhāng)

measure word 张 (zhāng)

It should be quite easy to remember how to use the measure word 张 (zhāng) in Chinese, as it refers to flat things – paper, tickets, menus, tables, chairs, beds, and so on. You’ll find that you use this measure word frequently traveling or living in China, as you’ll always be buying bus, train, or subway tickets.

Let’s see it in action.


  • yì zhāng zhǐ
    a piece of paper

  • liǎng zhāng piào
    two tickets
  • 桌子
    sān zhāng zhuōzi
    three tables
  • 椅子
    zhāng yǐzi
    four chairs

  • zhāng chuáng
    five beds

8. 本 (běn)

While 张 (zhāng) is used for a single sheet of paper, you need to use a different measure word when you are talking about bound stuff such as books, or magazines. That’s where 本 (běn) comes in handy!

Let’s see some examples!


  • yì běn shū
    a book
  • 词典
    yì běn cídiǎn
    a dictionary
  • 杂志
    liǎng běn zázhì
    two magazines
  • 笔记本
    běn bǐjìběn
    five notebooks

9. 把 (bǎ)

measure word 把 (bǎ)

The measure word 把 (bǎ) literally means “handful”. It’s commonly used for objects that can be held and implements with handles.

Examples:


  • yì  dāo
    a knife
  • 叉子
    yì  chāzi
    a fork
  • 剪刀
    yì  jiǎndāo
    a pair of scissors

  • yì  sǎn
    an umbrella
  • 吉他
    yì  jítā
    a guitar
  • 椅子
    yì  yǐzi
    a chair

10. 件 (jiàn)

measure word 件 (jiàn)

The measure word 件 (jiàn) is used commonly in a few ways – with things, matters, clothes (top half), gifts, furniture, luggage, etc, even though they have nothing in common.

Here are some examples:


  • yí jiàn shì
    a thing
  • 汗衫
    yí jiàn hànshān
    a T-shirt
  • 大衣
    yí jiàn dàyī
    a coat
  • 礼物
    yí jiàn lǐwù
    a gift
  • 行李
    yí jiàn xíngli
    a piece of luggage

11. 辆 (liàng)

The measure word 辆 (liàng) is commonly used for vehicles with wheels (but not trains). You can use it to talk about cars, buses, bikes, scooters, and the like.

Let’s see how it’s used:

  • 汽车
    yí liàng qìchē
    a car
  • 大巴
    liǎng liàng dàbā
    two buses
  • 自行车
    sān liàng zìxíngchē
    three bicycles
  • 摩托车
    liàng mótuōchē
    four motorcycles

As you can see from the structure of the character 辆 (liàng), its radical “车” stands for vehicle and the right part “两” – meaning “two”, indicates the common ground between these vehicles: they all have at least two wheels.

12. 家 (jiā)

measure word 家 (jiā)

The word 家 (jiā) literally means “home” or “family”, but it can also be used as a measure word for business establishments such as companies, banks, shops, restaurants, etc.

Examples:

  • 公司
    yì jiā gōngsī
    a company
  • 银行
    liǎng jiā yínháng
    two banks
  • 超市
    sān jiā chāoshì
    three supermarkets
  • 餐厅
    zhè jiā cāntīng
    this restaurant
  • 酒吧
    nà jiā jiǔbā
    that bar

13. 杯 (bēi)/瓶 (píng)

Speaking of “bar”, do you ever wonder how to count drinks in Chinese? It’s pretty simple. There are two common measure words for it: 杯 (bēi) and 瓶 (píng).

Learning how to use the measure words 杯 (bēi) and 瓶 (píng) in Chinese should be quite simple as they can be directly translated to the English words “cup/glass” and “bottle”.

Let’s take a look at how they are used in action.

  • 冰水
    yì bēi bīng shuǐ
    a glass of iced water
  • 绿茶
    yì bēi lǜ chá
    a cup of green tea
  • 咖啡
    liǎng bēi kāfēi
    two cups of coffee
  • 可乐
    sān píng kělè
    three bottles of coke
  • 啤酒
    shí píng píjiǔ
    ten bottles of beer

14. 份 (fèn)

measure word 份 (fèn)

Now let’s move on to food. You can use the measure word 份 (fèn) to talk about a portion or serving of food.

For example:

  • 米饭
    yí fèn mǐfàn
    a serving of rice
  • 快餐
    yí fèn kuài cān
    a serving of fast food
  • 点心
    yí fèn diǎnxin
    a serving of Dim Sum

This measure word is also widely used for documents, copies, newspapers, shares, packages, and so on.

Examples:

  • 表格
    yí fèn biǎogé
    a form
  • 报纸
    yí fèn bàozhǐ
    a newspaper
  • 外卖
    yí fèn wàimài
    a portion of delivered food

15. 元 (yuán)/块 (kuài)

measure words to count money

Finally, we’ll learn how to count money in Chinese.

We’re going to put these two measure words together, as both of them are the basic monetary unit of China. 元 (yuán) and 块 (kuài) are essentially the same, it’s just that 块 (kuài) is more colloquial. If it helps, think of 元 (yuán) as the Chinese “dollars” and 块 (kuài) as the Chinese “bucks”.

  • 五十
    wǔ shí yuán qián
    50 RMB
  • 一百
    yì bǎi kuài qián
    100 RMB

How to Memorize Common Measure Words in Chinese

As we’ve mentioned, there are about 150 commonly used measure words in Chinese, but if you can master the 15 most important ones we’ve covered in this article, you’ll be well on your way to being a measure word expert!

Since Chinese measure words are used to express the quantity of literally everything, you cannot expect to learn them all by memorizing a list of rules, that’s why we don’t suggest learning them through traditional methods like flashcards or grammar drills. (Doing this will take quite some time, and in result, it’s not effective)

memorize common measure words in Chinese

Instead, the most effective way to master Chinese measure words is to keep using them in real contexts until they all sink in. The more you practice, the more each measure word will stick with the noun. Whenever you learn a new noun, make sure to simultaneously connect it with its measure word.

And don’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you can’t think of the appropriate measure word, you can always fall back on 个 (gè). Chances are, people will still understand what you are talking about and gently correct you. The way native speakers respond to your shaky, early uses of measure words will reinforce the usage of these words like nothing else!

If you’d like to learn more Chinese measure words, we’ve got you covered! We’ve written a more detailed post on this topic with a complete list of all 150 common measure words you need to speak fluent Chinese. Get it here.