The National Bureau of Statistics today released the results of its latest population census, and the headline figures are all over the Western media. It’d be far too obvious to comment on them directly in this blog, but there is an angle that I’d like to share with any non-Mandarin speakers.
When I was tracing the length of the Grand Canal of China for The Emperor’s River, several times I came across a phrase which has become a shorthand in recent years for the awesome size of China’s population.
The phrase is shisan yi 十三亿, “the 1.3 billion”, and it’s a great example of how the Western counting system, which we might assume is universal, is in fact only one way of conceptualizing large numbers.
Traditional Chinese numerals start with one to ten, as you’d expect, with a single character for each (一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十). Eleven is ten-one 十一, 12 is ten-two 十二, through to 20, which is two-ten 二十, and then all the numbers up to 99 are very predictable: 58 is five-ten-eight 五十八, for example.
It gets different after 100, since the Chinese carry on using a single character for each factor of 10, whereas in Arabic numerals we add an extra nought. So, 100 is bai 百, 1,000 is qian 千, and 10,000 is wan 万. When the Chinese want to express “69,000”, they say liuwan jiuqian 六万九千, or “six (times) ten thousand (and) nine thousand”. The Chinese for 100,000 is shiwan 十万, i.e., “ten (times) ten thousand”; one million is baiwan 百万, “(one) hundred (times) ten thousand”; ten million is qianwan 千万, “(one) thousand (times) ten thousand”. So, 12,345,678 is said as yiqian erbai sanshisi wan wuqian liubai qishiba 一千二百三十四万五千六百七十八, or literally “one thousand two hundred (and) thirty-four (times) ten thousand (plus) five thousand six hundred and seventy-eight”. Even after twenty years I still have to stop and think hard before translating numbers.
But things really start to hurt your brain when the numbers get bigger and denser. The Chinese have a single character yi 亿 meaning 100,000,000, and this is where my original phrase shisan yi 十三亿, “(the) one point three billion”, comes in. It literally means “ten-three-onehundredmillion”, or “thirteen (times) one hundred million”, or 1.3 billion in our terms, so when the Chinese say their total population according to the latest census - 1,339,724,852 - it comes out as “thirteen (times) one hundred million (plus) three thousand nine hundred and seventy-two (times) ten thousand (plus) four thousand eight hundred and fifty two”.
Chinese counting is made even more fun by some extra little points. Firstly, the Chinese use the Arabic system (1, 2, 3...) alongside their own traditional numerals, so you see both everywhere and have to think in one but write in another. Secondly, there is a complimentary series of characters for one to ten, one hundred, one thousand etc which are used when there’s a chance of fraud and where the everyday written characters could be altered. Compare, for example, one to ten in normal and long form...
一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十 (normal)
壹, 贰, 叁, 肆, 伍, 陆, 柒, 捌, 玖, 拾 (long)
Thirdly, the character yi (meaning 10,000) was traditionally written 儀 until the 1950s, when in the PRC at least it was simplified to 亿, which is scarcely worthy of such a big number. To add insult to injury for foreigners, the Mandarin word for “one” is pronounced yi with a high flat tone (though this tone can change depending on what character follows it...) while the word for “ten thousand” is pronounced yi with a falling tone. It’s not unknown for students starting out in Mandarin to ask for “ten thousand cups of tea, please”....