Chinese Classifiers: What are they and how to use them

Classifiers are a “measure word” that needs to be used when referring to one or more items in Chinese, and is placed between the number of objects and the object referred to. An example of a classifier is “cups” in the sentence “one cup of coffee”. In English we can avoid using a classifier, so “two coffees” is still correct, however classifiers are almost always needed in Chinese.

Be sure to check out my post where I provide a complete list of Mandarin Chinese classifiers and measure words. This is a searchable and sortable list of classifiers broken down by classifier type.

Introduction to Chinese Classifiers

Let’s look at some more examples in English:

Two pieces of paper
Two cups of coffee
Three loaves of bread
Five slices of bread
Two bottles of milk
Three head of cattle
Ten bundles of wheat
One hundred bales of hay

As you can see, there is no mystery to classifiers, we use them all the time in English, however keep in mind we typically don’t have to, here are some examples of sentences in English without classifiers

A (one) coffee
Two milk
One hundred sheep

So how do you use classifiers in Chinese? Let’s have a look.

The classifier bēi (bēi) means “cup”:

bēi kāfēi
One cup of coffee

The classifier píng (píng) means “bottle”:

liǎng píng niúnǎi
Two bottles of milk

Finally the classifier zhǐ (zhǐ) is the classifier for certain types of animals (but not all animals):

yībǎi zhǐ yáng
One hundred head of sheep

A summary of these sentences comparing the English and Chinese with classifiers is below:

English Chinese Pinyin (Pronunciation) Classifier
One cup of coffee bēifēi yībēi kāfēi bēi
Two bottles of milk liǎngpíngniúnǎi liǎng píng niúnǎi píng
One hundred head of sheep bǎizhīyáng yībǎi zhǐ yáng zhǐ

It is not correct in Chinese to leave out the classifier:

English – Correct
(without classifier)
English – also Correct
(with classifier)
Chinese – Correct
(with classifier)
Chinese – Incorrect
(no classifier)
A (one) coffee One cup of coffee bēifēi
yībēi kāfēi
yībēi kāfēi
Two milk Two bottles of milk liǎngpíngniúnǎi
liǎng píng niúnǎi
liǎng píng niúnǎi
One hundred sheep One hundred head of sheep bǎizhīyáng
yībǎi zhǐ yáng
yībǎi zhǐ yáng

The general classifier: (gè)

(gè) is a generic classifier that can be used in many situations. Examples of uses of (gè) are when counting people, for example “five people” ssttrroonngg>>//ssttrroonngg>>rén (wǔ rén) or “three children” sānssttrroonngg>>//ssttrroonngg>>háizi (sān háizi). Other examples of where (gè) can be used are when about time, for example liǎng (liǎng) is the equivalent of the English word “couple” or “both” and is always used instead of èr (èr) when referring two of any specific item or people. While liǎngzhīmāo (liǎng zhī māo)
– “two books” liǎngběnshū (liǎng běn shū)
– “two cars” liǎngliàngchē (liǎng liàng chē); here liàng (liàng) is the classifier for vehicles and is a different character and tone to the word for two liǎng (liǎng)

For information on liǎng (liǎng), check out my post on how to count in Chinese.

Can I use (gè) instead of the correct classifier?

In situations where you don’t know the correct classifier, you could substitute (gè) and the meaning will most probably still be understood by the person you are speaking to. This doesn’t mean using (gè) is correct, but if you don’t know the correct classifier, it is better than leaving the classifier out completely.

As an example saying māo (yīgè māo) instead of zhīmāo (yī zhǐ māo) is better than leaving out the classifier completely māo

A given classifiers can be used with multiple words

There are less than one hundred classifiers that are commonly used in Chinese. Each classifier can be paired with many different words.

For example zhǐ (zhǐ) is the classifier for smaller animals, and can be used to say “one dog”, “a cat”, “five sheep”, “nine rabbits”:
– “one dog” zhīgǒu (yī zhǐ gǒu)
– “a (one) cat” zhīmāo (yī zhǐ māo)
– “five sheep” zhīyáng (wǔ zhǐ yáng)
– “nine rabbits” jiǔzhīzi (jiǔ zhǐ tùzǐ).

Some words can be paired with more than one classifier

Some words can be paired with multiple classifiers, for example when referring to sheep you use the classifier zhǐ (zhǐ) or tóu (tóu), both are correct. As we saw previously, zhǐ (zhǐ) is the classifier for small animals, while tóu (tóu) is the classifier used for livestock, and is roughly equivalent to “head” in English, as used when referring to sheep “one head of sheep”.

Thus both of the following are correct:
– “a sheep” zhīyáng (wǔ zhǐ yáng)
– “one sheep” tóuyáng (wǔ tóu yáng)


The best way to remember which classifier can be paired with each word is through exposure to learning Chinese. I recommend starting off learning the classifiers that are paired with every day words, as these are ones you can use again and again to reinforced your memory. The other way to learn classifiers is to remember their meaning, so classifiers like “cup” bēi (bēi) and “bottle” píng (píng) can be used in any situation where you are asking for a cup or bottle of something, be it a “cup of coffee” bēifēi (yībēi kāfēi) or a bottle of beer píngjiǔ (yī píng píjiǔ).

Remember to take a look at my complete list of Mandarin Chinese classifiers and measure words.