In China, numbers came into use about 5,000 years ago. From “一” to “十” to “百” (bai, hundred), “千” (qian, thousand), “万” (wan, ten thousand), the number system was complete in the Shang Dynasty.
Numbers were, in fact, initially derived from early hunting practice. The ancients paid a lot of attention to numbers, and many numbers became culturally connotative. People believe that some numbers can bring fortune and luck, and some may bring misfortune and even disaster. In China, the mystery of numbers has been much influenced by the concept of Yin and Yang. The ancients divide numbers into two groups: the odd numbers are Yang, implying “the Heaven, the male,” and the even numbers are yin, implying “the Earth, the female.”
The Han People have attached many meanings to “一” (yi) since ancient times. They believe that all things on earth come from “一,” because the number “一” implies “元” (yuan), “始” (shi), “初” (chu), meaning “the source.” The Taoist believes that “One makes two, and two make three, and three make everything on earth. “一” sometimes means “全” (quan, complete). For example, “一切” (yi qie, all the things); “一地” (yi di, the whole ground); “一心一意” (meaning “全心全意” (quanxin quanyi, wholeheartedly)). “一” often goes together with words related to “quantity”, and implies “whole or complete”. For example, “一身的泥” (yishen deni, with mud all over the body), “苦了一辈子” (kule yi beizi, lead a poor life the whole lifetime). Even when “一” goes with “少” (shao, little), “小” (xiao, small) or other words expressing “small amount or little quantity,” “一” again means “whole, complete.” For example, “一尘不染” (yichen buran, not soiled by a speck of dust); “一丝不苟” (yisi bugou, not be the least negligent), etc. According to the latest Chinese dictionary, the collocated expressions beginning with the word “一” has more than 640 entries.
“二” is the first of the “even numbers,” because other even numbers are all its multiples. Influenced by the Taoism, the Han people believe that even numbers are lucky numbers. In poems, for example, people attach great importance to “对偶” (dui ou, antithesis), “对仗” (dui zhang, matching both sound and sense in two lines, sentences, etc.). In traditional Chinese folk art such as embroidery, paper-cut, sculpture, etc., people are particular about the pairs, which implies “成双成对” (chengshuang chengdui). Another popular expression is “双喜临门” (shuangxi lin men, a double blessing has descended upon the house). So collocations with “二” (er), “两” (liang), or “双” (shuang) always carry a positive sense. There are times, however, when expressions with “二” have a derogative meaning, such as, “二赖子” (er lai zi, a shameless loafer), “二流子” (er liu zi, bum), “二愣子” (er leng zi, a rash fellow), “二百五” (er bai wu, a stupid person), etc.
“三” (san) is a mysterious, odd number. Ancient Chinese worship “三” probably because of the Taoist belief that “three makes all things on earth.” Others believe that the universe is “三维” (san wei, a three-dimensional space) consisting of “the Heaven, the Earth, and the Human,” or “三辰” (san chen, the Sun, the Moon and the Star). People are particular about “三” because they believe that the three things that make up the universe last forever and humans should always stay awed by them.
The Chinese people like to divide things into three parts. For example, a day is divided into three parts: morning, afternoon, evening; the “space” is also divided into the upper, middle, and lower parts, or the front, the middle, and back parts; the age of a person is divided into three stages: the period of young, prime and old.
Many things in history are titled “三” because people think the number “三” implies stability. For example, “鼎” (ding, a kind of vessel used in sacrificial ceremonies) is three-legged; the earliest dynasties in China are named “三代” (san dai) collectively which are “夏” (Xia), “商” (Shang), and “周” (Zhou). When talking about the religion in China, people always think about “Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.” When people offer sacrifice to Heaven, they usually choose cattle, sheep and pig as the sacrifice.
There are many collocated sayings associated with “三.” For example, “三思” (san si, think carefully), “三朝” (san zhao, the third day of a newborn baby on which it is given its second bath), “三伏” (san fu, the three hottest periods of the year, about 30—40 days), “三九天” (san jiu tian, the coldest days in winter), “三国” (san guo, the Three Kingdoms), etc.
Other popular expressions include “三朝元老” (sanchao yuanlao, an official who has served three emperors successively), “三顾茅庐” (sangu maolu, make three calls at the thatched cottage—repeatedly ask somebody to take up a responsible post), “三姑六婆” (sangu liupo, women of dubious character making a living by dishonest means), “三亲六故” (sanqin liugu, relatives, friends and acquaintances), “三生有幸” (sansheng youxing, being the most fortunate), “三阳开泰” (sanyang kaitai, the New Year ushers in a renewal and a change of fortune), etc.
Sayings containing “三” and “两” (liang) often imply “little quantity.” For example, “三三两两” (sansan liangliang, in twos and threes), “三言两语” (sanyan liangyu, in a few words), “三长两短” (san chang liangduan, unexpected misfortune, usually “death”), etc.
However, when “三” goes with “五” or “六,” the saying often implies “large quantity.” For example, “三令五申” (sanling wushen, give repeated injunctions), “三番五次” (sanfan wuci, time and again), “三头六臂” (santou liubi, with three heads and six arms—superhuman powers), “三宫六院” (sangong liuyuan, the imperial harem), etc.
When “三” goes with “四,” the word will have a derogative meaning. For example, “不三不四” (busan busi, dubious), “低三下四” (disan xiasi, lowly, servile), “朝三暮四” (zhaosan musi, chop and change), “颠三倒四” (diansan daosi, disorderly), “丢三落四” (diusan lasi, forget this and that), “说三道四” (shuosan daosi, make irresponsible remarks), “挑三栋四” (tiaosan jiansi, very picky), etc.
“四” is an even number and a multiple of the number “二.” Many Chinese believe that “四” (si, four) is a lucky number, as in the word “四平八稳” (siping bawen, very steady) in Chinese. There are many sayings with “四” in daily conversations. For example, “四面” (si mian, on all sides), “四邻” (si lin, one’s near neighbors), “四海” (si hai, the whole country), “四肢” (si zhi, the four limbs), “四时” (si shi, the four seasons), “四散” (si san, scatter in all directions), etc.
There are many other popular expressions with “四”. For example, “四分五裂” (si fen wulie, fall apart), “四面楚歌” (simian chuge, be besieged on all sides), “四大皆空” (sida jiekong, transcend the physical existence), “四处游说” (sichu youshui, go about selling an idea, canvass for), etc. Also, “四” has been used in many other ways. For example, the Yangtze, the Yellow, Heilong Jiang River, and the Pearl are called the “the Four Rivers” in China; Dongting Lake, Poyang Lake, Qinghai Lake and Taihu Lake are “the Four Lakes”; Mount Wutai (in Shanxi Province), Mount E’mei (in Sichuan Province), Mount Jiuhua (in Anhui Province) and Mount Putuo (in Zhejiang Province) are “the Four Mountains related with Buddhism in China;” compass, papermaking, printing and powder are “the Four Great Inventions” in the Chinese history.
However, “四” are also considered as an ominous number by many people, as “四” pronounces almost the same as “死” (death). Therefore, “四” sometimes becomes a taboo number for hospital wards, bus routes or even for buildings. In some places in China, there are no Bus No. 4 or the 4th and 14th floor in a building.
The Han people also like “五.” Many things in daily life are named with “五.” For example, “五彩” (wu cai, the five colors, multicolored), “五更” (wu geng, the five watches or periods of the night), “五谷” (wu gu, the five cereals), “五官” (wu guan, the five organs on the face),” “五味” (wu wei, the five flavors), “五香” (wu xiang, the five spices), “五脏” (wu zang, the five internal organs), “五指” (wu zhi, the five fingers), etc.
Other popular expressions with “五” are “五光十色” (wuguang shise, multicolored), “五花八门” (wuhua bamen, multifarious), “五彩滨纷” (wucai binfen, colorful), “五大三粗” (wuda sancu, big and tall), “五体投地” (wuti toudi, prostrate oneself before sb.), “五马分尸” (wuma fenshi, tear a person apart), “五谷不分” (wugu bufen, cannot tell the five cereals apart), “五谷丰登” (wugu fengdeng, a bumper harvest), etc.
“六” is the multiple of “二” and “三” and is an even number. “六” is always considered an auspicious number and many expressions containing “六” are very popular, such as “六六大顺” (liu liu da shun, smooth and success). Ancient Han people used to name things with “六.” For example, “六合” (liu he, the Heaven, the Earth, and the Four Directions) in universe, “六欲” (liu yu, life, death, ear, eye, mouth and nose), and “六亲” (liu qin, father, mother, elder brother, younger brother, wife and son).
Other common sayings with “六” are: “六畜” (liu chu, the six domestic animals—pig, ox, goat, horse, fowl and dog), “身怀六甲” (shenhuai liujia, be pregnant), “六淫” (liu yin, the six eternal factors which cause diseases), “六弦琴” (liu xian qin, guitar), “六亲不认” (liuqin buren, disown all one’s relatives and friends), “六神无主” (liushen wuzhu, distracted, out of wits), “六十甲子” (liushi jiazi, a cycle of sixty years), etc.
“七” is an unique number not only in China but also in the world. According to the Bible, the world is created in 7 day, so there are seven days in a week. In Chinese mythology, Nvwa created cock on the 1st day, dog the 2nd day, goat the 3rd day, pig the 4th day, ox the 5th day, horse the 6th day, and human beings are created on the 7th day. The first four animals work in the Four Directions, while ox farms on land and horse flies in the sky and, the holy human beings are in the centre.
“七” is related to many collocated sayings in language too. For example, “七情” (qi qing, the seven human emotions—joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate and desire), “七夕” (qi xi, the seventh evening of the seventh month when the Herd-boy and the Weaving-girl are supposed to meet), “七窍” (qi qiao, the seven apertures in the human head, i.e. eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth), “七七” (qi qi, offer sacrifice to the dead every 7 days for 7 consecutive weeks), etc.
“七” is also related to human life. The 7th year is the time for children to go to school and for them to grow permanent teeth. So there is a saying among people, “七岁看老” (qisui kanlao, one’s whole life can be predicted from his or her behavior in the 7th year). In the old days, people always talk about the seven important daily necessities in their life, which are wood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea.
“七” often goes with “八” in many collocated expressions, and these expressions always carry a derogative sense. For example, “七零八落” (qiling ba luo, scattered here and there), “七拼八凑” (qi pin bacou, piece together), “七上八下” (qishang baxia, be agitated; be perturbed), “七手八脚” (qi shou bajiao, with everyone lending a hand), “七嘴八舌” (qizui bashe, with everyone trying to get a word in; all talking at once), etc.
“八” is an even number favored by most people, as it is considered a symbol of good luck. In the past, during weddings or other celebrations, people will always have eight kinds of food on small plates and cook eight dishes, called “八碟八菜” (ba die ba cai).
People like to name things with “八.” For example, “八宝饭” (babaofan, eight-treasured rice pudding), “八仙桌” (baxcianzhuo, Eight Immortals table—an old-fashioned square table for eight people), “八音盒” (ba yin he, a musical box). In addition, there is “八卦” (bagua, the Eight Trigrams), “八仙” (baxian, The Eight Immortals in Taoist mythology), “八宝山” (babaoshan, the Eight-treasured Mountains), etc. Other collocated sayings include “八面玲珑” (bamian linglong, be smooth and slick in establishing social relations), “八面威风” (bamian wei feng, a commanding presence), “八拜之交” (babai zhi jiao, sworn brotherhood), “八九不离十” (bajiu buli shi, pretty close, very near), “八字还没一撇儿” (bazi haimei yipie er, things aren’t even starting to take shape yet).
Today, “八” is very popular among the people, as “八” pronounces like “发” (fa, make a fortune). People always want their room number, car number, telephone number, etc. to contain the number “八.” On August 8th, 1988, people in Hongkong and Macao had a happy celebration as if they were celebrating an important festival, because there are four “八” in the date, August 8th, 1988. Interestingly, people like to have the number “一” to go with the number “八,” because the pronunciation “一” (1) is similar to “要 (yao)”, and “八” (8) sounds like “发 (fa).” Therefore, “18” sounds like “要发 (yao fa),” which reflects people’s wish to have a good fortune. Furthermore, the three numbers 1, 8, and 6 pronounced together sounds like “要发啰” (yao fa lou, one will definitely make a good fortune). So today room numbers or phone numbers containing “186” are usually very expensive, but many people are vying for those numbers.
“九” is the biggest among the cardinal numbers and pronounces the same as “久” (jiu, for long), so it has always been regarded as a lucky number. Since ancient times, “九,” in the minds of the people, has implied “the highest, the most.” Therefore, the ancients like to use “九天” (jiu tian, the nine-layer sky) to represent the Heaven, “九州” (jiu zhou) the Earth, “九道” (jiu dao) the Moon, and “九光” (jiu guang) the Sun. As people think that the Heaven is made up of nine layers, two sayings containing “九” are very popular i.e., “九重天” (jiu chong tian, the top of the Heaven) and “九霄云外” (jiuxiao yunwai, beyond the highest heaven—far, far away).
Emperors in ancient China like “九” because they wanted their time in power to be long and respected. Emperors often named themselves “九重天,” because they believed that they are the sons of the Heaven who had the highest power. Emperors also liked to wear “九龙袍” (jiu long pao, yellow gown embroidered with nine dragons). Emperor Yongle in Ming Dynasty built nine city gates around the Forbidden City and constructed the “九龙壁” (jiu long bi, walls with nine dragons) on the wall of the City. Many buildings inside the Forbidden City have been constructed with nine roof beams and 18 (a double of 9) columns. The number of the steps in the Forbidden City is either nine or multiples of nine. In the palace, there are altogether 9,999 rooms.
There are many collocated sayings related with “九,” too. For example, “九泉” (jiu quan,” the nether world), “九头鸟” (jiu tou niao, a crafty fellow), “九牛一毛” (jiuniu yimao, a drop in the ocean), “九死一生” (jiu si yisheng, a narrow escape from death), “九九归一” (jiujiu guiyi, when all is said and done; after all), “三教九流” (sanjiao jiuliu, people from all walks of life), “九牛二虎之力” (jiuniu erhu zhili, tremendous effort), etc.
There are other popular sayings related to the multiples of “九.” For example, “十八般武艺样样精通” (shiba ban wuyi yangyang jingtong, skilled in various types of martial arts), “十八层地狱” (shiba ceng diyu, the worst place in hell), “女大十八变” (nvda shiba bian, there is no telling what a girl will look like when she grows up), “三十六计，走为上” (sanshi liu ji, zouwei shang, retreat is the best strategy), “七十二变” (qishi er bian, 72 transformations, countless changes of tactics), “七十二行” (qishi erhang, all sorts of occupations).
The Han people worship the number “十,” which implies “perfection and satisfaction,” as in the Chinese saying “十全十美” (shiquan shimei, be perfect in every way).
People's frequent use of “十” can be traced back to the period of Spring and Autumn and Warring States (春秋战国, chunqiu zhanguo, 770 B. C.—221 B. C.). Because “十” implies “many, much” or “complete, full,” many common sayings related to “十” also have that meaning. For example, “十分” (shi fen, very, fully, extremely), “十足” (shi zu, pure, downright), “什锦” (shi jin, assorted), “一目十行” (yimu shihang, take in ten lines at a glance—read rapidly), “十恶不赦” (shi’e bushe, guilty of unpardonable evil), “十拿九稳” (shina jiuwen, ninety percent sure), “十年树木” (shinian shumu, it takes ten years to grow a tree), “十年寒窗” (shinian hanchuang, a student’s long years of hard study), “十万火急” (shiwan huoji, most urgent).
Today "十" is often used to sum up the best or most important of something. For instance, “Ten Best Singers of the Year,” “Ten Best National Sports Star of the Year” “Ten Most Important National News in 2004”, and “Ten Most Important World News in 2004”, etc. In 1959 there was “a 10-year anniversary celebration” for the founding of the nation, which was “big and grand.”
“百” is the ten times as much as “十.” “千” (qian) is a hundred times as much as “十.” “万” (wan) is a thousand times as much as “千.” Like other numbers, “百, 千, 万” in the Chinese language have been used in many vivid expressions.
According to a statistical analysis on the earliest formal writings and poems, “百” is the most frequently used, and “万” is more used than “千.” History records show that “百,” “佰” (bai) and “伯” (bo) mean the same in ancient Chinese. As is known, “炎黄子孙” (yanhuang zisun, descendants of Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang) is made up with Emperor “炎” and Emperor “黄” and hundreds of other people with different names, so ordinary people are called “百姓” (baixing) or “百工” (baigong), and government officials are called “百僚” (bailiao) or “百官” (baiguan).
Other popular collocated sayings related to “百” are: “百般” (baiban, in every possible way), “百货” (baihuo, general merchandise), “百姓” (baixing, the common people), “百家” (baijia, various academic schools), “百岁” (bai sui, lifetime), “百褶裙” (baizhe qun, pleated skirt), “百感交集” (baigan jiaoji, all sorts of feelings accumulate in one’s heart), “百年大计” (bainian daji, a project of vital and lasting importance), “百折不挠” (baizhe bunao, be indomitable), “百战百胜” (baizhan bai sheng, be ever-victorious), “百废俱兴” (bai fei juxing, all neglected tasks are being undertaken, full-scale construction is under way), “百依百顺” (baiyi baishun, total obedience), etc.
In expressions, “千,” doesn’t refer to an exact number. Usually, it means “a large number of something.” For example, “千古” (qiangu, eternity), “千金” (qianjin, a lot of gold), “千层饼” (qiancengbing, multi-layer steamed bread), “千里马” (qianlima, a steed), “千里眼” (qianliyan, a farsighted person), etc.
Similarly, there are many collocated sayings related to “千,” and “千” often goes together with “百.” For example, “千里迢迢” (qianli tiaotiao, from afar), “千篇一律” (qianpian yilv, following the same pattern), “千奇百怪” (qianqi baiguai, all kinds of strange things), “千载难逢” (qianzai nanfeng, the chance of a lifetime), “千钧一发” (qianjun yi fa, in imminent peril), “千方百计” (qianfang baiji, try every conceivable means) , etc.
“万” is the simplified form of “萬,” which originally means “scorpion.” Some scholars think “萬” is the name of a kind of dance. But “万,” the simplified form, in fact, existed in as early as the Warring States period. “万” implies great quantity in people’s minds. For example, people in feudal times were obliged to address emperors as “万岁” (wansui), which means that emperors can live ten thousand years. Expressions containing “万” also don’t mean the exact number. Instead, it implies “the greatest number.” For example, “万事” (wanshi, all things), “万难” (wannan, extremely difficult), “万能” (wanneng, all-powerful), “万象” (wanxiang, every phenomenon on earth), “万物” (wanwu, all things of creation on earth), “万机” (wanji, a myriad of state affairs), “万幸” (wanxing, very lucky), “万金油” (wanjinyou, a balm for treating headaches, scalds and other minor ailments—Jack of all trades and master of none), “万事通” (wanshitong, know-it-all), “万年青” (wannianqing, evergreen).
“百,千,万” often go together to make up many exaggerative expressions. The collocated words are often in the following form: “百万X,” “千X百X,” “千 X 万 X,” “万 X 千 X.” For example, “百万雄师” (baiwan xiongshi, a mighty army), “千军万马” (qianjun wanma, a powerful army), “千言万语” (qianyan wanyu, thousands and thousands of words), “千娇百媚” (qianjiao baimei, a woman of bewitchingly charming), “千键百炼” (qianchui bailian, thoroughly tempered), “万水千山” (wanshui qianshan, a long and arduous journey), “万紫千红” (wanzi qianhong, a riot/blaze of color).
In the minds of the Chinese people, “零” (ling) is the same as the Arabic number “0”, which means “nothing.” However, unlike “0,” “零” has other implicit meanings besides its numerical value.
The character “零” contains a part of “雨” (yu), therefore “零” was related to “rain” originally. “零” referred to rain drops before a storm in ancient China. Gradually, “零” was endowed with the meanings of scattered and dispersed things. It is reflected in the following expressions: “感激涕零” (ganji tiling, be moved to tears of gratitude), “零星” (lingxing), “零散” (ling san), “零碎” (ling sui), “零敲碎打” (lingqiao suida, do sth. bit by bit). In the expression “零钱” (ling qian, loose change), “零头” (ling tou, the remaining sum beyond the round figure), “零花” (ling hua, spend money on minor purchases), “零食” (ling shi, between-meal nibbles), “零售” (ling shou, sell retail), and “零活儿” (ling huo er, odd job), etc.
“零” also implies “the withering trees and grass,” thus conjuring up the feelings of loneliness, decline and death.” For example, “零落” (ling luo), “调零” (diao ling), “孤零零” (gu ling ling). It is true that many expressions with “零” carry a derogative sense.
As a number, "零" sometimes doesn't mean there is "nothing." For example, when the thermometer says "零度" (ling du, zero), it doesn't mean “nothing,” but means the start of temperature. Similarly, when we say "零时" (ling shi), it doesn't mean there is "no hour." When we say the baby is "零岁," it doesn't mean the baby has no "age."