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The Chinese fascination with numbers (bbc.com)
90 points by MiriamWeiner 42 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



Isn't remembering your QQ number similar to remembering your phone number? I think the author is being overly dramatic as to how hard it is to remember it.


The whole article is over dramatic. It takes until half way through to get to the answer: numbers sound like words or the url is from their phone number.

But that would be a really short article, I guess...


My initial reaction as well: "What a way to draw out something simple across page of prose."

(1) Numbers in Chinese match well with the tonality of the language making it easier to remember (compare: "singing" numbers in any language works better to remember them).

(2) Chinese students are trained from a young age to memorize.

That's it basically. No "obsession". No hidden stuff. I also find articles like this pretty degrading.

That doesn't mean I'm not jealous of my Chinese half of the family to be able to remember numbers so easily whereas I can barely remember my PIN code :).


That reminds me every time when I have to tell some customer service on the phone my email address, which needs to provide every character an vocabulary to avoid typo, meanwhile, in China, I just need to provide QQ email with plain numbers, and barely made any mistake.


Before smart phones, I had maybe a dozens phone number memorized.

Now I have exactly one, my own, memorized. I suspect this is an effect of the particular way in which Westerners have come to relate to phone numbers and similar numbers just as the emphasis on numbers is an effect of the way Chinese came to relate to phones and computers.


I also still remember my ICQ number which I haven't used in at least 6 years. I concur.


I keep at least one credit card number memorized. It's not that difficult.


It's hinted at in the article, but it's worth noting that Mandarin Chinese numbers are much simpler than their counterparts in most other languages. 1-10 are all monosyllabic and the system thereafter is pretty regular. Numbers are not as much of a mouthful as they are in English and probably easier to commit to memory.


That's an oft proferred explanation, but I've encountered some evidence that it could be a habit of the mind.

English is my native language and I can remember longish sequences of numbers easily.

My American friends can too but many don't see the point. Their education system is so against rote memorization that there's a cultural aversion to casual memorization because one can always "look it up".

Another example is the number of days in the month. I instinctively know which months are 30 days, 31 days or 28/29 days. Many Americans don't see the point of having this information at their fingertips. It's a fascinating cultural difference.


There is one polysyllabic number from 1-10 in English (7). There are 2 3-syllable numbers from 11-20 (11, 17). After that everything is 2 or 3 syllables (X7s excluded) until 100. IDK man, doesn't seem like that much of a mouthful.


By monosyllabic he meant one short syllable only, or "mora":

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mora_(linguistics)

Eight, for example is one syllable with two moras, the "eigh" sound and the "t" sound at the end.

Same for Zero, which as "Ze" and "Ro" separated into two moras.

Nine, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, for example are one mora words.

Six actually has 3 mora, with "Si" at the beginning and the X at the end having two mora "k" and "s" sound.

In comparison all Chinese characters have one mora only, thus it's much faster and easier to use in numbers.


A valid point, but that's not what he literally said. We're all being pedantic here (nothing wrong with that, we're discussing linguistics after all).

I was just pointing out that he's literally wrong, and if that's what he meant he should be more clear in his phrasing.


Monosyllabic isn't quite precise enough. It's more than all the Chinese digits are CV only whereas in English, only 1 is (two).


The Hindu–Arabic numerals are monosyllabic in most Indian languages (e.g. Hindi, Bengali, etc.) as well


You can just call them Indian numbers. "Arabic" didn't contribute anything to the number system except using them.

Calling them as "Arabic" numbers is as dated as words like "Orientals", "Indians" to refer to native Americans, etc.,


They're Indian, true. Well, the world is like that - thus Boyer's law:

"Mathematical formulas and theorems are usually not named after their original discoverers"

and Stigler's law of eponymy: "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler%27s_law_of_eponymy


According to whom? I've never heard of this though before. Are you saying the Persians didn't add value and therefor don't deserve credit?


This is a legitimate question. I've always heard them called Hindu/Indian-Arab Numerals, and I've never heard of complaints about this before this thread.

I'm just trying to find out who this is offending or why it's problematic phrasing.


Just the fact that you are conflating persian and "arabic" words makes me chuckle.

They are quite different, even if they are close geographically. Ask a an actual Iranian/Perisan if they would like to mistaken for a Saudi/Arabic.


You say this like I made these cultural choices on how to name these things.

I'm not conflation "Persian" with "Arabic". I wouldn't call an Iranian a Saudi anymore than I'd call an Indian a Pakistani. But the widespread adoption of the numbers and their naming happened during times when people modern nomenclature hadn't taken hold.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu%E2%80%93Arabic_numeral_s...

I didn't write this article, so I'm not the only person in the world making these assumptions. I understand that there are some weird problematic names that still exist for common objects, but this is genuinely something I'd just assumed most people accepted as the name, especially in the West.


simplicity might help, but after years of learning mathematics on the side... I think the most damaging part is done through teachers and teaching process. It makes people suffering by trying to understand the finger rather than enjoy the moon.


GP is making a reference to the fact that Chinese students were found able to hold 2 more digits in memory than American or Japanese students. The theory is that everyone has a certain amount of short-term verbal memory, and using really short pronunciation for numbers means you can cram in extra digits into that verbal memory.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0010027786...


And I strongly believe that, as much as tapping into neurological structures is beneficial and important, mathematics is mostly about overcoming them and thinking in the large.

If I could explain that, I don't feel my brain is stronger now that I know about combinatorics over program spaces / trees compared to me a 6. It's just how things are approached that changes everything.


> the word ‘four’ in Mandarin sounds similar to the word for ‘death’

The hotel attached to the Shanghai airport doesn't have a 4th floor... or more accurately it's labelled as the 5th floor.

The superstition is real, and more potent than western numerological superstitions such as 13 - the fact that number sounds resemble other meanings in Chinese seems like a valid explanation.


Many new condo buildings in Toronto are built this way as well. My building doesn't have a 4th, 13th, 14th, 24th, 34th or 44th floor.

Part of me wonders if it's also in part so they can sell the 39th floor as the "45th" floor.


The article is bellyaching about not being able to memorize 10 digit numbers, and that apparently westerners are afflicted with this curse.

I think that's just laziness. If you need to memorize a number it just takes a few minutes of work, and then some reinforcement later.


>I think that's just laziness. If you need to memorize a number it just takes a few minutes of work, and then some reinforcement later.

Actually it's been well documented that human capacity in working memory is 7±2[1]. This is why phone numbers were initially 7 digits.

It certainly is possible to memorize long strings with sustained repitition, but this is usually meaured in weeks or months even if practiced every day.

It's not "lazy" to be unable to perform at the far right of the bell curve in terms of recall.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus...


You're confusing working memory with memorization capacity in general. Memorizing a ten digit number is not significantly challenging and certainly doesn't take "weeks or months even if practiced every day".


>You're confusing working memory with memorization capacity in general. Memorizing a ten digit number is not significantly challenging and certainly doesn't take "weeks or months even if practiced every day".

It's certainly to memorize something short term (eg repeat your QQ number over and over for a period of time) but there needs to be spaced repetition over longer periods to make that memorization permanent.

Feel free to provide specific citations, as I did in my parent comment, if you would like to disagree further.


>Feel free to provide specific citations, as I did in my parent comment, if you would like to disagree further.

I'd encourage you to actually read the study you're attempting to "cite" by linking to a poorly written Wikipedia summary. Here's the actual link: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Miller/

If you read it, you'll find that it makes absolutely no claim about the long-term memorization of numbers outside of the range "7 plus or minus 2" -- instead, it's discussing what it terms "immediate memory", your ability to perform tasks such as mapping specific tones to numbers on the fly, or repeat a series of number you've just been told for the first time, and how your conscious working "scratchpad memory" quickly becomes overwhelmed.

Indeed, the very paper you're "citing" disagrees with you entirely. He notes that subjects can very quickly memorize much larger numbers, but that this does not invalidate his claim re: working memory because this is simply accomplished by chunking the number to be memorized into segments compatible with the conscious mind's small working set.

Again: you have completely misunderstood the paper in question, and are incorrectly conflating "working memory" and "memorization capacity", which are very very different things.


While you more than enough defend working memory and memorization capacity, I figured I'd chime in with additional supporting documentation. Cognitive load theory models short time memory as scarce and finite in nature. With each "number", you have less freely available working memory to use AND maintaining those values places their own stress.

Current theories about long term memory (or "memorization capacity") consider it infinite in capacity.


He doesn't need citations. Your citation is completely irrelevant, it has nothing to do with memorization at all. Memorizing 10 digits is extremely easy barring individual memory issues, there's no argument to be had.

clubm8 42 days ago [flagged]

>He doesn't need citations. Your citation is completely irrelevant

Interesting tactic, feel free to provide something other than your own opinion that it is "irrelevant"


Although this may be a myth, I've heard tell of someone who once managed to memorize... two phone numbers.

e: no seriously though. With area code, phone numbers already are 10 digits. Are you baiting?


> This is why phone numbers were initially 7 digits.

I cannot find anything to substantiate this claim. Is your statement applicable only to a single country?

In the US, it seems like phone numbers started with a few digits only and progressively got longer over time; I can’t find any reference to starting purposefully with 7 digits for memorizability reasons.


>I cannot find anything to substantiate this claim. Is your statement applicable only to a single country?

This quora post summarizes nicely - Bell standardized on 7 for local (10 counting area code) based on the research I cited earlier:

https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Bell-Labs-create-phone-numbers...

By "initially" I meant "when telephones began to become mainstream and part of everyday life" - sorry for the confusion.


I’m sure you mean modern ANC phone numbers in the US. Initially numbers were shorter, as short as three numbers, then four or five, six and after that seven as the service expanded. By the late 1950s you had the first ANC with 10 digits.

Though I think your implication is right that bell studies showed the average limit was 7 numbers for many people.


I think the modern understanding is that the number is actually 4 for the working memory. The 7±2 already includes recoding of stimulus items into larger chunks. When you look at number 6745123 you group it into 2 to 4 parts and then remember them.


> It certainly is possible to memorize long strings with sustained repitition, but this is usually meaured in weeks or months even if practiced every day.

Credit card numbers are a good example of this.


My great grandfather's phone number was only 3 digits, "123", guess they had less working memory back then


Can't you memorize any amount of numbers with mnemonics? I remember multiple 16 digit CC numbers using it.


> Can't you memorize any amount of numbers with mnemonics? I remember multiple 16 digit CC numbers using it.

It gets progressively harder with length, and takes time. (As I mentioned, spaced over days and weeks).

If you want to memorize something in the short term, 7±2 chunks is often the limit. This is why passphrases are pushed - you can easily recall 7 easily memorable "chunks" that when translated into bits contain much more than seven bits of information.


I think that's just laziness. If you need to memorize a number it just takes a few minutes of work, and then some reinforcement later.

Well, people who don't learn a different language from their own are certainly "lazy" but this laziness includes the majority of humanity. Moreover, this laziness has been the motor of nationalist feelings that world over.

"“Not everyone in China has perfect grasp of pinyin. If websites have pinyin names, it might actually be difficult for some people to figure out which letters to write,” she said. A string of numbers is easier to commit to memory than words in a foreign language."

IE, a read of the article shows how laziness actually generates a lot of the use of numbers in the contemporary Chinese Internet.

On a mass scale, the path of least resistance is a powerful shaper of society. Sure, you may personally put in the effort to learn digits and that extra language and so-forth. Just don't expect that to be what conditions the form of daily life.


I do not believe that people that only know one language is the majority of the population.

Certainly most people in Europe know more than one language, most people in Africa(poor people) and most people in Asia, most people in South America. Most people from Canada.

It is just people of the USA, because they just can get by with just one language.

But this is like using Imperial Units. The (North)Americans even forced the rest of the world not to use metric, like in aviation(French and Germans of course used meters for it in WWII).


A quick search for "bilingual population of the world" shows that the MONOLINGUAL population is somewhere around 40%.....so no, it's not "just people of the USA" who only speak one language. China is also overwhelmingly monolingual Mandarin speakers....that's something like 15% of all of humanity, 3x the population of the entire United States, that only understands Mandarin.


All humans are hindered by the duration of our short-term memory. That's why repetition is important.


Assuming your not dyslexic that is


> to never flush toilet paper

Interesting note.

https://www.quora.com/Why-do-people-not-flush-down-toilet-pa...


It’s not everywhere in China either. I never saw that in newer cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen don’t have that quirk. But it is in Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia.


I was always wondering when I see a sign saying to not flush toilet papers. Do you need to throw it in the trash can after wiping your butt? Because I always flush it, don't want to make the toilet room smell bad or give a hard time to the cleaning lady/boy!


> Do you need to throw it in the trash can after wiping your butt?

Yes, and in my experience they're usually the kind with a lid.

It look me a long time to learn that you weren't supposed to flush TP in China, since people don't put signs about it in their homes.


It is common in some parts of the world where the sewers can't deal with it.

And yeah, the places I was in supplied a bin.


I think the cleaners will have a harder time if the toilet backs up!


got me curious about transforming faeces... when https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4998016/

combustion performance of waste..


Because their writing system is a huge hassle, numbers look good.




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