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 been already recorded in the oracle bone scripts.

Decimal Numbers of Oracle Bone Script of the Shang Dynasty

Decimal Numbers of Oracle Bone Script of the Shang Dynasty

Counting Rods or Suan Chou had been 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. 

Counting Rods or Suan Chou Presenting numbers
Counting Rods or Suan Chou Presenting negative numbers

In the beginning, the counting rods were also used in divination, besides counting and calculating. 

Counting Rods or Suan Chou of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD)

Counting Rods or Suan Chou of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Shaanxi History Museum

 

One — The Beginning, the Taiji, the Universe.

 

The number one, 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 was inventing the Bagua system, one means heaven. 

universe and stars

Other Meanings of Chinese Number One in Phrases and Poems

 

  • Whole. 

 

一生一世: A whole lifetime.

 

  • First.

一见钟情: Love at first sight.

 

  • Unified.

 

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.

  • Once.

 

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, I pine day and night. 

 

  • Loyal.

 

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 turns grey we will never apart. 

 

Two — Idea of Binary Opposition.

 

The number two, in Chinese culture, represents the binary concepts, such as Yin and Yang, day and night, male and female, life and death, up and down, which are incompatible and indispensable.

 

When King Fu Xi was inventing the Bagua system, two means the earth.

 

Other Meanings of Chinese Number Two

 

  • Disloyal

誓无二心: Vow will never be disloyal.

 

  • Different

不二法门: The unique and only way.

 

  • The couple and double.

好事成双: Good things come in pairs.

Silver Hairpin (Chai) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum

Silver Hairpin (Chai) of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Three — Generation of Everything.

 

Three is a special number in Chinese culture, which represents the harmonious combination of heaven, earth, and human. 

 

In the masterpiece Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing), three begets everything. 

 

Other Meanings of Chinese Number Three in Phrases and Poems

  • Three Respectables: Monarch, Father, and Teacher.

 

  • Three

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 that I do not see you, feels as long as three seasons.

 

  • Many

夜静海涛三万里,月明飞锡下天风。Wang Yangming (1472 — 1529)

 

Floating at night in the turbulent sea, flying under the moon smoothly with my magic cane.

Three Most Supreme Immortals of the Taoism Religion — San Qing

Three Most Supreme Immortals of the Taoism Religion — San Qing

 

Four — Process of Development and Change of Things.

 

Number four represents a whole process of things, like four seasons of a year, four directions, four symbols in Chinese Astrology, four images of Yin-Yang theory

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.

Azure Dragon or Qing Long

Azure Dragon

Vermillion Bird or Zhu Que

Vermillion Bird

White Tiger or Bai Hu

White Tiger

Black Tortoise or Xuan Wu

Black Tortoise

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 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 Virtues of Confucianism: Benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and faith.

Gilding Bronze Mirror of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), With Inscriptions Including the Five Elements

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 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture. 

 

In the ancient divination system of I Ching, each result contains six segments.  

 

Also, there are six virtuous relationships in ancient culture: benevolent monarch, behaved officials, loving parents, devoted children, responsible older brothers, and respectable younger brothers. 

 

 

Other Meanings of Chinese Number Six

 

  • Six Armies represents imperial troops of the emperor.

 

  • Six Palaces were used to represent all women of a Chinese Emperor, including 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

Six Arts (Liu Yi) of Confucianism and Aristocratic Education in Ancient China 

 

Seven — Transmigration and Mystery.

 

The number seven is a mysterious number, which is believed 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 important 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

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 has been the representative of wealth and fortune, because of its homophonic sound in Chinese.

 

However, the most ancient origin and important meaning of eight is the Eight Trigrams or Bagua from the ancient 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. 

Eight Trigrams Pattern on Porcelain Bowl of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Eight Trigrams Pattern on Porcelain Bowl of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Tianjin Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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. 

 

  • Many.

 

三十功名尘与土,八千里路云和月。Yue Fei (1103 — 1142)

 

Three decades of fights and wins are insignificant like dust, more difficult and long battles are required to take back our lost lands. 

 

Nine — Supreme, Ultimate, and Eternal.

 

Nine is the largest number (or the largest single digit) of Yang, 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. 

 

Click to Read the Use of the Number Nine in the Forbidden City

Nine Mythical Animals and Leading Deity on Roof of the Forbidden City

Nine Mythical Animals and Leading Deity on Roof of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.

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 to not 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. 

 

  • Many.

 

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 wind someday, soaring to tens of thousands of miles away. 

Mythical Bird Peng in Chinese Mythology.

Mythical Bird Peng in Chinese Mythology

 

Ten — Peak, Perfection, and Flawless.

 

As the first number after the decimal system, number ten has been the representative of perfection, topmost, and satisfactory 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)

Blue Glaze Circle of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Special Numbers in Chinese Culture

 

Besides numbers from one to ten, there are some other Chinese numbers with special cultural meanings. 

 

 

 

  • 20: The age for men in ancient times to hold the Coming of Age Ceremony.

 

 

 

The Earliest Artifact with the Entire Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions' names, Unearthed from Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng

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, there are also some numbers with special meanings, based on their similar pronunciation to certain words.

 

  • 250: Stupid and foolish.

 

  • 168: Wealthy all along.​

 

  • 484: Yes or not.

 

  • 555: Cry.

 

  • 666: Impressive and awesome.

 

  • 7456: I'm so furious.

 

  • 88: Goodbye.

 

  • 995: Help me.

  • 520: I love you.

 

  • 1314: A whole lifetime.