I noticed that very often the word 万 (wàn) occurs in poetry (e.g. poetry of the Tang dynasty). My dictionary reports its meaning as "ten thousands", but it looks like it's used in place of a generic "great number". A sentence I notice very frequently is "万里" (wàn lǐ): I feel like this is just a way to mean "a very long distance".

So, what is the proper meaning and usage of "万"? Is it correct to use it for "great", "enormous"? On the other side, to mean "huge", "great", is it correct to use "万", 10000, and not something else (maybe even numerically bigger), like, "one million", "one billion"?

  • 1
    Fwiw, myriad—the English word for 10,000 as a single unit—worked exactly the same way in ancient Greek: as an actual number and as a handwavy reference to "too many to ever bother counting". It still has both meanings, but English as a system prefers to count in sets of three. Chinese simply kept the larger unit as well as its figurative sense. – lly Apr 26 at 18:06
  • Also worth pointing out that 万, 千, and the rest can also be read as "myriads", "thousands", "thousands and thousands", etc. instead of as only singular units. Remembering that they can have that plural value can help understand their figurative uses faster and more intuitively. – lly Apr 26 at 18:09

You are correct, 万, 千 and 百 literally mean 10000, 1000 and 100. These words are often used as a figurative number for 'great', 'huge' or 'immense'

For example:

万人空巷 doesn't literally mean ten thousand people spilling out to the streets. 万人 means 'great number of people'

万水千山 doesn't literally mean ten thousand bodies of water and one thousand mountains. 万水千山 means many, many mountains and bodies of water = "immense distance"

千锤百炼 doesn't literally mean hammer one thousand times and temper one hundred times. 千锤百炼 means "extendedly forged"

Other numbers like 六, 九, 十 are often used metaphorically for 'all, entire, ultimate' too.

For example:

六軍(whole army),九阴九阳(extreme/ ultimate yin and extreme/ ultimate yang), 十全十美 (perfect)

万, 千 and 百 are not figurative number, when they are with actual numbers. 一万, 二千 and 三百 can only mean 10000, 2000 and 300

  • An interesting coincidence: the English word "myriad" also means both "ten thousand" and "a large number", and comes from a Greek word that also has those two meanings. – Monty Harder Apr 26 at 16:08
  • 六,九,and十are not figurative numbers. Traditionally, armies were actually divided into 6 components. Nine has certain significance within Ancient Chinese philosophy, which is why it is there. Ten here actually means 100 percent. – H Huang Apr 26 at 16:56
  • 六軍不發無奈何 in 長恨歌 meant the entire army not six armies; 十面埋伏 means all side, not ten sides – Tang Ho Apr 26 at 19:58

see bkrs https://bkrs.info/slovo.php?ch=%E4%B8%87, iciba http://www.iciba.com/%E4%B8%87 for 万,used in fixed expressions: 万民,万国博览会 (world's fair),万事万物,万难(e.g.推辞),(extremely),万不可说,万能(omnipotent),天地万物,There is no god but God: 万物非主,唯有真主,

, 。。。万岁!long live 。。。!Jp. “Banzai!” e.g.全世界人民大团结万岁!毛主席万岁,万万岁!


"萬" is explained by other, for your query:

is it correct to use "万", 10000, and not something else (maybe even numerically bigger), like, "one million", "one billion"?

well, in ancient times, "億" & "兆" were used.

the modern explanation of these two are, mathematically:

億: 100,000,000

兆: 100,000,000,000

certain usages:

尚書 呂刑


"兆民" means "all people".

梁書 列傳第三十九


"億兆黎庶", in which "億兆" literally means hundred of million (億) of hundred of billion (兆). well, just shortcut it into "all people"

if you can read literary chinese, there're many similar usages.

the bottom line is, "千" (1,000), or "萬" (10,000) is very humble "great number", in chinese language.

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