Sunday, September 11, 2005

伍(오)? Why five people?

The Chinese character, 伍(오), means "five people." It is composed of 亻(인) and 五(오). 亻(인) means "person," and 五(오) means "five," so this character is easy to remember. However, why did the Chinese create a special character to mean "five people," as opposed to some other number of people? I was curious, so I looked it up.

The smallest unit in the armies of Old China was five men, and it seems that when the Chinese would march, they would usually march in ranks of five, which was called an 伍(오). Five ranks would be twenty-five men, which the Chinese called a 行(항). The Korean word for "rank and file" is 항오(行伍).

By the way, the character 行 is pronounced as 행, not 항, when it is used to mean "to walk" or "to do."


  1. 오 is not the 오nly one of these. There are also 什 (now used in the mainland as short form for 甚), 仟 (sometimes used by people as the "banking form" of 千, along with 壹, 貳, 參, 肆, ...), and don't forget 仁 (^^).

  2. Oh, yeah, and 佰 is on that same page.

  3. Taemin, thanks for pointing out the other numbers with the character for "person" in front of them. By the way, I found one more, 仇(구).

    Here is a summary:

    仁(인): This character means "kindhearted" or "humane," as two people are when they close to each other.

    伍(오): This character means "five people," and was once used to refer to a group of five soldiers.

    仇(구): This character means "enemy," for a reason I do not know. It is unrelated, but I did notice that 九(구) means both "nine" and "many."

    什(십): This character means "ten people" and was also once used to refer to a group of soldiers. 什長(십장) means "foreman (of workers)" or "the leader of a squad of ten soldiers."

    佰(백): This character means "hundred" and can also mean "one hundred people."

    仟(천): This character means "thousand," but can also mean "the boss of one thousand people."

    By the way,it is interesting that 亻is also found in 億(억), a character that means "one hundred million."

  4. Yep. No 사람 인 변 in 조 or 경.

    You know, through all of this, we've missed the one that is still actually used to mean "a number of people," 倆. For the sake of completeness, I guess you also have to throw in 佻, 倞. I don't even know which character they are using for 해...

  5. Hi Taemin,

    Here are the numbers:

    一(일) = 1
    十(십) = 10
    百(백) = 100
    千(천) = 1,000
    萬(만) = 10,000
    十萬(십만) = 100,000
    百萬(백만) = 1,000,000
    千萬(천만) = 10,000,000
    億(억) = 100,000,000
    兆(조) = 1,000,000,000
    京(경) = 10,000,000,000
    垓(해) = 100,000,000,000
    --(자) = 1,000,000,000,000
    穰(양) = 10,000,000,000,000
    溝(구) = 100,000,000,000,000
    澗(간) = 1,000,000,000,000,000
    正(정) = 10,000,000,000,000,000
    載(재) = 100,000,000,000,000,000
    極(극) = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
    恒河沙(항하사) = the grains of sand along the Ganges River.

    一(일) = 1
    分(분) = 1.0
    厘(리) = 10.0
    毛(모) = 100.0
    絲(사) = 1000.0
    忽(홀) = 10000.0
    微(미) = 100000.0
    纖(섬) = 1000000.0
    沙(사) = 10000000.0
    塵(진) = 100000000.0
    埃(애) = 1000000000.0
    渺(묘) = 10000000000.0
    漠(막) = 100000000000.0

    I am not sure if all of that is correct, but it is based on what I found here.

  6. I just noticed that after 億(억) I started leaving out numbers; that is, 十億(십억), 百億(백억), 千億(천억), 十兆(십조), 百兆(백조), 千兆(천조), etc., so there are a lot of missing zeros.

  7. It is 3 a.m., I cannot sleep, and I am bored.

    一(일) = one
    十(십) = ten
    百(백) = hundred
    千(천) = thousand
    萬(만) = ten thousand
    十萬(십만) = hundred thousand
    百萬(백만) = million
    千萬(천만) = ten million
    億(억) = hundred million
    十億(십억) = billion
    百億(백억) = ten billion
    千億(천억) = hundred billion
    兆(조) = trillion
    十兆(십조) = ten trillion
    百兆(백조) = hundred trillion
    千兆(천조) = quadrillion
    京(경) = ten quadrillion
    十京(십경) = hundred quadrillion
    百京(백경) = quintillion
    千京(천경) = ten quintillion
    垓(해) = hundred quintillion
    十垓(십해) = sextillion
    百垓(백해) = ten sextillion
    千垓(천해) = hundred sextillion
    --(자) = septillion
    十-(십자) = ten septillion
    百-(백자) = hundred septillion
    千-(천자) = octillion
    穰(양) = ten octillion
    十穰(십양) = hundred octillion
    百穰(백양) = nonillion
    千穰(천양) = ten nonillion
    溝(구) = hundred nonillion
    十溝(십구) = decillion
    百溝(백구) = ten decillion
    千溝(천구) = hundred decillion
    澗(간) = undecillion
    十澗(십간) = ten undecillion
    百澗(백간) = hundred undecillion
    천澗(천간) = duodecillion
    正(정) = ten duodecillion
    十正(십정) = hundred duodecilion
    百正(백정) = tredecillion
    千正(천정) = ten tredecillion
    載(재) = hundred tredecilion
    十載(십재) = quattuordecillion
    百載(백재) = ten quattuordecillion
    千載(천재) = hundred quattuordecillion
    極(극) = quindecillion
    十極(십극) = ten quindecillion
    百極(백극) = hundred quindecillion
    千極(천극) = sexdecillion

    Here is a link if anyone is still not satisfied or prefers the easier British number system.