Multiplication system gives rise to meanings beyond just simple math

Zhang Ciyun
Nine times nine equals 81. What China’s ancient multiplication table tells us about human nature.
Zhang Ciyun

For more than 2,500 years, Chinese students have been required to recite the jiujiu koujue — the nine-nine multiplication table, or simply the nine-nine table.

The multiplication table first appeared in ancient Chinese texts during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). It begins with “nine times nine equals 81” — hence its name.

Many have attributed the excellent performance of Chinese students in worldwide math competitions to the nine-nine table.

Also, some researchers have discovered that using Chinese to recite the multiplication table is much faster than using other languages.

For instance, where one says “nine times nine equals 81” in English, a Chinese student would simply say “9981.”

This helps explain a popular Chinese idiom, buguan sanqi ershiyi, or in literal translation, “not caring three seven twenty-one.” In ancient China, people believed that the number three was auspicious and the number seven was ominous.


bù guǎn sān qī èr shí yī

So, this saying means casting all caution to the wind or doing something regardless of consequences, good or bad.

Another Chinese expression with a similar meaning involves not numbers, but colors.

It says bufen qinghong zaobai, or “not distinguishing red-blue or black-white.”


bù fēn qīng hóng zào bái

The saying comes from “Book of Odes,” the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.

It means to do things or to make judgments indiscriminately and arbitrarily, without drawing a distinction between right and wrong, or black and white.

Both Chinese idioms here smack of a derogatory sense, describing somebody doing things either recklessly or injudiciously.

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