Cai Li's Culture Column

Hey, what's your problem? Have you got a hair disease?! In this article, Cai Li gives you a heads up so you don't get tripped up by tricky Chinese idiomatic expressions. After reading the article, choose a link below to read another or to visit another section of the Classroom Package.

'I Mean What You Know!' -- Tricky Chinese Expressions

Learning Chinese? (Or any foreign language for that matter?) Ever been tripped up by tricky idiomatic expressions? (You know, those apparently benign phrases that mean something much different from their literal meaning and can therefore create severe confusion and sometimes even get you into trouble.) Well, join the club! In this short piece, we'll take a look at a few commonly confusing, but interesting, Chinese idiomatic expressions.

We'll start with na li na li, which literally means 'Where, where?' but is used more like 'Not at all' in response to a compliment. There's a well known joke that illustrates how this one can cause confusion: An English-speaking couple went to a Chinese wedding banquet. The woman told the groom in English how beautiful the bride was. The woman's husband, who spoke a little Chinese, translated to the groom. The groom smiled and said, 'Na li na li.' The husband didn’t quite get the answer and translated it literally, to which his wife, a bit surprised, said 'Well, all over!'

If you spend a short time in China, you'll quickly discover that many Chinese people rarely say 'Thank you' to a compliment. To them, that would be a bit arrogant. Instead, they say na li na li or bu gan dang -- which literally means 'can't dare match' and implies that the speaker is not worthy of such high praise -- or, with a smile, they completely deny the complimentary comment: mei you ba!

Another interesting idiomatic expression is ma shang. While it literally means 'on top of a horse,' it actually means 'immediately.' Where's the connection? One explanation is that, in the old days, people used horses for travel. Someone who got on a horse quickly got to where he wanted to go and quickly did what he wanted to do. So, it makes sense that the expression now means 'right away.'

Another very common idiomatic expression is ma ma hu hu. Literally it means 'horse horse tiger tiger' (ma means horse and hu means tiger). Some people say it came from an old story in which a horse and a tiger got into a fight. Neither animal could outdo the other. In time, the two animals mentioned together came to symbolize the fight that had no definitive result -- and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.' ...But I'm not entirely convinced. My own personal theory is that, a long time ago, someone tried to draw an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew looked like. Some said it looked like a horse and others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma -- ma -- hu -- hu' because the drawing was just 'so so.' OK, OK, have you got a better explanation?

Speaking of explanations, how can you explain these?: Dui means 'yes' and bu means 'no,' but dui bu qi means 'sorry.' (Here, qi has no literal meaning, it just completes the phrase.) Xiao xing literally means 'small heart' but is often used as 'be careful.' (That seems so different from English where having a 'big heart' can mean being generous and kind.) Then there is jie guang which can be used to mean 'excuse me' (when cutting in front of someone), yet, literally, means 'borrow the light.' What about mao bing, a phrase in which the literal translation, 'hair disease,' has the extended meaning of 'problem.' In Chinese, you can say, 'Ni you mao bing ma?' with the same degree of aggressiveness as the English counterpart, 'Do you have a problem?'

Chinese is not the only language with tricky idiomatic expressions. If you have a Chinese-speaking friend, be prepared to do some explaining when you use such phrases as, 'under the weather,' 'between a rock and a hard place,' 'having a ball,' 'going with the flow,' 'up in the air,' 'three sheets to wind,' and so many others. They can make communication a little confusing; but they also just go to show how complex -- and how alive and colorful -- a language can be. Take it slow!

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Cai Li's Culture Column

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