Chinese numerals

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Short description: Words and characters used to denote numbers in Chinese

Chinese numerals are words and characters used to denote numbers in Chinese.

Today, speakers of Chinese languages use three written numeral systems: the system of Arabic numerals used worldwide, and two indigenous systems. The more familiar indigenous system is based on Chinese characters that correspond to numerals in the spoken language. These may be shared with other languages of the Chinese cultural sphere such as Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. Most people and institutions in China primarily use the Arabic or mixed Arabic-Chinese systems for convenience, with traditional Chinese numerals used in finance, mainly for writing amounts on cheques, banknotes, some ceremonial occasions, some boxes, and on commercials.

The other indigenous system consists of the Suzhou numerals, or huama, a positional system, the only surviving form of the rod numerals. These were once used by Chinese mathematicians, and later by merchants in Chinese markets, such as those in Hong Kong until the 1990s, but were gradually supplanted by Arabic numerals.

Characters used to represent numbers

Chinese and Arabic numerals may coexist, as on this kilometer marker: 1,620 km (1,010 mi) on Hwy G209 (G二〇九)

The Chinese character numeral system consists of the Chinese characters used by the Chinese written language to write spoken numerals. Similar to spelling-out numbers in English (e.g., "one thousand nine hundred forty-five"), it is not an independent system per se. Since it reflects spoken language, it does not use the positional system as in Arabic numerals, in the same way that spelling out numbers in English does not.

Standard numbers

There are characters representing the numbers zero through nine, and other characters representing larger numbers such as tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousands and hundred millions. There are two sets of characters for Chinese numerals: one for everyday writing, known as xiǎoxiě (traditional Chinese: 小寫; simplified Chinese: 小写; literally: 'small writing'), and one for use in commercial, accounting or financial contexts, known as dàxiě (traditional Chinese: 大寫; simplified Chinese: 大写; literally: 'big writing'). The latter arose because the characters used for writing numerals are geometrically simple, so simply using those numerals cannot prevent forgeries in the same way spelling numbers out in English would.[1] A forger could easily change the everyday characters 三十 (30) to 五千 (5000) just by adding a few strokes. That would not be possible when writing using the financial characters 參拾 (30) and 伍仟 (5000). They are also referred to as "banker's numerals", "anti-fraud numerals", or "banker's anti-fraud numerals". For the same reason, rod numerals were never used in commercial records.

T denotes Traditional Chinese characters, while S denotes Simplified Chinese characters.

Financial Normal Value Pīnyīn
Character (T) Character (S) Character (T) Character (S)
0 líng ling4 khòng/lêng lin Usually 零 is preferred, but in some areas, 〇 may be a more common informal way to represent zero. The original Chinese character is 空 or 〇, 零 is referred as remainder something less than 1 yet not nil [說文] referred. The traditional 零 is more often used in schools. In Unicode, 〇 is treated as a Chinese symbol or punctuation, rather than a Chinese ideograph.
1 jat1 it/chi̍t iq Also (obsolete financial), can be easily manipulated into 弍 (two) or 弎 (three).
2 èr ji6 jī/nn̄g gni/er/lian Also (obsolete financial), can be easily manipulated into 弌 (one) or 弎 (three).
Also (T) or (S), see Characters with regional usage section.
3 sān saam1 sam/saⁿ Also (obsolete financial), which can be easily manipulated into 弌 (one) or 弍 (two).
4 sei3 sù/sì sy Also (obsolete financial)[nb 1]
5 ng5 ngó͘/gō͘ ng  
6 liù luk6 lio̍k/la̍k loq  
7 cat1 chhit chiq  
8 baat3 pat/peh paq  
9 jiǔ gau2 kiú/káu cieu  
10 shí sap6 si̍p/cha̍p zeq Although some people use as financial, it is not ideal because it can be easily manipulated into 伍 (five) or 仟 (thousand).
100 bǎi baak3 pek/pah paq  
1,000 qiān cin1 chhian/chheng chi  
104 wàn maan6 bān ve Chinese numbers group by ten-thousands; see Reading and transcribing numbers below.
亿 105/108 jik1 ek i For variant meanings and words for higher values, see Large numbers below and :ja:大字 (数字).

Characters with regional usage

Financial Normal Value Pinyin (Mandarin) Standard alternative Notes
0 kòng Historically, the use of for "zero" predates . This is now archaic in most varieties of Chinese, but it is still used in Southern Min.
0 dòng Literally means "a hole" and is analogous to the shape of "0" and "〇", it is used to unambiguously pronounce "#0" in radio communication. [2][3]
1 yāo Literally means "the smallest", it is used to unambiguously pronounce "#1" in radio communication. [2][3] This usage is not observed in Cantonese except for 十三幺 (a special winning hand) in Mahjong.
1 shǔ In most Min varieties, there are two words meaning "one". For example, in Hokkien, chi̍t is used before a classifier: "one person" is chi̍t ê lâng, not it ê lâng. In written Hokkien, 一 is often used for both chi̍t and it, but some authors differentiate, writing 蜀 for chi̍t and 一 for it.
(T) or
2 liǎng Used instead of 二 before a classifier. For example, "two people" is "两个人", not "二个人". However, in some lects, such as Shanghainese, 兩 is the generic term used for two in most contexts, such as "四十兩" and not "四十二". It appears where "a pair of" would in English, but 两 is always used in such cases. It is also used for numbers, with usage varying from dialect to dialect, even person to person. For example, "2222" can be read as "二千二百二十二", "兩千二百二十二" or even "兩千兩百二十二" in Mandarin. It is used to unambiguously pronounce "#2" in radio communication. [2][3]
(T) or
2 liǎ In regional dialects of Northeastern Mandarin, 倆 represents a "lazy" pronunciation of 兩 within the local dialect. It can be used as an alternative for 兩个 "two of" (e.g. 我们倆 Wǒmen liǎ, "the two of us", as opposed to 我们兩个 Wǒmen liǎng gè). A measure word (such as 个) never follows after 倆.
3 In regional dialects of Northeastern Mandarin, 仨 represents a "lazy" pronunciation of three within the local dialect. It can be used as a general number to represent "three" (e.g.第仨号 dì sā hào, "number three"; 星期仨 xīngqīsā, "Wednesday"), or as an alternative for 三个 "three of" (e.g. 我们仨 Wǒmen sā, "the three of us", as opposed to 我们三个 Wǒmen sān gè). Regardless of usage, a measure word (such as 个) never follows after 仨.
7 guǎi Literally means "a turn" or "a walking stick" and is analogous to the shape of "7" and "七", it is used to unambiguously pronounce "#7" in radio communication. [2][3]
9 gōu Literally means "a hook" and is analogous to the shape of "9", it is used to unambiguously pronounce "#9" in radio communication. [2][3]
10 In spoken Cantonese, 呀 (aa6) can be used in place of 十 when it is used in the middle of a number, preceded by a multiplier and followed by a ones digit, e.g. 六呀三, 63; it is not used by itself to mean 10. This usage is not observed in Mandarin.
廿 20 niàn 二十 A contraction of 二十. The written form is still used to refer to dates, especially Chinese calendar dates.
Spoken form is still used in various dialects of Chinese. See Reading and transcribing numbers section below.
In spoken Cantonese, 廿 (jaa6) can be used in place of 二十 when followed by another digit such as in numbers 21-29 (e.g. 廿三, 23), a measure word (e.g. 廿個), a noun, or in a phrase like 廿幾 ("twenty-something"); it is not used by itself to mean 20.
is a rare variant.
30 三十 A contraction of 三十. The written form is still used to abbreviate date references in Chinese. For example, May 30 Movement (五卅運動).
Spoken form is still used in various dialects of Chinese.
In spoken Cantonese, 卅 (saa1) can be used in place of 三十 when followed by another digit such as in numbers 31–39, a measure word (e.g. 卅個), a noun, or in phrases like 卅幾 ("thirty-something"); it is not used by itself to mean 30. When spoken 卅 is pronounced as 卅呀 (saa1 aa6). Thus 卅一 (31), is pronounced as saa1 aa6 jat1.
40 四十 A contraction of 四十. Found in historical writings written in Classical Chinese.
Spoken form is still used in various dialects of Chinese, albeit very rare. See Reading and transcribing numbers section below.
In spoken Cantonese 卌 (sei3) can be used in place of 四十 when followed by another digit such as in numbers 41–49, a measure word (e.g. 卌個), a noun, or in phrases like 卌幾 ("forty-something"); it is not used by itself to mean 40. When spoken, 卌 is pronounced as 卌呀 (sei3 aa6). Thus 卌一 (41), is pronounced as sei3 aa6 jat1.
200 二百 Very rarely used; one example is in the name of a library in Huzhou, 皕宋樓 (Bìsòng Lóu).

Large numbers

For numbers larger than 10,000, similarly to the long and short scales in the West, there have been four systems in ancient and modern usage. The original one, with unique names for all powers of ten up to the 14th, is ascribed to the Yellow Emperor in the 6th century book by Zhen Luan, Wujing suanshu (Arithmetic in Five Classics). In modern Chinese only the second system is used, in which the same ancient names are used, but each represents a number 10,000 (myriad, wàn) times the previous:

Character (T) Factor of increase
Character (S) 亿
Pinyin wàn zhào jīng gāi ráng gōu jiàn zhèng zǎi
Jyutping maan6 jik1 siu6 ging1 goi1 zi2 joeng4 kau1 gaan3 zing3 zoi2
Hokkien POJ bān ek tiāu keng kai chí jiông ko͘ kàn chèng cháiⁿ
Shanghainese ve i zau cín tsy gnian kéu tsen tse
Alternative / 𥝱
Rank 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 =n
"short scale"
104 105 106 107 108 109 1010 1011 1012 1013 1014 =10n+3

Each numeral is 10 (十 shí) times the previous.

"myriad scale"
(萬進, current usage)
104 108 1012 1016 1020 1024 1028 1032 1036 1040 1044 =104n

Each numeral is 10,000 (萬 (T) or 万 (S) wàn) times the previous.

104 108 1016 1024 1032 1040 1048 1056 1064 1072 1080 =108(n-1)

Starting with 亿, each numeral is 108 (萬乘以萬 (T) or 万乘以万 (S) wàn chéng yǐ wàn, 10000 times 10000) times the previous.

"long scale"
104 108 1016 1032 1064 10128 10256 10512 101024 102048 104096 =102n+1

Each numeral is the square of the previous. This is similar to the -yllion system.

In practice, this situation does not lead to ambiguity, with the exception of 兆 (zhào), which means 1012 according to the system in common usage throughout the Chinese communities as well as in Japan and Korea, but has also been used for 106 in recent years (especially in mainland China for megabyte). To avoid problems arising from the ambiguity, the PRC government never uses this character in official documents, but uses 万亿 (wànyì) or 太 (tài, as the translation for tera) instead. Partly due to this, combinations of 万 and 亿 are often used instead of the larger units of the traditional system as well, for example 亿亿 (yìyì) instead of 京. The ROC government in Taiwan uses 兆 (zhào) to mean 1012 in official documents.

Large numbers from Buddhism

Numerals beyond 載 zǎi come from Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, but are mostly found in ancient texts. Some of the following words are still being used today, but may have transferred meanings.

Character (T) Character (S) Pinyin Jyutping Hokkien POJ Shanghainese Value Notes
gik1 ke̍k jiq5 1048 Literally means "Extreme".
恆河沙 恒河沙 héng hé shā hang4 ho4 sa1 hêng-hô-soa ghen3-wu-so Literally means "Sands of the Ganges"; a metaphor used in a number of Buddhist texts referring to the grains of sand in the Ganges River.
阿僧祇 ā sēng qí aa1 zang1 kei4 a-seng-kî a1-sen-ji 1056 From Sanskrit Asaṃkhyeya असंख्येय, meaning "incalculable, innumerable, infinite".
那由他 nà yóu tā naa5 jau4 taa1 ná-iû-thaⁿ na1-yeu-tha 1060 From Sanskrit nayuta नियुत, meaning "myriad".
不可思議 不可思议 bùkě sīyì bat1 ho2 si1 ji3 put-khó-su-gī peq4-khu sy1-gni 1064 Literally translated as "unfathomable". This word is commonly used in Chinese as a chengyu, meaning "unimaginable", instead of its original meaning of the number 1064.
無量大數 无量大数 wú liàng dà shù mou4 loeng6 daai6 sou3 bû-liōng tāi-siàu m3-lian du3-su 1068 "无量" literally translated as "without measure", and can mean 1068. This word is also commonly used in Chinese as a commendatory term, means "no upper limit". E.g.: 前途无量 lit. front journey no limit, which means "a great future". "大数" literally translated as "a large number; the great number", and can mean 1072.

Small numbers

The following are characters used to denote small order of magnitude in Chinese historically. With the introduction of SI units, some of them have been incorporated as SI prefixes, while the rest have fallen into disuse.

Character(s) (T) Character(s) (S) Pinyin Value Notes
10−12 (Ancient Chinese)

corresponds to the SI prefix pico-.

miǎo 10−11 (Ancient Chinese)
āi 10−10 (Ancient Chinese)
chén 10−9 Literally, "Dust"

(T) or (S) corresponds to the SI prefix nano-.

shā 10−8 Literally, "Sand"
xiān 10−7 Literally, "Fiber"
wēi 10−6 still in use, corresponds to the SI prefix micro-.
10−5 (Ancient Chinese)
10−4 also .

Literally, "Thread"

háo 10−3 also .

still in use, corresponds to the SI prefix milli-.

10−2 also .

still in use, corresponds to the SI prefix centi-.

fēn 10−1 still in use, corresponds to the SI prefix deci-.

Small numbers from Buddhism

Character(s) (T) Character(s) (S) Pinyin Value Notes
涅槃寂靜 涅槃寂静 niè pán jì jìng 10−24 Literally, "Nirvana's Tranquility"

(T) or (S) corresponds to the SI prefix yocto-.

阿摩羅 阿摩罗 ā mó luó 10−23 (Ancient Chinese, from Sanskrit अमल amala)
阿頼耶 阿赖耶 ā lài yē 10−22 (Ancient Chinese, from Sanskrit आलय ālaya)
清靜 清净 qīng jìng 10−21 Literally, "Quiet"

(T) or (S) corresponds to the SI prefix zepto-.

虛空 虚空 xū kōng 10−20 Literally, "Void"
六德 liù dé 10−19 (Ancient Chinese)
剎那 刹那 chà nà 10−18 Literally, "Brevity", from Sanskrit क्षण ksaṇa

corresponds to the SI prefix atto-.

彈指 弹指 tán zhǐ 10−17 Literally, "Flick of a finger". Still commonly used in the phrase "弹指一瞬间" (A very short time)
瞬息 shùn xī 10−16 Literally, "Moment of Breath". Still commonly used in Chengyu "瞬息万变" (Many things changed in a very short time)
須臾 须臾 xū yú 10−15 (Ancient Chinese, rarely used in Modern Chinese as "a very short time")

(T) or (S) corresponds to the SI prefix femto-.

逡巡 qūn xún 10−14 (Ancient Chinese)
模糊 mó hu 10−13 Literally, "Blurred"

SI prefixes

In the People's Republic of China, the early translation for the SI prefixes in 1981 was different from those used today. The larger (兆, 京, 垓, 秭, 穰) and smaller Chinese numerals (微, 纖, 沙, 塵, 渺) were defined as translation for the SI prefixes as mega, giga, tera, peta, exa, micro, nano, pico, femto, atto, resulting in the creation of yet more values for each numeral.[4]

The Republic of China (Taiwan) defined 百萬 as the translation for mega and 兆 as the translation for tera. This translation is widely used in official documents, academic communities, informational industries, etc. However, the civil broadcasting industries sometimes use 兆赫 to represent "megahertz".

Today, the governments of both China and Taiwan use phonetic transliterations for the SI prefixes. However, the governments have each chosen different Chinese characters for certain prefixes. The following table lists the two different standards together with the early translation.

SI Prefixes
Value Symbol English Early translation PRC standard ROC standard
1024 Y yotta-   yáo yòu
1021 Z zetta-   jiē
1018 E exa- [4] ráng ài ài
1015 P peta- [4] pāi pāi
1012 T tera- [4] gāi tài zhào
109 G giga- [4] jīng
106 M mega- [4] zhào zhào 百萬 bǎiwàn
103 k kilo- qiān qiān qiān
102 h hecto- bǎi bǎi bǎi
101 da deca- shí shí shí
100 (base) one  
10−1 d deci- fēn fēn fēn
10−2 c centi-
10−3 m milli- háo háo háo
10−6 µ micro- [4] wēi wēi wēi
10−9 n nano- [4] xiān nài
10−12 p pico- [4] shā
10−15 f femto- [4] chén fēi fēi
10−18 a atto- [4] miǎo à à
10−21 z zepto-   jiè
10−24 y yocto-   yāo yōu

Reading and transcribing numbers

Whole numbers

Multiple-digit numbers are constructed using a multiplicative principle; first the digit itself (from 1 to 9), then the place (such as 10 or 100); then the next digit.

In Mandarin, the multiplier (liǎng) is often used rather than (èr) for all numbers 200 and greater with the "2" numeral (although as noted earlier this varies from dialect to dialect and person to person). Use of both 兩 (liǎng) or 二 (èr) are acceptable for the number 200. When writing in the Cantonese dialect, 二 (yi6) is used to represent the "2" numeral for all numbers. In the southern Min dialect of Chaozhou (Teochew), 兩 (no6) is used to represent the "2" numeral in all numbers from 200 onwards. Thus:

Number Structure Characters
Mandarin Cantonese Chaozhou Shanghainese
60 [6] [10] 六十 六十 六十 六十
20 [2] [10] or [20] 二十 二十 or 廿 二十 廿
200 [2] (èr or liǎng) [100] 二百 or 兩百 二百 or 兩百 兩百 兩百
2000 [2] (èr or liǎng) [1000] 二千 or 兩千 二千 or 兩千 兩千 兩千
45 [4] [10] [5] 四十五 四十五 or 卌五 四十五 四十五
2,362 [2] [1000] [3] [100] [6] [10] [2] 兩千三百六十二 二千三百六十二 兩千三百六十二 兩千三百六十二

For the numbers 11 through 19, the leading "one" (; ) is usually omitted. In some dialects, like Shanghainese, when there are only two significant digits in the number, the leading "one" and the trailing zeroes are omitted. Sometimes, the one before "ten" in the middle of a number, such as 213, is omitted. Thus:

Number Strict Putonghua Colloquial or dialect usage
Structure Characters Structure Characters
14 [10] [4] 十四    
12000 [1] [10000] [2] [1000] 一萬兩千 [1] [10000] [2] 一萬二 or 萬二
114 [1] [100] [1] [10] [4] 一百一十四 [1] [100] [10] [4] 一百十四
1158 [1] [1000] [1] [100] [5] [10] [8] 一千一百五十八 See note 1 below


  1. Nothing is ever omitted in large and more complicated numbers such as this.

In certain older texts like the Protestant Bible or in poetic usage, numbers such as 114 may be written as [100] [10] [4] (百十四).

Outside of Taiwan, digits are sometimes grouped by myriads instead of thousands. Hence it is more convenient to think of numbers here as in groups of four, thus 1,234,567,890 is regrouped here as 12,3456,7890. Larger than a myriad, each number is therefore four zeroes longer than the one before it, thus 10000 × wàn () = (). If one of the numbers is between 10 and 19, the leading "one" is omitted as per the above point. Hence (numbers in parentheses indicate that the number has been written as one number rather than expanded):

Number Structure Taiwan Mainland China
(12) [1,0000,0000,0000] (3456) [1,0000,0000] (7890) [1,0000] (2345) 十二兆三千四百五十六億七千八百九十萬兩千三百四十五 十二兆三千四百五十六亿七千八百九十万二千三百四十五

In Taiwan, pure Arabic numerals are officially always and only grouped by thousands.[5] Unofficially, they are often not grouped, particularly for numbers below 100,000. Mixed Arabic-Chinese numerals are often used in order to denote myriads. This is used both officially and unofficially, and come in a variety of styles:

Number Structure Mixed numerals
12,345,000 (1234) [1,0000] (5) [1,000] 1,234萬5千[6]
123,450,000 (1) [1,0000,0000] (2345) [1,0000] 1億2345萬[7]
12,345 (1) [1,0000] (2345) 1萬2345[8]

Interior zeroes before the unit position (as in 1002) must be spelt explicitly. The reason for this is that trailing zeroes (as in 1200) are often omitted as shorthand, so ambiguity occurs. One zero is sufficient to resolve the ambiguity. Where the zero is before a digit other than the units digit, the explicit zero is not ambiguous and is therefore optional, but preferred. Thus:

Number Structure Characters
205 [2] [100] [0] [5] 二百零五
[10] [10,000] [0] [4] 十萬零四
(1005) [10,000] (026) or
(1005) [10,000] (26)
一千零五萬零二十六 or

Fractional values

To construct a fraction, the denominator is written first, followed by ; fēn; 'parts', then the literary possessive particle ; zhī; 'of this', and lastly the numerator. This is the opposite of how fractions are read in English, which is numerator first. Each half of the fraction is written the same as a whole number. For example, to express "two thirds", the structure "three parts of-this two" is used. Mixed numbers are written with the whole-number part first, followed by ; yòu; 'and', then the fractional part.

Fraction Structure
3 ​56

Percentages are constructed similarly, using ; bǎi; '100' as the denominator. (The number 100 is typically expressed as 一百; yībǎi; 'one hundred', like the English "one hundred". However, for percentages, is used on its own.)

Percentage Structure

Because percentages and other fractions are formulated the same, Chinese are more likely than not to express 10%, 20% etc. as "parts of 10" (or 1/10, 2/10, etc. i.e. 十分之一; shí fēnzhī yī, 十分之二; shí fēnzhī èr, etc.) rather than "parts of 100" (or 10/100, 20/100, etc. i.e. 百分之十; bǎi fēnzhī shí, 百分之二十; bǎi fēnzhī èrshí, etc.)

In Taiwan, the most common formation of percentages in the spoken language is the number per hundred followed by the word ; , a contraction of the Japanese パーセント; pāsento, itself taken from the English "percent". Thus 25% is 二十五趴; èrshíwǔ pā.[nb 2]

Decimal numbers are constructed by first writing the whole number part, then inserting a point (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: diǎn), and finally the fractional part. The fractional part is expressed using only the numbers for 0 to 9, similarly to English.

Decimal expression Structure

; bàn; 'half' functions as a number and therefore requires a measure word. For example: ; bàn bēi shuǐ; 'half a glass of water'.

Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers are formed by adding ; ("sequence") before the number.

Ordinal Structure

The Heavenly Stems are a traditional Chinese ordinal system.

Negative numbers

Negative numbers are formed by adding fù (; ) before the number.

Number Structure
−3 5/6


Chinese grammar requires the use of classifiers (measure words) when a numeral is used together with a noun to express a quantity. For example, "three people" is expressed as ; ; sān ge rén , "three (ge particle) person", where / ge is a classifier. There exist many different classifiers, for use with different sets of nouns, although / is the most common, and may be used informally in place of other classifiers.

Chinese uses cardinal numbers in certain situations in which English would use ordinals. For example, 三楼/三樓; sān lóu (literally "three story/storey") means "third floor" ("second floor" in British § Numbering). Likewise, 二十一世纪/二十一世紀; èrshí yī shìjì (literally "twenty-one century") is used for "21st century".[9]

Numbers of years are commonly spoken as a sequence of digits, as in 二零零一; èr líng líng yī ("two zero zero one") for the year 2001.[10] Names of months and days (in the Western system) are also expressed using numbers: ; yīyuè ("one month") for January, etc.; and 星期; xīngqīyī ("week one") for Monday, etc. There is only one exception: Sunday is 星期日; xīngqīrì, or informally 星期天; xīngqītiān, both literally "week day". When meaning "week", "星期" xīngqī and "禮拜; 礼拜" lǐbài are interchangeable. "禮拜天" lǐbàitiān or "禮拜日" lǐbàirì means "day of worship". Chinese Catholics call Sunday "主日" zhǔrì, "Lord's day".[11]

Full dates are usually written in the format 2001年1月20日 for January 20, 2001 (using ; nián "year", ; yuè "month", and ; "day") – all the numbers are read as cardinals, not ordinals, with no leading zeroes, and the year is read as a sequence of digits. For brevity the nián, yuè and may be dropped to give a date composed of just numbers. For example "6-4" in Chinese is "six-four", short for "month six, day four" i.e. June Fourth, a common Chinese shorthand for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (because of the violence that occurred on June 4). For another example 67, in Chinese is sixty seven, short for year nineteen sixty seven, a common Chinese shorthand for the Hong Kong 1967 leftist riots.

Counting rod and Suzhou numerals

Counting rod numerals
Main page: Suzhou numerals

In the same way that Roman numerals were standard in ancient and medieval Europe for mathematics and commerce, the Chinese formerly used the rod numerals, which is a positional system. The Suzhou numerals (simplified Chinese: 苏州花码; traditional Chinese: 蘇州花碼; pinyin: Sūzhōu huāmǎ) system is a variation of the Southern Song rod numerals. Nowadays, the huāmǎ system is only used for displaying prices in Chinese markets or on traditional handwritten invoices.

Hand gestures

Hand symbol for the number six
Main page: Chinese number gestures

There is a common method of using of one hand to signify the numbers one to ten. While the five digits on one hand can easily express the numbers one to five, six to ten have special signs that can be used in commerce or day-to-day communication.

Historical use of numerals in China

Shang oracle bone numerals of 14th century B.C.[12]
West Zhou dynasty bronze script
Counting rod numeral example from the Yongle Encyclopedia showing the number 71,824
Japanese counting board with grids

Most Chinese numerals of later periods were descendants of the Shang dynasty oracle numerals of the 14th century BC. The oracle bone script numerals were found on tortoise shell and animal bones. In early civilizations, the Shang were able to express any numbers, however large, with only nine symbols and a counting board though it was still not positional .[13]

Some of the bronze script numerals such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, and 13 became part of the system of rod numerals.

In this system, horizontal rod numbers are used for the tens, thousands, hundred thousands etc. It's written in Sunzi Suanjing that "one is vertical, ten is horizontal".[14]

Counting rod v7.png Counting rod h1.png Counting rod v8.png Counting rod h2.png Counting rod v4.png
7 1 8 2 4

The counting rod numerals system has place value and decimal numerals for computation, and was used widely by Chinese merchants, mathematicians and astronomers from the Han dynasty to the 16th century.

In 690 AD, Empress Wǔ promulgated Zetian characters, one of which was "〇". The word is now used as a synonym for the number zero.[nb 3]

Alexander Wylie, Christian missionary to China, in 1853 already refuted the notion that "the Chinese numbers were written in words at length", and stated that in ancient China, calculation was carried out by means of counting rods, and "the written character is evidently a rude presentation of these". After being introduced to the rod numerals, he said "Having thus obtained a simple but effective system of figures, we find the Chinese in actual use of a method of notation depending on the theory of local value [i.e. place-value], several centuries before such theory was understood in Europe, and while yet the science of numbers had scarcely dawned among the Arabs."[15]

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (after Arabic numerals were introduced into China), some Chinese mathematicians used Chinese numeral characters as positional system digits. After the Qing period, both the Chinese numeral characters and the Suzhou numerals were replaced by Arabic numerals in mathematical writings.

Cultural influences

Traditional Chinese numeric characters are also used in Japan and Korea and were used in Vietnam before the 20th century. In vertical text (that is, read top to bottom), using characters for numbers is the norm, while in horizontal text, Arabic numerals are most common. Chinese numeric characters are also used in much the same formal or decorative fashion that Roman numerals are in Western cultures. Chinese numerals may appear together with Arabic numbers on the same sign or document.

See also


  1. Variant Chinese character of 肆, with a 镸 radical next to a 四 character. Not all browsers may be able to display this character, which forms a part of the Unicode CJK Unified Ideographs Extension A group.
  2. This usage can also be found in written sources, such as in the headline of this article (while the text uses "%") and throughout this article.
  3. The code for the lowercase 〇 (IDEOGRAPHIC NUMBER ZERO) is U+3007, not to be confused with the O mark (CIRCLE).


  1. 大寫數字『
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Li, Suming (18 March 2016). ""军语"里的那些秘密 武警少将亲自为您揭开". People's Armed Police. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 飛航管理程序 (14 ed.). 30 November 2015. 
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 (in Chinese) 1981 Gazette of the State Council of the People's Republic of China , No. 365 , page 575, Table 7: SI prefixes
  5. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}" (in zh). 
  6. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}" (in zh). 中華民國統計資訊網. 
  7. "石化氣爆 高市府代位求償訴訟中". 中央社即時新聞 CNA NEWS. 
  8. "陳子豪雙響砲 兄弟連2天轟猿動紫趴". 中央社即時新聞 CNA NEWS. 
  9. Yip, Po-Ching; Rimmington, Don, Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar, Routledge, 2004, p. 12.
  10. Yip, Po-Ching; Rimmington, Don, Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar, Routledge, 2004, p. 13.
  11. Days of the Week in Chinese: Three Different Words for 'Week'
  12. The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China Vol 2, An abridgement by Colin Ronan of Joseph Needham's original text, Table 20, p. 6, Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-23582-0
  13. The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China Vol 2, An abridgement by Colin Ronan of Joseph Needham's original text, p5, Cambridge University Press ISBN:0-521-23582-0
  14. Chinese Wikisource 孫子算經: 先識其位,一從十橫,百立千僵,千十相望,萬百相當。
  15. Alexander Wylie, Jottings on the Sciences of the Chinese, North Chinese Herald, 1853, Shanghai