Chinese numerals

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

Today, speakers of Chinese 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 are shared with other languages of the Chinese cultural sphere such as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. Most people and institutions in China and Taiwan primarily use the Arabic or mixed Arabic-Chinese systems for convenience, with traditional Chinese numerals used in finance, mainly for writing amounts on checks, banknotes, some ceremonial occasions, some boxes, and on commercials.[citation needed]

The other indigenous system is 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 in Chinese markets, such as those in Hong Kong before the 1990s, but have been gradually supplanted by Arabic (and also Roman) 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 and so on. There are two sets of characters for Chinese numerals: one for everyday writing, known as xiǎoxiě (simplified Chinese: 小写; traditional Chinese: 小寫; literally: "small writing, i.e. lower case"), and one for use in commercial or financial contexts, known as dàxiě (simplified Chinese: 大写; traditional Chinese: 大寫; literally: "big writing, i.e. upper case"). 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 叁拾 (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
(Mandarin)
Jyutping
(Cantonese)
Pe̍h-ōe-jī
(Hokkien)
Notes
Character (T) Character (S) Character (T) Character (S)
/ 0 líng ling4 khòng/lêng 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 Also (obsolete financial), can be easily manipulated into 弍 (two) or 弎 (three).
2 èr ji6 jī/nn̄g 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), can be easily manipulated into 弌 (one) or 弍 (two).
Also (T) or (S) sān.
4 sei3 sù/sì Also (obsolete financial)[2]
5 ng5 ngó͘/gō͘  
6 liù luk6 lio̍k/la̍k  
7 cat1 chhit  
8 baat3 pat/peh  
9 jiǔ gau2 kiú/káu  
10 shí sap6 si̍p/cha̍p Although some people use as financial[citation needed], it is not ideal because it can be easily manipulated into 伍 (five) or 仟 (thousand).
100 bǎi baak3 pek/pah  
1,000 qiān cin1 chhian/chheng  
104 wàn maan6 bān Chinese numbers group by ten-thousands; see Reading and transcribing numbers below.
亿 108 jik1 ek 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
1 yāo Literally means "the smallest". It is used in Mandarin to unambiguously pronounce "#1" in a series of one (一) such as phone numbers and ID numbers, because reading them together in a row is not distinguishable (e.g. 一一一 would be pronounced as "yao-yao-yao" instead of sounding like "YEEEEEE"). In Taiwan, it is only used by soldiers, police, and emergency services. This usage is not observed in Cantonese except for 十三幺 (a special winning hand) in Mahjong.
(T) or
(S)
2 liǎng Replaces 二 before a classifier. For example, "two people" is "两个人", not "二个人". 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.
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.
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 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 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 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).

Characters with military usage

In the PLA, some numbers will have altered names when used for clearer radio communications. They are:[3]

  • 0: renamed 洞 (dòng) lit. hole
  • 1: renamed 幺 (yāo) lit. small
  • 2: renamed 两 (liǎng) lit. double
  • 7: renamed 拐 (guǎi) lit. cane, turn
  • 9: renamed 勾 (gōu) lit. hook

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
Alternative /
Rank 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 =n
1 (下數) 104 105 106 107 108 109 1010 1011 1012 1013 1014 =103+n

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

2 (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.

3 (中數) 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.

4 (上數) 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) 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 Value Notes
gik1 ke̍k 1048 Literally means "Extreme".
恆河沙 恒河沙 héng hé shā hang4 ho4 sa1 hêng-hô-soa 1052[citation needed] 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 zi2 a-seng-kî 1056 From Sanskrit Asaṃkhyeya असंख्येय, meaning "incalculable, innumerable, infinite".
那由他 nà yóu tā naa5 jau4 taa1 ná-iû-thaⁿ 1060 From Sanskrit Nayuta नयुत, meaning "myriad".
不可思議 不可思议 bùkě sīyì bat1 ho2 si1 ji3 put-khó-su-gī 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 1068 "无量" literally translated as "without measure". 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".

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 translations for the SI prefixes in 1981 were different from those used today. The larger (兆, 京, 垓, 秭, 穰) and smaller Chinese numerals (微, 纖, 沙, 塵, 渺) were defined as translations 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. 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   yīyī
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
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