Hand Counting: Using fingers to communicate


The first time I stepped into a small grocery shop in China, I pointed to a container of oranges and asked for 8 of them. My Chinese was poor, so I held up 8 fingers to help them understand...5 fingers of one hand and 3 on another. After a brief pause the shopkeeper began laughing and pointed me out to his co-workers. Why? The Chinese have a unique way of counting to 10, using only a single hand. I must have looked pretty funny, trying to hold onto my other purchases while showing him one finger for each orange (I'm glad I didn't want a dozen!).

And of course the other thing I discovered (after holding out my handful of Chinese paper money and letting them pick as many bills as they needed) is that they didn't supply bags. So carrying the oranges and a couple other items back to the university on my bicycle was quite a challenge.

Below is a guide on their proper finger guestures used for counting from 1 to 10 on one hand. As with the spoken Chinese language, there are some variants based on the region. Note that number 0 (zero) and 10 are similar but with the palm facing outwards rather than at the speaker... and some regions use the two fingers used in number 2, but cross them to indicate number 10.


Hand Counting


Reprinted with some additions and edits from a cultural tidbit published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Qi Journal.