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A common experience of beginner hanzi students is their raised hopes and expectations when they learn 一 二 三 - "what a wonderfully elegant language!" - which are promptly crushed when they encounter 四.

So where did these characters come from anyway? Were they once more elegant and morphed in time? Or were the characters representative of other things?

一 二 三: horizontal lines, easy!

四: this is kind of like a square I guess, but what's that in the middle?

五: ok this is like 5 strokes, why in this particular shape though?

六 七 八 九: now I have no idea what's going on!

I apologise if the answers are easily found online; I think the answers would be very interesting and useful to have in one place.

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五 is four strokes. – Dietrich Epp Oct 4 '13 at 8:03
Why isn't 百 one hundred lines? – hippietrail Oct 4 '13 at 10:29
Why isn't 4 "IIII" in Roman Numerals? – shuangwhywhy Oct 7 '13 at 18:25
You don't have to figure out what's going on. It's even more mysterious to me that Arabic numerals look like "0123456789". – shuangwhywhy Oct 7 '13 at 18:31
arabic looks much more different… – Boris Ivanov Dec 2 '13 at 16:07

There are some historical reasons, in short:

  • 一: one bar. May mean the whole, the universe. Reference.

  • 二: two bars. May mean the positive and negative. The upper may refer to the heaven, the lower the earth. Reference.

  • 三: three bars. The upper may refer to the heaven, the lower the earth, and the middle the human. Reference.

  • 四: First |||| (four bars), then combines with 二 to avoid ambiguity: enter image description here, like being mistaken to be two ||. Reference.

  • 五: First a 二 with X in between: enter image description here. The two bars are sky and earth, the X being the intersection between them, to mean all positive number greater than four. Reference.
  • 六: enter image description here, a house with four sides plus roof and ground giving six. Reference.
  • 七: Designed originally to be 十 (meaning all number greater than six) with a twist on the bottom: enter image description here. Reference.
  • 八: Opposite bracket-like curve enter image description here meaning "divide", used to be greatest number. See 八卦. Reference.
  • 九: Designed originally to be a right arm (enter image description here) reaching for something. Nine bears a meaning of great, the number of categories for many things. Reference.
  • 十: | (a rope overhung) combines with a knot on it: enter image description here. Using ten to mean "all" may be because of the fact that we have ten fingers. Reference.

Languages are not designed by one inventor once and for all.

There is an evolution. At first, people invent those most frequently used: one, two, and three, as put by 老子 in 「道德經」: 道立于一, 一生二, 二生三, 三生萬物. ("The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things." translated by James Legge ) Later, patches have been made to enlarge the characters set, based on growing demand that just using "All thing" for large amount of items is not enough for everyday usage. A lot of exceptions are used to create new words, just like "September" means the seventh month before.

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+1 for great answer and reference. – Stan Oct 4 '13 at 5:27
Great answer, however I don't really understand the reasoning behind 七,八,九,十; it seems that at some point they were all the biggest number or "great" number, but that doesn't explain why they look like they do. For example, what does the 八 "divide" have anything to do with being the biggest number? – congusbongus Oct 4 '13 at 5:37
Um, I see.. yeah it's not so intuitive as just a bundle of eight bars.. I'll try to update with some more info when I have time. – congliu Oct 4 '13 at 5:44
After reading through many entries of your reference 象形字典 site, I have something to criticize: 1. It is a very good reference; 2. But many explanations on that site are somehow too subjective and so that controversial. For example, 二 in character is explained as an equal sign! It lacks historical source to support such an opinion, and furthermore, it goes against the "hierarchical society" concept in the confucianism. So, maybe we should accept it only after a more prudent thinking -- 盡信書不如無書. – Stan Oct 4 '13 at 7:07
@congliu No. Have you downloaded the whole book? Each number character has their own entry. You can look up them in the 檢字 part of the dictionary (117/1746 of the PDF file). After considering most languages were developed following "first there existed pronunciations and second there existed writing system", I personally think those explanations in 甲骨文字典 are correct, but those in 象形字典 are very wrong (for example, 千, explanation in 象形 cannot explain why two thousands can be written as "人+二"). – Stan Oct 6 '13 at 8:16

Wikitionary has an etymology for this character which says:

The original shell and bone character was 一 written four times, 亖 (compare 二 and 三). The bronzeware style of the character featured a repositioning of those four lines inside 口; this later evolved into the combination used today of 口 mouth and 八 divide which meant a dispersal of breath. It could thus be said that four is a borrowed meaning for this character.

So you are right, it used to be written with one more horizontal stroke added to 三.

As for :

One possibility is that 五 was originally written as five horizontal lines, similar to 一, 二, 三, and the obsolete 亖 (four), but in common writing the lines would blend together. Thus, two lines were turned vertical and the right one was shortened, to form one stroke with the middle horizontal line. An alternate hypothesis is that 五 originally resembled an X with a bar on top and a bar on bottom, as in 𠄡. This would have meant five because when counting on a single hand, one first counts to five and then crosses back the other way to ten.

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Worth noting that when using tally marks to count to 5 Chinese people use the character 正 – xiaohouzi79 Oct 4 '13 at 4:11

This may not be the answer you at searching for, but we uses a number story to help us remember how to write these characters... 一 I took one step, 二 I took two steps, 三 I took three steps, 四 i came to a window with curtains 五 I saw a bench 六 there was a man doing star jump 七 he fell on his bum 八 he walked with a limp 九 He got worse and had to use a wheelchair 十 he died, and was buried in a churchyard. Amen.

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Interesting~~~~ – congliu Oct 10 '13 at 17:10
I laugh at this splendid answer. Thumbs up :) – 杨以轩 Oct 11 '13 at 2:48

In fact, "sì" (meaning "four") was allowed to be written as 亖 in ancient times. 亖 and 四 were both correct written forms of "sì" (meaning "four"). However, the modern way of writing is always 四 (in common use) or 肆 (in finance), never 亖.

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