Chinese Number Slang: The Essential Guide to Mandarin Numerical Speak
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!
Inside this online universe, an interesting phenomenon occurs: Chinese internet slang, and specifically number slang.
It allows people to form sentences, exchange insults and even declare their undying love, simply by typing out a few carefully chosen digits.
Read on for a look at the concept of number slang in more detail and some popular examples.
- 250 / 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ) — Idiot
- 886 / 爸爸六 (bā bā liù) — Goodbye
- 520 / 五二零 (wǔ èr líng) — I love you
- 1314 / 一三一四 (yī sān yī sì) — Forever
- 2013 / 二零一三 (èr líng yī sān) — I’ll love you forever
- 555 / 五五五 (wǔ wǔ wǔ) — Crying noise
- 514 / 五一四 (wǔ yī sì) — I want to die
- 7465 / 七四五六 (qī sì wǔ liù) — You’re making me angry
- How Chinese Number Slang Works
- Resources for Exploring More of Chinese Number Slang
- And One More Thing...
250 / 二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ) — 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, and that’s the case with the pretty common insult “250.”
Basically, 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, of course, is 250, so 二百五 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 or difficult to remember.
886 / 爸爸六 (bā bā liù) — Goodbye
An example of Hong Kong Cantonese internet slang, this one actually seems to make make more sense in Mandarin. While most Chinese number slang terms sound like other Chinese words, this one is used because it sounds like English words… sorta.
“Bā bā liù” sounds close enough to “bye-bye le.” The le refers to 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!”
520 / 五二零 (wǔ èr líng) — I love you
Now we get into more examples using Chinese words that sound similar to numbers. 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!”
1314 / 一三一四 (yī sān yī sì) — Forever
When read in Chinese, 1314 sounds similar to 一生一世 (yī shēng yī shì) — “one life, one world,” meaning “for the rest of my life” or “forever.”
And, if you put the last two examples together, we get what has to be the quickest way to declare undying love in any language: 520 1314, or 我爱你一生一世 (wǒ ài nǐ yī shēng yī shì) — I love you forever!
2013 / 二零一三 (èr líng yī sān) — 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’ll love them forever: 2013.
When read in Chinese, these numbers sound reasonably close to 爱你一生 (ài nǐ yī shēng) — “love you one life!”
555 / 五五五 (wǔ wǔ wǔ) — 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 as “wǔwǔwǔ,” this is an onomatopoeia for crying. Not exactly high literature, but hey, it makes sense!
514 / 五一四 (wǔ yī sì) — 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.
When the number “1” is read as “yao” (more on this below), then 514 sounds like 我要死 (wǒ yào sǐ) — “I want to die.”
7465 / 七四五六 (qī sì wǔ liù) — 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!”
How Chinese Number Slang Works
Here are the digits 0-9, and some of their possible word equivalents:
- 零 (líng) — zero. This 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 pretty interchangeable.
- 一 (yī) — one. Another one that’s a bit tricky. The number one is generally pronounced yī in Chinese, but in some contexts, such as in addresses or phone numbers, it’s pronounced yao to make it more distinct from other similar-sounding numbers. Yao sounds the same as 要 (yào) — to want.
- 二 (èr) — two. This one’s a bit easier! It sounds similar to 饿 (è) — hungry, and similar enough to 爱 (ài) — love.
- 三 (sān) — three. “Three” is used in particularly sappy examples of internet slang, often as a stand-in for 生 (shēng) — life.
- 四 (sì) — four. The most unlucky number in Chinese, 四 sounds like 死 (sǐ) — death.
- 五 (wǔ) — five. This one sounds similar to 我 (wǒ) — I. It’s also an onomatopoeia for crying.
- 六 (liù) — six. “Six” is used in an example that borrows from Cantonese, and also as the grammar particle 了(le).
- 七 (qī) — seven. This sounds the same as 气 (qì) — air, and is used in words such as 生气 (shēng qì) — to be angry.
- 八 (bā) — eight. It sounds like 爸爸 (bà ba) — dad, or a transliteration of the English “bye-bye.”
- 九 (jiǔ) — nine. This is the only digit without a use in the examples above. Congratulations, number nine!
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:
- Wikipedia. This Chinese Internet Slang Wikipedia page dives into even more number slang—if you’re ready for it! Also worth checking out are the Latin and Chinese character abbreviations, if you don’t want to just stop at numbers.
- YellowBridge. This list of Chinese Chat Codes is long enough to occupy you for the foreseeable future. It’s a great resource to bookmark and refer back to!
- FluentU. If you need a refresher (or a deep-dive), this online language learning program can help you reinforce numbers and Chinese slang by seeing them used in Chinese-language videos.
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.
Now, 886 from me!
And One More Thing...
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