Numbers in Chinese

Posted on: September 10, 2019   in: Projects

My Guide to Numbers in Chinese

In this guide, I will start by giving beginners a useful guide to Chinese numbers, then I’ll provide some references for translators.

Chinese numbers are very easy for the most part, if you learn from 1 to 10, you can then calculate numbers right up to 99, then if you add the word 100 you can get up to 999, and so on. However for translators, there are some nasty surprises in formal documents like bank statements or contracts which are not covered in any academic textbooks.

In Chinese texts, there’s nothing to stop writers using our familiar English numbers (I’m aware they are actually Arabic, but I think the term “English numbers” is clearer). If that happens, be warned that they won’t be included in Asian word counts done with most software. See my article on Word Counts for more information about that.

 

Part 1 – Easy Chinese Numbers

Chinese numbers from zero to ten

Chinese numbers from 1-10 couldn’t be much easier. There is one character per number, except for the number for “0” which is commonly written in two ways: The character for zero is often just written with a big circle character 〇 as well as with the formal character 零. As an aside I used to believe that the 〇 character was derived from the English 0 but actually it’s the other way round. The English 0 is derived from an Indian version of 〇.

Screen shot from official website of Chinese Supreme Court showing date
Screen shot from official website of Chinese Supreme Court showing dates (in the red text on the left side) including the character for zero.
Chinese Supreme Court Ruling
Chinese Supreme Court Ruling showing the use of English numbers

 

Some exceptions

When the number two (二) means “two of something”, the character changes to “两” (liang3 – “two of”). In some dialects “两个” (“two of”) can be merged into “俩” (lia3) which then does not require “个”.

List of Chinese numbers from zero to ten

English numberSimplified Chinese characterTraditional Chinese characterHanyu pinyin pronunciationEnglish pronunciation guide
00〇 / 零〇 / 零ling2"Ling" (like link with a g instead of k)
1yi1"Eeee" (rhymes with me)
2er4"Eeer" (like "her" without the h)
3san1"Saaaan" (like "sand" without the d)
4si4"Ser" (rhymes with her, but with a very soft "r" sound)
5wu3"Wooo" (woo-hoo!)
6liu4"Li-ooo"
7Qi1"Che" (like "cheese" without the "se")
8Ba1"Ba" (like a black sheep!)
9Jiu3"Geee-ooo" (Like "gee-wizz, ooo-ah Cantona)
10Shi2"Shi" (rhymes with her but with a soft "r")
Chinese numbers from eleven to nineteen

Once you get to ten, just put ten in front of any other number to make numbers from 11 to 19. For example “15” is just written as “Ten Five”, 18 is written as “Ten Eight”.

English numberSimplified Chinese numberTraditional Chinese numberHanyu pinyinComments
11十一十一Shi2yi1Note that these numbers are rolled into one without a space; not Shi Yi, but Shiyi1
12十二十二Shi2er4
13十三十三Shi2san1
14十四十四Shi2si4
15十五十五Shi2wu3
16十六十六Shi2liu4
17十七十七Shi2qi1
18十八十八Shi2ba1
19十九十九Shi2jiu3

Chinese numbers from twenty to ninety-nine

Twenty is also very easy, just say “Two Ten”, twenty one is then “Two Ten One” and so on. That gets us all the way up to 99.

English numberSimplified Chinese numberTraditional Chinese numberHanyu pinyinComments
20二十二十Er4shi2Again, note how the pinyin for these characters is written without spaces
21二十一二十一Er4shi2yi1
22二十二二十二Er4shi2er4
23二十三二十三Er4shi2san1
24二十四二十四Er4shi2si4
25二十五二十五Er4shi2wu3
26二十六二十六Er4shi2liu4
27二十七二十七Er4shi2qi1
28二十八二十八Er4shi2ba1
29二十九二十九Er4shi2jiu3
30三十三十San1shi2
31三十一三十一San1shi2yi1
32三十二三十二San1shi2er4
33三十三三十三San1shi2san1
34三十四三十四San1shi2si4
35三十五三十五San1shi2wu3
36三十六三十六San1shi2liu4
37三十七三十七San1shi2qi1
38三十八三十八San1shi2ba1
39三十九三十九San1shi2jiu3
40四十四十Si4shi2
41四十一四十一Si4shi2yi1
42四十二四十二Si4shi2er4
43四十三四十三Si4shi2san1
44四十四四十四Si4shi2si4
45四十五四十五Si4shi2wu3
46四十六四十六Si4shi2liu4
47四十七四十七Si4shi2qi1
48四十八四十八Si4shi2ba1
49四十九四十九Si4shi2jiu3
50五十五十Wu3shi2
51五十一五十一Wu3shi2yi1
52五十二五十二Wu3shi2er4
53五十三五十三Wu3shi2san1
54五十四五十四Wu3shi2si4
55五十五五十五Wu3shi2wu3
56五十六五十六Wu3shi2liu4
57五十七五十七Wu3shi2qi1
58五十八五十八Wu3shi2ba1
59五十九五十九Wu3shi2jiu3
60六十六十Liu4shi2
61六十一六十一Liu4shi2yi1
62六十二六十二Liu4shi2er4
63六十三六十三Liu4shi2san1
64六十四六十四Liu4shi2si4
65六十五六十五Liu4shi2wu3
66六十六六十六Liu4shi2liu4
67六十七六十七Liu4shi2qi1
68六十八六十八Liu4shi2ba1
69六十九六十九Liu4shi2jiu3
70七十七十Qi1shi2
71七十一七十一Qi1shi2yi1
72七十二七十二Qi1shi2er4
73七十三七十三Qi1shi2san1
74七十四七十四Qi1shi2si4
75七十五七十五Qi1shi2wu3
76七十六七十六Qi1shi2liu4
77七十七七十七Qi1shi2qi1
78七十八七十八Qi1shi2ba1
79七十九七十九Qi1shi2jiu3
80八十八十Ba1shi2
81八十一八十一Ba1shi2yi1
82八十二八十二Ba1shi2er4
83八十三八十三Ba1shi2san1
84八十四八十四Ba1shi2si4
85八十五八十五Ba1shi2wu3
86八十六八十六Ba1shi2liu4
87八十七八十七Ba1shi2qi1
88八十八八十八Ba1shi2ba1
89八十九八十九Ba1shi2jiu3
90九十九十Jiu3shi2
91九十一九十一Jiu3shi2yi1
92九十二九十二Jiu3shi2er4
93九十三九十三Jiu3shi2san1
94九十四九十四Jiu3shi2si4
95九十五九十五Jiu3shi2wu3
96九十六九十六Jiu3shi2liu4
97九十七九十七Jiu3shi2qi1
98九十八九十八Jiu3shi2ba1
99九十九九十九Jiu3shi2jiu3

Chinese numbers above one hundred

Now let’s just learn the words for bigger units and we can make the numbers easily by adding the appropriate numbers

NumberName in EnglishNumber in SImplified ChineseNumber in Traditional ChinesePronunciationExamplesComments
100HundredBai3300 = 三百Part of the "normal counting scale" both in English and Chinese, see below
1,000ThousandQian19000 = 九千Part of the "normal counting scale" both in English and Chinese, see below
10,000Ten ThousandWan443,000 = 四万三千Part of the "normal counting scale" in Chinese, see below, not in English; by the way, did you know that the word "myriad" in English literally means "ten thousand"!
100,000Hundred Thousand十万十萬Shi2Wan4140,000 = 一十五万Not part of the "normal counting scale" in English or Chinese
1,000,000Million百万百萬Baiwan1,000,797 = 一百万七百七Part of the "normal counting scale" in English but not Chinese
10,000,000Ten million千万千萬Qian1wan4Not part of the normal counting scale in English or Chinese
100,000,000Hundred million亿Yi4yiPart of the "normal counting scale" in Chinese but not English
1,000,000,,000Billion十亿十億Shi2yi4Part of the "normal counting scale" in English but not Chinese
10,000,000,000Ten billion百亿百億Bai3yi4Not part of the "normal counting scale" in English or Chinese

To help understand how to make use of these numbers, we need to quickly look at how we count in English. We use something called the “short counting scale” or the “long counting scale”. Together I’m referring to those as “normal counting scales”.

*Normal counting scales

This is my own made up word for the long and short counting scales. They sounds complex but actually they are not. Counting scales are systems used to name large numbers. The main two we need to know about for English are the long counting scale and the short counting scale. It is easy to convert between the two, but there can be problems when you see a number and don’t know which scale it is written in. That’s why it’s usually a good idea for translators to write out numbers explicitly and avoid any confusion. Just to be clear, the actual numbers are the same, it’s just how we refer to them that is different. I recommend two very cool videos about this subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBbBbY4qvv4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-52AI_ojyQ

The long counting scale for English numbers

The long counting scale was used in England up until fairly recently. It goes like this: tens (10), hundreds (100), thousands (1000), millions (1,000,000), thousand millions (1,000,000,000), billions (1,000,000,000,000), thousand billions (1,000,000,000,000,000), trillions (1,000,000,000,000,000,000 ), thousand trillions (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 ), quadrillions, (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and so on. Every extra set of three zeros gets a new name. While the UK used the long counting scale in the past, Americans always used the short counting scale. That’s why you might have heard that an American billion is less than an English billion. However, this is no longer true as the UK now uses the short counting scale along with the Americans. Beware that many people in the UK are not aware of this and still use the long scale!

Screenshot from ESA home page mentioning how many stars there are in the universe
Screenshot from ESA home page mentioning how many stars there are in the universe – is this long or short scale? (source: https://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Herschel/How_many_stars_are_there_in_the_Universe)

The short counting scale for English numbers

This scale is officially used in the UK and the US, but beware that in the UK lots of people (including me until I researched this article) think that the UK still uses the long counting scale. The short counting scale goes like this: tens (10), hundreds (100), thousands (1000), millions (1,000,000), billions (1,000,000,000) (this is where they start to diverge), trillions (1,000,000,000,000), quadrillions (1,000,000,000,000,000) and so on.

Converting between the short counting scale and long counting scale

As long as you know which scale was applied (that’s usually the hard part), it’s really easy to convert between two sets of large numbers.  Here’s a handy conversion table:

Number as power of 10NumberShort scale (This is the official system in UK and US)Long scale (old system in UK, used in some other countriesComments
10^01oneone
10^110tenten
10^2100hundredhundred
10^31,000thousandthousand
10^61,000,000millionmillion
10^91,000,000,000billionthousand millionthis is where the scales start to diverge
10^121,000,000,000,000trillionbillion
10^151,000,000,000,000,000quadrillionthousand billion
10^181,000,000,000,000,000,000quintilliontrillion

Chinese counting scale

Now that we’ve looked at the normal counting scales for English, we need to take a look at the Chinese counting scale. It’s usually referred to in English simply as the “Chinese counting scale” or sometimes the “myriad scale”.

Notation for numberNumberTraditional ChineseSimplified ChineseProncunciationComments
10^410,000Wan4This number is often used to mean a "big number"; for example "10,000 years" is used to wish the emperor lives a long life.
10^8100,000,000亿Yi4
10^121,000,000,000,000Zhao4Just to make things confusing, this word was taken for the Chinese term megabyte, thinking a megabyte was really huge and just had lots of zeroes. Now people sometimes think that this means 1,000,000.
10^20100,000,000,000,000,000,000Jing1I've never once needed this number! So big.

Cultural uses of Chinese numbers

Numbers are frequently used with certain abstract meanings. For example 250 is used to mean “silly” or “stupid”. “All at 7’s and 8’s” means “extremely disorganized” and so on.  The number 4 is pronounced “si4” which sounds a bit like to die “si3”, so often the number 4 is used only to show bad luck. Lifts in China frequently don’t have a fourth floor! Similar to how we don’t use 13 very much in English culture. Notice also there’s another missing number “14”, still contains the number 4, even floors 40-49 wouldn’t be included.

Lift with missing 4th floor
Buttons in a lift with missing 4th floor

[Creative Commons; from Wikipedia]

Chinese phone numbers

Phone numbers are easy to read and write, and to say. We just need to read out each digit one by one.

However, the character for one “Yi1” sounds a bit like “Qi1” over the phone, so is often replaced with “Yao1”.

Chinese dates

Chinese dates are very straightfoward, and usually written yyyy年mm月dd日

One point worth mentioning is that in Taiwan, they take year 1 as 1911 (the year of the founding of the Republic), so add 1911 to whatever the number is to get the date in the Western calendar. For example year 95 = 1911+95 = 2006, and so on.

Chinese Percentages

These are easy; written almost exactly like English “34%” for example or like “百分之X” (bai3fen4zhi1X meaning “X of one hundred parts”). If you can count, you can do percentages.

Chinese Fractions

Again, these are very easy; usually written just like in English with the same dividing line (3/5 for example) we use in English. Pronounced as “3 parts of 5” with the old character for “of” (三分之五 – San1fen4zhi1wu3 in my example).

Chinese finger counting

There are symbols you can use with one hand to count up to ten in Chinese. Many Chinese speakers assume they are internal and will make the symbols to try and help non-Chinese speakers, but actually we only go as far as 5 in English. So here are the extra finger signs, which are worth learning if you will be visiting China.

Chinese finger counting
Chinese finger counting

Part 2 – Advanced Chinese Numbers for Translators

 

Two written forms of Chinese numbers

Since simple characters like 一 (one) can easily be misread, Chinese also uses more formal numbers which contain many more strokes and are much easier to distinguish. In Chinese the regular numbers are usually referred to as “little writing”, and there is another set, very important for translators, called in Chinese “big writing”.

The cover of "sunzi suanjing" which set the counting rules for Chinese characters used up until about 1911
The cover of “sunzi suanjing” which set the counting rules for Chinese characters used up until about 1911

You will often see translators bizarrely translating the name of the big writing numbers as “capital letters” which is clearly wrong but very common. I notice that the Wikipedia article on Chinese numbers refers to them as “financial”, which is a good translation, but not totally correct. They are not always used exclusively for financial documents, and indeed there are financial documents which will use regular numbers, and general documents which use Chinese financial numbers.

Generally I like to use terms like “short set” and “written set”, or “full set” and such similar terms to distinguish the two. On contracts, when a number is written in both forms in the Chinese, I would normally translate into numerals and the written form of the numbers in English for clarity.

ValueRegular form (Traditional)Extended (financial Form) (Traditional)Regular form (Simplified)Extended (financial Form) (Simplified)PronunciationComments
0ling2This can be pronounced "dong4" which means cave or hole in military radio communications.
1Yi1Often pronounced as "yao1" on radio and telephone calls; the character for "yao1" is 幺
2Er4
3San1
4Si4
5Wu3
6Liu4
7Qi1Can be pronounced as 拐 (guai3) in military radio communications.
8Ba1As above can be pronounced "杯" (bei1)
9Jiu3As above can be pronounced "勾" (gou1)
10Shi2Very occassionally you will see the character 什 (shi2) but this can easily be changed to 1,000 see below so is avoided these days.
100Bai3
1,000Qian1

Numbers found only in the written character set

Some numbers are used for numbers that are used exclusively in the written character set; see the below table.

ValueIn regular written setIn formal written set (simplified)In formal written set (traditional)Comments
20二十廿廿Nian4
30三十Sa4
40四十
200二百This character wasn't in either of my two main reference dictionaries but I could find several entries about it online; I believe it's pronounced "bi4"; hardly ever used

Converting between written numbers and digits

Frequently documents such as bank statements will contain large numbers written in Chinese characters, and I have to calculate the equivalent form in English numbers. To do this can be complex, but here are some tools I find useful:

1,000,000,000,000 100,000,000,000 10,000,000,000 1,000,000,000 100,000,000 10,000,000 1,000,000 100,000 10,000 1,000 100 10 1
亿 千万 百万
trillion hundred billion ten billion billion hundred million ten million million

I would write the number into this table and it helps ensure the correct totals. If a number isn’t mentioned I would assume it is a zero, and only write those numbers which are specifically mentioned. A couple of examples will help clarify further.

Concrete Examples

Here’s a screenshot of a business license which I translated. I’ve deleted some data to retain anonymity:

Business license showing registered capital
Business license showing registered capital

 

We can see the registered capital is: 壹仟万元正

Let’s start with the easy bit, 正 means “exactly, so we don’t need anything after the decimal point”. 元 means “yuan” (note that it doesn’t take a capital Y despite virtually everyone assuming it does take one; check the style guide of the FT or the Economist). So we can simplify to 壹仟万.

Putting it into the above table we get

1,000,000,000,000 100,000,000,000 10,000,000,000 1,000,000,000 100,000,000 10,000,000 1,000,000 100,000 10,000 1,000 100 10 1
亿 千万 百万
trillion hundred billion ten billion billion hundred million ten million million
1

We can see easily that we’ve got “1” unit of ten million; so it’s just written as “ten million” or “10,000,000” yuan.

Please note I’ve put a couple of deliberate errors (small ones that won’t be a problem for readers) into the text as my content keeps getting stolen. If you want to quote anything, might be worth contacting me first so I can check what you want to say is correct.