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The Philosophical meaning of Chinese Numerals

Updated on November 16, 2010


One, Two and three are ideograms — i one, 二 êrh two, 三 san three, and the archaic 亖 ssu four, for which 四 was substituted at an early date.

一 i one, stands for Unity, the cosmogonical abstraction which was ultimately subdivided into two forces, the resultant being the visible material universe. It is the number of heaven; Lao Tzu says, “Tao generated one, one generated two, two generated three, and three generated the whole world.”

三 san three can be used by synecdoche for several or many, Confucius says, "if three men are walking together, one will be my teacher," i.e. able to teach me something. In a Chinese proverb, three men make a tiger.

四 ssu four is supposed to be a picture of quartering.

五 Wu five was originally written X, and for short X. It is now classed under radical 二 erh two, representing heaven above and earth below, the cross lines showing the interaction of the male and female principles of Chinese cosmogony.

Odd numbers are regarded as male, even numbers as female.

六 Liu six is composed of 八 pa eight below the old pictorial form of 上 shang above, which was anciently represented by a line above a line. It is the number of change, the female numbers strengthening at six to reach their climacteric at eight, and is now classed under radical — i one.

八 Pa eight is explained as to separate, to divide, being a picture of two persons separating, turned back to back. It's a climacteric of the female numbers.

九 Chiu nine is supposed to represent the weakening of the male numbers, which reached their climacteric at 七 ch'i seven, before their individuality is lost in the completeness of 十 shih ten. 九九归一 double nine back to one means after all is said and done; in the final analysis.

十 Shih ten is composed of one line pointing east and west and another pointing

north and south; it therefore represents the hub of the universe, also numerical completeness, the Chinese system being decimal.

百 Pai hundred was composed of — i one and 白 pai white as radical Pai is much used by synecdoche for all, every; e.g. 百姓 pai hsing the hundred surnames, i.e. all the surnames, of which no less than 4657 have been recorded; hence the people of China.

千 Ch'ien thousand is composed of 十 shih ten as radical, and a corruption of 人 jen man. 千歲 ch'ien sui a thousand years is a title of a heir prince in history.

萬 Wan ten thousand was classed under radical 艸 ts'ao vegetation. It is often written 万 for short; sometimes the Indian 卍 sauvastiha is employed. 萬歲 sui ten thousand years (see line 37) is a title of the Emperor.


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