HK Magazine Archive

Ask Mr. Know-It-All: Why does Chinese culture count in 10,000s?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2015, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:43pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
Why does Chinese culture count in 10,000s instead of 1,000s?  It seems odd to pick such an unusual number.  – Ten Thousand Island Dressing

It seems unusual to you, perhaps. Chinese doesn’t think by the millions, but by man (萬) the 10,000. There’s actually an English word for it, too: “myriad.” Most commonly used these days to imply a diverse range, the word comes from the Ancient Greek “myriades,” as this unit of measurement was commonly used by ancient Mediterranean cultures as well as the Chinese. In fact, it was originally the highest known number in the west, until Archimedes (of bathtub fame) improved on it by creating the “myriad-myriad,” or hundred million, when he tried to work out how many grains of sand you could fit into the universe. We all have to have a hobby.

Chinese language, too, works in terms of myriads. So 1 million is a-hundred-ten-thousand in Chinese, baht man. Your rent doesn’t cost you $22,000 a month: it costs yi man yi, two-ten-thousand-and-two. And just as you’d use a million of something to denote an inestimably large number in English, in Chinese this falls to the man. And so the Great Wall is known as the man lei cheung sing (萬里長城) or “ten-thousand-mile-long wall.” Man sui (萬歲) means “10,000 years,” and is used to wish exalted persons a long, long life. If you’re watching TVB period dramas you’ll often see emperors greeted Man sui, man sui, man man sui!—“May you live 10,000 years, 10,000 years: 10,000 upon 10,000 years.” Not a bad lifespan for a ruler. Filtered through to Japanese, man sui became banzai, and was adopted as an imperialistic war cry during World War II.

There are 10,000 sayings which use the word man, but one of the finest seems as if it were invented for Hong Kong. It’s man ga dung for (萬家燈火)—“The lights of 10,000 homes.” What could be a better idiom for our city at night, its innumerable windows lit by innumerable lights? Look around you this evening and you’re bound to see it: 10,000 flames lighting 10,000 souls in the SAR.

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