If you’ve been studying Chinese for any period of time, you’re most likely painfully aware of how different it is from English and other Western languages.
Different writing system, different grammar and even different sounds that take months and months of practice to be able to say properly ("cù (醋) " is my personal demon, which is especially annoying because I love putting vinegar on everything).
Especially when you consider China’s unique and preposterously old culture, it’s not surprising that Mandarin also has a host of words that are really tough to translate into English.
So, below I’ve collected a handful of my favorite Chinese words you can’t find in English for you all to enjoy!
(FYI, if you want to know how to accurately pronounce the pinyin words in this article, Yoyo Chinese's video-based pinyin chart with video explanations and audio demonstrations is a great tool for that: link)
rè nao (热闹)
“rè nao (热闹)” usually gets translated as “lively” or “bustling,” but those don’t really convey the true meaning.
A place or situation that is “rè nao (热闹)” is fun and lively, sure, but the connotation is that it’s something special, and there’s a vibe there that will help everyone have a good time.
I’ve heard parties and bars described as “rè nao (热闹)”, but also particularly fun offices and even university courses. Basically if something is “rè nao (热闹)”, you want to be there.
A friend once told me the best translation is “poppin’ off,” which definitely works for me.
If you want to understand how Chinese people use this word, and how it can be related to occassions like holidays in China, Yangyang did an Intermediate lesson where she also explained “rè nao (热闹)” as it was used in an interview by a native Chinese speaker:
shān zhài (山寨)
We actually talked about this a few weeks ago, but "shān zhài (山寨)" might be one of my favorite Chinese words.
It literally means “mountain stronghold” or “mountain village” but is used today to referred to the cheap knock-off goods you can find just about everywhere in China.
"shān zhài (山寨)" is both hilarious and, if you know what you’re doing, a great way to get good stuff for incredibly cheap. People usually translate "shān zhài (山寨)" as “bootleg” or “knock-off” but that doesn’t really cover the whole concept.
"shān zhài (山寨)" is its own subculture, really, and there just isn’t an English word or phrase that encapsulates the way there’s an entire industry and way of life built around unashamedly fake products.
xiǎo chī (小吃)
Given that food is such a huge part of Chinese culture, it’s likely that there’d be some tricky-to-translate food words.
Interestingly enough, though, there’s a whole category of food we don’t really have a word for in English: “xiǎo chī (小吃)”, literally “small eat.”
When I first moved to China I thought “xiǎo chī (小吃)” just referred snacks, but I gradually realized it’s something about halfway between a snack and a meal.
In China, meals tend to be ritualized – scarfing down microwaved food in front of the TV wouldn’t really be considered dinner (at least until recently). Dinner’s reserved for sitting at a table with friends and family and sharing food.
So what we might consider a small lunch or dinner wouldn’t really be considered a meal at all in China. Instead, it’d be a “xiǎo chī (小吃)”.
Examples include smaller bowls of noodles, plates of dumplings, or anything else usually sold on the street that’s too big to be a snack.
If I had to translate “xiǎo chī (小吃)”, I guess I’d say “appetizer” or even maybe “tapas,” though that’s not even English to begin with.
shàng huǒ (上火)
This is a tricky one to translate linguistically and culturally.
Understanding “shàng huǒ (上火)” requires a bit of knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but, in short, it relates to the concept of balancing “yīn (阴)” and “yáng (阳)” within the body and spirit.
An imbalance can result in too much internal heat, which is manifested in fevers, coughs or even a flushed expression or two. This internal heat is “shàng huǒ (上火)”, which literally means “on fire” (as in, literally on top of a fire).
The antidote to “shàng huǒ (上火)” is “qù huǒ (去火)” or “bài huǒ (败火)” , both of which mean to reduce or extinguish the “internal fire.”
That’s really the best translation I can think of, but it’s still not great, since in English it refers to the sort of inner desire or competitiveness featured in many a Gatorade commercial.
It might help to think of your body like a computer actually – problems or too much activity can lead to a “shàng huǒ (上火)”-like overheating, which makes things more difficult and dangerous.
sā jiāo (撒娇)
The closest English equivalent I can think of for sā jiāo would be "to throw a tantrum", or "to act like a spoiled child". But these descriptions alone don't do justice to what sā jiāo really means.
For one thing, sā jiāo isn't used to describe a child's behavior, it's used almost exclusively to describe a grown woman pouting and stomping her feet until her demands are met.
In most Western societies, sā jiāo might be unbearable to witness as women reduce themselves to pouting, infantile monsters who need to be "taken care of."
But in China, sā jiāo is a way for both men and women to play their gender roles – women who don't sā jiāo are often regarded as not being feminine enough.
Chinese men often want their significant others to sā jiāo once in a while so they could display their masculinity, whether it be in the form of buying that Hermes handbag his girlfriend/wife simply won't leave without, or carrying it for her while she shops because it's just "too heavy."
Indeed, sā jiāo comes in many shapes and forms, but it's easy to spot it when it happens. Just look for a grown woman pouting with hands akimbo as she stomps her feet. It's a sight that's hard to miss!
If you want a more in-depth article about what sā jiāo is and the social impact it's had in China, I've written one here.
These words are definitely not a complete list of untranslatable Chinese words. I've left room so we can start a discussion in the comments below! Let me know some of the Chinese words you've found that don't translate well into English, or vice versa.