Telling the Time, Chinese Style


all photos; AvaMingImages

The badminton game had been fun. We sauntered off the court with a certain winners swagger, making fun of the losers.

‘What time is it?’ I asked my friends having lost track since we’d been in the gym.

’20,’ they answered.

’20 what?’

‘Nothing just 20.’

Which is a pretty normal way of being told the time in China.

The Chinese number pattern is easy to learn and use, just like their method of telling the time. In comparison the western number system is clunky, complicated, unwieldy and often makes no sense. Why can’t we have twenty-ten instead of thirty?

According to author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success,

it’s also the reason why Chinese youth out-perform their western counterparts in maths and maths related subjects. Their logical numbers simply make more sense to the brain.


However, the flip-side it that Chinese people often struggle with relating the time outloud in English.

‘See you at half-past thirty.’ (9:30)

‘It’s 28:39’ (it was 4:19pm)

‘Morning noon.’ (midday)

‘Night no0n.’ (mid-night)

So the next time your Chinese friends stumble over the time. Bear with them, it’s really not their fault. In comparison to Chinese numbers, ours are just plain crazy.




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