Home / Articles / Volume 14 (2017) / The Semiotic Multifunctionality of Arabic Numerals in Chinese Online Discourse
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This study investigates the use of Arabic numerals by Chinese internet users to create meanings beyond the numerals’ cardinal/ordinal values. Numerals are often used – individually, or in combination with other symbols – to convey a range of communicative meanings such as farewells, agreements, and compliments, as well as paralinguistic features. Over a three-month period, data were collected from three different types of social media sites: WeChat and QQ (online chatting software), Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), and bilibili.com (a video-sharing website). A total of 3,021 instances of non-cardinal/ordinal Arabic numeral uses were identified and classified into four categories: numeric homophones of Mandarin pinyin, numeric homophones that include other languages, onomatopoeia, and symbolic numeric conventions. These uses demonstrate complex linguistic/semiotic hybridity and a dialogic nature, facilitated by the technological affordances of the CMC context.


Use of Chinese in Computer-Mediated Communication

In their study of Chinese online communication, Dong et al. (2012) suggest that the practices of the Chinese language(s) are polycentric in nature. Varieties of Chinese differ according to their historical, sociocultural, and sociopolitical contexts. In China, Mandarin Chinese is the official spoken language that is used by the government, on public media, and in educational contexts, and the written script generally used in China is simplified Chinese. However, there are many dialects spoken in various parts of the country. Cantonese, for example, is a dialect used in Guangdong and Hong Kong; in Cantonese speaking areas, people also adopt a different script, traditional Chinese writing. The following section provides a brief review of previous research on Chinese varieties in CMC.

Cantonese in CMC

Early studies of Chinese online communication were mostly done in Hong Kong (e.g., Cheng, 2002; Lee, 2002, 2007), which was believed to be the leading region for instant messaging and “I Seek You” (ICQ) chatting in Asia. Due to Hong Kong’s unique sociolinguistic and sociohistorical context, which resulted from previous British colonization, English is used along with Cantonese and Mandarin by Hong Kongers in daily offline/online communication. Hong Kongers use traditional Chinese as their writing system. These Chinese characters, now codified as the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (GovHK, 2015), are distinct from the simplified Chinese characters widely used in other places in China. In light of this unique linguistic context, many studies have focused on code-mixing between English and Chinese in Hong Kong (e.g., Lee, 2007; Li, 2000; Luke & Richards, 1982).

For example, Lee (2007) provided an overarching categorization of linguistic features of CMC writing practices adopted by Hong Kongers in emails and ICQ chats, including code-mixing of traditional Chinese characters, Cantonese stylized characters, English, romanized Cantonese expressions, and English transliterations. Shortenings were found to be used frequently to express familiarity and intimacy, as well as in grammatical and lexical “errors.” Variations of complex code-mixings also follow certain patterns, rather than being chaotic.

Cheng (2002) found that most code-mixings demonstrate some degree of regularity despite lacking official codification. Particularly in ICQ chats, these practices include linguistic characteristics of both spoken and written languages, and have been well received by youth culture in Hong Kong. Cheng further argues that these practices reflect communicative features of simplicity, creativity, and sociocultural trendiness that facilitate users’ understanding of emergent registers in CMC.

Due to the rapid development of CMC and the increasingly important role played by China in globalization, the language practices discussed above were soon adopted by Chinese online users other than Cantonese speakers. The following section briefly surveys research on CMC of non-Cantonese speakers.

CMC Research Beyond Cantonese Chinese

Studies of CMC beyond Cantonese have mostly been conducted in more recent years (e.g., Li & Yarowsky, 2008; Su, 2003; Varis & Wang, 2011; Yuan, 2011). In their study of English and Chinese writing in digital contexts, Lotherington and Xu (2004) revealed tremendous creativity in Chinese online communication through the exploitation of homophones, emoticons, abbreviations, numerals, and social conventions on the discourse level. Their study provided guiding discourse constructs for the description and analysis of communicative patterns in Chinese online communication.

Su (2003) investigated the use of writing systems in the electronic bulletin boards (BBS) of two Taiwanese college student organizations. Based on bulletin board messages and semi-structured interviews with students, she found that the students adopted Chinese writing to represent sounds similar to those of English, Taiwanese, and Taiwanese-accented Mandarin, and the transliterated alphabet to form a writing system that is unique to them. The practices that shape the BBS users’ playful writing reflect the sociolinguistic context of Taiwan, including the different roles played by Taiwanese and Taiwanese-styled Mandarin, as well as the influence of English.

Yang (2007) examined the online writing system used by Mainland Chinese internet users and compared it with the conventions followed by users in Taiwan. His analysis suggests that many differences in writing conventions, such as the use of stylized English, may have resulted from the different language environments and the semiotic resources available to each population of users. For instance, the generally higher levels of English usage and a greater acceptance of code-mixing of Mandarin and English in Taiwan might have resulted in more adoption of English acronyms in Taiwanese CMC compared to Mainland Chinese CMC.

Chen (2014) further contributed to the literature on Chinese online writing systems by analyzing Chinese Pinyin acronyms – abbreviations formed from the initial letters of words in Chinese Pinyin, which is the pronunciation system of Mandarin Chinese written in the Latin alphabet. Online users sometimes type the Pinyin acronyms instead of the original characters in their messages for a variety of reasons, including to overcome the inefficient character input system, soften taboo language, and circumvent online censorship by the government (e.g., 操你妈 Cāo Nǐ Mā, literally ‘fuck your mother,’ is typed as CNM for the expression ‘fuck you’).

Zhang (2012) studied the language play and online creativity of Chinese “netizens” from a sociolinguistic perspective. She focused specifically on Chinese-English code-mixing practices on homegrown social networks, which take place despite stringent governmental control over Chinese linguistic purity (General Administration of Press and Publication, 2010, December 20). These code-mixing practices reflect the pidginization of Chinese English, through which English clause structures are influenced. For example, the Mandarin expression “给(give)我(me)用(use)用(use),” which means ‘let me use it,’ was translated word for word into English as “give me use use.” Zhang (2015) went on to examine language play by following the messages and user comments from the official micro-blogging account of the Shanghai municipal government. She found that Mandarin, English, and the Shanghai dialect were often mixed together in online communication in a wide range of strategies. She concluded that this multilingual language play produces a “carnivalesque pleasure,” creates new identities, and provides rapport among internet users.

Chinese language practices have also been conceptualized through translanguaging theory. Unlike bilingualism and code-switching, translanguaging does not treat an individual’s linguistic repertoire as the sum of isolated languages. García (2009) explains translanguaging as “multiple discursive practices in which bilinguals engage in order to make sense of their bilingual worlds” (p. 45). Li (2011) goes on to argue that translanguaging is not limited to language modalities (speaking, writing, and so on); rather, it creates space for different values, identities, and beliefs. As a result of globalization and waves of immigration, many research inquiries into translanguaging through Chinese have been conducted in areas outside China (e.g., Blackledge & Creese 2010; Li, 1994; Li & Hua, 2013). These studies not only explain Chinese translanguaging on the level of linguistic creativity, but they also argue for the critical potential of a translanguaging ideology that helps create space for multilingual Chinese speakers.

Although the term “translanguaging” avoids the binary of code-switching through its emphasis on hybridity, it is still limited to some extent by its distinction between multilingualism and monolingualism. Moreover, many people have various linguistic resources at their disposal even when their multilingual skills are not even close to proficient (Canagarajah, 2011). These issues are relevant to CMC in China, where standardization of Mandarin takes place within a multilingual and multi-dialectical communicative context (Cheng, 2002).

Use of Numerals Beyond Cardinal/Ordinal Meanings

The use of numerals in digital communication as a shorthand strategy, as well as a form of creative language play, has been observed in many languages (e.g., Crystal, 2008; Frehner, 2008; Shortis, 2009; Tagg et al., 2010). Frehner (2008) reports that numbers are often utilized to substitute for words and/or part of words or sentences in text messages in English based on sound resemblance. Similarly, Crystal (2008) summarized various uses of numerals in different languages in text messaging, where they often serve as syllabic replacements due to similar pronunciations. For instance, Japanese and English are used in the Japanese expression ohayoo ‘good morning’ written as 08400 (oh English) 8 (ha Japanese) 4 (yo Japanese) 0 (oh English). Tagg et al. (2010) found similar usage of number homophones in the SMS communication of British English speakers aged 19 to 68 (e.g., using ‘2gether’ for ‘together’), among other creative spelling strategies.

Anis (2007) analyzed a corpus of 750 French Short Message Service (SMS) texts and found evidence of what he calls “syllabogram” writing, through which numbers and other shortenings substitute for syllables in the spelling of words. In addition to challenging the purist view of the French language espoused by l’Académie Française, such strategies provide for creative and economic expression. Shortis (2009) characterizes use of number homophones as an important strategy in English text respelling, suggesting that they contribute to economy and efficiency in texting, as well as reduction in the number of entries. Tagg et al. (2010) argue that in addition to brevity and speed, these strategies can be used for pragmatic purposes, for example, to create an informal and casual effect.

Numerals can be used as syllabic replacements due to graphic resemblance, as well (Herring, 2016). For example, Tseliga (2007) found that in online discussion lists, the Greek letter θ can be replaced with 8 in Roman-alphabeted Greek, or “Greeklish”. 8 looks somewhat like θ, and is easier to type on a standard keyboard. A similar practice has also been observed in Arabic instant messaging, where numerals are used to represent Arabic sounds that do not exist in English based on graphic similarity (Palfreyman & Khalil, 2003).

Studies of Chinese online communication have also engaged with the uses of numerals. In Mandarin Chinese, numerals can be represented in both native Chinese characters and Arabic numerals. Both styles of numerals can be adopted for non-numerical functions in CMC. Especially for Arabic numerals, some researchers argue that a direct motivation for numeric adoptions is to overcome the clumsy Chinese character input system (e.g., Lotherington & Xu, 2004; Yang, 2007). Meanwhile, many more types of Arabic numeric uses have emerged following the boom in online communication in China. Therefore, research on using numerals in Chinese online communication needs to be updated, along with the resulting impact of these practices on the linguistic ecology of Chinese CMC. The current study addresses these issues by investigating the uses of Arabic numerals on four of the most popular Chinese CMC sites.

Heteroglossia and Superdiversity

To understand the complexity of language practices online, a theoretical framework different from the traditional multilingual perspective that treats languages as separate entities is required (Marshall & Moore, 2013). The current study adopts heteroglossia (Bakhtin, 1981, 1984) and superdiversity (Blommaert, 2010) as its theoretical underpinnings.

Heteroglossia (Bakhtin, 1981) refers to the coexistence of multiple voices, styles, and/or viewpoints in language use. According to Bakhtin (1984), heteroglossia includes two key features: a centripetal force that pulls every element of language to a central point that creates a unifying code or “standard” language, and a centrifugal force that pushes those elements away from the center, which constantly questions, contests, and reshapes the comprehension and realization of language. Language-in-use (e.g., conversations, literary work) reflects the constant struggle between these two forces. The theory also suggests that all texts, from literary works to conversations, are dialogic in nature. That is, each utterance is addressed to a previous utterance and to future responses from the projected audience. As each utterance is adopted, it builds on or transforms the previous utterance. Therefore, no utterances can be simply reproduced in the exact same manner (Pennycook, 2007). Furthermore, Bakhtin argues that language in use often reflects a “carnivalesque” reality, through which individuals demonstrate playful and creative language practices for enjoyment and ultimately, freedom (Bakhtin, 1984).

Similar to the notions of hybridity and diversity in heteroglossia, the concept of superdiversity (Vertovec, 2006) refers to the diversification of communicative resources resulting from intensifying globalization. In this new phase of globalization, the modernist concepts of bilingualism and multilingualism can no longer fully capture the super-diverse world we live in (Blommaert, 2010). Migration and globalization have resulted in intricate connections among labor markets, semiotic resources, and communities, leading to new levels of diversity. In this superdiverse world, people often acquire a “truncated” linguistic repertoire as they come into contact with “bits” of various languages (Blommaert, 2010). That is, people with complex biographical trajectories utilize various semiotic resources in communication, and their knowledge of languages is often unevenly developed or “truncated” (Blommaert, 2010). Such diversity is evident not only in more developed and urban areas, but also in less urbanized places in Asia, where it can be observed in people’s fluid usage of multilingual repertoires (Canagarajah, 2011). Furthermore, advancements in technology provide spaces for various semiotic resources to enter some countries where strict national language policies are enforced, such as China with its governmental normalization of spoken and written Mandarin (Zhou & Sun, 2006), and these resources can also be presented in various ways.

One type of semiotic representation is the utilization of Arabic numerals for functions beyond their canonical ordinal/cardinal meanings. This usage is often heteroglossic. In the following example, “bits” of English are used in numerals in QQ, an online chatting system that is similar to MSN, and that is very popular in China:

Figure 1. Chat log in QQ

The exchange in Figure 1 demonstrates the creative use of the number 88 for farewell (Lotherington & Xu, 2004; Crystal, 2008). A wrote ‘Going to work’ in Mandarin in the first line, and B replied ‘ok’ in English, followed by 88, which is pronounced in Chinese as a homophone of ‘bye-bye’ in English (Lee, 2007). A then replied in the same manner. In this short dialogue, the two users demonstrate their complex linguistic repertoires by mixing Chinese, English, and Arabic numerals in a farewell sequence.

Lotherington and Xu (2004) conducted a small-scale study of the online language conventions of users of English, Chinese, and Chinese-English bilinguals in instant messaging. The researchers characterized the adoption of numerals for non-numeric meanings in English and Chinese as numeric quasi-homophones. For Chinese, these conventions are used based on approximate homophonetic features of numerals that reflect the pronunciations of characters. Two types of numeric homophones were identified: numeric pinyin homophones of Chinese characters (e.g., the use of 88-bābā for 拜拜-bàibà i for bye-bye) and numeric homophones of onomatopoeia (e.g., the use of 5-wǔ for 呜- for crying). The current study continues to explore the use of Arabic numerals beyond cardinal/ordinal meanings, specifically in Mandarin Chinese, in a more diverse range of online contexts: popular Chinese CMC micro-blogging, online chatting, and video-sharing sites. The following section provides a detailed account of the research methodology.



Sampling discourse data from online contexts often calls for creative data collection methods (Androutsopoulos, 2013). In order to collect data for the current study, the sampling approach was narrowed down to sampling by time (i.e., total length of time for data collection) and by phenomenon (i.e., numeral uses other than cardinal/ordinal meanings) (Herring, 2004). Following this approach, the uses of numerals other than cardinal/ordinal values in micro-blogging posts, micro-blogging comments, chat logs, and online video comments were collected in a three-month period from January 25th to April 25th, 2015 from four sites: Weibo (a micro-blogging site), WeChat (a mobile instant messaging application), QQ (a web-based and mobile instant messaging software), and bilibili.com (an online video-sharing site). These are among the most popular CMC sites in China. In order to collect the most data in the given time frame, a screen-based approach (Androutsopoulos, 2013) was adopted. Online data were collected by taking screenshots whenever a posts or comment that included an instance of Arabic numerals in non-numeric meanings was found. For Weibo, each screenshot included the entire post and any images attached to the post. For WeChat and QQ, each screenshot is of the comment with non-numeric Arabic numeral uses. For bilibili.com, screenshots were taken of the entire video interface and the comments posted there. This approach may not provide insights into users’ backgrounds or the motivations for their language use, and thus the analysis is mainly focused on discourse practices rather than the actors who performed those practices. A screen-based approach is convenient in dealing with large amounts of data from the public domain, as this approach facilitates collection of the phenomena of interest – in this case, uses of numerals by Chinese CMC users –, especially in situations when researcher-user contact is difficult to establish. It is thus suitable for the purposes of the current study.

The micro-blogging site Weibo was first introduced in 2009 as part of the services provided by Sina.com, a popular Chinese web portal site. By 2011, Weibo claimed 57% of registered micro-blogging users in China (Sina, 2011, June). Weibo also has expanded its service to other Chinese-speaking areas, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. The screenshots of posts that include non-numeric uses of Arabic numerals from Weibo include 282 numeral uses collected from 174 screenshots, since some posts contain more than one instance of the target Arabic numerals.

QQ is a synchronous online chatting platform established by the Tencent Company in February, 1999. According to Tencent, on March 5th, 2010, the number of active users of QQ reached 100 million (Tencent, n.d.a). The platform offers various chatting functions, including text chat, voice chat, and video chat. The QQ screenshots are of text chat and include 179 messages with non-canonical uses of Arabic numerals from 117 screenshots. Although each screenshot contains multiple chat entries, only one target Arabic numeral was identified in each sampled entry.

The other chatting application, WeChat (微信), was established by Tencent as its mobile instant messaging platform. First released in January 2011, by the end of March 2014, over 396 million users were active on WeChat per month (Tencent, n.d.b)., WeChat offers features for social networking such as broadcast (one-to-many) messaging and photo/video sharing, as well as asynchronous functions such as text-based chat, voice chat, video chat, and hold-to-talk voice messaging, which allows a user to hold a button to record a short voice message that will be transmitted later to the intended receiver. Only text-based chat messages were collected in this study, for a total of 120 screenshots of 163 chat entries that include Arabic numerals used in non-numeric meanings. Similar to QQ, each screenshot contains multiple chat entries, but only one target Arabic numeral use was observed in each entry.

Finally, data were collected from comments that include non-canonical uses of Arabic numbers on videos posted to bilibili.com. Bilibili.com is a video-sharing website founded in 2010 and initially intended for sharing ACG content (animations, comics, and games). Recently ranked 46th out of all the websites in China (Alexa, 2015, October), the site gets most of its views from China (79%) and the United States (10.1%). With over 50 million users, of whom over 75% are under 24 years old, bilibili.com is one of the most popular sites for young people in China (Tencent, 2015, December 25). The videos on bilibili.com are mainly from third party sources, except for Japanese animation series, which are purchased, since they are protected by copyright. The website now provides various other types of videos as well, including documentaries, movies, and music videos, for a total of 11 genres. Of the CMC sites analyzed in this study, bilibili.com is quite different from the other three, and it has not yet been researched despite its unique CMC features. Figure 2 below shows how comments on a video from bilibili.com are displayed.

Figure 2. 弹幕 (dàn mù), or ‘bullet curtain,’ comments on bilibili.com

This unique commenting system, called 弹幕 (dàn mù), allows users to post both static and mobile comments (which move from right to left). Users can adjust when and how their comments appear on the screen, as well as the font type/color/transparency of the comments. The literal translation of 弹幕 (dàn mù) is ‘bullet curtain.’ The term was originally borrowed from the Japanese word Danmaku, a video shooting game with bullets all over the screen. The ‘bullet curtain’ allows users to post real-time comments as subtitles overlain on the on-going video, similar to the “bullets” in the Danmaku games.

Screenshots were collected from bilibili.com in order to capture the numeral phenomena of interest with their associated CMC characteristics, as well as the immediate discourse context when there were multiple turns of interaction. A total of 751 screenshots were taken of ‘bullet curtain’ comments, including 2397 uses of Arabic numerals with non-numeric meanings. In 443 out of 751 screenshots, multiple comments that include target Arabic numerals were present in each sampled screenshot.

The screenshots were collected from each data source between January 25th and April 25th, 2015. For WeChat and QQ, the data were sampled from the author’s personal contacts, including one chat group from QQ with 99 members and two chat groups from WeChat with a total of 15 members. Although this sampling method may be biased due to the limitations of the researcher’s own personal contacts, it still provides useful and rich data for the exploratory purposes of the current study. For Weibo, the data were collected from the author’s daily Weibo newsfeed, which includes public Weibo news posts and updates from the author’s 64 Weibo contacts; the number of posts varied from day to day. For bilibili.com, data were collected twice a week from the textual comments posted over the video in the top two featured videos on the site’s homepage. These videos are not always refreshed daily; therefore, a strategy of bi-weekly data collection was adopted. In total, I collected “bullet curtain” comments from 52 videos on bilibili.com. These sampling strategies from the four sites provide a potentially rich data pool and a broad representation of contemporary Chinese CMC practice.


During the three months of data collection, I sampled and counted each occurrence of Arabic numeral use in non-cardinal/non-ordinal meanings. By the end of the data collection period, a total of 3021 instances of the target numeral uses were identified. Of these, 2397 instances (79.4% of the total) were found in bilibili.com, followed by Weibo with 282 instances (9.3%). For the chat sites, 179 (5.9%) instances were identified in QQ, and 163 instances (5.4%) were identified in WeChat.

I grouped these instances into four categories according to their linguistic and semiotic functions: numeric homophones of Mandarin Pinyin, numeric homophones that include other languages, onomatopoeia, and symbolic numeric conventions. In the next section, I provide an in-depth analysis of each function, along with an example from one of the four source CMC sites. To contextualize these practices, screenshots are presented along with the analyses. I then classify the numeral uses into 1l structural types and identify the frequency distribution of each type.


Numeric Homophones of Mandarin Pinyin

The first category of numeral use is based on homophonetic features of Arabic numerals and Mandarin Chinese Pinyin. A total of 795 instances of numeric homophones of this functional type were identified. One typical example is the use of 88 (bā bā) as homophony for ‘bye-bye’ in English (e.g., Lee, 2007). Nowadays, ‘bye-bye’ is also an expression in Chinese which can be written in Chinese characters as 拜拜 (bàibài), often followed by the particle了 (le) or 喽 (lou). Relatedly, Chinese online users sometimes use 886, a variant of 88 followed by a 6 (liù) – which sounds like (le) or (lou) – in the same communicative function (Yang, 2007).

Numeric homophones of Mandarin Pinyin can also be adopted as part of Chinese phrasal expressions. These numbers replace part of the Chinese expressions with similar sounds, while the rest of the phrase is formed with Chinese characters. For instance, the Arabic number 8 () has been adopted due to its phonetic similarity with 不 (bù) which means ‘no’ or ‘do not’ in Mandarin Chinese, and it is used in this meaning with other Chinese characters, as in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Use of 8 as part of a Chinese expression: ‘Hope everyone calms down. Don’t become someone you 8 (do not) like. (Emoji: Become each other’s fan) Eat something and calm down.’

In Figure 3, the number 8 () is combined with 喜欢 (xǐhuān ‘like’ in English) to express the meaning ‘do not like.’

Another example of numeric homophones of Mandarin Pinyin is the use of 6 (liù) for 溜 (liū) to express the concept that someone or something is awesome or exceptionally good at something. The character 溜 in Mandarin Chinese is used to describe a person’s exceptional ability or skill at something. This usage was found on all the selected sites.. When the numeral 6 is used alone, it can be used once or repeated to show the user’s admiration. Both of these uses are illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Use of 6 in a “bullet curtain” comment to express admiration for the animation character in the video

The number 6 can also be paired with the Chinese character 好 or 很 (both of which mean ‘very’) to add to the degree of admiration. Figure 5 from Weibo shows the use of both forms in a single post.

Figure 5. Use of 6 in a Weibo post: ‘666 (Awesome, awesome, awesome) Got a screenshot of a very 6 (awesome) moment! This year maybe 66 all well (‘66 all well’ is a direct translation of ‘六六大顺’ in Chinese which means all will be well) (Emoji: Feeling cool).’

The example in Figure 5 demonstrates the complexity of Chinese online literacy practices in a single post. In this example, numerals, Chinese, English, and an emoji are packaged together by the author. The three 6’s in a row express the excitement of the blogger who just made an important screenshot. This is then followed by 很6, which means ‘very (as 很 in Chinese) awesome (6 as the numeral expression of ‘awesome’).’ An English word, ‘maybe,’ is also used by the author, further contributing to the hybridity of the post. The most interesting part comes at the end of the post before the final emoji of ‘cool.’ 66大顺 (‘66 all well’ represents 六六大顺 in Chinese (六 is the Chinese character for the numeral 6, with the same pronunciation). Originally, 六六大顺 is an idiomatic expression meaning ‘all is going to be well,’ and the number 6 in Chinese culture often projects positive meanings such as good fortune. By choosing the numeric version over the Chinese characters, the author adds an extra layer of meaning of ‘being awesome’ (via the numeric 6) to the original idiomatic expression.

Another example observed in the study is 520 (wǔ èr líng), which is the numeric homophone of 我爱你 ‘I love you’ in Mandarin Chinese (Pinyin: wǒ ài nǐ). 520 is used in Chinese CMC to indicate intimacy and romantic love, but also as a day of celebration for lovers (Figure 6). These functions of 520 represent the playfulness of heteroglossic communication.

Figure 6. Use of 520 in a Weibo status post: ‘Plant a seed on April Fools’ Day and I will come and take it on 520 (lit. I love you).’

The blocked area on the top left of the post in Figure 6 is the picture of the blogger, and next to the blogger’s picture is the user name. At the bottom are four columns which, from left to right, allow users to save (add to the user’s collection), forward, comment, or support (through the “thumb up” icon) the post. In this post, “520” was used to suggest a date as well as the blogger’s confession of love.

Numeric Homophones that Include Other Languages

Numeric homophones are also used with other languages such as English and Japanese, with 348 instances observed. An example with English is the expression v587 (v wǔ bā qī). The letter ‘v’ and the numerals 587 substitute for each character in 威武霸气 (wēiwǔ bàqì), an expression used to describe someone or something as exceptionally powerful or awesome, as in Figure 7. In this expression, the English letter v is a homophone of the Chinese character 威 (wēi).

Figure 7. Use of v587 in a Weibo post: ‘Well done everyone, well done coaches! Let’s fight again next year, my great Biological Science (name of a sports team) is v587 (awesome).’

An abbreviated version of v587 was found on Weibo, with three instances that had been adapted and transformed into an emoji (see Figure 8). Instead of the full version v587, the emoji only shows v5, while still conveying the meaning of ‘exceptionally awesome.’ The number 5 appears on top of the v, resulting in the emoji. Although modern Mandarin Chinese is read from left to right, Chinese readers have little difficulty understanding the vertical order of the elements in the emoji as “v5” (威武), with the precise phonetic mapping between v5 (vwǔ ) and 威武 (wēiwǔ), because this is the only possible ordering of the two elements that makes sense linguistically. In this case, the structural reading order of Mandarin Chinese is less important than the meaning of the expression.

Figure 8. v5 as an emoji

Another example of numeric homophones with English is the adoption of 3 (sān) and Q to represent the syllabic pronunciation of ‘thank you.’ This is illustrated in Figure 9.

Figure 9. Use of English transliteration 3Q: ‘Thanks (written in Mandarin Chinese as 谢谢) X for giving me the book. X also autographed it for me (Emojis: Kissing). (Also), please come and join the celebration of my new product release on April 1st. 3Q (Emojis: Love).’

In example 9, the Chinese expression of gratitude is replaced by the English expression ‘thank you,’ represented by a combination of the Chinese number 3 (s ā n) and the Latin letter Q. The pronunciation of the entire expression is very similar to the original English expression. This expression was also observed and analyzed in previous research on Chinese CMC (e.g., Li & Yarowsky, 2008).

Finally, numeric homophones can also be adopted to substitute for Japanese. In the ‘bullet curtain’ comments from one bilibili.com video, the name of a Japanese guitarist, Osamurai San (おさむらいさん), is referred to as 543 by his fans in China. The Japanese nickname means ‘Mr. Samurai,’ prefixed by the Japanese honorific O (お). ‘Samurai’ in Chinese is translated as 武士 (wǔshì), which is a homophone for 5 () and 4 (). Furthermore, San, the Japanese honorific (here translated as ‘Mister’), is phonetically similar to the Chinese Pinyin for 3 (sān). Thus, the name for the guitarist becomes 543. This use of numerals reflects some Chinese online users’ knowledge of Japanese hiragana (a syllabic writing system) and honorifics.


Numerals can also be used to represent vocal characterizations as onomatopoeia. An example is the use of 55 (wǔ wǔ), which mimics the sound of weeping, written in Chinese as 呜呜 (wū wū); see Figure 10. The translation of this post is ‘I hate to take photos on a rainy day T T (a crying emoji)!!! The Cherry blossoms in Luxun Garden seem to have all withered away! Sad 555~ Thank you for helping with the photo shoot in high heels on a rainy day~ You look like a celebrity!!! BTW! I need to lose weight!!!’ Here, numerals are used to represent paralanguage, as identified in the study by Lotherington and Xu (2004), who also observed the use of onomatopoeic numeral 5 to express crying.

Figure 10. Use of 5 (wǔ) to represent the weeping sound 呜 (wū) in Mandarin Chinese

Symbolic Numeric Conventions

Besides homophonetic features, Arabic numerals are sometimes adopted by Chinese online users in symbolic meanings; 1867 instances of this numeric usage were identified in the study. A specific example is the adoption of the arithmetic symbol + with 1 to express the meaning of agreement or support. Instead of typing an expression such as ‘I agree’ to show support for the previous commentator, Chinese CMC users often type +1 (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Use of +1 in a video from bilibili.com: ‘My earphone is exploding +1.’

The adoption of the arithmetic symbol + represents an example of a shorthand strategy for online communication.

Another symbolic numeric convention is the use of the numeric combination 233 to express laughter. This convention is thought to have been created by fans of Japanese animations based on an animated graphic numbered 023, in which a cartoon character was laughing. Users can also pile on number 3’s to the original expression for sustained or intensified laughter (e.g., 233333), as long as a single 2 appears at the beginning of the expression; see Figure 12.

Figure 12. Use of 233 on a video from bilibili.com: “The guy who said these are cow B swans, wait for me 233 (laughter).”

In the example above, the commenter was trying to communicate with a previous commenter who called the swans in the video ‘牛B’ swans. The actual name for the swans is ‘疣鼻天鹅’ (Mute Swan). In Chinese, ‘疣鼻’ (Yóu bí) is phonetically similar to ‘牛B’ (Niú B). Although the original meaning of ‘牛’ is ‘cow’, the expression ‘牛B’ is a colloquial expression used to describe someone or something as exceptionally good. The users were making fun of the scientific name of the swans in the video by exploiting the phonetic similarities of ‘疣鼻’ and ‘牛B’.

Structural Types of Non-canonical Numerals

The four categorizations described and discussed above represent the multiple functions of Arabic numerals beyond conventional numeric meanings in Chinese internet communication. Eleven different forms express these functions, as shown in Table 1 below. The table summarizes the frequencies of each structural numeral type identified in this study.

Table 1. Summary of structural numeral types

Users of the target CMC sites employ these numeric constructions for an array of purposes as discussed above, including exchanging pleasantries, giving compliments/support, producing onomatopoetic sounds, and naming.


Similar to users of many other languages such as English (e.g., Tagg et al., 2010) and French (e.g., Anis, 2007), Chinese online users adopt numerals to facilitate CMC. The numeric expressions are generally shorter in length and encompass various meaning-making features. Similar to the findings of previous researchers (e.g., Lee, 2007; Zhang, 2012), Chinese online users utilize the phonetic features of Chinese and foreign languages such as English and Japanese in different CMC modes (e.g., micro-blogging, online chatting, and video-sharing sites). However, unlike in Arabic (Palfreyman & khalil, 2003) and Greek (Tseliga, 2007) CMC, numerals were not found to be adopted due to graphic similarities. Furthermore, the findings also suggest that linguistic features are not the only sources of Chinese users’ creative and playful online discourse practices.

Pluralingual Repertoires of Chinese Online Users

The linguistic complexity illustrated in this study reflects a pluralingual ecology of CMC in China’s four home-grown sites – Weibo, QQ, WeChat, and bilibili.com. A pluralingual perspective distinguishes itself from traditional models of bilingualism and multilingualism, which tend to treat languages as discrete monolithic entities, focusing on separate language proficiencies (Marshall & Moore, 2013). Similar to the notion of translanguaging (García, 2009), pluralingualism describes how individuals make meaning through their complex linguistic repertoires as a whole, while mixing and “meshing” knowledge of various languages. Specifically in this study, Chinese internet users adopted various linguistic features from Mandarin Chinese, English, and Japanese in their meaning-making processes through non-canonical uses of Arabic numerals. These practices of language mixing through Arabic numerals mostly involve phonetic features. In other words, Chinese users of the target CMC sites demonstrate a kind of “typthographic” play (Herring, 2016) through which numerals substitute for Chinese characters and/or symbols partly or entirely due to phonetic similarities. This finding is also mentioned in Leppänen et al.’s (2009) such as phonetic features of Finnish and other foreign languages, in their fan fictions. In these complex communicative contexts, the notion of separate language proficiencies from a multilingual perspective is less relevant than how users engage their complex linguistic repertoires for communication. In fact, users’ linguistic proficiencies investigated in this study may vary from competent multilingualism in two or more languages to Chinese monolingualism with a limited or developing linguistic repertoire in other languages. As Canagarajah (2011) points out, people can still possess multilingual repertoires when their other languages are far from proficient, and this study suggests that Chinese online users are capable of using parts of their linguistic repertoires, as limited as they may be, to construct their online discourse with multilingual features.

Utilization of Non-Linguistic Meaning-Making Signs

In addition to exploiting connections between Arabic numerals and features of languages, the study also reveals other semiotic resources utilized by Chinese online users. Meaningful signs from animation communities and math have been adopted and incorporated into online interactions with specific communicative functions. From this study, it appears that all these meaning-making strategies were practiced regularly in the selected CMC sites. Furthermore, these meaning making signs also demonstrate potentials to be adopted across the boundaries of different types of social media. Specifically in this study, the conventionalized use of the numerals 233 for laughter, which originated in the communities in bilibili.com, was found to be used on the microblog site Weibo as well. Although users of the asynchronous site Weibo have less concern about lack of time for typing, 233 and its variants still may have gained their popularity due to efficiency in typing and re-circulation by bilibili.com users. The cross-boundary adoption of 233 indicates that the use of Arabic numerals can be more purposeful than simply aiming at more efficient input.

Heteroglossic Communication

The numeral findings also reflect the heteroglossic nature of online communication. Various pragmatic functions, paralanguage, and conventionalized uses can be attributed to the observed uses of numerals, such as expressing farewell (e.g., 88 for ‘bye-bye’), giving appreciation (e.g., 3Q for ‘thank you’), complimenting/showing support (e.g., using 6 for the meaning of ‘cool/awesome’), mimicking onomatopoetic sounds (e.g., using 5 for the sound of crying), invoking paralanguage (e.g., 233 for laughter), naming (e.g., 543 for the Japanese video blogger), negation (e.g., using 8 in the meanings of ‘no/not’ or ‘do not’), and specialized expressions (e.g., 520 for ‘I love you’). Furthermore, the findings demonstrate that non-linguistic signs from animation communities (i.e., 233) and math (i.e., +) are exploited for specific communicative functions as well.

Through Arabic numerals, Chinese online users also “play” with their language(s). Bakhtin (1981) believes that literacy practices are often creative and playful. He describes this playfulness, through which people seek enjoyment, humor, and ultimately freedom, as being “carnivalesque” (1984). The use of numerals instead of standard Chinese writing reflects the Bakhtinian notion of “carnivalesque” playfulness, and demonstrates users’ proficiency with popular online literacy practices. These language uses are also essential for communicating in certain online communities, such as bilibili.com, where unique literacy practices are frequently followed.


This study reveals the multi-functionality of numerals in heteroglossic Chinese CMC. Building on previous research on online communication in Chinese (e.g., Lotherington & Xu, 2004; Su, 2003), this study reveals how Arabic numerals can be adopted for non-numeric meanings specifically in relation to Mandarin Chinese speakers through CMC sites established in Mainland China. It also provides a heteroglossic perspective on these practices as online users apply multiple stylizations of meaning making to achieve playful effects. However, the study is limited by the screen-based approach to data collection and its relatively small sample size. Future research might usefully adopt an emic approach and investigate online users’ full linguistic repertoires and their motivations for creative language practices involving numerals. In terms of research methodology, alternative data collection and sampling strategies should also be considered, such as sampling all messages within a given time frame that include non-canonical uses of numerals. Furthermore, in addition to Arabic numerals, a promising area of research would be the non-canonical uses of native Chinese numerals and other playful communicative practices in Chinese CMC, for comparison. While researchers have found such practices as code-mixing, transliterations of foreign languages, and Romanization of Chinese characters in Taiwanese (Su, 2003) and Cantonese (Lee, 2007) online communication, research is still needed on the mushrooming phenomenon of digital communication in Mandarin Chinese.


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Biographical Note

Yi Zhang (yiz@mail.usf.edu) is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida. His research interests are focused on the areas of digital communication, discourse analysis, and multilingual practices.


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