What’s the deal with those funny num­bers you see in old mar­ket stalls? – Num­ber Hunter

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Those are Suzhou nu­mer­als, one of the an­cient Chi­nese num­ber­ing styles.

Based in turn on rod nu­mer­als, a writ­ten form of the count­ing rods used for cal­cu­la­tion for more than 2,000 years in China, they were used be­cause they were quicker to write and to scrib­ble than the for­mal ideo­graphs. That makes the sys­tem far more con­ve­nient for num­ber-heavy sit­u­a­tions such as ac­count­ing.

Here’s what they look like:

Where it gets in­ter­est­ing is how you write them. See, Suzhou num­bers change de­pend­ing on where they ap­pear.

So they’re usu­ally writ­ten on two lines. The num­bers go on the first line, while the or­der of mag­ni­tude and unit mea­sure­ment go on the bot­tom. So, for ex­am­ple, if you see the fol­low­ing sign next to a bas­ket of bak choi:

Which means two things: first, that the price is $49.50; and sec­ond, you’re get­ting se­ri­ously ripped off for a catty of bak choi.

These days Suzhou nu­mer­als don’t crop up so much around town, hav­ing been largely re­placed by their Ara­bic or Chi­nese equiv­a­lents. It’s a pity, as there’s a real ele­gance to the strokes—es­pe­cially the 4 and the 5—that you don’t find in these more mod­ern sys­tems. In­deed, these nu­mer­als are also known as faa ma— flow­ery num­bers—ow­ing to that ele­gance.

These num­bers live on in the more old-fash­ioned shops and mar­ket stalls, Chi­nese medicine shops and on the oc­ca­sional cha chaan teng wall. Keep an eye out for them next time, sym­bols of by­gone age— and just maybe, a cheaper price.

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