Chinese Figures




Similar to other oriental cultures like Babylon or India (since Brahmagupta, 600 A.D.), also in ancient China the value 'zero' soon was regarded as a number to calculate with. Its latin name 'nullum' means 'nothing', the Arabs called it 'as-sifra' (lit. meaning 'emptiness'), from where the expression 'cipher' (=digit) derives. Ptolemy introduced the symbol '0' for it (perhaps from 'oudén'=nothing). In Chinese 'ling2' has the meaning of 'drizzling rain', 'remainders', fragments', 'fractional' and - hence 'zero'.
Like the Roman system, ancient China did not use 'zero' as a figure for displaying numbers by indicating the blank spaces, as e.g. already the Babylonian hexadecimal system used to do. From Babylon it was adopted by the Arabs, finally also replacing the Roman way of expressing numbers as a much more adequate system for calculating with, esp. in modern mathematics.

Thus, in this Chinese system of displaying numbers the 'figure' zero hardly appears, unless expressing the amount 'nothing'. So have a try inserting up to five digits of zeros and just one single non-zero and nevertheless you surely won't see the digit 'ling2', because the number's value will not be zero (nil).

Whereas the pros of the ancient Roman system being that one can use the ordinary alphabet's capitals for the digits (I,V,X,L,C,D,M), the cons might be in getting pretty long successions of figures by its way of adding (or substracting) digits - e.g. XXXIII, XCVIII etc. (10+10+10+1+1+1=33; 100-10+5+1+1+1=98) - different from the Chinese way's multiplicative method of e.g. 3x10+3=33 or 9x10+8=98.

Although the Chinese since long have adopted the modern arab way of writing numbers, much more adequate for calculation (look at this homepage's Chinese webcounter - with special digits there, used to avoid fraud), they still stick to the ancient way giving the opportunity to normally read the numbers like in correctly spoken language: It's just as if pronouncing e.g. 'ten thousand nine hundred seventynine' ...

So, give it a try!

The system of writing dates in Chinese is quite easy - and still modern today. For e.g. forming the date "february 4, 1999" one just has to write or pronounce like this:

one, nine, nine, nine year - two month - four day

If you'd like to try it out, go to this small but nevertheless interesting



(There exists a Romanian version of this page as well...)