September 1, 2020
Chinese homophones have a profound influence on Chinese culture. In Chinese numerology, certain numbers are considered to be auspicious (吉利 jílì) or inauspicious (不吉 bùjí), mainly due to their pronunciation. The numbers 2, 8, and 9 are generally considered to be very auspicious, while 4, 5 and (sometimes) 7 are considered inauspicious:
Pairs in Chinese are considered auspicious, hence why many times you will see 双喜 (shuāngxǐ “double happiness”) on wedding couplets. The same concept is applied during Chinese New Year where couplets hung on two sides of the door.
The number 8 (八 bā) sounds like 发 (fā) which is the verb for 发财 (fācái; to get rich).
The number 9 (九 jiǔ) sounds like 久 (jiǔ) which means a long duration of time. Therefore it represents longevity and eternality and is often used for romantic gestures (e.g., getting married on September 9th, offering 99 roses during an engagement, etc.).
Fun fact: There are 81 nails on the gates of the Forbidden City, created by a 9×9 row.
Numbers 2, 8 and 9 are also commonly used when offering red envelopes (红包 hóngbāo), so amounts gifted would usually be 88, 99, 200, etc.
Number 4 (四 sì) sounds like 死 (sì; to die). This number is considered so unlucky that many buildings will not even have a “fourth” floor. The number 4 is also avoided on house/door numbers, car license plates, and even telephone numbers whenever possible.
5 (五 wǔ) sounds like 呜 (wū), which is onomatopoeia for whimpering and crying, so it is generally considered an unlucky number.
This number perhaps errs on the more neutral side of things. On one hand, 7 (七 qī) corresponds with 齊 (qí; uniform, even), 气 (qì; life force, energy) and 起 (qǐ; to stand up). Seven is thus usually considered a lucky number for relationships. However, the ghost festival (鬼節 guǐ jié) is celebrated on the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar and also sounds like 欺 (qī; to deceive).
Chinese Number Gestures
Did you know that you can count to 10 in Chinese just using one hand?!
Numbers and Chinese Internet Slang
Due to the huge number of homophones in Chinese, many different Chinese internet slang expressions have been created using just numbers. This is called 数字表示汉字 (shùzì biǎoshì hànzì; “numbers replacing characters”). Here are some of the most common examples:
1. 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ; 250)
250 basically means “stupid” or “half-insane”. There are a few different theories about the origin of this phrase. One is that it is derived from the old coin system used in ancient China where 1,000 coins were grouped by a string called 吊子 (diàozi). 半吊子 (bàndiàozi; half of a “diaozi” or 500 coins), was used as a phrase to demonstrates one’s humility in regards to knowledge. Half of this (250 coins) was used as an insult.
Another theory is that money was commonly grouped in envelopes of 500s (一封; yifēng; one envelope), and 250 would be respectively 半封 (bànfēng; half an envelope), which sounds like 半疯 (bànfēng; half-insane) in both Mandarin and Cantonese.
Regardless of the origin, 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ; 250) essentially translates to the English equivalent of “stupid”, or “not playing with a full deck”.
2. 五二零 (wǔ èr líng; 520)
This sounds like 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ; I love you). In fact, May 20th has become another Chinese Valentine’s Day!
3. 七四八 (qīsìbā; 748)
Sounds like 去死吧 (qùsǐba; “Get lost!”).
4. 五五五 (wǔ wǔ wǔ; 555)
As previously mentioned, number 5 sounds like “呜”, which is onomatopoeic for whimpering. Therefore, many netizens will use “555” to express sadness and sorrow.
5. 八八 (bābā; 88)
This represents “bye-bye”.
6. 一三一四 (yī sān yī sì; 131)
When read in Chinese, 1314 (yīsānyīsì) sounds similar to 一生一世 (yī shēng yī shì; “one life, one world”). This means “for the rest of my life” or “forever”. Combine this with 99 roses and you have yourself the perfect marriage proposal!
7. 七四五六 (qī sì wǔ liù; 7456)
Sounds like 气死我了(qì sǐ wǒle; “you’re making me angry”).
8. 九九五 995 (jiǔjiǔwǔ; 995)
This sounds like 救救我 (jiùjiù wǒ; “save me!”).
Numbers are also used for a variety of different games. Check our article on the popular Chinese 15-15-20 game to find out more!
The difference between 小写 and 大写
Did you know there are two sets of Chinese characters used for numbers?
Since Chinese characters are used to represent numbers, there are two versions used every day: 小写 (xiǎoxiě; lowercase) and 大写 (dàxiě; uppercase). The former is used in everyday general contexts, whereas the latter is mainly exclusively used for financial transactions.
The standard version of the numbers (or 小写; xiǎoxiě; lowercase) can be easily changed around due to the simplicity of the characters and so they were complexified in order to avoid forgery.
In fact, 大写 (dàxiě; uppercase) was first implemented during the Ming dynasty by the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang after a major corruption case involving officials who stole and resold state grain. The officials were sentenced to death and the emperor ordained a new system to write monetary figures. Hence, 大写 (dàxiě; uppercase) is commonly translated as “banker’s anti-fraud numerals” since they are now used for handing money in order to avoid forgery.
Here is a list of the conversion:
|零/〇 (líng)||零 (líng)||0|
|一 (yī)||壹 (yī)||1|
|二 (èr)||贰 / 两 (èr/ liǎng)||2|
|三 (sān)||叁 (sān)||3|
|四 (sì)||肆 (sì)||4|
|五 (wǔ)||伍 (wǔ)||5|
|六 (liù)||陆 (lù)||6|
|七 (qī)||柒 (qī)||7|
|八 (bā)||捌 (bā)||8|
|九 (jiǔ)||玖 (jiǔ)||9|
|十 (shí)||拾 (shí)||10|
|百 (bǎi)||佰 (bǎi)||100|
|千 (qiān)||仟 (qiān)||1,000|
|万 (wàn)||萬 (wàn)||10,000|
|亿 (yì)||億 (yì)||100,000,000|
Numbers are an interesting part of the Chinese language, and now that you know more, you can use them to learn slang and even a few fun games!