Rhyming and word confusion is a strange thing in Chinese. When you study it from a foreign perspective, things that seem SO similar, say fǎn cháng (反常, unusual) and fān chàng (翻唱, cover song) are, to native speakers, completely different.
Since we tend to learn pinyin before characters, words with the same pinyin but different tones may look homophonous to us but not to natives.
That said, there are still plenty of homophones (known in Chinese as tóng yīn cí (同音词) , literally “same sound words”, and near-homophones that are linguistically interesting and can even be used for comic effect.
Today we’ll take a look at my 9 favorite Chinese homophones.
1. lǎo gōng láo gōng
老公 v.s. 劳工
This one always gets me in particular because I find the 2nd and 3rd tones tough to distinguish, especially when spoken quickly or with an accent.
It plays on the universal marriage dynamic of a husband doing household tasks for his wife, and I’ve heard the similarity mentioned in casual banter among married couples a number of times.
I suppose it’s kind of the Chinese equivalent of the old “honeydew/honey do” jokes American married couples make.
2. yán jiū yān jiǔ
研究 v.s. 烟酒
research alcohol & tobacco
These two don’t sound exactly alike, but they’re pretty close (particularly in areas/among groups that tend to de-emphasize the second sound in a two-character term) and the meanings are such polar opposites that it’s pretty funny.
I first became familiar with yān jiǔ (烟酒) because there are tons of small shops that sell only booze and cigarettes and are marked with yān jiǔ (烟酒) signs out front.
But when I studied Chinese at a university program in Shanghai and heard people talking about yán jiū (研究), I was incredibly confused because I thought they were discussing how the university was dedicated to getting drunk and smoking cigs.
3. shàng hǎi shāng hài
上海 v.s. 伤害
Shanghai to injure
This is a bit of a funny commentary on the cutthroat nature of life in China’s largest city and financial hub.
Traveling through rural China I’ve heard this homophonic coincidence pointed out a few times, in no small part due to the massive differences in pressure and pace between Shanghai and the countryside.
In my experience it’s used more as a joke than a serious homophone, since the difference in tones hǎi (海)’s 3rd tone and 害 (hài)’s 4th tone are pretty easy to tell apart is pretty clear.
Regardless, you get really accustomed to seeing “Shanghai” written out in English, and hear the word so often, that other words with the same syllables, even with different tones, tend to throw people off.
4. hé xìe hé xié
河蟹 v.s. 和谐
river crab harmony
This is perhaps the best known in a long line of clever bits of word play used to get around online Chinese censors.
Back in the Hu Jintao era (heady times, they were) “harmony” was one of the CCP’s buzzwords; you’d hear ads and banners promoting a “harmonious society,” as well as other uses of hé xié (和谐) in various media channels.
It was pre-hashtags, but #hexie would have been freaking everywhere.
Anyway, people found that more and more of their social media and message board posts were being deleted, so they took to referring to this particular brand of censorship as “harmonization,” until, of course, the posts about harmonization were also deleted.
So, some clever netizens came up with a work around: talking about hé xìe (河蟹), an otherwise unremarkable form of river crab.
Some people took this joke really, really far, and if you surfed a lot of Chinese message boards in the mid/late-2000’s and saw lots of political discussion about shellfish, this is why!
5. bā bā bái bái
八八 v.s. 拜拜
88 loanword for bye bye
This one confused me something fierce when I first moved to China.
Back when I spoke and understood absolutely zero Chinese, I noticed that Chinese people would often end conversations with “bye bye,” even if no one involved spoke English.
While I soon learned that loanwords like that are fairly common, there are some fun homophones at work here too.
In written, online discourse, it’s not unusual to sign off by saying “88,” which perplexed me quite a bit as well.
I later realized, though, that 88 (bā bā, 八八) is a rough homonym for bái bái (拜拜), used a lot like we’d say “see ya” or “ttyl” in English. It certainly doesn’t hurt that 8 is a lucky number in Chinese culture, either.
6. xiǎo píng xiǎo píng zi
小平 v.s. 小瓶子
Deng Xiaoping small bottle
This is a personal favorite of mine, if only because my earliest memory is of watching the Tiananmen Square protests on TV.
China’s leader at the time was the diminutive but brilliant dèng xiǎo píng (邓小平) , but students participating in the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 weren’t so psyched about him.
To express their frustration, they smashed small bottles on the ground because Deng's given name, xiǎo píng (小平) sounds quite similar to the term for little bottles xiǎo píng zi (小瓶子), which is itself a nickname that Deng acquired for his famously resilient personality.
7. jiāo dài jiāo dài
胶带 v.s. 交代
tape to explain
I love when a particularly abstract, flexible and hard-to-define word sounds just like a mundane, practical thing.
This is one of the best cases I can think of, and it actually came up for me a couple weeks ago when I was shipping some boxes at my local post office.
The clerk had just helped me finish weighing the boxes and I asked her, “jiāo dài (胶带呢)?" as I needed some tape to seal the boxes.
She looked at me quizzically and responded, jiāo dài shén me dōng xī (交代什么东西...?)”, as in “what would you like me to clarify...?”
Laughs were had and, if you were wondering, tape was eventually used to secure my boxes.
8. xióng māo xiōng máo
熊猫 v.s. 胸毛
panda chest hair
The first is one of China’s most treasured, well-known symbols. The second is present on like 1 in 200 Chinese guys.
These types of near-homonyms always get me, since I can never seem to remember if it goes 1st tone / 2nd tone or 2nd tone / first tone.
You can imagine enthusiastically turning up to a tourism office and asking them how to get to the place you can see someone’s chest hair.
9. yào shi yào shì
钥匙 v.s. 要是
Admittedly yào shì (要是) is a bit formal and shows up more in writing than in speech, but it’s still a perfect homonym, and I love when something everyday gets mixed up with a grammatical particle.
Imagine if “through” sounded just like the word for those plastic things on the end of shoelaces. That’s basically what’s going on here.
When I was first learning Chinese and was more focused on the practical stuff (like keys), I remember being confused when someone said, “yào shì nǐ méi shí jiān... (要是你没时间...)”, or “if you don’t have time…”, and thinking, what the hell do keys have to do with my schedule?
One of the great things about Chinese is that with a relatively small number of syllables, there are so many cool and interesting homophones.
If you've got a favorite in the 9 that I've mentioned, or if you've come across some funny ones yourself, we’d love to hear about it! Let us know in the comments below.