Learning Chinese enables you to gain an insight into the extraordinary way Chinese people view certain things, in turn helping to better understand their culture. Here are some examples of how learning Chinese will turn your world upside down and boggle your brain!


Learning Chinese enables you to gain insight into the way Chinese people view things and to better understand their culture [Tweet this]


1. You will think of dolphins as sea-pigs

Chinese words: sea pig, big bear cat, long neck deer

Sea pigs’; 海豚 (hǎitún), are what the Chinese refer to for dolphins. Picturing a pig diving and splashing around like a sea creature su re makes for great imagery!

大熊猫 (dàxióngmāo) meaning literally: ‘big bear cat‘, also sheds some light into h ow the Chinese perceive their nation’s favorite animal, the panda bear. These cuddly monochrome creatures do have cat-like eyes and bear-like bodies after all (pandas have vertically slit pupils compared to bears with round pupils).

Other memorable animal names include ‘river horse’ for hippopotamus:河马(hémǎ), ‘change colour dragons’ for  chameleons;变色龙(biànsèlóng), and ‘sand bag mice’ for wallabies: 沙袋鼠 ( shādàishǔ).

Let’s also not forget the oh so creatively named giraffe, which is ‘long neck deer’,  长颈鹿 (chángjǐnglù) in Mandarin, and 猫头鹰 (māotóuyīng) or ‘cat head eagle’ for owls.



English Name Chinese Name Pronunciation (pinyin) Meaning
Dolphin 海豚 hǎitún hǎi: sea
tún: pig
Panda  大熊猫 dàxióngmāo  dà: big
xióng: bear
māo: cat
Hippopotamus  河马 hémǎ hé: river
mǎ: horse
Chameleon 变色龙  biànsèlóng  biàn: change
sè: colour
long: dragon
Wallaby  沙袋鼠 shādàishǔ  shā: sand
dài: bag
shǔ: mouse
Giraffe 长颈鹿 chángjǐnglù cháng: long
jǐng: neck
lù: deer
Owl  猫头鹰 māotóuyīng māo: cat
tóu: head
yīng: eagle


 2. You will think about olives the next time you play rugby

The Chinese word for rugby is:  橄榄球 (gǎnlǎnqiú), meaning ‘ olive-ball’; but this type of olive would not be so tasty on a pizza!  Interestingly, the Chinese have kept the expression 美式橄榄球 (měishìgǎnlǎnqiú), meaning ‘ American-style olive ball’ for ‘American football ’, which can be seen as a more accurate term when you think about it, using the expression for ‘ rugby’ rather than ‘football’.

The Chinese word for rugby is: 橄榄球 (gǎnlǎnqiú), meaning ‘olive-ball’; but this type of olive would not be so tasty on a pizza! [Tweet this]

Relating to sports, you could say, “let’s hit the ‘slippery snow’ ’” when referring to skiing: 滑雪 (huáxuě); “how about a game of ‘fist attack’?” instead of boxing: 拳击 (quánjī); or, “I’d really fancy a game of ‘shoot arrow’ for archery: 射箭 (shèjiàn).  Other sport names include: 台球 (táiqiú), ‘table ball’ for billiards, and 曲棍球 (qǔgùnqiú), ‘crooked stick ball’ for hockey.

It kind of goes to show that if you have forgotten the Chinese word for something, sometimes guessing a word by its literal translation of the main verbs or objects involved can actually help! Of course this is not true all of the time though.  In some cases, the Chinese have lacked inspirationentirely and just gone for a name that sounds like the foreign name after all, for example 高尔夫 (gāo’ěrfū) sounds very similar to ‘golf’, and  保龄球 (bǎolíngqiú) which sounds very close to bowling (and qiú means ball).


English Name Chinese Name Pronunciation (pinyin) Meaning
Rugby  橄榄球  gǎnlǎnqiú gǎnlǎn: olive
qiú: ball
American football 美式橄榄球 měishìgǎnlǎnqiú měishì: American-style
gǎnlǎn: olive
qiú: ball
Skiing 滑雪 huáxuě huá: slippery
xuě: snow
Archery 射箭  shèjiàn shè: shoot
jiàn: arrow
Billiards  台球 táiqiú tái: table
qiú: ball
Hockey 曲棍球 qǔgùnqiú qǔ: crooked
gùn: stick
qiú: ball
Golf  尔夫  gāo’ěrfū Sounds like ‘golf’
Bowling 保龄球  bǎolíngqiú Sounds like ‘bowling’


3. You will look at every crisis as an opportunity

危机 (wēijī), meaning ‘crisis’ is made up of the words for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.  This idiom shows a great concept whereby encountering certain perils can often lead us to think of previously unimagined possibilities of action.  Superb optimism of the Chinese is conveyed here and there is great wisdom in looking at a situation positively when during a time of crisis. 


4. You will draw a link between ‘fish’, ‘scarves’ and ‘trousers’

You probably would not usually class these as linguistically similar in the English language, but in Chinese, the same measure word, 条 (tiáo) applies when counting and specifying fish 鱼 (yú), scarves 围巾 (wéijīn) and trousers  裤子 (kùzi), as they all represent long, narrow, flexible objects.  The same measure word can also be used for river 河 (hé), road 路 (lù), leg 腿 (tuǐ) and snake 蛇 (shé).


Measure Word  Class Examples
把 (bǎ) Objects with handles  knives 刀 (dāo), chairs 椅子 (yǐzi), umbrellas 雨伞 (yǔsǎn)
张 (zhāng) Flat surfaced objects, rectangular objects tables 桌子 (zhuōzǐ), paper 纸 (zhǐ), beds 床 (chuáng), photos 照片 (zhào piàn)
只 (zhī)  One of a pair, animals foot 脚 (jiǎo), shoe 鞋 (xié), dog 狗 (gǒu), chicken 鸡 (jī)


While these examples refer to classifiers depending on the nature of what they represent, more broad measure words also exist, even for abstract categories. For example, the same measure word: 件 (jiàn) is used for clothing 衣服 (yīfu), issues/matters/things 事 (shì), and presents 礼物 (lǐwù).


5. You will see a difference between riding your bicycle and riding the subway

The co-verbs used in Chinese for different modes of travel will definitely make you think more about the way you are seated during your trip!  Whilst you (zuò) or ‘ride on a seat’ whilst taking the subway 地铁 (dìtiě) or aeroplane飞机 (fēijī), you would instead (qí) or ‘straddle’ when taking your bicycle 自行车 (zìxíngchē) or horse 马 (mǎ)… if you are fortunate enough to travel by horse!  Though perhaps the verb indicating that you ‘sit’ on the subway should actually be updated to (zhàn) – ‘to stand’.  After all, the chances of actually getting a seat on the subway are close to zero in China’s big cities such as Beijing or Shanghai!


6. You will picture grapes and teeth every time somebody mentions the country Portugal

The phonetic approximation of the country name Portugal translates to 葡萄牙 (pútáoyá), meaning ‘grapes teeth’; this can also be seen as a reference to the country’s sweet grapes.  Some names are translated literally such as ‘ice island’ 冰岛 (bīngdǎo) for Iceland.  The Chinese name for America is 美国 (měiguó) meaning: ‘beautiful country’, and England is 英国 (yīngguó) meaning ‘brave land’.

A country name is not just that: the Chinese name for America is měiguó: beautiful country; and England is yīngguó: brave land [Tweet this]

Yugoslavia is an interesting example of a word that is half translated and the o ther half transliterated: 南斯拉夫 (nánsīlā) where 南 (nán) means south and 斯拉夫 (sīlāfū) is a phonetic equivalent of Yugoslavia. And some names even have links to history, for example, 旧金山(jiùjīnshān) for San Francisco means ‘old gold mountain’, a name given by Chinese migrants who flocked over during the Gold Rush.

English Name  Chinese Name Pronunciation (pinyin) Meaning
Portugal  葡萄牙 pútáoyá  pútáo: grapes
yá: teeth
Iceland  冰岛 bīngdǎo bīng: ice
dǎo: island
America 美国  měiguó  měi: beautiful
guó: country
England 英国 yīngguó  yīng: brave
Yugoslavia  南斯拉夫 nánsīlāfū  nán: south
sīlāfū: sounds like ‘slavia’
San Francisco  旧金山 jiùjīnshān jiù: old
jīn: gold
shān: mountain


7. You will believe that your computer is very brainy

The word for computer is ‘electric brain’ 电脑 (diànnǎo).  And what can adding the word ‘electric’ 电 (diàn) to other words mean?  Some examples include: ’electric + speech’ or 电话 (diànhuà)  = telephone; ‘electric + (to) view’ 电视 (diànshì) = television, and ‘electric + shadow’ 电影 (diànyǐng) = movie. It is logical and economical of the Chinese to combine two ancient characters to create new words with a literal meaning.  It also makes remembering vocabulary a doddle! 


English Name  Chinese Name Pronunciation (pinyin) Meaning
Computer 电脑  diànnǎo diàn: electric
nǎo: brain
Telephone 电话 diànhuà  diàn: electric
huà: speech
Television  电视 diànshì  diàn: electric
shì: to view
Movie 电影 diànyǐng  diàn: electric
yǐng: shadow


Well there you go, here were just a few examples how learning Chinese will change your way of seeing the world.  Now it’s your turn to go off and discover your own examples!

Would you like to know how to start learning Chinese? Or are you more interested in all the great places China has to offer? Read our article on Top 5 Places to Visit in Mainland China

Even better, come discover China by yourself! Start your studies right away, apply today!

by Amy Wong

Updated: 02/10/2018