The Chinese numbers are renowned for being simple and logical. The numbers up to 9 are all one syllable long, and the counting system follows a logical and easy to remember sentence. That being said, learning Chinese numbers can still be confusing for learners. This is especially true when it comes to the higher numbers, because the Chinese have a different point of reference than Western languages.
For some reason, numbers are something I always struggle with when learning languages. I guess I’m just really not cut out for math in any format! But even I could get my head around the numbers in Chinese, so that means there is hope for anyone! Obviously, numbers are one of the most useful things to learn as you are going to come across them all the time. So this article is your complete guide to Chinese numbers, including their uses and idiosyncrasies.
Chinese Numbers 1 to 10： 一到十
The lower numbers are very straightforward to learn. Not only are they simple words, the characters are also some of the easiest to write and recognize in the language due to having only one main component each. The basic numbers in Chinese are made up of these 10 words and characters.
|èr / liǎng
Chinese Numbers 11 to 99 ： 十一到九十九
The Chinese numbers from 11 to 99 are also very easy to learn and remember. There are no new characters to introduce here, as they use only the ten characters from 1 to 10 with a maximum of three characters per number. The pattern is the following:
From 11 to 19 it’s ten (十) plus the number. So, literally ten-one is eleven, ten-two is twelve, and so on. And then from 20 onwards, it’s the multiple of 10, plus ten, then the multiple of one. So twenty-one is literally two-ten-one. If the number ends in 0, it’s just two characters, the multiple and then the ten.
|èr shí yī
|jiǔ shí jiǔ
Chinese Numbers 100’s and 1000’s：百和千
The hundreds and thousands are slightly less straightforward than the Chinese numbers up to 100, but they are still easy enough to learn. The character for “hundred” is 百 and the character for “thousand” is 千.
Things to keep in mind for the 100’s and 1000’s in Chinese:
- 零：The Chinese character for 0 is 零 (pronounced as líng in Chinese). This is used when there are one or more 0’s in the middle of the number as placeholders. It is only needed if there are other digits that are not 0 which follow the 0 or 0’s. So, 零 is only pronounced when it is in between two digits other than 0.
- 二/两： These cheeky two characters for 2 show up in the 100’s and 1000’s of Chinese numbers. In the case of 200, it makes no difference whether you say 二百 or 两百. But for 2000, you should always use 两千.
|yì bǎi líng yī
|yì bǎi èr shí
|èr bǎi/ liǎng bǎi
|èr bǎi/ liǎng bǎi líng yī
|yì qiān líng yī
Chinese Numbers 10,000 to 99,999,999: 一万到九千九百九十九万九千九百九十九
From the number 10,000 is where things start to get a bit more complicated. This is because the Chinese language has a singular word and character to mean “10,000”, which is 万. What this means is that once you get to 10,000, you essentially start counting all over again from there. The easiest way to understand this unit is to think that while Western languages divide our big numbers into groups of 3, the Chinese divide their big numbers into groups of 4. So our 10,000, for the Chinese is instead 1,0000.
So 100,000 becomes ten ten-thousands, or 十万. And 1,000,000 is a hundred ten-thousands, or 一百万.
Things to keep in mind for 10,000 to 99,999,999 in Chinese:
- 零：The 0 rule is exactly the same here as the numbers from 100, so it should always appear between two other digits. However, if there is a 万 somewhere in the middle of the number, the counting of 零 will be reset. So you may see it appear twice in a number where there are only two significant figures.
- 一十：Even though 10 by itself is just 十，when it appears within a bigger number you should always use 一十 to make it clearer. Remember to keep using 一百 and 一千 too.
- 万 as a “reset”: The easiest way to think of 万 is as a separator of two parts of the number. When it appears, the number “resets” and you start counting again from the top. That’s why no 零 appears in numbers like 1,000,000. It’s also why the first 7 characters of 99,999,999 are the same as the last 7 characters, with the 万 in the middle to separate them.
|yī wàn líng yī
|yī wàn líng yī shí
|yī wàn líng yī bǎi
|shí wàn líng yī
|shí wàn líng yī bǎi líng yī
|yī bǎi wàn
|yī bǎi wàn líng yī
|yī bǎi wàn yī qiān
|jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ wàn jiǔ qiān jiǔ bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ
100 million +：一亿多
The number yì (亿) serves the same purpose as 万 does, only it’s another 4 places to the left of the decimal point. These large units of measurement continue at each 104, but after 亿 they become more and more rare. If you’re keen to know how this keeps going, this blog post has more info.
|yī yì líng yī
|èr yì líng yī shí
|líng yī shí yì
|yī bǎi yì
|yī qiān yì
|yī wàn yì
How to find correct translations of numbers in Chinese
The above should be a good basis for you to figure out how to say any number up to the trillions in Chinese.
If, however, there is still Chinese a number you cannot figure out how to write or say, there are some great resources for you. In this website, you can enter any number and it will tell you how to say it in Chinese. You can also put the number into Google Translate and then click on the speaker to find out how it’s said. As always though, be wary of Google Translate and double check with another source, if possible.
Spoken Chinese number one: yao
In our article about Portuguese numbers, we mentioned how Brazilians often replace the number 6 (seis) with the word half (meia) when reciting a sequence of numbers, due to its pronunciation being so similar to the number 3 that they can get mixed up.
Interestingly, a similar phenomenon exists in Chinese with the number 1. Over the phone, it is easy to confuse yī (1) with qī (7). The solution for this is to use yāo (幺) to mean 1. So when people recite phone numbers or a sequence of numbers, they are much more likely to say yāo than yī.
The two 2’s in Chinese Numbers
Chinese has two characters which both mean 2 – 二 and两. Although they are translated the same in English, they have two different uses. 二 is used for counting and math, while 两is used with objects. So if you are doing an equation, use 二, but if you are talking about two dogs, spoons, or houses, use 两.
一二得二。 | yī èr dé èr | one times two equals two.
我有两个姐姐。| wǒ yǒu liǎng gè jiějiě | I have two older sisters.
Unlucky number 4
If you’ve ever travelled to China or a country with a significant Chinese background, you might notice that the 4th floor is almost always skipped in buildings. You’ll likely see 一，二，三，and then 五. Not only that, but every number containing the character 四 is usually excluded. This is because the number 4 is considered extremely unlucky in Chinese because its pronunciation is very similar to that of the word for death, which is 死 (pronounced sǐ). Many Chinese therefore go to great lengths to avoid using this number in their daily lives. On the other hand, the number 8 is considered extremely lucky in Chinese. You can learn more about lucky and unlucky Chinese numbers here.
Counting objects in Chinese – classifiers
One thing associated with Chinese numbers that can be very confusing is the classifiers, also known as counter words. These are particles that are popped in between the number and the noun every time an object is counted. In English, we sometimes categorize words in a similar way, by saying things like “three cups of coffee” and “four pairs of shoes”. In Chinese, however, every number + noun pair requires a classifier. It can be very difficult for native speakers to interpret your sentence if you miss it out.
If there’s only one of something, you can leave out the number 1 but still should use the classifier. This is the equivalent of “a” in English.
There are hundreds of different classifiers in Chinese. Each classifier categorizes a group of similar objects, usually based on their shape or their use. For those objects that don’t fit into any of those categories, the generic classifier “个|ge”can be used.
A more in-depth explanation of the classifiers can be found here, but here are some example sentences with classifiers:
- 明明有三只狗。| míngmíng yǒu sān zhī gǒu | Mingming has three dogs.
- 我妈妈给我四本书。| wǒ māmā gěi wǒ sì běn shū | My mother gave me four books.
- 他买了两双鞋子。| tā mǎile liǎng shuāng xiézi |He bought two pairs of shoes.
How to learn the Chinese number characters
If you struggle with learning characters, the good news is that there are really not many number characters to learn at all, and they are all relatively basic. In fact, all the way up to a trillion, the Chinese numbers use only 15 different characters. If you’re just starting out with learning Chinese characters, the numbers are therefore a great place to start to get used to the shape and stroke order of the characters. This website is a good place to get started with practising to write them.
Chinese Number counting using hand gestures
The Chinese have a way of counting which allows them to represent all of the numbers up to 10 on just one hand. This is useful to know as it is very common in Chinese-speaking areas. This short video shows how the numbers up to 10 are represented on the hand.
Chinese multiplication method
A good way to quickly remember Chinese numbers is to use the catchy Chinese multiplication rhyme or song. This is a method of learning the times tables which is designed to be efficient and easy for kids to remember. You can see some examples of the songs here and here.
With the info you’ve learned in this article, you should be able to go out there and haggle for prices in Chinese, recite your phone number, and talk about how many you have of anything.
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