Is it better to say 4,000 yì or 400 billion?

(photo by Thanasis Papathanasiou via Flickr.com)

The other night, when the evening sunset made the horizon blush, I thought about the vastness of the universe. “Just imagine,” I said to John, “Our sun is one of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.”

“Four hundred billion…that’s sìqiān yì.”

“Four thousand yì equals 400 billion?” I asked.

“One billion is shí yì.”

Of course one billion was 10 yì! I wanted to slap my forehead in what was arguably a huge “doh!” moment. Hadn’t I learned Chinese so many years ago — including numbers and their equivalents? But yet it took me a few extra seconds to remember the difference between billion and yì.

I shook my head. “It always seems like I can’t keep the numbers straight. I had the same problem when I went to Spain and was speaking Spanish. But maybe it’s even harder in Chinese. You have yì, we have billion and they don’t equal each other. And of course I like billion — because that’s what I grew up with.”

“I like yì,” said John.

It’s funny that we can stare at the same setting sun, imagining the exact same number of potential stars, and express it in a completely different way — all because of cultural and linguistic preferences.

Is it better to say 4,000 yì or 400 billion? Who knows? But whatever your choice of number, there’s nothing like gazing at the night sky — or a sunset — and wondering about all of the unanswerable “whys” in the universe.

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5 Replies to “Is it better to say 4,000 yì or 400 billion?”

  1. Similar thing happens in Japanese, I’ll never be fluent because of the number issue. It’s funny this small difference, such a basic thing for us such as “change the unit every three 0’s”. Many calendars have been kind of forgotten in favour of the Gregorian one, but saying numbers is too basic in language, so a single system can’t replace the others nowadays .

  2. I prefer 400 billion, although 4000 亿 yi is the same.

    4000 is to much to think of, countless though the stars are. But stars are stars, whether they are 400 billion or 4000 yi.

    Switching from counting in Chinese and counting in English sometimes gives me trouble too. But I prefer 一 万 yi wan (one wan) to 10 thousand, though they mean the same.

    Ah, language and cultural differences – and life!

    And the stars, of course.

  3. I don’t look at the stars very often these days. I enjoy the moon and a scattering of stars, but there are too many lights in the city. A couple of years ago on a clear night, some friends and I sat out on a deck and stared at the stars. At first I thought I was seeing an unusual number of falling stars. Then I realized they weren’t falling; they were moving. What I was seeing was satellites.

    The best star gazing I’ve ever done was in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. It was unbelievable!!! A sky bright with stars. I could easily believe 400 billion… or 4000 yi.

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