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How To Say Numbers In Chinese

Patrick Kim | June 17, 2016 | | 2 Comments
How_To_Count_In_Chinese.jpg

 Despite what you may have heard about Chinese being difficult to learn, the numerical system in Chinese is remarkably simple. Chinese numbers are easy to read and remember, but it still takes some practice to use them fluently in real life situations.

Taking a number down, or even telling someone your birthday or age is something many beginners struggle with. In my experience as an expat living in China, I found that being bad with large numbers or dates would make my Chinese seem worse than it actually was. The value of knowing your numbers well cannot be underestimated as they are so important in everyday life. Chinese numbers actually have cultural significance, with some numbers being luckier than others.

Chinese Numbers Are Easier Than English Numbers

Unlike English, The Chinese number system is very logical and straightforward. It doesn’t require you to learn unique words for multiples of ten such as twenty, thirty, forty, and so on. It also doesn’t require you to add “-teen” after numbers that come after ten. 

For example, twenty-five is expressed as 二十五 (èrshíwǔ), or “two-ten-five”. “Fourteen” is expressed as 十四 (shí) or “ten-four.”

That means apart from zero to ten, the only words you need to know to be able to use the whole number system are large numbers, starting with hundred 百 (yībǎi), thousand, 千 (yīqiān). After a thousand comes ten thousand, 万 (wàn), and a hundred million, 亿 (yì). The main difference here is that numbers are grouped by four zeroes rather than three zeroes, as they are in English.

0

líng

1

一 (幺)

yī (yāo)

2

二 (两)

èr (liǎng)

3

sān

4

5

6

liù

7

8

9

jiǔ

10

shí

100

bǎi

1,000

qiān

10,000

wàn

100,000,000

亿

yì 


Did you know? Because the Chinese characters for numbers are very simple, there is a whole different set of complex Chinese numbers used on bank notes to prevent counterfeit bills.
Reading Chinese Numbers Out Loud

It can be hard to get comfortable using the Chinese number system! The number system can be misleadingly simple because we forget how quickly we are used to rattling off numbers in our own native language. With the added difficulty of Chinese tones, saying Chinese numbers out loud can prove to be challenging. “一 ()” means “one,” but “亿()” means “hundred million.” They are just one tone apart.

Here are some additional pointers: 

If the number contains a zero in the middle, the zero has to be read aloud, as in 一百零一 (yībǎilíngyī) for 101. In formal Chinese, the number of tens must always be expressed, as in 一百一十 (yībǎiyīshí) for 110. Colloquially, you can say “一百二 (bǎièr)” for “120” instead of “一百二十 (bǎièrshí)” and “一百三(bǎisān)” for “130.” However, “103” is read “一百零三 (bǎilíngsān).” 

In spoken Chinese, the word “一” for “one” can also be read as “yāo,” especially when reciting a phone number or other string of numbers.

Once you think you have one through ten down, practice the number system with a random string of numbers, rather than counting in order from one to a hundred. This is a great way to improve your listening and speaking skills, since going through numbers 1 through 99 will cover most tone combinations.

When To Use: 二 (èr) vs 两 (liǎng

There are two forms for the word for “two” in Chinese. The first is “二 (èr)”, which is used in ordinal situations and phone numbers. The second is “两 (liǎng),” which is used for two when counting things. For example, two people = “两个人 (liǎng).” It is also used to count large numbers such as two hundred (两百), two thousand (两千). However, “twenty” must always be read “二十(èrshí).” 

Counting things in Chinese is a whole other subject, because unlike English, Chinese has “measure words” or “counters.” You can read our blog post on the topic here. 

Tackling Large Numbers

Dealing with large numbers can be difficult, not because the Chinese numbers themselves are hard to grasp, but because native English speakers have to start thinking of large numbers in groups of four zeroes rather than three zeroes. In order to really make large numbers stick, use figures that you are familiar with to tie meaning to each number you are learning. For example, you might go with Kobe’s annual salary, the population of the United States, population of China, or whatever it is that has meaning for you. This strategy can give you something to fall back on, should you stumble across a difficult number.

These are some figures that work for me:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea                                          
20,000 = 两万 (liǎng wàn)

Wayne Rooney makes £260,000 a week
260,000 = 二十六万 (èrshíliùwàn)

One million =一百万 (yībǎiwàn)

Kobe’s annual salary before he retired was $25 million
25 million = 两千五百万 (liǎngqiānwǔbǎiwàn)

2014 census of the US population was 318 million
318 million = 三亿一千八百万 (sānyìyīqiānbābǎiwàn)

2013 census of the Chinese population was 1.357 billion      
1.357 billion =十三亿五千七百万(shísānyìwǔqiānqībǎiwàn)

It’s important not to underestimate the value in perfecting your ability to deal with numbers. Although it takes a lot of repetition, once you get your numbers down, you will find a great improvement in your listening and speaking skills! 

Have trouble with your Chinese numbers? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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Patrick Kim

Patrick Kim

Patrick Kim is an editor at TutorMing. He has a B.A. in East Asian Studies from UCSB, and has worked in China for 3 years. His hobbies are soccer, being outdoors, and studying Chinese.

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