David Pilling of the Financial Times wrote, There are some marvellous Chinese expressions, traditional sayings that illuminate the modern world. An ambitious plan is a “tiger head, snake tail” — it starts out big, but ends up small. Kicking a man while he’s down is “dropping a stone after someone’s fallen down a well”. The Chinese say it is like finding a needle in the sea rather than in a haystack. Keeping up appearances is likened to donkey dung — "shiny on the outside, smelly on the inside." The Chinese equivalent of a "white elephant" is a "porcelain crane," a "glass rat" or a "glazed cat." “Red eye” is slang for jealousy. “Eat bitter” describes enduring and putting with hardships. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” means make an example of. Someone who say what he thinks has “a straight heart and a quick mouth.” "Spider silk and horse tracks" means a few scant clues. [Source: David Pilling, Financial Times, June 10, 2011]

Popular and Amusing Chinese aphorisms and sayings:
1) “Each turnip loves something different.”— To each his own.
2) “A man who eats biscuits in his bed wakes up feeling terrible.” — Don’t be greedy, especially with food.
3) “A man urinating on an electric fence will get shocking news.” — roughly means be careful and don’t create new problems while you already dealing with some.
4) “Spilt water can’t be gathered up.” — Don’t cry over spilt milk or what is done can’t be undone. This saying is often used after a divorce. [Sources: Candice Song, China Highlights, September 15, 2021; Veronika Gomez Skopalova,]

5) “A fast foot arrives first.” — The early bird gets the worm.
6) “The plan of the day should be done in the morning/dawn.” — similar to The early bird gets the worm.
7) “Those with the same illness commiserate with each other.”— Misery loves company.
8) “To climb a tree to catch fish.” — a stupid, idea, useless approach, a lost cause.
9) “To slap a horse’s back.” — kissing ass.
10) “The good deeds pay good recompense and the evil pays back with evil.” — What goes around, comes around.
11) “Those who eat with one chopstick will stay hungry.” — roughly means find a balance in your life. As eating with one chopstick is impossible, you need to find a second one before you can eat.
12) “As you sow a melon, you should reap one.”— You reap what you sow.
13) “Desire speed but not attain” — roughly haste makes waste or patience is a virtue. From "The Analects of Confucius".

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot ; ; Pleco Chinese dictionairies ; Haiwang Yuan homepage Romanisation and Pinyin Info: Chinese Pod; etymological dictionary character etymologies

Chinese Proverbs

Some well-known Chinese proverbs include:
1) "A bird does not sing because it has an answer — it sings because it has a song?
2) "Let him who tied the bell on the tiger take it off."
3) "There are many things which can not be imagined but there is nothing which may not happen."
4) "First comes the bitterness, then there is sweetness and wealth and honor for 10,000 years.”
5) “He who starts trouble must act to end it.”
6) “When the river rises, the boats rise with it.”
7) "There is no room for two tigers on one mountaintop."
8) “Playing a guitar to cows” describes the frustration of miscommunication;
9) “Ride on a tiger and its hard to climb down.”
10) “The bird who sticks out his head gets shot.”
11) “Like a lion opening its bloody mouth” is Chinese proverb for voracious greed."
12) “It takes 10 years to make a sword” — meaning keep at it till you get it right, and the outcome will be strong and lasting.

13) Experience is a comb which nature gives us when we are bald.”
14) “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
15) “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
16) “A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.”
17) “A bird can roost but on one branch, a mouse can drink not more than its fill from a river.”
18) “A little impatience will spoil great plans.
19) A needle is not sharp at both ends.”
20 ) “Distant water does not put out a nearby fire.”
21) “Want a thing long enough and you don't.”]

22) “Do everything at the right time, and one day will seem like three.” [Sources:
23) “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”
24) “Men trip not on mountains they trip on molehills.”
25) “It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.
26) “Ripe fruit falls by itself - but it doesn't fall in your mouth.”
27) “Do not believe that you will reach your destination without leaving the shore.”
28) “If you want to avoid being cheated, ask for prices at three different stores.”
29) “Guessing is cheap, but guessing wrong can be expensive.”
31) It is easy to open a store - the hard part is keeping it open.”

Book and App: In November 2014, Wenlin Institute, developer of Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese and CDL font technology, announced the release of the electronic Chinese-English "ABC Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs", edited by John S. Rohsenow. Modern Language Journal describes Rohsenow’s dictionary as “delightful and easy-to-use…open[ing] the treasure house of Chinese folk wisdom to a general English-speaking readership….appealing and useful to language students at any level and to anyone who may need a pithy aphorism”. Published in book form by the University of Hawaii Press, the "ABC Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs" consists of approximately 4,000 Chinese proverbs alphabetically arranged by the first words of the proverb according to the Pinyin transcription and Chinese characters (standard simplified), followed by a literal (and when necessary also a figurative) English translation.

Wise Chinese Sayings and Proverbs

1) “A smile is the best remedy” or “A smile is the best form of make-up.”
2) “One smile undoes 1,000 worries” — A smile dispels many worries.
3) “Laugh,ten years younger” — Happiness is the best cosmetic.
4) “Falling into a moat, will make you wiser next time.”
5) “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
6) “While there are green hills, there will be wood to burn.” — “Where there is life, there is hope.”
7) “He who asks a question might be a fool for five minutes; he who doesn’t ask a question remains a fool forever.” [Sources: Candice Song, China Highlights, September 15, 2021; Veronika Gomez Skopalova,,]

8) “One bird in the hand is better than two birds in a forest.” — A bird in the hand is worth than two in the bush.
9) “It’s easy to find a thousand troops, but a general is hard to find.” — finding a good leader is hard.
10) “The heroes think the same.” Or: “Great minds think alike.”
11) “Big points apply eye; small points apply hand” — Keep the long-term goal in sight while dealing with daily tasks.
12) “One step one footprint” —. Work steadily and make solid progress.
13) “Small hole not mend; big hole eat hardship” — sSimilar to: "A stitch in time saves nine."

14). “Don’t be afraid of going slow, just be afraid of stopping” or standing still
15) “Water full but overflows” — similar to "what goes up must come down". It is from the 18th century novel "A Dream of Red Mansions".
16) “Reading 10,000 books, not as good as walking 10,000 li road” — Experience is the best teacher.
17) “Have loan have repayment; again loan not hard” — Timely return of a loan makes it easier to borrow a second time.
18) “Body straight not fear shadow slanting” — A righteous man is not afraid to seem unrighteous.
19) “Candle illuminates others, yet destroys itself” — self-sacrifice helps others.
20) 'Three monks have no water to drink” — Too many cooks spoil the broth.
21) “Hard get confusion” — Ignorance is bliss.
22) “Water flows in to flow out.” — once things reach their climax, they will reverse. “Once you’re up, once you’re down.”
23) “Not good starter not good end” — A bad beginning makes a bad ending.
24) “One beam, no matter how big, cannot support an entire house on its own” — sort of like the avoiding the straw that broke the camel’s back

25) “All things change, and we change with them.”
26) “If you want to find out about the road ahead, then ask about it from those coming back.”
27) “A clear conscience never fears midnight knocking.”
28) “Patience is a bitter plant, but its fruit is sweet.”
29) “In a group of many words, there is bound to be a mistake somewhere in them.”
30) “A hundred no's are less agonizing than one insincere yes.”
31) “He who cheats the earth will be cheated by the earth.”
32) “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”
33) “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.
34) “Better the cottage where one is merry than the palace where one weeps.”
35) “He who thinks too much about every step he takes will always stay on one leg.”
36) “Solve one problem, and you keep a hundred others away.”
37) “Before preparing to improve the world, first look around your own home three times.”

Chinese Sayings and Proverbs About People and Friendship

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1) “Mortals are not to be judged by appearance, and the sea is not to be measured.” — Don’t judge a book by its cover.
2) “Beautiful name beats beautiful looks” — A good name is better than an attractive face.
3) 'Disaster from mouth exits” — having a big mouth
4) “Three people one heart; yellow earth become gold” — roughly meaning if people work together they can achieve any goal.
5) “Near water know fish shape, near mountain know bird sound” — to really know someone to you need “walk a mile in their shoes”
6) “Enter district follow custom” — When in Rome, do as the Romans do. [Sources: Candice Song, China Highlights, September 15, 2021; Veronika Gomez Skopalova,,]

7) “Hardship see true situation” — In hardship we see true friendship. Similar to: "A friend in need is a friend indeed."
8) “Principles different, not harmonious for schemes” — Men of different principles don't work well together.
9) “Widely make friends, no deep friendship” — similar to a friend to everybody is a friend to no one.
10) “When you have a lot of friends, you don’t have any real friends.”
11) “The people who talk the best are not the only ones who can tell you the most interesting things.”
12) “The more acquaintances you have, the less you know them.”

13) “The person who is his own master cannot tolerate another boss.”
14) “There are two kinds of perfect people: those who are dead, and those who have not been born yet.”
15) “Behave toward everyone as if receiving a guest.”
16) “Listening well is as powerful as talking well, and is also as essential to true conversation.”
17) “Two good talkers are not worth one good listener.”
18) “A wise man makes his own decisions, but an ignorant man mindlessly follows the crowd.”
19) “If you bow at all, bow low.”
20) “Talk does not cook rice.”

21) “A man who cannot tolerate small misfortunes can never accomplish great things.”
22) “Even a hare will bite when it is cornered.”
23) “Only one who can swallow an insult is a man. Only one who can swallow an insult is a man.”
24) “Genius can be recognized by its childish simplicity.”
25) “Married couples tell each other a thousand things without speech.”
26) “Small men think they are small; great men never know they are great.”
27) “I was angered, for I had no shoes. Then I met a man who had no feet.”

28) “A clever person turns great troubles into little ones, and little ones into none at all.”
29) “To know another is not to know the person's face, but to know the person's heart.”
30) “A man without a smiling face must not open shop.”
31) “A person of high principles is one who can watch an entire chess game without making a comment.”
32) “Do not want others to know what you have done? Better not have done it anyways.”
33) “Think about your own faults during the first half of the night, and the faults of others during the second half.”
34) “If you want your children to have a peaceful life, let them suffer a little hunger and a little coldness.”

Chinese Sayings and Proverbs About Love

1) “One look fall-in-love” — Love at first sight.
2) “In the eyes of a lover, Xi Shi appears.” — Love is blind or Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Xi Shi was one of the Four Beauties of China.
4) “Having love, drinking water will fill you up, without love, eating food will leave you hungry.”
5) “Love the house with its crows (on the roof).” — When you love someone, you take the good with bad.

6) “Fate has us meet from a thousand miles away.” — A love that was meant to be.
7) “Hold your hand and grow old with you.”
8) “Wish get a person heart, white head not one-another apart” — Long for a heart, never be apart.
9) “Lifting the tray up to the eyebrows.” — respect between a husband and a wife.
10)“Living with love is happy, but living for love is foolish.”

11) “Love's deep, discipline's cutting” — "tough love".
12) “Radishes greens, each have that-which loves”— To each to his own.
13) “Love isn't having, but is appreciating”
14) “One day (seems like) three autumns.” — Absense makes the heart grow fonder
15) “People in love will get married.” — Love always find a way.

Famous Confucian Sayings

one rendering of Confucius
Confucian sayings were recorded in “The Analects”, which begin with the proverb: "Is it not a pleasure when friends visit from afar!" The sayings, aphorism, maxims, episodes and proverbs in “The Analects” were very useful in educating the illiterate masses. They were easy to remember and could be passed down orally from one generation to the next.

The most famous Confucian saying is Confucian version of the Golden Rule — "I wound not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me" — which is much better put that Biblical and Talmudic proverbs that convey the same thought: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would want men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law of the prophets" (Matthew 7:12); "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary" (Shabbat, 31a).

Wisdom Confucius said was "when you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it...the mistakes of a gentleman may be compared to the eclipses of the sun or the moon. When he makes a mistake, all men see it; when he corrects it, all men look up to him...When you have faults do not fear to abandon them."

Confucius recognized the importance of the arts. "It is by poetry that one's mind is aroused; it is by ceremonials that one's character is regulated; it is by music that one becomes accomplished." On the nature versus nurture argument, Confucius said: "By nature, men are near alike; it is by custom and habit that they are set apart."

Many of the sayings convey a message of never-ending self improvement. "When walking with a party of three," Confucius said, "I always have teachers. I can select the good qualities of the one for imitation, and the bad ones of the other and correct them in myself." Some sayings are hard to figure out. One reads: “When the villagers were exorcizing evil spirits, he stood in his court robes on the eastern steps."

Lesser Confucian sayings include: 1) "Be not ashamed of misstates and thus make them crime." 2) "Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and stars." 3) "It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop." 4) "Study without reflection is a waste of time; reflection without study is dangerous." 5) "He who rules by moral force is like the pole star, which remains in place while all the lesser stars do homage to it." 6) "Study the past if you would define the future."

Cantonese Proverbs

Ah To, a graphic designer and part-time cartoonist concerned about the survival of Cantonese, published a comic called ” The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” contains illustrations of 81 Cantonese proverbs. It is inspired the 1559 painting “Netherlandish Proverbs” by Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. [Source: Cantonese Resources, February 25, 2014

Some of the 81 Cantonese Proverbs are
1) “To pick up a dead chicken” — Take advantage of a situation
2 "Hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat — Try to palm off something.
3) "A big stone crushes a crab” — An unequal contest
4) “Spilled a basket of crabs” — Messy; troublesome
5) ”To boil telephone congee” — Talk for hours on the phone.
6) ”Winter melon and tofu” — Emergency or crisis
7) ”A pot hanged upside down, implying that there is no rice left” — Poor, penniless
8) ”An umbrella with broken handle” — Refuse to admit one is in the wrong
9) “To catch crabs on a hill” — Next to impossible
10) “A ghost covers one’s eyes” — Fail to see something

11) “Loose string monkey” — A very naughty child
12) “A monkey got a tangerine” — Someone discoveres treasure after looking very hard.
13) “A ghost eats mud” — Slur one’s words
14) “To watch a horse fight from the top of a fort” — Observing from the sidelines
15) “An elephant flies across the river” — Break a rule
16) “To pull up the planks after crossing the bridge” — Betray one’s friends once one is safe
17) “When there are no shoes, grab the clogs and run” – To withdraw hurriedly from an awkward situation
18) “Got hold of the deer but can’t get the horn” — Unable to make best use of an opportunity.
19) “To eat slippers rice” — a man who is supported by a woman, i.e. he can keep his slippers on, because he doesn’t have to work; a man who sponges off a woman
20) Eat from a bowl and then turn it over” — Betray a friend.

21) “To throw a flying sword” — Spit
22) “Hitting everyone on a boat with a punt pole” — blame a whole group for one person’s mistake.
23) The black dog gets the food, the white dog gets the punishment” — One person benefits from their wrongdoing, while another person gets the blame.
24) “Water enters a pig basket” — Different ways of making money
25) “To masquerade as a ghost and as a horse” — Play a role to deceive somebody
26) “If you have money, you can make a ghost push a millstone” — Anything is possible iwith money;
27)“To trick a ghost into eating tofu” — Lure someone into a trap
28) “To throw a paper airplane” — Break a promise
29) “A big tree has some dead branches” — There are good and bad people in every group
30) “Even the Buddha gets inflamed” — You’ve reached the limit

31) ”Such a big frog hopping around the street” — Too good to be true
32) “To ride an ox looking for a horse” — Working one job but looking out for a better one
33) “One chicken dies, one chicken crows” — When one person leaves a business or an occupation, another will take it up.
34) “A mouse pulls a turtle” — At one’s wits’ end
35) “A doorless chicken coop” — A place where you can come and go as you wish.
36) “The chickens are fighting inside the coop” — Dissent within an organization, factional fighting
37) “Draw an ear on the wall” — Ignored advice
38) “To scrape the door nails” — Arrange a meeting and have the other person not show up
39) “Water off a duck’s back” — Forget a lesson learned
40) “A damp firecracker” — Useless

Mao Sayings and Slogans

Mao is considered the greatest slogan writer who ever lived although many of the slogans attributed to him were written by Lin Biao, China No. 2 man for a while. During the Great leap Forward.Mao's followers were expected to chant, "Long live the people's communes!" and "Strive to complete and surpass the production responsibility of 12 million tons of steel!"

Mao Zedong once said, There is no construction without destruction. Destroy first, and construction will follow. He extolled their Chinese peasantry for the blankness, observing that one can write beautiful things on a blank sheet of paper. On the matter of equal rights, Mao said "women hold up half the sky." In regard to population growth, Mao said, "every mouth comes with two hands." The population of China doubled under his leadership.

Mao believed that violence and support from the masses were necessary for the achievement of a peaceful communist order. He said: “Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." He also said “Our Principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. [from “Problems of War and Strategy”]

Most famously Mao said: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. [from “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”] He also said: “The revolutionary war is a war of the masses; it can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them. [from “Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work”] “War is the highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions, when they have developed to a certain stage, between classes, nations, states, or political groups, and it has existed ever since the emergence of private property and of classes. [from “Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War”]

Mao reportedly once said that a loud fart is better than a long lecture. He shocked Kissinger by jokingly informing him that China was planning to send 10 million Chinese women to the United States. Mao told Nixon, "People like me sound a lot of big cannons. For example, things like, 'the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries and establish socialism.” He then broke into a fit of laughter.

Little Red Book Saying

left The most widely read book in the Cultural Revolution and maybe the whole Mao period was "The Little Red Book" — actually titled "Mao's Selected Thoughts" — a collection of sayingsut together by Lin Biao in the Cultural Revolution. According to Time magazine, "No other book has had such a profound impact on so many people at the same time...If you read it enough it was supposed to change your brain.” At the peak of its popularity from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, it was the most printed book in the world. In the years between 1966 and 1971, well over a billion copies of the official version were published and translations were issued in three dozen languages Some of the passages of the Little Red Book were set to music and slogans like "Reactionaries are Paper Tigers" and "We Should Support Whatever the Enemy Opposes"! were painted everywhere on billboards and walls.

The three main "Rules for Discipline" for soldiers and party workers in the Little Read Book were: "Obey orders in all your actions; Do not take a single needle or thread from the masses; and Turn in everything captured." Loyal Communists were also urged to "speak politely; return everything you borrow; don't swear at people; and do not take liberties with women."

On the topic of violence and revolution: 1) "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun." 2) "In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." 3) "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed." 4) "When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars." 5) “Fight no battle you are not sure of winning.”

Other famous sayings from the Little Red Book include, 1) "Modesty helps one go forward, whereas conceit makes one lag behind;" 2) "Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve." And, 3) "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all the running dogs...Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed."

Slogans in China

Chinese society is infused with wooden language and hollow slogans that most ignore and few understand. A popular cell phone text message joke went: the leaders of the world were asked how they would get Osama bin Laden. Bush said he would kill him with missiles; Putin said he would try to seduce him; Hu Jintao said he would use Three Represent theory to annoy him to death.

"Serve the People" is probably the most famous slogan of the Chinese Communist Party. "Enemy of the People" was widely used in the Mao era. The use of the word "the enemy" comes from Mao's famous 1957 speech, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People", which instructed officials, when dealing with alleged offenders, to distinguish between two types of social contradictions: those "between the enemy and us" and those "among the people". The former were to be handled with the unremitting severity of dictatorship.

Perhaps Communist China’s greatest contribution to literature has been its slogans. Slogans in big Chinese characters are painting in almost every village and town, urging people to support the Communist Party, pay taxes, limit the number of children and support government projects. Some the characters are big enough to cover a whole mountain sides.

There are thousands of Communist party functionaries who write slogans for the Propaganda Department and other government agencies. Good slogans are short, to the point, easy to chant and convey the Communist's party ideology of the moment. One slogan writer in Shanghai's Propaganda Department told the New York Times: "Slogans require the writing techniques and rhythms of classical poetry to make them palatable to the people."

There are special slogans for certain groups of people. Teachers and students are expected to shout "Value knowledge!" and "Reinvigorate the nation with science and technology!" Government workers are urged to psyche themselves up with chants like "Strengthen the legal system!" "Serve the people whole heartedly" and "Stick to the principal line of the Communist Party and never waver for 100 years."

Among the dozen or so slogans released by the Propaganda Department to celebrate China's 50th anniversary in 1999 were: 1) "Unite as one, fear no difficulties, struggle hard, be persistent, dare to win!"; 2) "Rely on the working class wholeheartedly." 3) "Develop public health and physical culture and improve people's

Modern Slogans in China

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Slogan writing changed dramatically after Mao died. Things like "Class struggle is the guiding principal" were changed to "Economic development is the central task." One slogan writer told the New York Times, "We stopped using expression like 'down with' and exclamation marks were dropped." Deng most memorable slogan was, "To get rich is glorious." To urge his comrades to leave Maoism behind he exorted them: "Emancipate the mind, seek truth from facts and firmly promote the future.”

Many painted slogans now convey capitalist messages like “Build the World’s Biggest Supermarket, Construct an International Shopping Heaven!”.Others offer advice on family planning (“Marry Late and Have Children Late”), encourage environmental awareness (“Make the Green Mountain Even Greener”) and address poverty (:Use the World Bank’s Opportunity Wisely/ /Help the Mountainous Area Escape Poverty”)

Chinese Communists like slogans with number. Top issues at a one party congress were the “Three Rural Questions”.to bring about better conditions in the countryside and the “Two Guarantees”.for the urban poor. A sign for the railroad in Tibet reads: “Maintain the One Center of the Two Musts Roadmap, Study the Three Represents, Emphasize the Three Feelings, Overcome the Three Big Challenges and Realize the Three Big Goals.” The “Two Musts”.by the way are “to preserve modesty and prudence”.and “to preserve the style of plain living and hard struggle.” Jiang Zemin’s doctrine was the “Three Represents.” Deng Xiaoping describe his policy towards Hong Kong as “One Country, Two Systems.” Under Mao there were “Stinking Number Nine” and the “Five Red Categories,” and who can forget, kill the "four pests" (sparrows, rats, insects and flies). [Source: Los Angeles Times]

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2009 fifty new slogans were rolled out. Among them was “Warmly celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China!” Another went: “Adhering to and improving the system of regional autonomy by ethnic minorities, so as to consolidate and develop socialist relations among different ethnic groups based on equality, solidarity, mutual assistance and harmony.” This seemed to be a response to Xinjiang riots that left 197 dead three months before. Another? “Salute workers, peasants, intellectuals and cadres all over the country!” — angered some of China's netizens. China's problem with graft has led many to equate the term “cadre”. or official, with corruption. “Do they want us to salute the corrupt? No way!”. one blogger wrote.

The new set of 50 slogans was painted on walls, written on placards and flags and carried by people during the PRC's birthday celebrations. One that seem to deal with potentially destabilizing social trends, such as the growing wealth gap, official corruption and abuses of power by officials, one read: ‘safeguarding the overall situation of reform andopening up and stability, and striving for long-term security and stability.” Another? “Salute workers, peasants, intellectuals and cadres all over the country!”— angered some of China's netizens. China's problem with graft has led many to equate the term “cadre”. or official, with corruption. “Do they want us to salute the corrupt? No way!”. one blogger wrote. [Source: Wu Zhong, China Editor, Asia Times September 23, 2009]

Puns and Pun Control in China

Chinese is perfectly suited to puns because it has so many homophones. Popular sayings and even customs, as well as jokes, rely on wordplay. "This kind of wordplay exists in other languages, but as far as I’m aware, not to the extent of Chinese," Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor and author of ‘The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu’, told Yahoo News. "The Chinese have this pattern not just in food, but in other customs, and there is also a long history of puns in Chinese art." [Source: Vera H-C Chan, Yahoo News, February 19, 2015]

Why so many puns? Chinese is a tonal language with many monosyllabic words, especially the Cantonese dialect. "The reason it is so easy to pun in Chinese languages is that there are so few syllables available," writes Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, "Consequently, people have developed a natural affinity for punning and become very good at. It is part of the culture."

Not everyone endorses the Chinese custom of pun-making. In 2014 the Chinese government cracked down on the practice out of concern of of "cultural and linguistic chaos." Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “From online discussions to adverts, Chinese culture is full of puns. But the country’s print and broadcast watchdog has ruled that there is nothing funny about them. It has banned wordplay on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public – especially children. The casual alteration of idioms risks nothing less than “cultural and linguistic chaos”, it warns. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, November 28, 2014 +++]

“The order from the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television says: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.” Programmes and adverts should strictly comply with the standard spelling and use of characters, words, phrases and idioms – and avoid changing the characters, phrasing and meanings, the order said. “Idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values,” it added. +++

“That’s the most ridiculous part of this: [wordplay] is so much part and parcel of Chinese heritage,” said David Moser, academic director for CET Chinese studies at Beijing Capital Normal University. When couples marry, people will give them dates and peanuts – a reference to the wishZaosheng guizi or “May you soon give birth to a son”. The word for dates is also zao and peanuts are huasheng. +++

“The notice cites complaints from viewers, but the examples it gives appear utterly innocuous. In a tourism promotion campaign, tweaking the characters used in the phrase jin shan jin mei – perfection – has turned it into a slogan translated as “Shanxi, a land of splendours”. In another case, replacing a single character in ke bu rong huanhas turned “brook no delay” into “coughing must not linger” for a medicine advert. “It could just be a small group of people, or even one person, who are conservative, humourless, priggish and arbitrarily purist, so that everyone has to fall in line,” said Moser. “But I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ‘linguistic purity reasons’ on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies. It sounds too convenient.” +++

“Internet users have been particularly inventive in finding alternative ways to discuss subjects or people whose names have been blocked by censors. Moves to block such creativity have a long history too. Moser said Yuan Shikai, president of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1915, reportedly wanted to rename the Lantern Festival, Yuan Xiao Jie, because it sounded like “Cancel Yuan day”. +++

"Geili" and Other Words Created on the Internet in the 2000s

In November 2010, reported: “Chinese cyber buzzword "geili" - which describes something as "cool," "awesome" or "exciting" - has received the "official seal of approval" with an appearance in the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China. This is the latest episode in the ever-increasing popularity of this completely new word which has also been given English and French translations by web users and a negative form in a manga animation. [Source:, November 12, 2010]

"Geili" was featured in a headline on the front page of People's Daily. While the meaning was slightly different, in the newspaper it meant "empower," millions of netizens were delighted and surprised to see it used by the Party newspaper. Online jargon is usually considered too casual for standard written language, and is thus excluded from language guidelines.

"Geili" is created from two Chinese characters "gei" and "li." Literally, it means "giving power," but is now widely accepted as an adjective describing something that's "cool." A test of a Chinese jargon word's trendiness is if users translate it into a foreign language, according to its pronunciation. "Geili" has been transformed into the English-sounding "gelivable," and "ungelivable," and the French "très guélile." But it was the word's antonym "bugeili" - meaning dull or boring - that first grabbed wider public attention after it appeared online in an episode of a Chinese-dubbed Japanese comic animation. In another twist in the word's linguistic evolution, Life Weekly, a Shanghai-based magazine, posted a word "ungelivable" - referring to bugeili - last weekend on its official micro-blog at

Hot Words in China in the 2010s

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Chinglish, See
English article for more
Kerry Allen of the BBC wrote: Reci — literally translated as ‘hot words’: are slang terms that young Chinese are creating and using online to communicate how they really feel about current affairs and trends. There are more than 750 million Chinese internet users and some are creating new characters. The word ‘duang’, for instance: a mashup of the characters that make up Jackie Chan's name. Those who fashion the new slang get a rewarding pat on the back from other social media users and media as a ‘niubi’ ): an online mark of cool. And this ‘niubility’ has become a path to popularity for young Chinese. [Source: Kerry Allen and Stuart Lau, BBC Capital, August 10, 2018]

“Philip, who did not want to give his last name, describes the phenomenon as “skirting around the borders” he says “there are always people that want to bring up events again [after they’ve been censored], but they can't, so they say it indirectly.” “Posts that contain sensitive keywords or phrases are deleted automatically. Every year on the 4 June, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the words ‘46’ [4 June] and ‘64’ [June 4], "8964" [1989, June 4] and similar variables are banned. There was even sensitivity over Taylor Swift's "1989" album being used as a metaphor for Tiananmen - because of the album's name, and because Swift's initials could have been used to refer to Tiananmen Square.

In response, young Chinese are coming up with ever more creative ways to bypass their censors. Words that are already in common use can be employed to prevent the censors from blanket-banning terms. In the last couple of years, censors have struggled to remove comments mentioning ‘toads’, for instance, which refer cryptically to the bespectacled former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. “The censors have also struggled to deal with monitoring the use of the common surname ‘Zhao’ - which has multiple meanings and nuances, but is largely used to post critical comments about those in authority.

Buzzwords and Memes in China the Late 2010s

Authorities have added 171 new pop culture phrases to China’s national language registry as of 2008. Hot buzzwords in 2018 included: 1) “Skr” (It’s hot as f**k!) — first used by pop star Kris Wu in The Rap of China; 2) “Lucky Koi” (lucky fish) — the practice of forwarding photos of exceptionally fortunate individuals on social media for good luck; 3) “bus riot” or “hospital riot” — a crazy situation references assaults by patients on China’s troubled medical workers and passengers picking fights with bus drivers; 4) “Cold cold” — something that is screwed up beyond repair, derived from popular song of the same name on the hot drama “Eternal Love”; 5) “Rice Bunny” — meme-ification of the #MeToo developed by the Chinese feminist activist Qiqi from homophones and characters for “mi” and “tu” .as a way to evade censors who use algorithms to filter out “sensitive words.” ; 6) “Big pig feet” — “Men are all big pig’s feet”—that is, cads, cheaters and chauvinists. “When rival dramas The Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace offered simultaneously harsh depictions of concubine life, for example, the Emperor Qianlong was crowned China’s latest pig’s foot.”[Source: Sun Jiahui, World of Chinese, November 28, 2018; Frankie Huang, Sup China, December 19, 2018]

‘Add oil’ (ga yao in Cantonese, jiayou in Mandarin) was a very popular verbal and internt meme in the 2010s. Often accompanied by exclamation marks, it was used in different ways to express encouragement, incitement or support, roughly meaning “go for it,” “keep it up” or “good luck”. It is believed to have originated as a cheer at the Macau Grand Prix during the 1960s. In was so popular it was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018.[Source: Ernest Kao, South China Morning Post, October 18, 2018;

Nominees for the government-approved 2017 Chinese Word of the Year were: 1) xīnshídài (“new era”) — big deals that we failed to accomplish, difficult problems were solved, and everyone felt a brand-new social atmosphere.” 2) chūxīn (“original aspiration”) — the sense of mission of Communist Party members; 3) xīnsìdàfāmíng ( “four new great inventions”) — high-speed railways, Alipay, on-demand bikes, and online shopping; 4) réngōngzhìnéng (“artificial intelligence” — the term was used for the first time in government’s reports; [Source: Jiayun Feng, Sup China, December 11, 2017]

Getting Naked

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In the early 2010s, a number of Chinese words with the Chinese character for “naked” (“lou”) became fashionable. Hu Yijun wrote in the China Daily, “Is that because Chinese people have become very open about sex” Of course not! In most cases, "naked" is figurative, not literal. The character for naked first came to our view with the word “luo-be-n” (‘streaking”), in the reports about sports celebrations. Then, as modern life makes people feel a serious lack of things, many found it suitable to use this vivid character to describe their situations. [Source:Hu Yijun, China Daily, December 2, 2011]

In this article, we are going to introduce some fashionable words with the Chinese character for naked and help you get your Chinese "naked". Is “luo-kao” a new way to prevent cheating on exams by forcing the students to be naked” Actually no. It refers to two kinds of students: those who have to take exams without any bonus points (students who have won in academic competitions or are minorities will be awarded bonus points added to their scores), and there are those students who haven't prepared enough for the exam either by doing the homework or by studying. So these are two commonly heard quotes: “I'm really unlucky because I have no extra marks for my exam.” (“Woke daoméi lewo shì luokao”) and “I haven't studied at all; I just come to buy some soy sauce” (“Wo luokao jiùshì lái da jiàngyóu de”)

“Luo-hun is related to another hot topic - marriage. Many ‘shèngnán” (left-over single boys) and ‘shèngnu" (left-over single girls) are eager to marry, but the large amount of money required for wedding ceremonies, for houses, for cars, and even for rings scares them from entering marriage. As a result, "naked marriage” came into being to indicate the couples who marry without purchasing houses, cars, or holding wedding ceremonies; some even don't bother buying rings for each other! People who choose to have a "naked marriage" need only 9 yuan ($1.4, 1 euro) - the cost of an official marriage license.

"Luo-juan” refers to all-out donation which started from the example of Bill Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many Chinese entrepreneurs want to follow in his footsteps and donate all the things they have earned when they pass away. The most famous Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao once promised: “I will donate all my wealth, instead of half of it, when I leave this world” (“Zài wo( líka-i zhège shìjiè de shíhou, jia-ng búshi jua-n chu- yíbàn cáifù, érshì xiàng císhàn ji-gòu jua-n chu- zìji de quánbù cáicha).

"Luo-cí” is latest word that can be applied to people who quit their job without having found the next job. "Luo-ci" is becoming a fashionable phenomenon among white-collar workers. Whenever they feel tired and dissatisfied with their current job, they just hand in their resignation and leave, thinking no more about their future.

Stream of Consciousness Blather

Victor Mair wrote in the Language Log, “Lately I've been trying to explain to my friends who don't know Chinese what fèihuà means. Basically it is composed of the two morphemes "waste / useless / abandoned / ruined / maimed" and "talk", i.e., "nonsense". To give a sense of its implications, here is a longer list of English definitions: nonsense, rubbish, garbage, bullshit, bunkum, buncombe, claptrap, blah, stuff, bunk, trash, guff, twaddle, tripe, bull, poppycock, inanity, piffle, yap, absurdity, empty talk, balderdash, yackety-yak, yak, yack, tootle, blab, haver, codswallop, prattle, gab, blabber, fiddlestick, fiddle-faddle, overtalk, babble, blather. [Source: Victor Mair, Language Log, April 4, 2012] Fèihuà has become an important term in contemporary Chinese discourse for several reasons. The main reason for the centrality of fèihuà in current critiques of language usage is that the pronouncements of Chinese politicians and officials are perceived by large segments of the population as consisting almost entirely of this species of speech. This has resulted in two literary manifestations that satirize this type of vain, pompous posturing.

The most recent genre to hit the cultural scene is what is known as fèihuàshi- ("nonsense poetry"). The hottest exponent of this genre is a poet called Wu-qi-ng . Here's an example of his verse: "A Kind of Pear" I ate a kind of pear Later I saw this kind of pear in a supermarket When I saw it, what I thought of saying is that This kind of pear is really delicious After a few days This kind of pear was on sale in the supermarket Seeing it once more, what I thought of saying is that This kind of pear is really cheap.

China's netizens have enthusiastically joined in by adapting and parodying Wuqing's verse. But the visceral disenchantment with fèihuà had already begun over two decades ago with the "hooligan" author Wáng Shuò. Wáng Shuò mercilessly satirized the Party fèihuà bullshit in his Qia-nwàn bié ba( wo( da-ng rén (Please Don't Call Me Human [1989]) — here is a scene in which a neighborhood committee official, overwhelmed by the august Party official visiting the main character's humble hutong (alley), delivers an insane stream-of-consciousness speech consisting almost entirely of the cliches of Party hackery (as usual, I present pinyin transcription, Chinese characters, and English rendering; this was done very quickly, so I cannot vouch for all of the tones, orthography, and translation, but I hope that at least it gives an idea of what the Chinese is like):

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Revered beloved eminent wise dear mentor teacher leader helmsman guide pioneer designer bright torch shining on vampires stick-to-beat-dogs daddymommy gramp-gram old-ancestor old-ape-monkey great high venerable lord Jade Emperor great king Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara commander in chief, you daily order ten thousand affairs ten thousand hardships ten thousand pains accumulating heavy difficulties accumulating exertions producing illness accumulating habit producing obsession with duty shoulder bearing heavy burdens bounding-over-clouds-steering-mists heavenly-horse-coursing-through-space supporting the weak succoring the poor righting rightness bolstering justice eliminating evil eradicating deviance expelling wind-wet expelling weakness-cold fortifying the yang strengthening the kidney fortifying the brain repairing the body nurturing the liver adjusting the stomach dissolving pain suppressing cough unblocking bowel movement busy with a hundred things, extending great concern great encouragement great spur and whip great comfort great faith and trust great solicitude great regard. We these little folk like grass humble folk sons grandsons little grasses little dogs little cats hoi polloi stupid masses multitude citizens feel quite blessed quite moved quite discomforted quite undeserving quite happy quite like sparrows hopping with joy quite beside ourselves with attention quite endlessly thankful quite eyes filled with tears quite heart welling with emotion quite not knowing what to say, a thousand words ten thousand expressions a thousand songs ten thousand melodies a thousand mountains ten thousand rivers a thousand groans ten thousand sighs a thousand mutterings ten thousand grumblings a thousand phrases ten thousand words all gathered into one resounding through the clouds and mists voice crying strength exhausted voice thundering round the universe circling the beams three days stunning the deaf rousing the unhearing startling heaven shaking earth beautiful marvelous without compare intoxicating the mind three days insensible to the taste of meat the loudest sound of the age: may you long live long live long long live long live long live long long live !

Image Sources: Maps, Dartmouth College; Language charts, wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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