Beginners’ Chinese: a taster course
Beginners’ Chinese: a taster course

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Beginners’ Chinese: a taster course

4 Basic numbers

In this section you will learn the basic numbers from 1–10 and how to form more complex numbers from these. You will also learn the hand gestures for these basic numbers.

The numbers 0–99

  • líng 0
  • 1
  • èr 2
  • sān 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • liù 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • jiǔ 9
  • shí 10

Once you know the numbers 1–10 in Chinese, it is easy to form the rest of the numbers up to 99. For example:

  • 十一shíyī 11 (ten one)
  • 十二shí’èr 12 (ten two)
  • 二十èrshí 20 (two ten)
  • 三十sānshí 30 (three ten)
  • 四十sìshí 40 (four ten)
  • 二十一èrshíyī 21 (two ten one)
  • 二十二èrshí’èr 22 (two ten two)

When you come to read Chinese, you will notice that Chinese people frequently write down numbers in Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, etc.) – a habit that has become increasingly widespread in recent years. The numeral ‘0’ is used particularly often because the Chinese character for zero () is so complicated.

In the next activity you will practise saying the numbers from zero to ten.

Activity 9 Numbers

Listen to the numbers from 0 to 5 in Chinese. After each number, pause and repeat.

0 líng


2 èr

3 sān



Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 21
Skip transcript: Audio 21

Transcript: Audio 21




End transcript: Audio 21
Audio 21
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Now listen to numbers 6-10 in Chinese. After each number, pause and repeat.

6 liù



9 jiǔ

10 shí

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 22
Skip transcript: Audio 22

Transcript: Audio 22




End transcript: Audio 22
Audio 22
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Good and bad numbers

As in most cultures, numbers have specific connotations in Chinese. For instance, Chinese regard eight as a lucky number because it sounds very similar to the word for ‘get rich’ (fā) or ‘good fortune’ in Cantonese. More importantly, eight lies at the heart of an ancient Chinese belief system, built around an eight-sided diagram called 八卦 bā guà. It has often been seen as providing a guide to life and has been applied to contexts as diverse as urban planning and diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine. Because eight is a lucky number, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opened at 8 p.m. on the 8th day of the 8th month in 2008! Four, on the other hand, is not a good number in Chinese culture as sounds similar to the word meaning ‘death’ or ‘to die’.

Activity 10 Phone numbers

Telephone numbers are read out digit by digit. Listen to this telephone number. Can you write down the number you hear? Listen as many times as you want.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 23
Skip transcript: Audio 23

Transcript: Audio 23

líng  èr yī  bā wǔ  sì  jiǔ sān  liù  qī  qī  

End transcript: Audio 23
Audio 23
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021 8549 3677

In some northern dialects, when saying telephone numbers, the number one is usually pronounced yāo to avoid confusion between the numbers one () and seven (). Telephone numbers are always given digit by digit in Chinese: e.g. 77 would be ‘seven seven’, rather than ‘double seven’.

Culture note: hand gestures

In Chinese there are special hand gestures for each number from 1 to 10. You can learn them and practice by copying those shown in Figure 6. Give it a try and have fun with numbers.

Hand gestures for numbers one to ten. Full description in long description link.
Figure 6 Hand gestures for numbers one to ten.

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