Getting Started: Understanding ‘One’ in Chinese

It may be the loneliest number, but it’s also extremely useful. Let’s look at the number one in Chinese, how it’s used, how it’s pronounced and some common words and phrases that include it.


In Chinese, “one” is 一 (yī). It’s generally considered the easiest character, because it’s only a single stroke and because the character directly represents the meaning. To get the full list, one to ten, it’s

  • 一二三四五六七八九十
  • (Yī èr sān sì wǔ liù qī bā jiǔ shí)

Unlike most other characters, the tone of 一 typically changes based on the tone of the word following it. This is somewhat similar to tone sandhi, in which a third tone syllable becomes second tone when it precedes another third tone (so 你 [nǐ] is pronounced ní when it comes before 好[hǎo], for instance). The difference is that tone sandhi happens to all third tone words, but these changes are for the word 一 only. So here’s what the rule is:

When you’re counting or otherwise saying a string of numbers, 一 has its default pronunciation, yī.

  • 一二三
  • (Yī èr sān)

When 一 comes before a fourth tone, it is pronounced with a second tone. In this way, it’s similar to 不 (bù), which does the exact same thing.

  • 一辆车
  • (yí liàng chē)
  • One car
  • 一副眼镜
  • (yí fù yǎnjìng)
  • One pair of glasses

When 一 comes before a first, second or third tone, it is pronounced with a fourth tone.

  • 一杯茶
  • (yì bēi chá)
  • One cup of tea
  • 一瓶可乐
  • (yì píng kělè)
  • One bottle of cola
  • 一本书
  • (yì běn shū)
  • One book

Here’s an example of a time when you might see all of these pronunciations in one place. Let’s suppose you just counted to 11,110 and now it’s time to say the next number. That number would be:

  • 一万一千一百一十一
  • (yí wàn yì qiān yì bǎi yì shí yī)

There is some discrepancy on how to write these tones in Pinyin. Some sources (including most automated systems) prefer to write it as yī regardless of its actual pronunciation. This is similar to the normal convention for tones sandhi, where 你好 is written as nǐhǎo and it is assumed the reader will know how to pronounce it. Other sources, including this article, prefer to indicate the pronunciation change in the pinyin.

One more pronunciation thing! In mainland China, when the number one appears in a series of digits, such as a phone number or postal code, it is typical to pronounce it as yāo. So while the famous tower in Taipei called 台北101 is pronounced “Táiběi yī líng yī” in Taiwan, on the continent it’s more common to say “Táiběi yāo líng yāo.”

So much for pronunciation! Let’s look at some ways to use 一, other than telling the number of something.

第一 (dìyī)

To use ordinal numbers, we can add 第 in front of the number in question. So while 一场比赛 (yì chǎng bǐsài) is “one competition,” 第一场比赛 is “the first competition.”

  • 她是跑赛的第一名!
  • (Tā shì pǎosài de dìyī míng!)
  • She came in first in the race!
  • 我的第一个中文老师很棒!
  • (Wǒ de dìyī gè zhōngwén lǎoshī hěn bang!)
  • My first Chinese teacher was great!

You may have noticed that the pinyin here is written as dìyī. This isn’t a mistake! With 第一, the tone breaks its normal rule and is just always pronounced with the first tone.

Common words with 一

There are tons of words that include the character 一 as a component. Here are some of the most common ones.

一点 (yìdiǎn)

Translated as “a little bit,” 一点 is an exceedingly common word. It’s common to add 儿 at the end to pronouns it as 一点儿 (yìdiǎr), especially in northern China. When describing a noun, it is used similar to its English counterpart.

  • 我会说一点中文。
  • (Wǒ huì shuō yìdiǎn zhōngwén.)
  • I can speak a little Chinese.
  • 我们先吃一点儿饭再去看电影吧。
  • (Wǒ mén xiān chī yìdiǎr fàn zài qù kàn diànyǐng ba.)
  • Let’s eat a little food first and then go watch the movie.

一起 (yìqǐ)

This word translates as “together.” As an adverb, it typically comes before the verb in a sentence.

  • 你要不要一起唱歌?
  • (Nǐ yào bù yào yìqǐ chànggē?)
  • Do you want to sing together?

It can also be used as part of a prepositional phrase when used with 在。

  • 你们两个在一起吗?
  • (Nǐmen liǎng ge zài yìqǐ ma?)
  • Are the two of you together?

一下 (yíxià)

Calling 一下 a word might be pushing the limits of what we count as a word. In Chinese, 一下 is frequently used after a verb to indicate that an action is brief. This can be challenging for English speakers, because there is no direct equivalent in English.

  • 等一下!
  • (Děng yíxià!)
  • Wait a moment!
  • 让我想一下。
  • (Ràng wǒ kàn yíxià)
  • Let me think.

Idioms with 一

There are quite a few four-character idioms (成语 chéngyǔ) that include 一 as well. Here are a couple of our favorites.

一生一世 (yìshēngyíshì)

Character by character, this idiom literally means “one life one lifetime,” but it’s used to mean “all of one’s life.”

  • 你说过会爱我一生一世!
  • (Nǐ shuōguo huì ài wǒ yìshēngyíshì!)
  • You said you’d love me your whole life!

一摸一样 (yìmóyíyàng)

Literally, “one pattern one appearance,” we use this idiom to mean that something is “exactly identical” to something else.

  • 你跟你妈妈长得一模一样。
  • (Nǐ gēn nǐ māma zhǎngde yìmóyíyàng)
  • You look exactly the same as your mom.

一无所有 (yìwúsuǒyǒu)

Picked apart, it’s “one not have everything,” that is, “having nothing at all.” This idiom is also the name of a song by Cui Jian.

  • 我和你爸那时候真的一无所有。
  • (Wǒ hé nǐ bà nàshíhou zhēnde yìwúsuǒyǒu)
  • Back in those days, your father and I didn’t have a thing in the world.

Betcha can’t have just one

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