Untranslatable Chinese Words

As China’s influence in the world steadily grows, many businesses start to consider learning Chinese an asset. However, most people agree that Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn. Indeed, there are more than 80,000 characters in the Chinese language. Fortunately, an average non-native speaker will likely feel confident knowing at least a thousand of the most common characters. On the other hand, each character may have a few completely different meanings depending on the context. For instance, 吃 can be translated as “drink,” “take,” “eat,” or “bear.”

The Chinese language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. About 16% of the world’s population speaks some kind of Chinese, with Mandarin being the most popular variation. Chinese is an ancient language with a rich history. Sometimes, when translated into English word-for-word, it might sound amazingly poetic or even hilarious. The thing is that many words in Chinese have no direct English translation, and here are some of them.

Chinese Words with No Direct English Translation

1. 小吃 (xiăo chī)

Food is an important part of Chinese culture, so there’s no surprise that some food words are hard or impossible to translate. Xiăo chī is a big category of food that doesn’t have a translation in English. It can be translated literally as “small eat,” so you may think that it is used when talking about snacks. However, the word xiăo chī may be used even if you have a bowl of noodles that is not large enough to be considered a meal, yet much larger than a snack.

2. 緣分 (yuán fèn)

Yuán fèn is roughly translated as “fate.” It’s a mystical force that helps people find each other when they need it. However, even people who are not religious or superstitious use this term. For example, when you haven’t seen a friend of yours for years and suddenly meet this person on the street, it’s yuán fèn. It can be also used to describe a situation when you make a new friend and feel like you’ve known this person forever.

3. 撒娇 (sā jiāo)

The rough translation into English is “to act like a spoiled kid.” In Chinese, sā jiāo is used exclusively when referring to a grown woman who behaves like a child, stomping her feet and pouting. Such a kind of behavior is a traditional gender stereotype, and women who don’t do sā jiāo are often considered not feminine enough. Many men want their wives to act this way so that they can feel more masculine.

4. 關係 (guān xi)

It can be translated as “connection” or “relationship.” However, in the business environment, guān xi means networking. It often implies meeting outside of the office and having tea or dinner. Guān xi is aimed to build relationships that will be beneficial for everyone involved, however, it’s not completely transactional by nature.

5. 山寨 (shān zhài)

Shān zhài literally means “mountain village,” however, its real meaning is completely different. This word is used when referring to cheap products which, usually, replicate real brands. In China, shān zhài is a huge industry that has its own subculture so many manufacturers don’t even try to hide the fact that their goods are fake.

6. 師傅 (shīfu)

You can use this term to address a taxi driver, a barber, a repairman, or anyone else who is good at his or her craft. It’s important not to confuse shīfu and shī fu (師父). The latter term is used to address martial art coaches and spiritual figures (e.g. monks).

7. 热闹 (rè nao)

If you translate rè nao as “lively,” it will be correct, however, it won’t represent the whole meaning of this word. Rè nao can be used to describe a situation or a place. It means that something is lively and fun, it has a good vibe, and there is something special about it. If a bar, a party, or even an office is rè nao, it means that you just really want to be there.

8. 孝順 (xiào shùn)

It’s roughly translated as “obedience” but this term means respect, duty, and taking care of old parents. Xiào shùn is one of the most important principles in Confucianism.

9. 香 (xiāng)

Most often, this word means “fragrant,” however, it changes its meaning when talking about food. If something is xiāng, it has a distinctive aroma (often meaty) that immediately makes you hungry.

10. 辛苦 (xīnkŭ)

Xīnkŭ means “laborious,” and it’s used when you want to emphasize someone’s hard work in order to thank them.


Chinese is completely different from any Western language. Most people who learn Chinese have problems with pronunciation and the abundance of different characters. However, one of the biggest difficulties is that many characters have several meanings. In addition, the cultural context is very important in the Chinese language so some words or phrases cannot be translated into English literally. Nevertheless, such words often provide insights into Chinese culture and make learning this language even more interesting.

About the author

Ester Brierley is a QA Engineer in software outsourcing company, seasoned content creator and virtual assistant at college-writers.com. When she’s not writing about cutting-edge digital trends, Ester takes online courses to improve her foreign language skills. Follow her on Twitter.

If you found this blog post interesting you should definitely check out common Chinese Homophones or the meaning behind Chinese numbers.

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