Don’t Homophone It In
Last week we introduced you to the occasionally frustrating but always fascinating world of Chinese homophones. This week we’re back with five more funny, sassy and potentially embarrassing Chinese homophones you definitely need to know! And of course, our helpful suggestions for how to ensure you don’t get them mixed up!
- Northwestern Geography
shānxī山西 (province in NW China) vs. shǎnxī 陕西 (province in NW China, sometimes rendered as “Shaanxi”)
If you’ve ever looked at a map of China, you probably noticed the Chinese proclivity for naming provinces after a direction and a geographical feature. There’s Húběi (North of the Lake) and Húnán (South of the Lake), Héběi (North of the River) and Hénán (South of the River), Shāndōng (East of the Mountain) and Shānxī (West of the Mountain)…ok you get the picture. However, shānxī and shǎnxī are particularly tricky, in part because they’re located literally right beside each other.
And even if you never make it to these two particular provinces (although you totally should, they have amazing barbeque and some top-notch historical sites) it’s worth knowing the difference since many Chinese cities have streets named after other Chinese cities and provinces. Yikes.
Alternate Hacks: Capitals
If you can’t remember the tones and are having a hard time explaining which Shanxi you’re referring to, you can specify them by making reference to their provincial capitals. “Shǎnxī陕西” province’s capital is the ancient city and former national capital “Xī’ān 西安”, while that of “Shānxī山西” province is the ancient city and former national capital “Tàiyuán 太原”. Ok sorry…I guess Northwestern Chinese geography is just really hard. Just try and remember that the Terracotta Warriors are in “Shǎnxī陕西”.
wǒ xià gè yuè dǎsuàn qù shǎnxī lǚxíng.
I’m planning to go sightseeing in Shǎnxī next month.
shǎnxī huòzhě shānxī?
Shǎnxī or Shānxī?
yǒu xī’ān de nàgè shěng.
The province with Xī’ān.
- Day Drinking
hēzhōu喝粥 (to drink rice porridge) vs. hējiǔ 喝酒 (to drink alcohol)
Rice porridge, or “zhōu粥”, is the staple of many a Chinese breakfast, but when spoken quickly or unclearly it can sound like “jiǔ酒” or alcohol. This is a real danger since both are often preceded by the verb “hē喝” (to drink). To make sure you don’t get drunk at breakfast or end up being handed a bowl of hot rice porridge next time you want an ice cold beer, make sure you know both the tone and pinyin variation between these two.
Alternate Hacks: Types of porridge/alcohol, measure words
One way to make yourself clear is to specify what kind of alcohol/rice porridge you want. Generally, this should make it obvious what you’re talking about.
wǒ yào hējiǔ.
I want a drink.
wǒmen méiyǒu zhōu.
We don’t have any rice porridge.
búshì wǒ yào hēpíjiǔ.
No, I want a beer.
However, keep in mind that the most common type of rice porridge is “báizhōu白粥” (made with white rice, although often garnished with other ingredients). In addition to being a common breakfast item, báizhōu is commonly fed to babies, the elderly and the sick. Unfortunately, this sounds somewhat like China’s favorite liquor, “báijiǔ白酒”. This potent spirit, usually around 52% ABV, has been the cause of many a blackout, so be careful! Ironically, drinking too much báijiǔ might land you in the hospital, where they will probably end up feeding you báizhōu while you recover! Just remember, “zhōu粥” is usually served by the bowl (wǎn碗), while” jiǔ酒” is ordered by the bottle (píng瓶).
wǒ yào hē báizhōu.
I want to drink some white rice porridge.
zhème zǎo jiù xiǎng hēbáijiǔ？
You want to drink báijiǔ this early?
búduì wǒ xiǎng diǎn yìwǎn báizhōu.
No, I want to order a bowl of white rice porridge.
- Love Boat
shàngchuán上船 (to board a boat/ship) vs. shàngchuáng上床 (lit. to go to bed, also to sleep with someone)
Here’s one for all you sailors out there. In both cases, “shàng上” acts as a verb meaning to “get on” something, either a boat or a bed. Chuán and chuáng sound quite similar, especially given that they’re both in the third tone. “Shàngchuáng上床” can mean just to go to bed, but if you talk about doing it with someone else, it has the same meaning as “to sleep with someone” in English (i.e. not actually sleeping).
zhè ge chuán hěn bàng, shì nǐ de ma?
What an amazing boat, is it yours?
méicuò yàobúyào gēn wǒ shàngchuán?
Sure is, would you like to come aboard with me?
nǐtàiguòfèn! wǒ bù guǎn nǐ de chuán yǒu duō hǎo，wǒ bú huì gēn nǐ shàngchuáng!
You’re way out of line! No matter how nice your boat is I’m still not going to sleep with you!
Alternate Hacks: Synonyms
To avoid any unintended implications, you can also use “zuòchuán坐船” (travel/take a boat).
- That Don’t Impress Me Much
yǐngxiǎng影响 (verb= influence/affect, noun= influence/effect) vs. yìnxiàng印象 (impression)
Not only do these two sound alike, but both can act as nouns that have a somewhat similar meaning. However, “yǐngxiǎng影响” can also act as a verb while “yìnxiàng印象” cannot.
Alternate Hacks: Collocations & Set Phrases
Like many words in Chinese, both yǐngxiǎng影响 and yìnxiàng印象 are most often seen used in specific contexts and paired with certain words.
Overall, yǐngxiǎng影响 is more flexible in its usage. As a verb it means something like affect or influence, but almost always with a negative connotation.
Instagram yǐngxiǎng hěnduō xuéshēng dexuéxí.
Instagram disturbs many students from their studies.
interfere with work.
impair the quality of
When used as a noun however, it has a more neutral connotation.
duì tā yǒu yǐngxiǎng
Have an influence on him.
On the other hand, yìnxiàng印象 is more likely to have a positive connotation, meaning something like “impression”.
chángchéng gěi wǒ liú xià shēnkè yìnxiàng.
The Great Wall left a deep impression on me.
zuìchū de yìnxiàng
- Heart Shaped Suitcase
xīnli心里 (in the heart; on one’s mind) vs. xíngli行李 (luggage)
These two places where you put important things might sound similar at first, but you put very different kinds of things in each. Xīnli心里, literally inside one’s heart, is not as dramatic as it sounds in English and simply means that you are thinking about or feeling something.
xīnli yǒu shì
have something on one’s mind
jì zài xīnli
keep something in mind
Alternate Hacks: object
Usually, it should be possible to clarify which one you are talking about based on the kind of things you are putting in each. Remember that in Chinese there are two ways of saying “thing”, one for physical objects (dōngxī东西) and one for figurative things (shìqing事情).
xíngli yǒu dōngxī
have things in your suitcase
Keep in mind that you cannot say:
xīnli yǒu dōngxī
Ok so apart from not embarrassing yourself, why should you pay attention to homophones? For one thing, you’ll find they’re at the root of a lot of Chinese humor and wordplay. Before long, you’ll notice homophone-based humor everywhere: in advertising, in WeChat conversations, and above all else on the Chinese internet. As your Chinese improves, so will your understanding of Chinese puns, and before long you’ll be cracking up (and impressing) your Chinese friends with Mandarin wordplay of your own!
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