Learning Chinese is a difficult task for many and when translating Chinese words into another language, people will inevitably bump into difficulties at a given point because some words don’t have a direct translation. This causes non natives to fail to grasp the exact meaning of the word and maybe even to fail to understand the conversation.
That makes it difficult for translators or interpreters to transmit the message and it often gets confusing or funny when Chinese teachers try to explain these words to their students. But this also shows that Chinese is such a beautiful language with an extremely rich vocabulary. Just one or two syllables can be enough to convey an entire feeling that we don’t always know how to express because we don’t have a word for it.
Sometimes these words remain known exclusively among native speakers and in some cases, dictionaries don’t even cover certain expressions like this. So, we asked our teachers at Hutong School about their favorite Chinese word or expression that doesn’t have an English counterpart.
1. Lüyì (绿意)
Do you sometimes feel frustrated when something leaves an impression but you don’t know how to express these feelings because you don’t have a word for it in your language? Chances are, Chinese has it!
Teacher Xing Xing’s favorite word is lüyì, meaning the feeling of hope or the sensation of feeling newborn when looking at something green. According to Xing Xing, this also explains why Chinese people have little pots with plants everywhere. Interestingly enough though, this word is very specific and some of our other Chinese teachers at Hutong School had never heard of this word before!
A popular word you’ll hear quite often in China is shànghuǒ. Shànghuǒ is the term you use after you’ve eaten too much spicy food, causing your body to overheat and making you experience discomfort. So it’s the feeling of excessive internal heat, but it’s not the same as fever.
Vice versa, the opposite of shànghuǒ is xiàhuǒ .
These two concepts of shànghuǒ and xiàhuǒ are often used in traditional Chinese medicine and go back to the ancient principle of yin and yang. Chinese people believe in the balance of yin and yang in many aspects, including food. Foods are categorized in these two concepts of yin and yang. Eating too much food from one category, like spicy food, you have too much yang and your body will go shànghuǒ. So to balance it up again, you should eat something from the yin category like lotus or beans to bring your temperature back to normal. This means that instead of taking a pill to reduce the symptoms of shànghuǒ, Chinese will try to reach xiàhuǒ by eating another yin food.
In this same category of ways to describe the state of your body is tǐhán. This word is used when a person is feeling too cold. Contrary to shànghuǒ and xiàhuǒ however, tǐhán is more a more permanent state and refers to people who generally feel cold really fast.
3. Yuánfèn (缘分)
Xu Lei taught us yuánfèn, which she translates as ‘destiny that ties people together’. However, the word covers more than that and is actually really important in China. This concept refers to a predestined affinity, a kind of binding force that links two people in a certain relationship (love, friendship, work related) and goes back to Chinese folk religion.
It’s not the same as fate, and it’s not just mere destiny, because these two words don’t express the importance of a past force making a certain relationship happen. The Chinese also have another expression that distinguishes between those two concepts: yǒu yuán wú fèn (有緣無份), “have fate without destiny”, meaning that even though a relationship came to exist because of fate, it’s not necessarily destined to exist forever.
4. Rènao (热闹)
Rènao literally means hot and noisy, and refers to places that are crowded, lively or bustling with noise and excitement. In the West, a lot of people would prefer to avoid this kind of atmosphere, which they consider as chaotic and uncomfortable, whereas Chinese see this as a positive feeling, because it is a sign of social belonging, a good consumption experience and success. That’s why in a lot of Chinese shops or supermarkets you’ll often hear loud and rather hectic music, something foreigners often find too rènao.
5. Jiānghú (江湖)
Jiānghú literally means ‘rivers and lakes’ and has close ties to martial arts vocabulary. In Chinese literature, its original meaning referred to an unsettled geographic location, the perfect place for outlaws to flee to. Over the years, this word has evolved to mean something like ‘scene’ or ‘criminal underground’, referring to some kind of sub-society. The term has especially become popular in wuxia (武侠) fiction, stories about martial arts heroes, where it’s frequently used for triads or societies of gangsters. In modern times it can also be used for any circle of interest; thieves, sports, entertainers, actors, wanderers or beggars, comparable to the English ‘bohemian’, ‘scene’ or ‘underworld’.
There you go! You’ve just learned some new words to show off to your Chinese friends! Maybe talk about how you are feeling lüyì the next time you go to the park, I bet they will be pleasantly surprised! And who knows, maybe you’ll be the one teaching Chinese ;). Talking about words that are unique to Chinese and that you could use to impress your Chinese friends, you might be interested in Chinese slang words!
Interested in learning more about Chinese culture and language? Read our funny post on how learning Chinese will change your everyday life, or see our post on Chinese lingo on the internet, and six Chinese Slang words you just need to know!
Do you know some more Chinese words that western languages don’t have a translation for? Maybe you know another language that has similar phenomena? Let us know and expand our vocabulary!
Discover China & Chinese Culture Yourself