Chinese Numbers — History, Fun Facts, and Cultural Meanings
When Was the Chinese Number System Created?
In the Shang Dynasty (about 1600 BC — 1046 BC), numbers under 30,000 have already been recorded in the oracle bone scripts.
Decimal Numbers of Oracle Bone Script of the Shang Dynasty
Counting Rods or Suan Chou were widely used to count or calculate in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC).
A set of rods contains about 270 same-sized rods, usually 13 to 14 cm long and 2 to 4 mm wide.
They can be placed vertically or horizontally to represent Chinese numbers.
In the beginning, the counting rods were also used in divination, besides counting and calculating.
One — The Beginning, the Taiji, the Universe.
The number one (一) represents Taiji, the beginning of the cosmos.
惟初太始，道立于一。Xu Shen (about 58 — 147)
The universe begins as Taiji, the Dao founds on the One.
When King Fu Xi invented the Bagua system, one meant heaven.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number One in Phrases and Poems
一生一世: A whole lifetime.
一见钟情: Love at first sight.
六王毕，四海一。Du Mu (803 — 852)
Six Kingdoms of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) perished, and the nation was unified.
只缘感君一回顾，从此思君朝与暮。A folk song of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)
You glanced back once; I pine day and night since.
愿得一心人，白头不相离。 Zhuo Wenjun of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD)
Wish to have true love with a loyal heart, with hair turn grey we will never be apart.
Two — Idea of Binary Opposition.
In Chinese culture, the number two (二) represents binary concepts, such as Yin and Yang, day and night, male and female, life and death, and up and down, which are incompatible and indispensable.
When King Fu Xi invented the Bagua system, two meant the earth.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Two
誓无二心: Vow will never be disloyal.
不二法门: The unique and only way.
The couple and double.
好事成双: Good things come in pairs.
Three — Generation of Everything.
Three (三) is a unique number in Chinese culture, representing the harmonious combination of heaven, earth, and humans.
Three begets everything in the masterpiece Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing).
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Three in Phrases and Poems
Three Respectables: Monarch, Father, and Teacher.
一日不见，如三秋兮。 The Classic of Poetry, or The Book of Songs, or Shijing, compiled by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC).
One day I do not see you, feels as long as three seasons.
夜静海涛三万里，月明飞锡下天风。Wang Yangming (1472 — 1529)
I am floating at night in the turbulent sea, flying under the moon smoothly with my magic cane.
Four — Process of Development and Change of Things.
Meanwhile, four seas and four directions also are widely used to represent the whole world, such as in:
名扬四海: Renown is praised all over the world.
志在四方: Pursuing one's dream all over the world.
Four Symbols of Astrology Eaves Tiles of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Shanghai Museum
Five — Cross of Yin Yang and the Five Elements.
Five (五) in Oracle Bone Script means the cross of Yin and Yang between heaven and earth, later representing the Five Elements Theory.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Five
Five Elements: Water, Fire, Wood, Gold, and Earth.
Five Orthodox Colors: Yellow, Red, White, Black, and Green.
Five Virtues of Confucianism: Benevolence, Righteousness, Courtesy, Wisdom, and Faith.
Gilding Bronze Mirror of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), With Inscriptions Including the Five Elements — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Six — Number of Smooth, Lucky, and Auspicious.
Six (六) is an auspicious number in Chinese culture.
In the ancient divination system of I Ching, each result contains six segments.
Also, ancient culture had six honest relationships: benevolent monarch, behaved officials, loving parents, devoted children, responsible older brothers, and respectable younger brothers.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Six
Six Armies represent the imperial troops of the emperor.
Six Palaces were used to represent all women of a Chinese Emperor, including the queen and imperial concubines.
Six Arts in nobles' education since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC): Rites, music, archery, equestrianism, calligraphy, and mathematics.
Six Arts (Liu Yi) of Confucianism and Aristocratic Education in Ancient China
Seven — Transmigration and Mystery.
The number seven (七) is a mysterious number, which is believed to be the boundary from Yang to Yin.
Hence, in ancient China, people would offer sacrifice every seven days to the deceased, for seven times.
Today, this rule is still followed in many places as an essential part of the traditional funeral ceremony.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Seven
Seven Emotions: Joy, anger, worry, thought, sadness, fear, and shock.
Seven Great Stars: Sun, Moon, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury.
Belt Hook of Jiang Wan (? — 246) Carved the Seven Great Stars, and the Big Dipper on the Hilt — Sichuan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Eight — Bagua or Eight Trigrams, and Fortune.
Number eight (八) represents wealth and fortune because of its homophonic sound in Chinese.
However, the most ancient origin and essential meaning of eight is the Eight Trigrams or Bagua from the old masterpiece I Ching (or The Book of Changes), and Bazi (one's birth year, month, date, and hour) in people's horoscopes for fortune-telling.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Eight in Phrases and Poems
Eight Directions: East, West, North, South, Southeast, Northeast, Southwest, and Northwest.
Eight Virtues: Filial piety, respect, loyalty, trust, courtesy, righteousness, integrity, and sense of shame.
三十功名尘与土，八千里路云和月。Yue Fei (1103 — 1142)
Three decades of fights and honors are insignificant like dust, thousands of miles of marches under clouds and moonlight.
Nine — Supreme, Ultimate, and Eternal.
Nine (九) is Yang's most significant number (or the largest single digit), hence the representative of supreme and eternal.
Yu the Great, founder of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), divided his kingdom into nine states (Jiu Zhou) and built nine bronze tripods (Ding) as the representative of his paramount power and supreme reign.
Other Meanings of Chinese Number Nine in Phrases and Poems
Nine States or Jiu Zhou used to represent ancient China.
死去元知万事空，但悲不见九州同。Lu You (1125 — 1210)
Everything will be irrelevant after death, but it is painful not to see our country unified.
Nine Heavens or Jiu Tian, the highest place of heaven, also represents the supreme royal palace.
九天阊阖开宫殿，万国衣冠拜冕旒。Wang Wei (701 — 761)
Gates of the magnificent royal palace opened successively in the morning; officials and envoys entered to worship the emperor.
大鹏一日同风起，扶摇直上九万里。Li Bai (701 — 762)
Mythical Creature Peng will take off with the wind someday, soaring tens of thousands of miles away.
Ten — Peak, Perfection, and Flawless.
As the first number after the decimal system, the number ten (十) represents perfection, topmost, and satisfaction in Chinese culture.
十步芳草: Beautiful flowers every ten steps, meaning talents are everywhere.
十全十美: Perfect and flawless in all respects.
Blue Glaze Circle of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Large Numbers in Chinese — Bai, Qian, Wan, and Yi.
Combining with numbers one to nine, some prefixes are used to count large numbers in Chinese, and the commonest are Bai, Qian, Wan, and Yi.
Besides numbers, they are also frequently used to mean numerous.
Bai 百: Hundred.
百年好合: Lifetime of conjugal felicity.
百战百胜: Invincible person that wins all battles.
回眸一笑百媚生，六宫粉黛无颜色。Bai Juyi (772 — 846)
(Lady Yang) turns around and smiles; her stunning beauty eclipses all beautiful women in the royal palace.
Qian 千: Thousand.
天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。Li Bai (701 — 762)
Heaven has made our talents, we're not made in vain; a thousand gold coins spent, more will turn up again. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)
千圣皆过影，良知乃吾师。Wang Yangming (1472 — 1529)
Ancient sages are all elapsed contours; conscience is but my true mentor.
Chinese Characters of the "Unity of Knowing and Acting", One of Main Ideas of Wang Yangming.
Wan 万: Ten Thousand.
烟柳画桥，风帘翠幕，参差十万人家。Liu Yong (about 984 — 1053)
Willows are enveloped by mist, painted bridges stand across rivers, and colorful curtains of buildings blow by the breeze, is a picturesque, peaceful city with tens of thousands of families.
千磨万击还坚劲，任尔东西南北风。Zheng Banqiao (1693 — 1766)
Countless adversities and difficulties, yet they stay strong; despite severe blows from all directions, they remain solid.
Yi 亿: Hundred Millon.
何方可化身千亿，一树梅花一放翁。Lu You (1125 — 1210)
How can I get numerous doppelgangers, to appreciate the countless beauties of these plum trees.
Special Numbers in Chinese Culture
Besides numbers from one to ten, some other Chinese numbers have special cultural meanings.
15: The age for women in ancient times to hold the Coming of Age Ceremony.
20: The age for men in ancient times to hold the Coming of Age Ceremony.
60: 60 is a cycle of the combination of 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches, mainly used to record years in ancient China.
The Earliest Artifact (Lacquer Suitcase) with the Entire Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions' names, Unearthed from Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (about 477 BC — 433 BC) — Hubei Museum
Puns and Internet Slangs of Chinese Numbers
From ancient history to today's internet society, some numbers have special meanings based on their similar pronunciation to certain words.
250: Stupid and foolish.
168: Wealthy all along.
484: Yes or no.
666: Impressive and excellent.
7456: I'm so furious.
995: Help me.
520: I love you.
1314: A whole lifetime.
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