Why are there Arabic numerals in China?

Two people who speak different languages can hardly understand each other. And only with numbers, there is usually no problem – even if they have a different name or pronunciation, but everyone can distinguish “3” from “10” by spelling. China has a unique style of writing as hieroglyphs. But what is the situation with numerals?

Why are the numbers called Arabic?

The numbers that we are accustomed to have several names: Arabic (the most common), Indian, and Indo-Arabic. It is a decimal positional numbering system, based on “10”, from 0 to 9, where zero shows the absence of a digit. Despite the name, the place of origin of this system is India (around the 5th century).

Interesting fact: there was originally no zero – instead there was a space. The first records using the decimal positional system date back to 595.

The Arabs quickly appreciated the advantages of Indian numbers. In the ninth century, Baghdad, thanks to its favorable location, was the center of science, especially astronomy and mathematics. The famous scientist Al-Khwarizmi lived there and popularized the numbering system in the countries of the Middle East.

Europeans borrowed Indian numerals from the Arabs, that’s why they were called Arabian numerals. They became widespread there only in the XIII century. Of course, the way of writing has changed many times. For example, the Arabs represent numbers by broken lines. The size of a sign was compared to the number of corners: zero had no corners, one had one corner, etc. Gradually they were smoothed out, and the numbering took the modern rounded form.

Numerals in China

Chinese writing has its numeration system, but Arabic numerals are becoming increasingly popular in everyday use. There are two sets of Chinese numerals: one for ordinary records, the other for formal. The latter is used in the documentation, and it is rather difficult to forge them (in our country, the numbers are written in capital letters for the same purpose).

The Chinese number system is not like the Arabic number system: it is multiplicative. This means that a complex number, for example, 49 023, is written in characters in the following format: 4 x 10000 + 9 x 1000 + 2 x 10 + 3. The set of numbers consists not of 10 digits, but of 13, considering several variants of spelling of two and zero.

There were only a few attempts to popularize Arabic numerals in China. This first occurred in the ninth century along with the spread of Indian astronomy. Then, in the XIII-XV centuries, however, both attempts were unsuccessful because the Arabic signs were too unusual for the Chinese writing style. In particular, they were written horizontally, while the Chinese then wrote vertically.

An interesting fact: there is a theory that even before the VIII century, the Indians had “caught” the numbering system from the Chinese merchants who were visiting the country. They were attracted by the way of counting with the help of special portable boards and sticks. Later, this system was changed and improved.

Nowadays, the Chinese can use both sets of numbers. It is stipulated by the law in the state standard “General rules of number recording in publications”. The main reason for introducing the Arabic numeral system into the Chinese language was the reforms to eliminate illiteracy.

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