## Why Chinese write "9" backwards

From Charles Belov:

Above are photos of checks from two different visits to a local Cantonese restaurant, where on each occasion I ordered salmon and brown rice. The checks were prepared by two different waiters (as I believe the 3-stroke vs. 4-stroke 文, as well as other handwriting differences, plus use or non-use of punctuation confirm). Yet, both checks show the same backwards 9 in the total \$19.00. What's up with that?

I've been noticing the backward 9 of Chinese writers for as long as I can remember.  Although it struck me as unusual, there are so many other distinctive features about Chinese alphabetical and numerical writing that I never paid much attention to it.  But this time, because Charles wondered about it, I asked some of my Chinese students why they do it that way.

I.

The 9 in the photos indeed looks like a balloon/lollipop. I'm not sure if all Chinese write like that. My 9 actually resembles the alphabetic letter "q".

II.

I guess most people write in this way. I don’t think it’s backward, but it looks like it's backward since there is no turning point. Writing in this way saves time, and it is smoother than the standard version!

III.

Yes, we do write nine in the way exhibited on those checks. And it is really efficient to write that way. The picture below illustrates how efficiency is generated from the special way of writing nine backward.

First, to explain in words:

Part one:
You have to use two strokes to finish a “9”.

Part two: it’s like drawing a “0” and then covering the right half of the “0” with a prolonged or extended “1”.
You have to cover one part of an already finished “0” with “1”, which is a waste of time. However, compared to the first, "normal" way of writing “9”, you can finish the backward “9” in one stroke. More efficient?

Part three:
No part covered twice, nothing wasted, only in one stroke!

Second, shown in a drawing:

VHM:  QED.

[Thanks to Yixue Yang, Zeyao Wu, Qing Liao]

1. ### Jerry Friedman said,

October 19, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

But unlike Student III, the waiters did write their 9s backwards, not just in one stroke.

2. ### maidhc said,

October 19, 2018 @ 10:03 pm

A trend these days in modern Chinese restaurants is to have the customer order by number. I first encountered this in BBQ skewer sort of restaurants, where they give you a laminated tablet and a grease pencil to order your skewers by number. My wife and I have found an equilibrium with the skewers–she orders chicken hearts and I order lamb kidneys. Each of us hates the other's choice with a passion and loves our own. So that is our chance to both be content.

A couple of nights ago we went to a sort of hipster Chinese restaurant, and they gave us a pad and a pencil to list our choices. Fair enough. As it happens I cross my sevens, European-style. So when the waitress picked up our pad, that was the one she questioned. "Is that what you want? 187?"

The funny thing is, that restaurant also had a big chalkboard where they list specials, drinks that are available, and so on. And every single seven on the chalkboard was crossed.

That was before I read this post, otherwise I would have checked out the nines.

3. ### Ali said,

October 19, 2018 @ 11:36 pm

That's also how we write 9 in Farsi. More like the one in the drawing.

4. ### chr said,

October 20, 2018 @ 12:28 am

Funny how none of them seem to understand what "backwards" means here.

5. ### Chris C. said,

October 20, 2018 @ 12:32 am

Funny how none of them seemed to understand what "backwards" meant here. Perhaps they interpreted it in terms of stroke order, and something like "reversed" or "mirror-image" would have been clearer?

6. ### Chas Belov said,

October 20, 2018 @ 1:51 am

Thank you for checking. I'm still not sure why it would be specifically a Chinese thing. Although handwritten checks are becoming rarer and rarer outside of this particular restaurant.

7. ### 번하드 said,

October 20, 2018 @ 2:27 am

This is off by one, so I hope it's not too far OT.
What came to my mind when reading this was the peculiar way in which our current Korean teacher (and she's not alone in that) writes "8".
Instead of just one stroke like we all do (do we?), she puts a small circle above a bigger one.

8. ### Philip Taylor said,

October 20, 2018 @ 3:38 am

번하드 ("she puts a small circle above a bigger one") — As (almost) do I, except my two circles have the same diameter. This is how I was taught to draw eights when learning technical drawing, and it has stuck with me to this day (55 years on). So no, we don't all do !

9. ### Kristian said,

October 20, 2018 @ 3:44 am

I think one reason to write 9 in the way student III describes is that it is closer to the way 6 is written, but that still doesn't make it backwards.
I seem to remember that I wrote 9 in this way as a child for this reason, but I don't remember whether I started at the top/middle or the bottom.

10. ### Max said,

October 20, 2018 @ 4:58 am

Both photos, but especially photo #1, look to me like the result of drawing respondent III's #1 style quickly. They start making a counter-clockwise circle from about 4 o'clock, but instead of closing the circle and then drawing a line down they just draw the line down.

So it's not really backwards. It's just been very streamlined.

11. ### david said,

October 20, 2018 @ 8:00 am

@Max But why counter-clockwise? That’s what makes it look backwards to me. A clockwise circle, starting about three o’clock and then continuing downward when three o’clock is reached again would look closer to a 9.

12. ### Jerry Friedman said,

October 20, 2018 @ 11:27 am

maidhc: A trend these days in modern Chinese restaurants is to have the customer order by number.

Do you mean by writing the number? Ordering by saying the number has been common in the Chinese (mostly not all that Chinese) restaurants I've been eating in all my life, since most Americans, including me, would have a lot of trouble pronouncing the Chinese names intelligibly. I assumed that's why they have numbers on the menus.

13. ### David said,

October 20, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

I find it interesting that this doesn't happen only in China, but in Korea and Japan too. I've worked recently with some documents containing handwritting from korean natives and is quite common to see "backwards" nines. I guess that if everybody around them (coworkers, clients, students, etc.) understands their handwriting they don't feel the need to change it. "Correct handwriting" is a relative concept ;)

14. ### Martha said,

October 20, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

"So it's not really backwards. It's just been very streamlined."
If the loop is to the right of the straight part, it's backwards. It doesn't matter how you draw it.

It's interesting that they don't just do a clockwise circle, as david suggests, since apparently most Chinese writers generally write circles clockwise (https://qz.com/994486/the-way-you-draw-circles-says-a-lot-about-you/).

15. ### Martha said,

October 20, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

Oh I meant to say, I've seen this from my Korean and Chinese (ESOL) students. It's problematic when you're writing your email address, which contains a(n apparently) random string of letters and numbers. I guess if your first language's writing system doesn't have a P, having a forwards 9 isn't that important.

16. ### 번하드 said,

October 20, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

@Philip Taylor: Ah, learning "technical drawing" was an option at highschool that I didn't take. I regret much more that I didn't learn typing with all 10 fingers, though:)
The same teacher once drew a snowman (same way) and most pupils couldn't guess it.
When she explained that it should have been a snowman, she was told that no, this wasn't a European snowman but an Asian one, as European snowmen consist of *three* not *two* balls;))

@david: now this is really funny. I start at three-o-clock, too, but my circle is counterclockwise. The resulting shape is just an ordinary "9", though. Doing it clockwise would feel really odd to me. I don't know if I was taught that way at elementary school or if it's the influence of "positive sense of rotation" from mathematics.

17. ### Ellen K. said,

October 20, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

After reading the comments, I'm thinking perhaps there's a distinction between "writing a 9 backwards" and "writing a backwards 9". The writing process isn't necessarily backwards, but the resulting 9 is. (Of course, "writing a 9 backwards" can mean "writing a 9 so that it's backwards", but I think you can understand the distinction I'm making.)

18. ### David L said,

October 20, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

When I lived briefly in Finland many years ago, I found that my 9s (which I scrawl with an open loop at the top) were frequently mistaken for 4s, which the Finns wrote in a loopier way than my rectilinear ones. If I remember correctly, the Finnish 9 typically had a tail at the bottom, so it looked something like a lower case g, except vertically promoted.

19. ### Cris Chatterjee said,

October 20, 2018 @ 6:40 pm

It's difficult to tell why people write things in one way or another. As an English language teacher I can tell where my students come from, from their handwriting – very accurately. I can often use that to hand back homework to the right student, even of their name is not on it.

Back to why. It might be the original script, the interplay of the orthography and the handwriting. How people are taught to write, or write English or th target language. It might be a mnemonic. Many things, of course.

When learning to transmogrify English speech into the conventional IPA symbols used for the transcription of RP English, I always found the backwards lower case A symbol, /ɒ/ difficult to come to terms with. This, of course, for many speakers is associated with the orthographic letter , and in Southern Standard British English or RP represents the vowel sound in “lot”.

In transcriptions of actual speech in exams for my MA, the only way that I could learn to imitate it without making me slow down so much I missed the next bit of speech, was to use a regular Latin (in my mind an English ) and then put a vertical dash on the left-hand side of it. This was for speed, of course. Speed and also because it gives me cognitive dissonance to write a backwards for a sound I associate fundamentally with .

Unfortunately, I taught this 'mnemonic' to many of my students. If you see this idiosyncrasy in any transcriptions anywhere, there’s an outside chance it might be from one of my students … . Or one of my students’ students. Sorry!

20. ### Jen in Edinburgh said,

October 21, 2018 @ 2:07 am

I write my 9s with an anticlockwise loop, the way you're taught to go when first learning to write c, then things like d – it wouldn't have occurred to me that anyone would go round the other way!

Done very quickly that might turn into the 'balloon' of the original pictures, although in practice mine turn into a curl and a line, if they go wrong at all.

21. ### B.Ma said,

October 21, 2018 @ 3:45 am

I met some Koreans who write 8s starting from the middle, then drawing the bottom loop before the top.

22. ### Trogluddite said,

October 21, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

I write a "neat" 9 by making an anti-clockwise loop, starting from top-right. When the loop is completed, I then reverse direction to come down for the stalk. As writing speed increases, the loop becomes less and less complete, and the change of direction to draw the stalk ever less acute and more rounded. My pen also often hits the page earlier (note in the 1st photo how the beginning of the loop is a faint continuation of the movement up and to the right from the bottom of the 1). As the speed increases further, I end up with something very like the 9 in the first image, which I didn't see as "backwards" at all. From there, it isn't really much of a leap to the second example, where the loop does seem quite obviously to the right of the stalk, even to me.

I also noted the "cursive numerals"; the way that the zeros in both cases are written without the pen leaving the page. When I'm writing quickly, I join many numeral pairs in this way, which distorts the number shapes in various ways (the way that the 8 in the first image is written with misaligned loops would be common, for example.)

So although respondent III's illustration doesn't actually show the "backwards 9" as in the photos, I think he is onto something with regards to speed and efficiency, and I can see from my own writing the process by which the "backwards 9" might be arrived at from the starting point of what I would consider canonical. Whether the "backwards 9" came about by some evolutionary optimisation like this, I could not say, but I think it is certainly possible.

23. ### JC said,

October 22, 2018 @ 2:44 am

Some Koreans write 9 like that as well. I remember seeing it several times when I was in Korea.

However, this backwards 9 seems to be decreasing in usage in Korea and some younger people regard it as old-fashioned.

1. http://www.waygook.org/index.php?topic=41069.0
(Jul 27, 2012; in English)

2. https://kin.naver.com/qna/detail.nhn?d1id=13&dirId=1304&docId=37697938
(Nov 26, 2002; in Korean)

어른들은 왜 9를 거꾸로 쓰나요?
Why do adults write 9 backwards?

어른들이 숫자 9를 적으면 항상 반대로 적잖아요 그 이유는 뭔가요?
When adults write the digit 9, they always write it backwards. What is the reason for that?

Replies:

qhxo****:
아이들은 숫자를 배우는 단계이니까 정확하게 적기위해서 똑바로 숫자를 적도록 유도하지요.. / 아무래두 어른들은 쓰기쉬우니까 그런거 아니에요?
Children are learning digits; that is why (teachers) lead children to write it correctly in order to write it accurately. For adults, isn't it because it is easier to write?
(Note: The first sentence is hard to translate; it is somewhat weird.)

daso****:
빨리쓰려구 그러시는거죠 / 날려쓰게되는겁니다. / 저두 첨엔 이상하게 생각하구 따라해봤어요 / 근데 웃기더라구요
They do that to write it faster. They scribble. I thought it was weird at first, and tried to write it that way. It was funny.

3. http://www.slrclub.com/bbs/vx2.php?id=free&no=26726981
(May 12, 2013; in Korean)

숫자 9 반대로 적는거 왜 그러나요?
Why is 9 written backwards?

나이드신 선생님들이 그렇게 적으시던거 봤는데 왜 그렇게 적나요?
I have seen old teachers writing it that way. Why is it written like that?

▶◀[10D]レア:
그게 더 편하다고 하시네유
I heard that it is more convenient.

▶◀LevV:
한번에 적을수 있어서
Because it can be written in a single stroke.

명지★아빠:
빠르니까유
Because it is faster.

4. https://www.clien.net/service/board/park/11259460
(Sep 30, 2017; in Korean)

경상도 어른들은 왜 9를 거꾸로 쓰나요?
Why do adults in Gyeongsang-do write 9 backwards?

제가 경상도에 살았는데 어른들 메모한거보면 9를 q형태가 아닌 p형태로 쓰는 빈도가 상당히 높더라고요 / 문재인대통령도 편지글 보니까 반대로 쓰던데 / 과거 대한민국 교육에선 9를 거꾸로 가르쳤나요??
I used to live in Gyeongsang-do, and 9 was very frequently written like a "p" instead of a "q" in notes written by adults. President Moon Jae-in also wrote it backwards in his letter. Was 9 taught to be written backwards in the past curriculum(s) in Korea?

umai00:
한번에 쓰기 편해서 그럴 겁니다
I think it is because it is easier to write in a single stroke.

absolute:
경상도만 그런 건 아닌 듯 한데요?
I don't think that is peculiar to Gyeongsang-do.

HALO:
저도 그게 편해서 그렇게 씁니다 / 서울이에요 ㅎㅎ
I write it that way because it is convenient. I live in Seoul.

스피:
저도 편해서 그렇게 쓰고 있는데 어르신 글씨라니 ㅠ.ㅠ
I write it that way because it is convenient. Sad that it is regarded as a writing by an elderly person.

희대의사기꾼:
나이가 좀 있는분들이 그리쓰시더라구요
Elderly people write it that way.

눈웃음:
그건 꼭 경상도가 아니라 사람마다 케바케일텐데요??
I don't think that is peculiar to Gyeongsang-do, but it varies from person to person.

loveMint:
빨리 써야할 땐 편하죠 / 나이 많지 않지만 날려쓸 때 씁니다ㅋㅋ / 어른이라니 내가…
That is convenient when writing faster. I'm not old, but I write it that way when scribbling. Am I an adult…

도도:
저도 어려서부터 이렇게 썼고 상업서예라는 상업고 교과서도 그렇게 가르쳤네요
I also have written it like this (i.e. backwards) since when I was young, and Commercial Calligraphy (상업 서예; https://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=2222577&cid=51293&categoryId=51293)—a textbook for a commercial high school—taught it that way.

5. http://gall.dcinside.com/board/view/?id=baseball_new6&no=218124
(Nov 8, 2017; in Korean)

틀딱 특징 ) 숫자 9 거꾸로 씀
Characteristic of old people: Writing digit 9 backwards
(Note: 틀딱 is a derogatory term for old people. I don't know how to translate it well in English.)

24. ### JC said,

October 22, 2018 @ 4:15 am

I found some more.

6. https://kin.naver.com/qna/detail.nhn?d1id=11&dirId=1113&docId=59800576
(May 23, 2003; in Korean)

어른들은 왜 숫자'9'를 반대로 쓸까요??
Why do adults write digit 9 backwards?

어른들은 대부분 숫자9를 알파벳 p 처럼씁니다,, 왜 반대로쓸까요????
Most adults write digit 9 like the alphabet "p". Why do they write it backwards?

함 써보세요 훨신 빠릅니다.
Try writing it that way. It is much faster.

7. http://gall.dcinside.com/board/view/?id=drama_new&no=4266736
(Jun 15, 2015; in Korean)

어른들은 왜 숫자 9를 반대로 써??
Why do adults write digit 9 backwards?

8. http://gall.dcinside.com/board/view/?id=pridepc_new3&no=7754436
(Jun 4, 2018; in Korean)

아줌마들이나 아저시들 왜 숫자9를 반대로 쓰는거임?
Why does the older generation write digit 9 backwards?

개빡치네
So frustrating.

One comment:

루렌시아해안:
어렸을때 몇몇 선생들이 그리 가르쳤데
(They told me that) some teachers taught it that way when they were young.

9. I noticed one reply from http://www.waygook.org/index.php?topic=41069.0 (#1 above)

I've noticed it too, my co-teacher does it and some of the older teachers but I haven't noticed my students doing it.

Summary:
In Korea,
1. those who write 9 backwards prefer writing it that way because it is faster and more convenient.
2. many younger people actually wonder why older people write 9 backwards. This means that younger people in general don't write 9 backwards. In other words, backwards 9 is gradually decreasing in use in Korea.

25. ### IMarvinTPA said,

October 22, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

None of the answers provided above seems to answer the question I read, which is, "why is the 9 facing the right like a P?" Can you re-ask the question differently to suss this out?

As for strokes of a 9, I write my 9s like I write my 6s, just rotated 180. For my 6s, I start at the top and curl into the middle of the downstroke. For my 9s, I start at the bottom curve to the left then come back into the middle of the upstroke.
My 0s start at the bottom center and are drawn with a counter clockwise circle, much like a 9 but without the extra bit below the meeting point.

IMarv

26. ### Chandra said,

October 22, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

From where you can see the pen trail off in the first photo I'm guessing it's because the writer starts at the bottom of the 9 with the stem, which causes them to flatten out the transition into the loop when they write quickly.

I start at the opposite point, and do a counterclockwise open loop which then curves down into a stem. If I try to follow the same path but from the bottom up, I find I have a tendency to flatten out the curve more and that my loop moves to a more central point above the stem, similar to the photos.

27. ### dainichi said,

October 23, 2018 @ 3:31 am

> None of the answers provided above seems to answer the question I read, which is, "why is the 9 facing the right like a P?"

Because assuming you write the round part counter-clockwise, it's faster.

I don't know about China, but at least for Japan, I'm pretty sure stroke order/direction for numbers has less variation than in the West. Counter-clockwise round part is how a 9 is taught, and I'd be surprised to see someone write it clockwise, unless they were deliberately trying to imitate a printed style.

When writing fast, it's more common to cut corners than to change the direction. Hence the observed result.

I used to write 7 with a crossbar, but the Japanese converted me to their way. Long serif and no crossbar.

28. ### dainichi said,

October 23, 2018 @ 3:34 am

> Counter-clockwise round part is how a 9 is taught

… followed by the vertical line, I should say to make it clear.

29. ### IMarvinTPA said,

October 23, 2018 @ 8:42 am

I write my nines counter-clockwise too, but I start at the bottom and go up and around.

IMarv

30. ### George said,

October 23, 2018 @ 10:50 am

Having given no thought to the matter since my early days in primary school, I have just now realised that I write my '9's in a very inefficient manner. I start with the vertical stroke going down, then bring my pen/pencil back up to the top of the line (without lifting it) before making my counter-clockwise loop.

Is it just me?

31. ### JC said,

October 23, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

It took a little bit long for my comments to be approved.

I should have added this between 1 and 2 in the Summary section in my second comment above:
1-1. some of those who write 9 backwards were taught that way in the past.

32. ### Marc said,

October 28, 2018 @ 9:24 pm

Is it possible that this example is influenced by the preceding digit 1? That is, the pen lifts off the paper at the bottom of the one, then goes diagonally upward to the right, then down on the paper again to start the counter-clockwise loop. In this case, the backward 9 would be quicker, although the result still looks wrong.

Are 9s with no preceding digits also written backwards?

Maybe this style of 9 became the default because it's easier with a preceding digit?

33. ### Ellen K. said,

October 29, 2018 @ 9:24 am

Seems to me the way the line fades out on the loop in the first image indicates that it was written starting at the bottom, with the loop written last. Line fading out as one lifts the pen, but a solid beginning.