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Interesting Chinese Words Posted by on May 19, 2012 in Culture, history, Uncategorized, Vocabulary

When you’re learning a language, it’s almost impossible to directly translate everything into your mother tongue. This is certainly true for native English speakers studying Chinese. Today, I’m going to introduce you to some interesting Chinese words that really require you to think in Chinese, as they cannot be translated directly into English.

东西 (dōng xī)

This word – meaning “thing” or “stuff” – directly translates into English as “East/West.” However, it is not used to talk about direction. Here’s the most common phrase associated with this word: “go shopping” or “buy something” (买东西 – mǎi dōng xī). Way back in the Han Dynasty, Luoyang (洛阳 – luò yáng) and Chang’an (长安 – cháng’ān – now Xi’an) were the two biggest commercial cities in China. At that time, Luoyang was referred to as “East Capital” (东京 – dōng jīng – now the Chinese name for Tokyo) and Chang’an was called the “West Capital” (西京 – xī jīng). If people went shopping in Luoyang, they’d say “buy East” (买东 – mǎi dōng) and if they headed to Chang’an, they’d say “buy West” (买西 – mǎi xī). Over time, this evolved into the simple expression that we have today – 东西. Here are a few examples of this Chinese word in action:

我想去超市买东西 – wǒ xiǎng qù chāo shì mǎi dōng xī

I want to go to the supermarket to buy things.

这是什么东西?- zhè shì shén me dōng xī

What’s this?

我要吃东西 – wǒ yào chī dōng xī

I want to eat something.


左右 – zuǒ yòu

At first glance, you might translate this simply as “left and right.” While it’s true that’s one way you can use this, it can also mean “about”/”approximately.” There isn’t an interesting story attached to this word, but you will hear it quite often in daily life. Here are a few examples:

走路十 分钟 左右 – zǒu lù shí fēn zhōng zuǒ yòu

About a 10 minute walk.

我们的公司一共有三百人左右 – wǒ men de gōng sī yì gòng yǒu sān bǎi rén zuǒ yòu

Our company has approximately 300 people.

他身高1点5米左右 – tā shēn gāo yì diǎn wǔ mǐ zuǒ yòu

He’s about 1.5 meters tall.


马上 – mǎ shàng

Although it’s certainly possible to use these two characters in their direct translation – “on the horse” – it’s more common to hear them used in oral Chinese meaning “right away”/”quickly.” As the story behind this word goes, there was a general who heard that the Emperor was gravely ill. He was so worried that he remained on his horse and headed to the capital immediately. Here are a few common examples for you to put to use:

我们马上就走 – wǒ men mǎ shàng jiù zǒu

We’ll leave at once.

音乐会马上要开始了 – yīn yuè huì mǎ shàng yào kāi shǐ le

The concert is going to begin soon.

看起来马上要下雨了 – kàn qǐ lái mǎ shàng yào xià yǔ le

It looks like it’s about to rain.


酒鬼 – jiǔ guǐ

Chances are you’ve probably never seen an “alcohol ghost,” but you have probably encountered a “boozehound,” “wino,” or “drunkard” at some point. If you’re like me and you’re nursing a cocktail at the moment, then you might just be able to describe yourself as such. Or if you’ve got a roommate like mine who always has Bloody Marys ready on Sunday mornings, you could say:

他是个酒鬼 – tā shì gè jiǔ guǐ

He’s a boozehound.

Of course, this word can also be used more seriously, meaning “alcoholic:”

我的父母都是酒鬼 – wǒ de fù mǔ dōu shì jiǔ guǐ

My parents were both alcoholics.


老板 – lǎo bǎn

This one translates directly as “old board.” Bet you’d never guess that this one actually means “boss” in Chinese. Well, it does! I’m sure plenty of folks out there feel like their boss is about as exciting as an old piece of wood, so I guess this one makes sense after all. Let’s look at a few sentences with this word:

我的老板让我加班 – wǒ de lǎo bǎn ràng wǒ jiā bān

My boss makes me work overtime.

今天老板很生气 – jīn tiān lǎo bǎn hěn shēng qì

The boss is very angry today.

我们的老板是美国人 – wǒ men de lǎo bǎn shì měi guó rén

Our boss is American.


These are just a few examples of words that can’t exactly be directly translated into English. It wouldn’t make much sense if you said in English, “My old board is a real alcohol ghost.” It also wouldn’t make any sense if you said “I’m going to the mall on the horse to buy East/West.” Learn the Chinese words and how to use them the Chinese way, and forget about trying to translate everything into your native language. Before we go, here’s one more word that should motivate and maybe also confuse you – 加油 (jiā yóu) – which literally means “add oil,” but can also be used to encourage (as in “go team!” or “you can do it!”) So add some oil and keep working on your Chinese.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


  1. Inessa:

    Hi Sasha,
    I got one more story — explaining the origin of the word 马马虎虎:

    据说从前有位画家,一次,他刚画完一只虎的头,就有情他画马。它就在虎头的后面画了马的身子。请他画马的人吃惊地问他:“你画的是马还是虎?” 画家说:“马虎” 。画儿画完后,他把画挂在墙上。它的大儿子问他画的是什么,他说是“虎” 。他的二儿子问他画的是什么,他说是“马” 。
    后来,有一天,大儿子去打猫,遇见一匹马。他以为是老虎,就把那匹马打死了。马的主人知道了,非常生气。画家赔了很多钱。过了几天,二儿子在树林里有见一只老虎,他以为是马,就跑过去骑它。结果被老虎咬死。画家伤心地把“马虎图” 烧了。他说:马虎图像马有象虎,大儿子射死了马,二儿子被老虎吃掉了。请大家别象我这样,做事情不认真。
    以后,人们就叫做事不认真的人是“马虎先生” 。“马马虎虎” 的意思就是“不认真” ,“不太好” 。

    A little bit hard to believe, but makes it easy to remember the word.

    • sasha:

      @Inessa Thanks for the story! It’s great reading practice… actually a bit too difficult for me, but I get the gist of it. I think 马马虎虎 is one of the coolest Chinese idioms. I use it very often and usually get laughs from local people when I do!

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