The Chinese Character for "One"

Meaning: One
Sound: /yī/

The Chinese character for “one” is “一”. It makes sense, doesn’t it, since there is just one line there. While the Roman and Arabic numbers for “one” stand up vertically, the Chinese number lies on its back. Surely a more relaxing posture.

To the Chinese, one is important. It is the origin of all things. It stands for unity. Lao Zi, the Old Master who founded the Daoist philosophy some 2,500 years before our time, states: “One gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, and three gives birth to myriad things in the universe.”

Xu Shen, who compiled one of earliest Chinese dictionaries in the second century, similarly explains the character “一”: “In the beginning, the Way is One. Then there comes the separation of Heaven and Earth, which together produces the multitude of creatures in the world.”

So 一 suggests single-mindedness or dedication. Suppose someone asks you to do something and you give the person your word that you’ll do it, you say, “yī dìng”, which literally means “one certainty”. That is to say, there is just one possibility, no other scenarios.

As words go, 一 is excellent. It is as simple as it can be, yet it encompasses the whole world.