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A Numbers Game

Last month I wrote about the use of numbers in Chinese political discourse. One Country, Two Systems. The Three Represents. The Four Modernizations. But this love of using numbers isn’t limited to politics; numbers are widely used in Chinese idioms (chengyu) and modern-day slang as well.

On the more traditional side, I have a few favorites.

Yi xin yi yi (一心一意), translated “one heart one mind,” is an idiom that is used to express the idea that someone is doing something wholeheartedly. It stands in contrast to san xin er yi (三心二意), literally “three hearts two minds,”which indicates a state of wanting to do several things at once and having a hard time deciding. It is sometimes translated as “half-heartedly.” It reminds me of a former teammate of mine in China who used to say, when confronted with two options, “I feel strongly both ways!”

I’m not the tidiest or most organized person in the world, so the expression luan qi ba zao (乱七八糟) was one I learned and took to heart early. A direct translation is “chaos seven eight in a wretched state.” I’ve never heard a good explanation as to the meaning of the numbers (just saying luan would be good enough), but it does make it one of the more fun idioms to say. It kind of rolls off the tongue. And, it’s a perfect description of my desk.

Shi quan shi mei (十全十美), translated “ten complete, ten beautiful,” is a superlative used to describe something as near perfect. In English we might say that something is “a ten.”

A person who is meticulous at carrying out a task can be described as bai fa bai zhong (百发百中). Literally “a hundred shots, a hundred marks (hits),” it indicates that someone gets it right every time. A perfectionist. You know the type!

Finally, anyone who has studied modern Chinese history knows that during the Mao era, the phrase “Long Live Chairman Mao” was ubiquitous. What might be less well known is that in Chinese it is a numbered phrase: Mao Zhuxi Wan Sui (毛主席万岁)—”Chairman Mao Ten Thousand Years.”

Another interesting expression is er bai wu (二百五), meaning 250. It is a slightly derogatory description of someone who isn’t very bright—an idiot.

In recent years, with the rise of the internet and with the labor intensiveness of using characters to text, Chinese netizens have resorted to numerical homonyms to communicate quickly in text messages.

Are you terribly upset? Type 514—wu yao si. Wu (five) sounds like wo, which means “I.” Yao (a spoken form of the number one—yi) sounds like “will or want to.” And si (four) is the same pronunciation as “to die.”

Do you want to declare your love for someone? Type 520—wu er ling. Wu sounds like wo (I). Er (two) is close to “love” (if you listen real hard). And ling (zero) is close to nin (you), at least in some dialects.

My favorite one, however, was a McDonald’s ad slogan that popped up back in 2009 to promote its new 24-hour delivery service.

It’s really quite clever. There were two lines of characters:  我要吃!我要吃!  In pinyin, they would be written wo yao chiwo yao chi (roughly pronounced “wo yao cher, wo yao cher”). Below the characters is the number to call for McDonalds delivery service, 4800-517-517.  

Here’s the fun part. The pronunciation of 517 is wu yao qi, which sounds a lot like wo yao chi. So, if your stomach is saying wo yao chi, wo yao chi, then you need to call wu yao qi, wu yao qi

Pretty ingenious if you ask me!

I must confess to having availed myself of that service more than a few times.

When I first spotted the McDonald’s ad on a placard in the back of a taxi, it reminded me a very funny story from the 1990s when I was director of a program for Americans studying Chinese at a university in northeast China. As you can imagine, in language learning, there is no end to the funny stories of botched attempts at communication. One of our students was riding a train somewhere and was chatting with several little children. Her intention was to tell the kids that she had seven children herself, which would have been wo you qi ge haizi (I have seven children). 

Unfortunately, that’s not what came out of her mouth. Instead, she said, with a loud voice and arms waving to make her point, wo yao chi haizi (I want—or like—to eat children), whereupon the kids ran away from her screaming.  

A good reminder that language learning can be fun, but it can also be dangerous!

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Image credit: Wonderlane via UnSplash.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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