Counting in China

Have you ever been to a store in China and people tried to communicate with you with strange hand gestures? In this country, you can actually count to ten using only one hand. And, if you are really savvy, you can even count all the way up to 99 with your hands alone. These number gestures are not super-intuitive for foreigners, so they merit a closer look. How about we get right to it?

It starts simply enough. The signs for the numbers one through five are readily understandable even to the untrained laowai’s eye:


But from the number six onwards, it gets tricky.

You sign the number six by splaying out your thumb and your pinkie, like miming a cow’s horns or something. By doing this, you emulate the character for six. Don’t see it? If you point your thumb and pinkie to the ground, it looks like the bottom half of the character. Kind of.


The number seven is made by putting your thumb, your forefinger and your middle finger together, a bit like a pecking chicken. Unfortunately, I do not have the slightest idea what this is supposed to have to do with the number seven or its Chinese character. Just try to memorize seven chicken pecking away in a yard…


The number eight looks like the number two in many other countries – you push out your thumb and your forefinger. Like the sign for six, this sign sort of looks like its corresponding Chinese character when you point your fingers towards the ground. This number sign can lead to some interesting misunderstandings between foreigners and locals. Let’s say you are a German expat in China, and you try to show a waitress you would like to buy two beers in the same way as you would at home. Chances are you will end up with a lot more beer than you bargained for. Ganbei!


The number nine in China is signed by crooking your forefinger. Think Captain Hook from Peter Pan. Simple, right? If you tilt your head and squint a little, it even looks like a crummy number nine – drawn by a kindergartener.


Not quite as simple is the number ten, the reason being that there are several different ways of signing this number. First (and this is the most common way) is by forming a fist, as if you were punching the air (“perfect ten – yeah!”).


The second way is by crossing your middle finger over your forefinger. This resembles the Chinese character for the number ten, which is a simple cross, standing upright.


And the third way of signing ten that I have seen (there might be more, if you know any, please tell me in the comments below!) is by forming a cross with both your forefingers. But to me, that’s cheating. Because we said with only one hand, right?


Now you know the special sign language and can practice it in Shenyang Markets! Leave your comments below and share this article with your friends. And of course  you are very welcome to follow us on Wechat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Written by Julie Marx

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