Math in Chinese



In our fifth and final Numbers lesson, we will learn some basic arithmetic, as well as a few situations which appear far less frequently in practice than the ones in previous lessons, yet must be covered nevertheless.


1. Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers are the way we say what order things go in.  In English, we usually use #1, #2, #3; or 1st, 2nd, 3rd; to represent ordinals.  Chinese has several ways to represent ordinals as well; the most common is to simply put 第 in front of one of the counting numbers you already know.

#1 第一
#2 第二
#3 第三

The full phrase adds the noun in question, with the appropriate measure word.  It’s almost the same as the full version of a counting phrase.

1st person 第一個人 1 person 一個人
2nd person 第二個人 2 people 兩個人
3rd person 第三個人 3 people 三個人

Aside from the fact that 第 requires 二 instead of 兩, the only difference is the 第 in front.  In addition, both grammar patterns can omit the noun in context.

1st person 第一個 1 person 一個
2nd person 第二個 2 people 兩個
3rd person 第三個 3 people 三個

Sometimes, the 第 phrase can appear without a measure word, whereas a counting phrase must always have one.

1st person 第一 1 person 一個
2nd person 第二 2 people 兩個
3rd person 第三 3 people 三個

A few examples of ordinals without counters or nouns:

考試 第一
I test get #1


My test was the high score!

#1 please before wash hands


First, please wash your hands.

Just as in English, ordinal words like 第一 and 第二 (first and second) can have multiple meanings.

昨天 第一
I yesterday buy -ed I #1 (counter for cars) car


Yesterday, I bought my first car.

第一 龍蝦
this is I #1 time eat lobster


This is my first time eating lobster

以第一 名的 成績 畢業
I first place’s rank graduate


I graduated first in my class.

開會 第一 小時 討論 TPS 報告
meeting ’s first (counter) hour at discuss Testing Procedure Specification report


For the first hour of the meeting, we discussed TPS reports.

That said, many nouns do not require a 第 when used as an ordinal.

she is I two little sister


She is my second youngest sister.

restaurant at five floor


The restaurant is on the 5th floor.

Now lets do some math!

加減乘除  等於

ㄐㄧㄚ ㄐㄧㄢˇ ㄔㄥˊ ㄔㄨˊ    ㄉㄥˇˊ

2. Arithmetic

Basic math in Chinese is pretty simple.  The word for “arithmetic” literally means “add-subtract-multiply-divide” ~~ or more accurately, “plus-minus-times-divided into”.

加減乘除 (ㄐㄧㄚ ㄐㄧㄢˇ ㄔㄥˊ ㄔㄨˊ) ~ arithmetic

(ㄐㄧㄚ) ~ plus

(ㄐㄧㄢˇ) ~ minus

(ㄔㄥˊ) ~ multiplied by, times

(ㄔㄨˊ) ~ divided into*

等於 (ㄉㄥˇ ㄩˊ) ~ equals

The operation “divided into” is, of course the opposite of “divided by”.  “Two divided into four” is the same as “four divided by two” (4÷2).  Just as in English, the second way is the common one.

除以 (ㄔㄨˊ ㄧˇ) ~ divided by

So then, the four operations would look like this:

二加二等於四 2 + 2 = 4
四減二等於二 4 – 2 = 2
二乘二等於四 2 × 2 = 4
四除以二等於二 4 ÷ 2 = 2

It will take a bit of practice before you are good enough at math that shopkeepers will stop using the calculator to show you prices; so any time you have a spare moment, use it to count things you see, read numbers out loud, or say basic math problems in Chinese.

負  零下

ㄈㄨˋ    ㄌㄧㄥˊㄒㄧㄚˋ

3. Negative Numbers

To make a number negative, simply stick a 負 in front of it.

five minus ten equals negative five


Five minus ten equal negative five.

Just as in English, sometimes “negative” is substituted with “below zero”.

外面 十二
outside is zero below twelve degrees


It’s -12º outside.


4. Decimals

Yes, this is the same “dot” we used to say what time it is.  To read a decimal, first say the integer, then 點, and then say the remaining numbers individually.

一百二十三 四五六
one hundred twenty-three point four, five, six


one hundred twenty-three, point four-five-six (123.456)


ㄈㄣ ㄓ

5. Fractions

Fractions in Chinese are a little weird, because you have to say them backwards.

three parts ’s one


one third (1/3)

five parts ’s three


three fifths (3/5)

Just as English always reads 1/2 as “one half” (and never “one second”); Chinese always reads 1/2 as 一半 (never 二分之一).

Also just as in English, if there is a 100, 1000, etc. in the denominator (the bottom number), the “one” can be omitted.

(一)百 十五
(one) hundred parts ’s fifteen


Fifteen (one) hundredths (15/100)

(Also) Fifteen percent (15%)

Finally, once more as in English, decimals can be read aloud as if they were fractions.


.747 = 747/1000


Seven hundred forty-seven thousandths



But now we’re getting into math teacher stuff.


6. Percent

There are two main ways to say a percent in Chinese. The first is to read the number as a fraction of one hundred, using 百分之 .



The second, much simpler way is to replace the percent symbol with 趴.




By the way, if you see a sign at the store that says 85趴, it means 85% of the original price, NOT 85% off!

We’re almost there!  Next lesson, we will finally finish off the Numbers section once and for all, by learning how to state inequalities, and make basic comparisons in Chinese!

Next: Comparing Things