Learn Chinese wisdom through Haizi: Episode 1: Numbers 一二三
一 yī: 1
二 èr: 2
三 sān: 3
四 sì: 4
五 wǔ: 5
六 liù: 6
七 qī: 7
八 bā: 8
九 jiǔ: 9
十 shí: 10
百 bǎi: 100
千 qiān: 1,000
万 wàn: 10,000
亿 yì: 100,000,000
Before we start, let’s imagine in the very, very early days, people didn’t write a certain language. They only spoke. At first, they only created a way to say the number one: 一yī. They probably thought as long as they knew how to say the number one, they could count all the countable things. Just like the binary computer language, which only has zero and one and can calculate everything just with those two numbers.
So for a time, one was the largest number in Chinese. It was an infinite number. However, people began to realize that they needed a number bigger than one to make things easier for themselves. So they created a way to say the number two: 二 èr. They were satisfied for a while until it was also not enough. It was the same story for the invention of the numbers three, four, and all the way to nine, as people found the previous biggest number could not satisfy their needs.
As you have seen from the story above, the Chinese numbers were invented one by one, and not all at once. So it makes sense that the number one, which existed first, would affect how the number two looks. The same goes for the other numbers.
Now let’s really start looking into the stories about written numbers in Chinese.
The character 一 evolved from Oracle bone script (considered to be the earliest form of recognizable written Chinese) to the standard Song typeface. It has always remained as the horizontal stroke.
一 is a special indicative character. The abstract symbol 一 not only signifies the simplest origin, but also the most abundant and chaotic universe in its original form.
The original meaning of 一 when it was created was the smallest original unit, or the smallest positive integer.
As the ancient Chinese said, 道立于一，一生二，二生三，三生万物 dào lì yú yī, yī shēng èr, èr shēng sān, sān shēng wàn wù, meaning that the entire chaotic universe in its original form was called 一. Then the entire chaotic universe in its original form divided into 二/two parts: 天 tiān (heaven) and 地 dì (earth). Between 天 and 地, then came 人 rén (person) as the 第三部分 dì sān bù fen (third part). Then 天地人 split into all the other things in the universe.
Here is the more detailed meaning of this saying:
The universe in its original form cannot be described with words. It is not made of gas, solids, or anything else. It is indescribable. All you know is that it is a chaotic entity. It is the beginning of everything, the start of existence. No time and no space can be used because there is absolutely nothing. Ancient Chinese called it 太初 tài chū, literally meaning “ultimate beginning.” 太初 is 一. With 二, heaven and earth, they are two opposite sides. 天 is the 阳 yáng, or positive side; 地 is the 阴 yīn, or negative side. Two absolute opposite gases formed 天 and 地 from 一. The universe is not chaotic anymore. In the harmonious state, 天地人 created all the other things.
Let’s see how the meaning of 一 extended.
Original meaning: number one, the smallest original unit, the smallest positive integer.
一分为二 yī fēn wéi èr: one divides into two
一模一样 yì mú yí yàng: exactly the same (both 模 and 样 mean look/appearance).
一心一意 yì xīn yí yì
The character 二 evolved from Oracle bone script to the standard Song typeface.
Let’s see how the meaning of 二 extended.
Original meaning: n. heaven and earth derived from the entire chaotic universe at its original status
Extended meaning: the number two; the sum of one plus one
二哥 èr gē: second oldest brother
二货 èr huò: dummy, silly (it is not an insult, more like making a joke)
The character 三 evolved from Oracle bone script to the standard Song typeface.
Let’s see how the meaning of 三 extended.
Original meaning: n. heaven, earth and person which derived into all the other things in the universe.
Extended meaning: number three; the sum of one plus two.
一日三餐 yī rì sān cān: three meals per day.
三心二意 sān xīn èr yì: half-minded; be of two minds
三思而后行 sān sī ér hòu xíng: don’t do anything until you have thought about it carefully again and again.
As you can see from the invention of 一二三, Chinese ancestors respect 天 heaven, (where most Chinese Gods and mysterious powers live and control everything on the earth), 地 earth (which gives human beings a place to live and grow food to survive), and 人 people (the most intelligent, honorable creature in the whole universe, who are the third most honorable thing in the universe besides heaven and earth).
There are some similarities between ancient western wisdom and Chinese wisdom. A quick example is when English speakers (who honor God) would say, “Oh, my God!” in their daily life. Chinese would likewise say, 啊，天啊！a, tiān a, or 老天啊 / 苍天啊 / 老天爷啊！啊，我的天啊！lǎo tiān a / cāng tiān a / lǎo tiān yé a! a, wǒ de tiān a! to express the same meaning. In another example, the Holy Bible says the heaven and earth were separated by light when God said, “Let there be light.” It is similar to the Chinese ancestors’ idea that the universe is divided into the two parts of 天 and 地.
You are welcome to comment below and let me know what you think of the invention of Chinese numbers. I would like to hear your opinions related to this article.
Note: The origins of the characters may not be 100% true or explained accurately with my English ability and Chinese understanding of the ancient Chinese philosophers’ great work. Please just take my article for reference.