10 most beautiful, useful and witty Chinese words

most beautiful chinese words
Lucy Liu's casting in the film franchise "Charlie's Angels" normalised Asian identity in pop culture and signalled the rise of Chinese words and languages in Hollywood films. Source: AFP

Ever wanted to learn Chinese words? Well, first things first, Chinese isn’t really a language — more a “group of languages.”

Specifically, Sino-Tibetan languages, of which there are many varieties. The most popular is Mandarin Chinese, from which the Chinese words we know are likely to come.

Officially, China has 10 varieties of dialects (which linguists classify as separate languages) spread across its vast country spanning the equivalent of five time zones and bordering 14 countries by land:

  1. Mandarin in the northern, central, and western parts of China
  2. Wu; Northern and Southern Min; Gan (Kan); Hakka (Kejia); and Xiang; and Cantonese (Yue) in the southeastern part of the country.

Native speakers of Mandarin, which is based on a dialect spoken by people in Beijing, make up 65.7% of the Chinese population.

The next popular dialects are Min (for which Hokkien, spoken in southern Fujian and Taiwan, is a well-known variety) and Cantonese (known globally through martial arts movies and Hong Kong pop culture).

Both do not come close to the might of Mandarin — only around 6.2% and 5.6% of China’s population are native speakers of  Min and Cantonese, respectively.

If you aren’t Chinese or part of the diaspora, the Chinese words and language you know of are likely Standard Mandarin.

Is it hard to learn Chinese words and language?

The short answer is: it depends on whether you grew up speaking a language that evolved from Latin (such as English, German, French) or Altaic languages (which are traced back to early millet farmers in the Liao valley in what is now northeast China).

It would take a native English speaker around 2,200 hours to achieve professional fluency in Chinese, estimates the US Foreign Service Institute — four times longer than the time required to reach the same level in Dutch, French, or Spanish.

The Chinese language is intricate, with eight variants and numerous less prevalent ones.

Compared to the a’s to z’s — 26 alphabets in total — there are thousands of characters, with each character composed of specific strokes rather than a combination of letters.

Lacking an alphabet, one cannot merely spell Chinese words based on their sounds or read words by stringing together letters.

Instead, you have to listen to tones. Similar to using tone in English to convey emphasis or emotion, every Chinese word possesses a particular tone that determines its meaning.

In other words, the same sound can have up to five different intonations, each conveying five distinct meanings.

Consider the word “mother” (mā 媽). Pronouncing it with a different tone transforms it into “numb” (má 麻), “horse” (mǎ 馬), or “to scold” (mà 罵).

Chinese words

Mark Zuckerberg may not be fluent in Mandarin, but he knows enough Chinese words to communicate in the language. Source: Josh Edelson/AFP

Although it’s one of the hardest languages to master, many see it through for the many benefits they stand to gain — including some of the world’s most successful CEOs.

In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, surprised Chinese students by delivering a speech in Mandarin during an event at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

His Mandarin may have been clumsy and sounded like a seven-year-old, but that 20 minutes speech impressed many in the world’s next superpower.

It takes effort and courage to attempt to learn Chinese words — and anyone who tries to do it all deserves credit.

But beyond exposing how complex Chinese words and language are, Zuckerberg’s speech raises bigger questions: Could Chinese become the language of the future? Is it possible that Chinese might supersede English as the world’s international language?”

Mandarin Chinese already boasts the largest number of native speakers among all languages, and China is on the verge of surpassing the US as the world’s largest economy.

People pose for photos at a sunflower field in a park in Beijing on July 2, 2023. Source: AFP

Will Mandarin replace English?

Though many people around the world are fluent in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, it is still a long journey before it replaces English.

The English language is approximately 1,400 years old. It rose to prominence because of the British Empire, and as a result, it still remains the most spoken language in the world, with over 1.5 billion native and non-native speakers

English speakers can be found across the globe as it is the official language in 40 countries. From music to movies and even sports, English is undeniably one of the most popular languages

That being said, Chinese is not far behind, with over 1.3 billion speakers. In fact, Mandarin actually has more native speakers than English. 

As China has been one of the most populous countries in the world for many years, and only recently surpassed by India, Mandarin is seen as the language to tap into the market of 1.4 billion increasingly rich consumers.

Over the last decade, there has also been a worldwide increase in the number of people learning Mandarin. In 2022, the number of countries adding Mandarin to their curriculum exceeded 76.

Approximately 4,000 universities worldwide have introduced Mandarin language courses, resulting in 25 million students choosing to learn Chinese as a second language. 

Soon, Chinese may take over English and become the lingua franca of the world. To prepare yourself, here are 10 useful Chinese words that you need to know. 

chinese words

While we may think we’re listening to Chinese words in movies like “In The Mood For Love,” the film’s actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung were speaking Cantonese. Source:AFP

10 most useful Chinese words

1. Nǐ hǎo

If there is one Chinese word you need to learn, this is it. This is the most common greeting in Chinese, used to say “hello” or “hi” when meeting someone.

2. Xièxiè

Pronounced shieh-shieh, this is a polite expression of gratitude used to say “thank you” or “thanks.”

3. Duìbuqǐ 

“Duìbuqǐ” is an apology or an expression used to say “sorry” or “excuse me” when seeking forgiveness or interrupting someone.

4. Bù kèqì

Pronounced Boo kuh-chi, this is used when someone says “xièxiè” to you. It means you’re welcome.

Chinese words

Knowing basic Chinese words can be useful as it is one of the most popular countries in the world. Source: John Macdougall/AFP

5. Méiguānxi

This means “it’s okay” or “no problems and is used to respond to apologies or reassure someone that there is no need to worry or feel bad.

6. Qǐngwèn

“Qǐngwèn”, which translates to “May I ask…?” is a polite phrase used to ask a question or request information politely.

7. Zǎo 

Pronounced as zhow, this is used as a greeting to say good morning. So instead of saying hello (nǐhǎo), you can greet someone with just “zǎo” in the morning. 

8. Wǎn ān 

“Wǎn ān”, pronounced as “one-un”, means goodnight, as it is typically used only when you are right about to go to bed. 

9. Bù hǎo yìsi 

“Bù hǎo yìsi”, which means “sorry” or “excuse me,” is an expression used to apologise, ask for attention, or seek permission.

10. Zàijiàn

This phrase is used to say “goodbye” or “see you later” when parting ways.

These commonly used Chinese phrases are essential for everyday conversations and interactions. By familiarising yourself with them, you’ll be able to communicate politely, express gratitude, apologise, and engage in basic social interactions.

chinese words

If you’re visiting China soon, knowing the following Chinese words helps you describe some of the most breathtaking vistas the country boasts. Source: AFP

10 most beautiful Chinese words

1. Hóng yán 

The Chinese phrase “hóng yán” translates to “beauty of a woman’s face” in English. It specifically refers to the attractiveness and charm of a woman’s face. The term is often used in poetry, literature, and romantic contexts to depict a woman’s physical beauty.

2. Mèng xiǎng

“Mèng xiǎng”, which means “dream,” is a word that encapsulates our aspirations and desires. 

3. Hé xié

“Hé xié”, which literally means harmony, represents the balance and cooperation between people, nature, and the universe. This word exudes a sense of peace and unity.

4. Ài​ qíng

“Ài ​qíng”, which means love, is a great word to have in your vocabulary. 

5. Xìng ​fú

“Xìng ​fú” means happiness, referring to a sense of contentment, joy, and well-being.

6. Làng​ màn

“Làng ​màn” refers to a romantic meaning, someone who embodies the passion, excitement, and tenderness that define a romantic experience.

Chinese words

“Yuè guāng” is one of the most beautiful Chinese words, which means “moonlight.” Source: Mariana Suarez/AFP

7. Yuè Guāng

In Chinese poetry and literature, “yuè guāng” often symbolises the beauty of nature and the passing of time. It translates to the word moonlight.  

8. Zhōng

Chinese words can be confusing when you take symbols apart, and they can mean different things. The symbol for “zhōng” is 忠. When separated, the top part means fairness. 

However, combined with the bottom characters, it means loyalty and devotion.

9. Yǒng

The translation of “yǒng” paints a picture of a stream or river flowing endlessly, a stunning visual for the Chinese word for “forever.”

10. Jiā

The word “jiā” means family, home, or house in Chinese

chinese words

Some Chinese words have double meanings and can land you in situations saying you’re “blowing the cow.” Source: AFP

10 most witty Chinese words 

Some Chinese words can be pretty amusing, especially when their meanings are not immediately apparent. In fact, some funny Chinese phrases often have hilarious, double meanings when directly translated.

1. Chuī niú

“Chuī niú” translates to “bragging” or “boasting” in English. It is a commonly used expression to describe someone who exaggerates or boasts about their own abilities, achievements, or experiences. 

However, this phrase actually translates to “blowing the cow.”

2. Chǎo yóu yú

Though the Chinese phrase “chǎo yóu yú” translates to “stir-fried squid” in English, it has an entirely different meaning.

This phrase is often used as an idiom in colloquial language. In Chinese slang, “chǎo yóu yú” is used to indicate being fired from a job or getting laid off. 

3. Luò tāng ji

The phrase “luò tāng jī” translates to “soaked chicken” or “drenched chicken” in English.

But it is actually an expression used to describe someone who is thoroughly wet or soaked, typically in the context of getting caught in heavy rain or falling into the water. 

4. Zhuāng Suàn

Another funny Chinese phrase is “zhuāng suàn,” which literally means “to pretend to be garlic.” This phrase is used to describe someone who is pretending to be dumb or ignorant.

Chinese words

“Shǎ dàn” is a common Chinese insult that translates to “stupid egg.” Source: Matthew Hatcher/AFP

5. Shǎ dàn

A very common and lowkey hilarious insult in Mandarin is “shǎ dàn”, which actually translates to “stupid egg.” 

Depending on the situation, this can either be a playful insult when a friend does something dumb or straight up fightin’ words if said to a stranger.

6. Pāi mǎ pì

“Pāi mǎ pì” translates to “to flatter” or “to kiss up.” It is a colloquial expression used to describe the act of praising or complimenting someone excessively, often with the intention of gaining favour. 

However, the literal translation of the phrase is “patting the horse’s butt,” which refers to the act of stroking or praising a horse to gain its favour.

7. Chén yú, luò yàn

The Chinese phrase “chén yú, luò yàn” translates to “sinking fish, falling geese” in English. 

This phrase is often used to describe exceptionally beautiful women. It originates from a classic Chinese idiom found in literary works such as poetry and novels.

8. Sān jiǎo māo

In English, the Mandarin word “sān jiǎo māo” directly translates to “three-legged cat”; however, its meaning has nothing to do with cats. 

It actually refers to the phrase “jack of all trades and master of none.” It is often used in a negative way to describe someone who can do many different things but is not particularly good at any one of them. 

9. Cháng shé fù

“Cháng shé fù” refers to a woman who enjoys gossiping about others’ business and personal lives. 

This translates to “long tongue woman,” “sharp-tongued woman,” “busybody,” or “buttinsky.”

10. Nǐ pí zi yǎng!

This term is used quite often, and it is quite hilarious. You might come across this term when you bump into someone or insult someone. 

It is usually used when expressing the desire to beat someone up. However, when you translate it to English, “nǐ pí zi yǎng!” means “your skin looks itchy.”

This common term is still often used — and often used out of context (and within context as well).