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.


5 Answers 5


This is an interesting topic; it touches one of the core idea of the Chinese language.

The Chinese language and all its dialects have not been designed by one inventor at one specific day. Instead, they were created and evolved at different regions through thousands of years at least.

Evidences (see below) showed that some of the Chinese characters from four to ten (四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九) evolves as the type of 轉注 (轉注者,建類一首,同意相受。考、老是也。) or 假借 (假借者,本無其字,依聲託事。令、長是也。) instead of 象形 (象形者,畫成其物,隨體詰詘。日、月是也。); and one and ten (一, 十) evolves as the type of 指事 (指事者,視而可識,察而見意。上、下是也。) or 會意 (會意者,比類合宜,以見指撝。武、信是也。) instead of 象形. Any reference, say, 《鐵雲藏龜》by 清 劉鶚 in 1903 (清光緒二十九年), or the one below, can only act as possible explanations at their intellectual best.


  • 《說文解字》by 漢 許慎.
  • 《鐵雲藏龜》by 清 劉鶚 in 1903 (清 光緒二十九年).
  • 《白魚解字》by 流沙河 in 2014, ISBN 9787514317329.

One Possible Explanation

  • 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.

Another possible explanation

At first, people may 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 )

  • 1
    +1 for great answer and reference.
    – Stan
    Oct 4, 2013 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? Oct 4, 2013 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.
    – George
    Oct 4, 2013 at 5:44
  • 5
    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, 2013 at 7:07
  • 1
    @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, 2013 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.


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.

  • Interesting~~~~
    – George
    Oct 10, 2013 at 17:10
  • I laugh at this splendid answer. Thumbs up :)
    – 杨以轩
    Oct 11, 2013 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.


Joke: Similar as the Roman "IV".

Serious Answer:

It's 4 lines at first according to Oracle bine script. But then Chinese ancestor found the relationship of 4 and 2: 4 is Two 2.

And 2 is like 2 lines, 4 is like 4 lines, they merge these 2 characters together. Look like "四"

Same as @Cong 's answer

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

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