10 Chinese Words You Can't Translate Into English

Huiyan Wang / © Culture Trip
Huiyan Wang / © Culture Trip
Photo of Sally Gao
26 February 2018

Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and nearly 16 percent of the world’s population speaks some variety of it. It’s a rich and ancient language, filled with many words that have no English equivalent. The following ten examples are of particular interest, shedding some light onto Chinese thought and culture. Something to keep in mind: the pronunciations here are given in Mandarin.

緣分 – yuán ​fèn

Yuán ​fèn roughly means ‘fate,’ in the context of human relationships. One way to describe it might be: ‘the mysterious force that causes two lives to cross paths in some meaningful way.’ This applies to a variety of situations, and even people who are not particularly superstitious or religious use it. For instance, if against all odds you bump into someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you might proclaim, ‘We have yuán ​fèn.’ Similarly, if you make a new friend whom you just click with and feel like you’ve known forever, you may chalk it up to yuán ​fèn.

Huiyan Wang / | © Culture Trip

關係 – guān ​xi

Guān ​xi roughly means ‘relationship’ or ‘connection.’ In a business or professional context, developing your guān ​xi can be translated as ‘networking,’ and takes place outside of the workplace, during dinner banquets or tea. Good guān ​xi with the right people can open doors and is a mutually beneficial relationship that results in the exchange of favors. However, it’s a subtle concept and should not be thought of as strictly transactional or as a type of bribery.

慢走 – màn​ zǒu

Màn​ zǒu literally means ‘walk slowly,’ and it’s a polite phrase used when an elder takes their leave, or when a guest or loved one leaves your house. It’s hard to explain why you would want someone to walk slowly, but it comes with connotations such as ‘please take it easy’ or ‘have a pleasant journey.’

冤枉 – yuān​ wang

This verb can be translated as ‘to wrongly accuse,’ ‘to treat unfairly’ or simply ‘to wrong’ someone. If someone mistakenly believes that you intended to hurt them, when in fact you were trying to help, you may feel that you’ve been subjected to yuān​ wang – in other words, unjustly judged.

師傅 – shī​fu

This is a polite way to address blue-collar workers, such as taxi drivers, mechanics, repairmen, barbers, carpenters and more. It’s a term of respect for someone who is a master of their craft. Note that shī fu (師父), which means something like ‘master,’ is pronounced the same way but written differently. The second term is used for martial arts instructors, as well as spiritual figures such as monks or nuns.

香 – xiāng

In most cases, xiāng means ‘fragrant.’ However, when applied to food, it refers to something that can’t be concisely described in English. Something that is xiāng has an intense, often meaty aroma that gets your mouth watering.

Huiyan Wang / | © Culture Trip

加油 – jiā​ yóu

Literally meaning ‘add oil’ or ‘add fuel,’ this expression is used to cheer someone on. Depending on the context, it means something like ‘Go!’ or ‘Do your best!’ or ‘Keep going!’

傾聽 – qīng ​tīng

There’s ​tīng, ‘to listen,’ and then there’s qīng ​tīng, ‘to listen attentively and/or respectfully.’ It’s an elevated mode that highlights one’s alertness and courtesy.

孝順 – xiào​ shùn

Meaning ‘obedience’ or ‘filial piety,’ this is a virtue that stems from Confucian thought. Someone who is xiào​ shùn is dutiful, respectful and takes care of their parents in their old age.

君子 – jūn ​zǐ

Variously translated as ‘gentleman,’ ‘nobleman,’ ‘scholar’ or ‘virtuous person,’ a jūn ​zǐ is a rather old-fashioned concept that describes someone who is not just a man of honor and virtue, but also a scholar and intellectual. In Confucianism, the term jūn ​zǐ is used to describe an ideal man.