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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kirby

How to Count Using Chinese Hand Gestures

POV - you're in Beijing. After being culturally immersed for a while, you start to recognise some Chinese characters and their meanings. You see '超市' on a sign above a door and know it means 'supermarket'. You enter, and ride the escalator down. Many aisles are filled with items in a way that's reminiscent of off-licenses in the UK. The sense of familiarity is quite comforting, and the thought amuses you that it's less like Poundland and more like, well, Yuanland. After some time exploring and deciding what to buy, you grab an armful of items, and head to the checkout.

The cashier scans the items, looks at you and hits you with: 'Leo bah'. What? Then he makes a gesture with his right hand that looks like a telephone, his pinkie and thumb outstretched. Then he changes to a finger gun slanted to the side, like a casual gunman. You are very confused. Is this a reverse robbery? Should you get on the floor while he opens the till?

Your sense of familiarity disappears like a sock in a tumble dryer.

Thankfully, the cashier sees that you're confused and tries to clarify.

"LEO"... "BAHH..."*Phone*...*Gun*...

Your mind races through the possibilities. The mobile phone and gun bundle is on offer this week? Maybe not...

He needs to phone his manager, who will come down and shoot you? That's terrible customer service.

A queue is forming behind you. The cashier tries again to make you understand and says slowly.


*Finger phone*

*Finger gun*

Feeling the pressure of the finger-phone/ finger-gun combination, you open your wallet and offer 100¥. The cashier opens the till, prepares the change, rips the receipt, and hands both to you.

"Xie Xie," he says bemusedly (you know that means "thank you/ see you later"). He's probably wondering why you have grown up not understanding simple hand gestures.

In mainland China, there are not many influences from outside. Assumptions are made that the whole world uses this type of hand gestures. However, nowhere else uses them. Chinese people will naturally assume non-natives don't speak Mandarin. But they'll believe you know the hand gestures, which will ease the language barrier. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.

Some people make the gestures so quickly that their hand is a blur - think Agent Smith from the Matrix dodging bullets. So what is this secret hand gesture club that you were never invited to join? It's simply a way to count to 10, only using the right hand. Counting 1 - 5 is as you'd expect: index finger first, thumb last.

(Side note, this is different from 1940's Germany, where the thumb goes first. If you've seen the film 'Inglourious Basterds', you'll know how it goes if you order beer with the wrong hand signal)

From 6 - 10, it is:

6:Finger phone - (六)Liu

7:Bird-like shape - Qi

8:Finger gun - Ba

9: Hook - Jiu

10:Fist pointed up - shí (this also can be index and middle finger crossed like wishing for good luck, or as seen in the picture below). The crossed fingers replicate the Chinese character shí

So the cashier's intent seems much clearer now - he was simply stating the price for all your items: 'Liu ba' means 68 yuan. There are many intriguing (and surprisingly practical) hand gestures that both Japan and China use - which often confuse Westerners - but those are for later posts.

Anyway, see you next week.

*Finger gun*

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