Knowing how to count in a foreign language is always a good skill to have. Together with the universal language of pointing, being able to express how many of a certain kind you would like, or how much you are willing to pay, will help you stay fed, sheltered, and stocked up on useless souvenirs. But, while you may think it’s simple enough to just hold up a certain amount of fingers to indicate how much you would like, if you look at the picture on the left, you can see that in China, hand gestures for counting look quite different from those elsewhere in the world. Ask the person sitting next to you right now if he/she can show how to count on your fingers, and changes are that they will start with pointing up their thumb (one, yī , 一), index finger (two, ér , 二), middle finger (three, sān , 三), ring finger (four, sì , 四), etc. Not in China. The thumb doesn’t show up until you hit five (wǔ ，五), having started with your index finger, followed by your middle finger, ring finger, and pinky. But after that, it gets even more interesting. Instead of having to worry about using two hands to indicate numbers higher than five, the Chinese have developed a system that only requires one hand, leaving the other free to do things like carrying more groceries, holding on to grandchildren, fanning your fan, or whatever else. The number 10 (shí, 十), here indicated by using your two index fingers to make a cross (which looks like the character for ten), can also be made by simply presenting a fist (all fingers drawn in), which is derived from the homophone shí 石, meaning rock (like in rock, paper, scissors).
When you want to emphasize the three main reasons for doing something, you would once again use three fingers, sticking them out one by one, to clarify to the other party that you mean business on these ONE, TWO, THREE points. Not in China. Rather than sticking fingers out, Chinese will start to fold their fingers in towards their palms (using the other hand), starting with the thumb, when trying to emphasize ONE, TWO, THREE different arguments or points.
Using gestures to indicate numbers can sometimes be the best way of communication, especially when languages get mixed up in the brain. After studying Chinese for several years, a friend of mine tried to buy three baguettes in a little bakery in France by saying: “Je voudrais san (three in Chinese) baguette, s’il vous plait.” It took us a while to figure out why the lady behind the counter gave us such strange and incomprehensible looks. If only we used the power of our hands to communicate…
If you have more stories or fun facts about counting in China or Chinese, leave us a comment! On ChinaConnectU, we have a complete lesson plan about numbers, dates, and times, including a video, PowerPoint presentation, exercise sheet, vocabulary lists, and grammar points.