10 Wonderful Chinese Words without English Equivalent

A recent blog post wonderfully captures the idiosyncrasies of languages. Titled “15 Wonderful Words without English Equivalent”, the author lists phrases in a dozen languages packed with social, philosophical and anthropological back stories whose wonderfulness are lost in English. My instinct to this quirky list is let’s make one for Chinese!  Of course most chengyus and suyus fall beautifully into this category, but I am talking about basic, high frequency words that you struggle to find an English equivalent. Here’s my own list to get the ball rolling. Please add yours in the comments!

1. 客气 (kèqi): often translated as “polite”, this word is a fine specimen of Chinese culture. 客 means “guest”, 气 means “chi” or “an air of”. So 客气 means to act as if you were a guest. It’s often used in the phrase 别客气(bié kèqi/don’t be so guest like). The irony is in most cases, the recipient of the phrase is indeed a guest. However, since Chinese culture prides itself on being hospitable, we want guests to not feel like guests. That’s why Chinese are always trying to get guests to eat more, drink more to the point of pushiness.

2. 辛苦(xīnkǔ):  It means to work  laboriously, be it manual or intellectual. Often used in the phrase 辛苦了(xīnkǔ le), which is an acknowledgement of one’s hard work and contribution.  I feel it’s almost the Chinese version of “great job” or “well done”.

3. 小吃(xiǎochī): often translated as “snacks”. These are little dishes  or nosh often eaten on the street and are representative of the local food culture. Examples of Shanghai 小吃 include 小笼包(xiǎolóngbāo/steamed dumplings). In Beijing, it’s various sorts of 串儿(chuànr/sticks of food).  小吃(xiǎochī) can come in all sizes, shapes and forms, making it hard to translate.

4.  馋(chán): this means you are easily tempted by food and always want to eat. However, it doesn’t mean you are hungry or an over eater. Rather  you see food as a form of entertainment rather than just necessity, but you are not quite a refined foodie. We often use this word to describe kids and teenage girls since they always want to eat or snack in order to entertain themselves.

5. 鲜(xiān): another food term. This flavor is hard to describe. It’s the taste and sensation of MSG if it were natural and healthy. It’s not just salty or savory. It has more substance. Although 鲜doesn’t describe sweet taste, a dish can be unsalted but extremely 鲜, for example, Chinese style chicken soup or hairy crab. The more well known Japanese version is umami.

6.  山寨 (shānzhài): if you live in China, you are probably no stranger to this relatively new term. It’s not knock off products. It’s products entirely “inspired” by a famous counterpart. However, these 山寨 products usually have their own brands, e.g. “Adibas” or “uPhone”.

7. 气质(qìzhì): this means an intangible quality one carries as the result of a good upbringing and education. If a woman 有气质, it means she is not necessarily beautiful, but has a lot of substance and elegance. The example I often use to explain this word is Hilary Clinton有气质, Kim Kardashian没有气质.

8. 没办法(méibànfǎ): literally “no solution”. It’s a sense of disappointment and acknowledging that life has its limits.  It’s one of those words that truly reflect the national psyche of China.

9. 上火(shànghuǒ): ever heard of eating spicy things, chocolate or mandarin oranges will ignite your “internal fire” and cause you to have pimples or constipation?  You may call it pseudo science, we live by it to balance the ying and yang in our body.

10. ? Let me know your wonderful Chinese word without English equivalent.




40 thoughts on “10 Wonderful Chinese Words without English Equivalent

  1. Actually 原来 (yuánlái) is kind of hard to translate. The dictionary might say “originally” or “in the beginning,” but it doesn’t have so much to do with time as it does with the state of one’s knowledge. It’s used when you find out something that you were unaware of, and in your “Aha!” moment you exclaim, 原来 (all along) 是这样! (So that’s how it is!)

  2. I would say that 厉害 is really a great word that is so useful and versatile that we just don’t have in English. I catch myself about to say it many times and have to think about who I’m talking to and whether or not they will understand.

  3. I personally like 偷 (tou1), which can be put in front of various verbs to mean that one is doing them secretly. For example, one can tou1kan4 (watch someone secretly), or tou1ting1 (evesdrop), or even tou1chi1 someone’s cake when they aren’t looking.

  4. 让 always gets me. Yes, it has several English translations but has a subtle extension to any English meaning you use.

  5. What I find fascinating with 6 shānzhài isn’t so much that there is a word for it, but where it is coming from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanzhai

    Outsiders may sneer about Made in China (like they did for products Made in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea), here the products are made in a mountain village. And knock-off products have been a home industry, though these days you can find very a very advanced imitation industry in Zhejiang province not behind anyone.

  6. 素质 is a difficult word to translate sometimes — especially when it’s being used in sweeping generalizations. Talking about “groups of people with low moral fiber” just sounds creepy in English. 缘分 can also be a massive pain to translate.

  7. this was a really fun post and i love how there are chinese words that do not have a proper translation. gives me the incentive to use those words and practice some “chinglish”.
    i also just realized you changed your theme and it’s beautiful!

  8. It’s always fascinated me the way different languages split the colour spectrum in different ways. The Chinese colour word 青 is often translated as blue or green but really for an English speaker it’s very strange to call the sky something that you could also apply to a meadow. This book deals specifically with these issues of language: https://www.amazon.de/Through-Language-Glass-Words-Colour/dp/043401690X

    I’d also class 关系 as something which doesn’t have a direct counterpart (at least with all its meanings).

  9. 把 while I understand its uses (or at least I think I do) my friend can not fully comprehend it. She attributes this partially to there being no English translation for it.

  10. I have to agree with Magnus, 厉害 is the one that immediately comes to mind.
    The one Chinese word (if it can be described as such) that I find myself often using inadvertently whilst speaking English is 恩!

  11. I think all of us working with and in China, will know very much what I mean by the following two things :

    差不多 Almost …
    入乡随俗 When in Rome …

  12. I wish all my friends back home could understand Chinese, just so that I can say “诶 麻烦……”.

    “It is a hassle” doesn’t cut it; “pain in the @ss” is too aggressive.

  13. I wish all my friends back home could understand Chinese, just so that I can say “诶 麻烦……”.

    “It is a hassle” doesn’t cut it; “pain in the @ss” is too aggressive.

  14. I wonder sense that “规范” has connotations that make finding an English equivalent elusive. Standard translations are “to normalize” or “regularize.” These are awkward-sounding. “To put in good order” sounds better. But in Chinese usage it often seems to mean to make something “subject to government supervision and control,” and to do that in a one-party state is not “normal” or “regular” in a Western sense. Chinese laws often use “应该” too; that makes no sense in English if translated as “should” in a law–the point of law is to be compulsory, not to merely indicate what a party SHOULD do, as if it were a mere suggestion.

  15. 鲜+1,山寨+1,上火+1. imo, untranslatable words are those with distinct Chinese culture, it may be determined according to some basic steps: 1 Can the words get a direct equivalent in English? 2 can the words get an equivalent in Chinese? 3 the equivalent Chinese words translatable? IF the answer is NO/NO/NO, or NO/YES/NO, congratulations, you’ve found one. for example, ….

  16. 义气 is having backbone? Loyalty? The best way is to understand is probably by watching some wushu stories…

  17. 潜规则 !

    My all-time favorite (I think). As usual, the common English translation completely misses the flavor of the original.

  18. Another one, while I’m at it, that I think is a near perfect example of how the convenient English translations of Chinese terms so often miss the real meaning: 红楼梦

    The western world pretty well agrees that this famous title translates to “A Dream of Red Mansions”, though some say “Chamber” is better, but the curve ball is that 红楼 is really a reference to the young women being remembered through the tale, and this apparently would have made sense, colloquially, in the period. It also makes more sense as a title, despite the dream that Baoyu has in the story. I kind of like “Story of the Stone” myself, which is not another story :-)

    I have to accept going through life being unable to read this great book in its far more nuanced and expressive original form without the English translation somewhere nearby (some say its the finest work of literature of all time) , but it’s good to know that even Chinese scholars have been tearing their hair out over it for many, many years.

  19. Untranslatable phrases are always fun. There is a blog that covers the ‘top 100 Chinese words’, which covers some of the words you mention (two posts, here and here — not all are untranslatable, but all are great Chinese words).

    Matt suggested Chinese particles, 吧,呢,哎,呀,啊,哦,噢,喔,嘛. These are actually found in many Asian languages (Japanese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, etc.) and are equally hard to translate.

    Brendan mentioned 素质, suggesting ‘moral fibre’ (the dictionary gives ‘quality’). I agree that this is a tricky one. 素质 is actually a word with a certain history and background. I did a post on it at 素质 / 素質, quality, and natural endowments. My view is that it is part of the Chinese narrative of modernisation, the desire to lift the general level of the Chinese people in order to regain China’s place in the world, which is why it is so hard to translate. I don’t think Western countries have such an overriding concern with improving the ‘quality’ of their populations. Lifting educational levels is one thing; lifting 素质 is another thing again!

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