Learning Chinese sounds like a daunting task. So when they start, a lot of people are surprised to discover that many aspects of the language, including Chinese numbers are incredibly easy.
In fact, learning to count in Chinese could hardly be simpler.
Chinese numbers are extremely straightforward and follow very logical rules, meaning there are almost no traps to catch you out.
To help you get started – and to highlight one or two points you need to be aware of – in this post I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about counting in Chinese.
By the end of this post, you'll be able to count in Chinese from 1 to 9,999 and beyond, give your telephone number and deal with some trickier aspects of Chinese numbers like measure words.
By the way, if you're an intermediate learner who finds fast spoken Chinese tricky to understand then I recommend Chinese Conversations, my story-based listening material that will help you understand real Chinese and transform your listening skills in less than 90 days.
Chinese Characters Or Numbers?
Before we start looking at Chinese numbers, it’s worth mentioning how numbers are written in China.
Chinese has its own set of characters for writing numbers. But nowadays, the same ‘international’ numbers that are familiar all over the world are also used in China.
In this post, I’ve given numbers in characters along with the pronunciation in pinyin since this makes it easier for you to see how they are pronounced.
However, bear in mind that in China, you are just as likely to see them written in regular numbers as in Chinese characters.
Counting From One To Ten In Chinese
Let’s start with the numbers from one to ten in Chinese.
Here they are:
- 一 yī one
- 二 èr two
- 三 sān three
- 四 sì four
- 五 wŭ five
- 六 liù six
- 七 qī seven
- 八 bā eight
- 九 jiŭ nine
- 十 shí ten
10 To 99 In Chinese
When counting from 10 to 99, you will start to see how simple the Chinese system is.
To say 20 in Chinese, you just say ‘two ten’, 二十 èrshí. 30 is ‘three ten’, 三十sānshí – and so on.
Here are the tens, from 10 to 90:
- 十 shí 10
- 二十 èrshí 20
- 三十 sānshí 30
- 四十 sìshí 40
- 五十 wŭshí 50
- 六十 liùshí 60
- 七十 qīshí 70
- 八十 bāshí 80
- 九十 jiŭshí 90
If you want to say 21, you just say ‘two ten one’, 二十一 èrshíyī. 22 is ‘two ten two’, 二十二 èr shí’èr, 31 is ‘three ten one’, 三十一 sānshíyī – and so on.
Here is 21 to 29:
- 二十一 èrshíyī 21
- 二十二 èrshí’èr 22
- 二十三 èrshísān 23
- 二十四 èrshísì 24
- 二十五 èrshíwŭ 25
- 二十六 èrshíliù 26
- 二十七 èrshíqī 27
- 二十八 èrshíbā 28
- 二十九 èrshíjiŭ 29
And some more examples:
- 三十 sānshí 30
- 三十一 sānshíyī 31
- 三十二 sānshí’èr 32
- 四十五 sìshíwŭ 45
- 五十七 wŭshíqī 57
- 六十九 liùshíjiŭ 69
- 七十二 qīshí’èr 72
- 八十五 bāshíwŭ 85
- 九十八 jiŭshíjiŭ 99
And so on.
Measure Words In Chinese
One major difference between Chinese and European languages is the use of ‘measure words’, also known as ‘classifiers’. This is a big topic that merits a whole post of its own. But we also need to touch on it briefly here.
In English, if you want to count ‘grass’, you can’t say ‘one grass’ or ‘two grasses’, you have to say ‘one blade of grass’ or ‘two blades of grass’.
Here, ‘blade’ is the ‘measure word’ for grass. However, in English, we don’t always need measure words – we can just say ‘one book’ or ‘three tickets’.
In Chinese, on the other hand, this is not possible. In Chinese, if you use any noun with a number, you must also use the relevant measure word.
For example, the Chinese word for ‘book’ is 书 shū and the measure word for books is 本 bĕn. This means if you want to say ‘one book’, you have to say 一本书 yī bĕn shū. If you just say *一书 yī shū, it is incorrect.
Similarly, ‘ticket’ in Chinese is 票 piào and the measure word for tickets (and many other rectangular objects) is 张 zhāng – so to say ‘three tickets’, you need to say 三张票 sān zhāng piào. If you just say *三票 sān piào, it would be incorrect – and it would also sound very strange.
Chinese Measure Word Shortcuts
Furthermore, when asking for a number of something, if it is obvious what you want, you don’t need to use the noun. You can just use the measure word alone.
For example, when buying three tickets, you could just say 三张 sān zhāng because the person in the ticket office would know you were talking about tickets. This is the equivalent of just saying ‘three please’ in English; that you are talking about ‘tickets’ is implicitly understood.
However, in Chinese, if you just say a number without a measure word in this context, it would be meaningless; you can’t just go into a shop, point at something and say ‘one’ without using a measure word.
Fortunately, there is a general-purpose measure word, 个 gè, that you can use if you don’t know the correct one. This means if you want something but don’t know which measure word to use, you can just point and say 一个 yī gè, ‘one’, and the person you are speaking to will understand.
How To Say ‘Two’ In Chinese
In Chinese, there are two ways to say the number ‘two’.
The word for ‘two’ is 二 èr, as we have already seen. However, to say ‘two (of something)’, you need to use 两 liăng. To put this another way, whenever you use a measure word, you use 两 liăng and not 二 èr.
- 两本书 liăng bĕn shū (two books)
- 两张票 liăng zhāng piào (two tickets)
- 两个人 liăng gè rén (two people)
If you said, for example, *二个人 èr gè rén, it would be incorrect.
Counting From 1 To 9,999 In Chinese
The Chinese for ‘hundred’ and ‘thousand’ are 百băi and 千 qiān respectively – and counting from 100 to 9,999 works just the same as 1-99.
‘One hundred’ is 一百 yībăi, ‘five hundred’ is 五百 wŭbăi, ‘one thousand’ is 一千 yīqiān, ‘seven thousand’ is 七千 qīqiān – and so on.
For ‘two hundred’ and ‘two thousand’, you can say either 二百 èrbăi or 两百 liăngbăi and 二千 èrqiān or 两千 liăngqiān – although the versions with 两 liăng are more common in everyday speech.
To express thousands, hundreds, tens and units, you just follow exactly the same rules, saying the numbers in order.
For example, 1,234 in Chinese is 一千两百三十四 yīqiānliăngbăisānshísì.
Here are some other examples:
- 三百八十七 sānbăibāshíqī 387
- 四千八百九十三 sìqiānbābăijiŭshísān 4,893
- 九千九百九十九 jiŭqiānjiŭbăijiŭshíjiŭ 9,999
If any units are ‘missing’, you need to add the word for ‘zero’ – 零 líng.
- 两百零二 liăngbăilíng’èr 202
- 八千零八 bāqiānlíngbā 8,008
Chinese Numbers Above 9,999
In English, we count up to 1,000 and then repeat the pattern up to a million using tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands.
However, when it comes to bigger numbers, Chinese works differently. In Chinese, 10,000 is 一万 yīwàn, and this unit is then repeated up to ten million, 一亿 yīyì – like this:
- 一万 yīwàn 10,000 (‘one ten-thousand’)
- 十万 shíwàn 100,000 (‘ten ten-thousands’)
- 一百万 yībăiwàn 1,000,000 (‘one hundred ten-thousands’)
- 一亿 yīyì 10,000,000 (‘one ten-million’)
For many people, this is perhaps the most difficult aspect of counting in Chinese. It might help to remember that in Chinese, if you write in numbers rather than characters, the separating comma divides tens of thousands rather than thousands.
This means that while in English, we write 10,000,000, in Chinese this would be written as 1000,0000. However, other than this, numbers above 9,999 follow the same rules as for smaller numbers.
Here are some examples:
- 七万四千七百八十七 qīwànsìqiānqībăibāshíqī 74,787
- 四十五万三千零九十八 sìshíwŭwànsānqiānlíngjiŭshíbā 453,098
- 一百九十四万六千八百二十五 yībăijiŭshísìwànliùqiānbābăièrshíwŭ 1,946,825
- 四亿八千七百四十九万九千八百七十五 sìyìbāqiānqībăisìshíjiŭwànjiŭqiānbābăiqīshíwŭ 487,499,875
Chinese Ordinal Numbers
Ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.) in Chinese could hardly be easier.
To form them, you just add 第 dì to the start of the cardinal number, like this:
- 一 yī 1 => 第一 dìyī (first)
- 二 èr 2 => 第二 dì’èr (second)
- 三 sān 3 => 第三 dìsān (third)
- 十 shí 10 => 第十 dìshí (tenth)
- 十五 shíwŭ 15 => 第十五 dìshíwŭ (fifteenth)
- 二十五 èrshíwŭ 25 => 第二十五 dì’èrshíwŭ (twenty-fifth)
And so on.
These numbers also require you to use the relevant measure words, so for example:
- 第二本书 dì’èr bĕn shū (second book)
Chinese Telephone Numbers & Hand Gestures
In Chinese, when you give a telephone number, you say the numbers individually.
The only difference is that instead of saying 一 yī for ‘one’, you normally say 幺 yāo to avoid confusion.
Interestingly, the telephone number for McDonald’s Delivery in China is 4008-517-517. In Chinese, 517 is pronounced 五幺七 wŭyāoqī, and this sounds a lot like 我要吃 wŏ yào chī – which is Chinese for ‘I want to eat’!
While everyone understands the universal hand gestures for one to five – just holding up the relevant numbers of fingers – in China, the numbers from six to ten also have special hand gestures.
Many Chinese who haven’t had much contact with foreigners might not realise that these gestures are not widely understood outside of China and will expect you to know them, even if you don’t speak Chinese.
If you visit China, it will be useful to learn these gestures – and you can check out this video to see them in action.
A Very Simple Counting System
As I hope you've seen, counting in Chinese is extremely easy – at least up to 9,999, in any case.
Since Chinese pronunciation is very different from English and you also need to use the correct tone when saying each number, I strongly recommend that you practise repeating these numbers out loud.
Practise counting from one to ten, then move on to practising the numbers from 10 to 100. And in a very short amount of time, you will see that you can quickly master Chinese numbers.
So, over to you – what have you learned about Chinese numbers from this post that you didn't know before? Do you feel ready to count in Chinese? Let me know in a comment below.