Chinese Numbers: The Basics of Counting

chinese numbers你好!今天来学数字!

Numbers and counting in Chinese is fairly straightforward. They follow familiar conventions of counting one through ten and it’s relatively easy since every number from 11 to 99 is just some combination of those first ten numerals. Also, they do have separate Chinese characters for numbers but Arabic numerals, the ones you see on signs, math books, etc. are also used.

For this post, I’m going to assume that you are somewhat familiar with Chinese pronunciations and the tones, so I’ll be using pinyin throughout. If you aren’t familiar with the sounds that pinyin represent, I’d recommend this Elementary Class for Chinese Pronunciation. It covers all the pinyin and their associated pronunciations.

Having said that, let’s get started!

From 1-10

These are the foundation of all the numbers from 11 to 99, so these are the ones to get familiar with to start. I’ll include the character for each as well.

  • 1:一 ( )
  • 2: 二 (èr)
  • 3: 三 (sān)
  • 4: 四 ()
  • 5: 五 ( )
  • 6: 六  (liù)
  • 7: 七 ( )
  • 8: 八 ()
  • 9: 九 (jiǔ)
  • 10: 十 (shí )

Easy enough.

It should be noted that the number 1 in Chinese is said as it is written above, with a first tone. Whenever it is used as a number or part of a number, it will always have that first tone. However, when it is being used to indicate quantity, the tone will change according to the thing counted. If the word following is a fourth tone, then changes to a second tone. The other tones all change to a fourth tone.

Another note is that when you say the number 2 in Chinese, you use èr. However, when you talk about two of something, of anything, it becomes a different word, liăng 两 . It’s similar to the English usage of “a couple” when we mean “two of”. It is not a number at all, so it never stands in as 2 in phone numbers or addresses or in anything where a number is required. Only when talking about “two of”.

From 11-99

Now that you’ve got 1-10 down, you can learn the rest.

In order to form the numbers from 11 through 19 you use the number 10 shí and add another to it, so effectively the numbers are “ten and…”. Like so:

  • 11: 十一 (shíyī)
  • 12: 十二 (shíèr)
  • 13: 十三 (shísān)
  • 14: 十四 (shísì)
  • 15: 十五 (shíwǔ )
  • 16: 十六 (shíliù)
  • 17: 十七 (shíqī)
  • 18: 十八 (shíbā)
  • 19: 十九 (shíjiǔ )

You get the basic idea, that in Chinese numbers are combined to indicate other, larger numbers. The same goes for everything up to 99.

For 20, you just say “two tens”, èrshí 二十. You do the same for 30 and make it “three tens”, sānshí 三十. All the multiples of 10 follow this rule.

  • 20: 二十 (èrshí)
  • 30: 三十 (sānshí)
  • 40:  四十 (sìshí)
  • 50: 五十 (wǔshí)
  • 60: 六十 (liùshí)
  • 70: 七十 (qīshí)
  • 80: 八十 (bāshí)
  • 90: 九十 (jiǔshí)

To count then, you will use those multiples and, like 11-20 you will add the appropriate number after the ten. Here are all the numbers from 21 to 29 to illustrate. They all follow the pattern “two tens and…”, e.g. 21 is “two tens and one”. You don’t use liǎng in 20 at all, even though it is “two of” something.

  • 21 十一(èrshíyī)
  • 22: 二十二 (èrshíèr)
  • 23: 二十三 (èrshísān)
  • 24: 二十四 (èrshísì)
  • 25: 二十五 (èrshíwǔ)
  • 26:二十六 (èrshíliù)
  • 27:二十七 (èrshíqī)
  • 28:二十八 (èrshíbā)
  • 29: 二十九 (èrshíjiǔ)

This is the pattern for all the numbers up to 99.

Learn Mandarin Chinese is an all audio class that covers numbers, if you would like a bit more coaching, and learn some basic Mandarin.

100 and beyond

Once you get to 99, you go on to one hundred.

  • 100: 一百 (băi)

Similar to the multiples of 10, and as in English, you say the number of hundreds.

  • 200 èrbăi, also, liǎngbǎi
  • 300 sānbǎi
  • 400 sìbǎi

and so on…

When you want to count from 101 to 109, you will also need to know a new number word, and that’s the word for zero.

In Chinese 0 is 零 (líng).

Similar to the practice of saying 101 as “one-oh-one”, you add a líng between the one hundred and the one and say bǎilíngyī. The numbers follow this rule up to 109.

  • 102: 一百零二 (yībǎilíngèr)
  • 103: 一百零三 (yībǎilíngsān)
  • 109: 一百零九 (bǎilíngjiǔ)

For 110 you will add 1 in between the bǎi and the shí, to show that it is just one 10 being used.

  • 110: 一百一十 (yìbǎiyìshí)

After this, it is simply the same pattern as before, just like counting multiples of 10, starting with the number in the hundreds spot.

Unlucky number 4

Now this is cultural and has nothing to do with counting. In Chinese, numbers and their implied meaning of prosperity (or lack of it) take on a different significance than in the West. And just like not everyone believes things are lucky or unlucky in the West, not all Chinese people believe this either.

For example, the number 4 in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for death, 死 (), making it an “unlucky” number. As in America and other places, people will relabel floors of a highrise building to avoid a 13th floor, Chinese folks will also avoid labeling a 4th floor. Especially in hospitals. Car registrations, licenses and flight numbers are all things folks may try to avoid or change if it contains a 4. It’s also generally wise to avoid giving gifts of money or numbers of things that are in fours, since that may imply you hate the person. (“Go die” in Chinese is the equivalent of “go to hell” in English.)

Good numbers to stick with are 6 or 8, as they are linked to prosperity and wealth due to having similar pronunciations to auspicious words.

There you have it. A basic breakdown of numbers and counting in Chinese. If you’d like to learn more there are a couple beginning classes here on Udemy, How to Speak Chinese and Mandarin Lessons. Both are pretty highly rated and cheap, with How to Speak Chinese at the low price of $0. They should both prove excellent introductions to learning more Mandarin.

If you’re traveling, Chinese 101 is geared for people going to China and has another series of lessons after this first set. It also covers numbers, but also things like taxis and checking in to a hotel.

Best of luck! 加油!