The Chinese internet is alive and well.
Facebook may be blocked in China, but that doesn’t stop young people from wasting away their lives online just like we do in the West!
The Chinese have developed a whole world of Facebook alternatives, from WeChat to Weibo, with hundreds of millions of users exchanging gossip, memes and stickers.
Inside this online universe, an interesting phenomenon has occurred: Chinese internet slang.
This new “language” has many forms, but one of the most fascinating to the outsider is number slang.
In Chinese, most basic numbers sound reasonably similar to other words. This allows people to form sentences, exchange insults and even declare undying love, simply by typing out a few carefully chosen digits!
But how can this be? The first thing you need to know is that, in order to make Chinese number slang work, you have to want it to work. The numbers don’t always sound exactly the same as the words that they’re substituting for, but if you’re looking for the pattern then it starts to become obvious.
Let’s look at the concept of number slang in more detail, and then we’ll explore some popular examples.
Inside the Weird World of Chinese Number Slang
How Chinese Number Slang Works
Here are the digits 0-9, and some of their possible word equivalents.
- 零 (líng) — “Zero” can be used to mean 你 (nǐ) — “you.” Now, to me, they really don’t sound that similar! But in some Chinese dialects the n and l sounds are interchangeable, so this could be an explanation. It may make more sense when we explore some of the real examples below.
- 一 (yī) — “One.” Another one that’s a bit tricky. The number one is indeed 一 (yī) in Chinese, but in some contexts, such as in addresses or phone numbers, the number is pronounced as yao. This helps make it sound distinct from other similar sounding numbers like 七 (qī) — “seven.” Yao sounds the same as 要 (yào) — “to want.”
- 二 (èr) — “Two.” This one’s a bit easier! 二 (ér) sounds similar to 饿 (è) — “hungry,” and similar enough to 爱 (ài) — “love.”
- 三 (sān) — “Three” is used in particularly sappy examples of internet slang as 生 (shēng) — “life.”
- 四 (sì) — “Four.” The most unlucky number in Chinese, 四 (sì) sounds like 死 (sǐ) — “death.”
- 五 (wǔ) — “Five” sounds similar to 我 (wǒ) — “I.” It’s also an onomatopoeia for crying.
- 六 (liù) — “Six” is used in one example below that borrows from Cantonese, and also as the grammar particle 了(le).
- 七 (qī) — “Seven” sounds the same as 气 (qì) — “air,” as in 生气 (shēng qì) — “to be angry.”
- 八 (bā) — “Eight.” Sounds like 爸爸 (bà ba) — “dad,” or a transliteration of the English “bye-bye.”
- 九 (jiǔ) — “Nine” is the only digit without a use in the examples below. Congratulations, number nine!
Now let’s dive into some examples of Chinese number slang in action.
Chinese Number Slang: Greetings, Insults and Declarations of Love
二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ) — 250: Idiot
We begin with a special case. While you’ve probably noticed that China is pretty big on homophones, similar sounds aren’t the only tools used to create Chinese number slang. Occasionally, half-forgotten myths from Chinese history have lent significance to certain numbers, as with the pretty common insult “250.”
The story is basically that in ancient China, coins were strung together in stacks of 1000. It was considered modest and politely self-deprecating for scholars to refer to themselves as “half a stack”—in other words, “500.” Half of 500 is, of course, 250, so 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ) came to refer to someone who’s so dumb they aren’t even half a stack!
Most people who use this term probably aren’t aware of the origin story, so don’t worry if it’s a bit confusing! This number even has its own Wikipedia page, with more details on the story if you’re interested. Let’s move on now to a few simpler examples.
爸爸六 (bā bā liù) — 886: Goodbye
Apparently an example of Hong Kong Cantonese internet slang, this one actually seems to make make more sense in Mandarin. Unlike the examples that follow, these numbers don’t sound like other Chinese words, but like other English words? Sorta!
“Bābāliù” sounds close enough to “bye-bye le,” the le being the Chinese grammar particle 了, which is used at the end of verbs to indicate past tense or a change in status. A (very) rough approximation of the English meaning would be “Bye-bye then!”
五二零 (wǔ èr líng) — 520: I love you!
Now we get into the examples that draw directly upon what we learned above with the other Chinese words that numbers sound similar to. Let’s break this one down:
五 (wǔ) — 5 = 我 (wǒ) — “I”
二 (èr) — 2 = 爱 (ài) — “love”
零 (líng) — 0 = 你 (nǐ) — “you”
Put it all together, and you get 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — “I love you!”
一三一四 (yī sān yī sì) — 1314: Forever
When read in Chinese, 1314 (yī sān yī sì) sounds similar to 一生一世 (yī shēng yī shì) — “one life, one world.” This means “for the rest of my life” or “forever.”
Putting the last two examples together, we get what has to be the quickest way to declare undying love in any language: 520 1314!
我爱你一生一世 (wǒ ài nǐ yī shēng yī shì) — I love you forever!
二零一三 (èr líng yī sān) — 2013: I’ll love you forever
OK, so I guess I was wrong. If typing the numbers “520 1314” takes too much time, there is in fact an even quicker way to tell someone that you’re going to love them forever: 2013.
When read in Chinese, the numbers sound reasonably close to 爱你一生 (ài nǐ yī shēng) — “love you one life!”
五五五 (wǔ wǔ wǔ) — 555: Crying noise!
If your numeric declaration of undying love was met with deafening silence and you were feeling a bit upset about it, you could express your emotions by writing 555. Read in Chinese, wǔwǔwǔ is an onomatopoeia for crying. Not exactly high literature, but hey, it makes sense!
五一四 (wǔ yao sì) — 514: I want to die!
You may have noticed by now that Chinese number slang tends towards hyperbole. In a world where lifelong dedication to someone can be expressed with a small string of numbers, even the mildest disappointment can call for something that would otherwise be considered extreme.
514 read in Chinese (with 一, or “one,” read as “yao”) sounds like 我要死 (wǒ yào sǐ) — “I want to die!”
七四五六 (qī sì wǔ liù) — 7456: You’re making me angry!
So you’re going through the stages of grief and have passed from tears to fury. Got to be a quick number slang way of expressing this, right? 7456 sounds close enough to 气死我了 (qì sǐ wǒ le) — “you’re angering me to death!”
Resources for Exploring More of Chinese Number Slang
For more ammunition for your ever growing arsenal of Chinese slang, check out this great video from YouTube channel Off The Great Wall:
Here are a few other resources to check out:
- “Chinese Internet Slang” on Wikipedia
- “Chinese Chat Codes” on YellowBridge
- “The Newbie’s Guide to Using Chinese Internet Slang Like a Pro” on FluentU
Speaking of FluentU, that’s an excellent place to check out different types of slang!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You may be realizing that Chinese internet slang is a wild and crazy world! There are practically unlimited possibilities out there for combining numbers to make words and sentences like the examples above.
Some are more commonly used than others, of course, and because pop culture is ever changing, I’d strongly recommend you check with a Chinese friend or teacher before you actually use any of these examples.
886 from me!
Nathan J. Thomas moved from New Zealand to Chengdu, China in 2014 without speaking a word of Mandarin. He is traveling as a freelance writer and editor of the online travel magazine Intrepid Times.