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Chinese Lesson Blurb: One Handed Counting Idioms

Idioms in any language are phrases that are not well explained by literal translation. I have been introduced to some counting idioms as my Chinese tutor and I work on translating my (English version) children’s book A Million Rocks. The book is about *almost counting words* – words that imply size or amounts without referring to actual numbers or exact amounts.

All of the following Chinese 4 words idioms mean “very few.” The first three can be used regarding anything, but the last one is reserved for people. Although the translations are not literal, there are things about the characters and their meanings that can be used to help remember them.


The first one is kind of a word picture:



ㄑㄩ ㄓˇ ㄎㄜˇ ㄕㄨˇ

qū zhǐ kě shǔ

(to bend)(finger)(able, can)(to count)

so few you can count them on one hand; very few


This makes more sense when you know that Chinese speakers have a way of counting to ten on one hand that involves some finger bending.

But is also means that when a Chinese person says that there were so few that the amount could be counted on one hand, it might be as many as ten.




(ㄒㄧㄢˋ ㄉㄞˋ) (ㄉㄨㄥˇ)(ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄐㄧㄚˇ ㄍㄨˇ ㄨㄣˊ)(ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄒㄩㄝˊ ㄓㄜˇ) (ㄑㄩ ㄓˇ ㄎㄜˇ ㄕㄨˇ)

(xiàn dài)(dǒng)(de.)(jiǎ gǔ wén)(de.)(xué zhě)(qū zhǐ kě shǔ)

(appear, manifest + era, generation = modern times)(to understand)(particle after verb to connect it to adverbial phrase)(the inscriptions of oracles or ancient  writing on bones and shells)(to learn, to study + he who, those who = scholar)(can be counted on one hand)

These days there are very few scholars who understand ancient (Chinese) inscriptions.


This second idiom is harder for me to understand. I choose to think of it as “so very few not even a few.”


ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄨˊ ㄐㄧˇ


(few, scarce)(not)(a few, some)

just a very few, tiny number, not many at all, you can count them on your fingers





(ㄓㄜˋ) (ㄐㄧㄚ) (ㄘㄢ ㄊㄧㄥ)(ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄕㄥ ㄧ) (ㄅㄨˋ) (ㄏㄠˇ), (ㄎㄜˋ ㄖㄣˊ) (ㄗㄨㄥˇ ㄕˋ) (ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄨˊ ㄐㄧˇ)

(zhè)(jiā)(cān tīng)(de.)(shēng yi.)(bù hǎo), (kè rén)(zǒng shì)(liáo liáo wú jǐ)

(this)(MW for buildings)(restaurant)(adjective marker)(business)(not)(good), (visitor, customer)(always)(very few, hardly any at all)

This restaurant is not doing well as a business; there are always very few customers.


This next idiom has the same beginning as the last one, but seems to imply “so few to count, you hardly need to count.”



ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄎㄜˇ ㄕㄨˇ


(few)(few)(can)(to count)

just a very few, just a handful, not many at all





(ㄓˇ ㄧㄡˇ) (ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄌㄧㄠˊ ㄎㄜˇ ㄕㄨˇ) (ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄐㄧˇ) (ㄍㄜ˙) (ㄖㄣˊ) (ㄌㄞˊ) (ㄘㄢ ㄍㄨㄢ) (ㄊㄚ ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄏㄨㄚˋ ㄓㄢˇ)

(zhǐ yǒu)(liáo liáo kě shǔ)(de.)(jǐ)(ge.)(rén)(lái)(cān guān)(tā de.)(huà zhǎn)

(only to have)(not many at all)(adjective marker)(few)(MW)(people)(to come)(to tour)(his)(art exhibit)

Only a very few people came to see his art exhibit.


And this last 4 words idiom today is the one that is only used when referring to people. It is also, in my mind, the hardest to make sense of from just seeing the characters. My tutor says there is a story behind it, which she will tell me next time I talk to her. However, for the more dedicated of you, here is a link to the story all in Chinese:



ㄇㄣˊ ㄎㄜˇ ㄌㄨㄛˊ ㄑㄩㄝˋ


(door, gate, entrance)(can, able, possibly)(net for catching birds)(sparrow)

you can net sparrows at the door; completely deserted





(ㄓㄜˋ) (ㄐㄧㄚ) (ㄉㄧㄢˋ) (ㄇㄞˋ)(ㄏㄣˇ) (ㄉㄨㄛ) (ㄧㄡˇ ㄑㄩˋ) (ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄕㄤ ㄆㄧㄣˇ)

(zhè)(jiā)(diàn)(mài)(hěn)(duō)(yǒu qù)(de.)(shāng pǐn)

(this)(MW for building)(store)(to sell)(very)(much)(interesting)(adjective marker)(merchandise)


……(ㄎㄜˇ ㄕˋ) (ㄅㄨˋ) (ㄓ ㄉㄠˋ) (ㄨㄟˋ ㄕㄣˊ ㄇㄜ˙) (ㄑㄩㄝˋ) (ㄕㄥ ㄧ) (ㄑㄧㄥ ㄉㄢˋ) (ㄇㄣˊ ㄎㄜˇ ㄌㄨㄛˊ ㄑㄩㄝˋ)

……(kě shì)(bù)(zhī dào)(wèi shén me.)(què)(shēng yi.)(qīng dàn)(mén kě luó què)

……(but, however, indeed)(not)(to know)(why)(yet)(business)(slack sales)(very few people, basically deserted)

This store has very interesting merchandise to sell; indeed, I don’t know why, in spite of this, it is practically deserted and hardly selling anything.


I recommend you try saying each idiom several times in a row. It will help to get the word pattern in your mind and in your tongue’s muscle memory!









(ㄖㄨˊ ㄍㄨㄛˇ) (ㄋㄧˇ) (ㄌㄧㄢˋ ㄒㄧˊ) (ㄉㄜ˙) (ㄘˋ ㄕㄨˋ) (ㄑㄩ ㄓˇ ㄎㄜˇ ㄕㄨˇ)

(rú guǒ)(nǐ)(liàn xí)(de.)(cì shù)(qū zhǐ kě shǔ)

(if)(you)(to practice)(adjective marker)(number of times)(very few)


……(ㄦˊ ㄧˇ), (ㄗㄨㄥˇ ㄆㄚˋ) (ㄋㄧˇ) (ㄐㄧˋ) (ㄅㄨˋ ㄉㄜˊ)

……(ér yǐ), (zǒng pà)(nǐ)(jì)(bù dé)

……(nothing more), (I’m afraid)(you)(to remember)(may not)

If you only practice a very few times, I am afraid you won’t remember.

Some vocabulary from this lesson:















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