“Do you believe my tears can tear up the world?” As a native English speaker, you may not notice anything strange about this sentence. However, for an English learner, it can be confusing because “tear” has two different meanings. In linguistics, a group of words that share the same spellings and pronunciations but have many different meanings is called a homonym. There are many homonyms in Chinese, far more than you may initially imagine.
In daily communication, especially in conversation, you may encounter many words or characters with the same pronunciation. This can be confusing for both parties. That’s why it’s important to recognize Chinese characters and learn more about their meanings. One method to easily distinguish each word is to understand the importance of homonyms and learn them in groups. Another useful method is to pay attention to the context in which the word is being used. In Chinese, a lot of homonyms are used in different contexts, so understanding the context can help you determine the meaning of the word.
There are two categories of Chinese homonyms. The first is when words share the same characters and pronunciations but have different meanings. For example, 生气 (shēng qì) not only means being angry with somebody but also means vigor or vitality in Chinese. The second is when words share the same pronunciations but have different characters and meanings. For instance, 代价 (dài jià) means price or expense, while 待嫁 (dài jià) has the same pronunciation but means that a girl is waiting to be married.
Because of Chinese homonyms, we often have some jokes that make people laugh. Here is an example: The English translation is as follows：
Just before a test, the teacher was helping the students prepare by pointing out the important parts of the text.
猩猩 VS 星星 (xīngxing)
Lǎoshī: Zhè yì tí hěn zhòngyào, zàiqián miàn huà xīngxing.
Teacher: This topic is very important. Mark this section with a star.
Xiǎo Zhì: Lǎoshī, kě bù kěyǐ dǎ gōu , “xīngxing” hǎo nán huà …
Xiao Zhi: Can I just use a checkmark? A gorilla is too hard to draw…
Chinese homonyms often result in humorous situations. For example, in this joke, the teacher was telling students to mark an important section of text with a star. However, the word for “star” (星星 xīngxing) and “gorilla” (猩猩 xīngxing) have the same sound and tone in Mandarin, which made the student ask if they could use a checkmark instead of drawing a gorilla. This kind of situation represents the everyday humor found in Chinese homonyms.
To avoid awkward situations like the one in this joke, it is important to learn more about Chinese homonyms, as there are many of them. In fact, there are some word-homonyms in Chinese that can be useful for studying Chinese in general.
悲剧 VS 杯具 (bēijù)
Take “bēijù” for example:
“悲剧” and “杯具” have the same pronunciation “bēijù,” but “悲剧” means tragedy and “杯具” means cups. One of my foreign friends had a funny story about “bēijù.” It was his Chinese girlfriend’s birthday. He knew that she had broken many cups a few days prior, so he thought she might need a new set of cups. On her birthday, he took out those cups he had bought as a gift and said in Chinese:
Zhè shì wǒ sòng nǐ de bēi jù, xī wàng nǐ xǐ huān.
I want to give you these cups as a gift, and I hope you will like them.
The problem is that “bēijù” also sounds like “tragedy” in Chinese, so giving cups to her could be interpreted as a tragic gift. When the girl heard this, she thought he wanted to end the relationship and was really sad. She didn’t say a word to him for a long time. He was confused and didn’t understand the problem until he shared his unpleasant experience with me, and I told him “你‘杯具’了” (Nǐ ‘bēi jù’le) (“You encountered a mishap”).
香蕉 VS 相交 (xiāng jiāo)
Chinese homonyms can also create brain teasers, like this conversation:
A: Nǐ zhī dào hóu zi wèi shén me bù xǐ huān píng xiàn ma?
A: Do you know why monkeys do not like parallel lines?
B: Bù zhī dào.
B: I do not know.
A: Hā ha, yīn wèi hóu zi ài chī xiāng jiāo ya.
A: Haha, Because Monkeys love bananas.
In Chinese, “banana” and the verb “to intersect”” are both pronounced “xiāngjiāo” (香蕉).
班花 VS 搬花 (bān huā)
I want to share another funny story with you based on the homonym “bān huā,” which can be understood as 班花 (Class Beauty) or 搬花 (move flowers). One time, a teacher came into the classroom in a hurry and said, “来两个人，我要搬花” (Lái liǎng gè rén, wǒ yào bān huā) meaning “I need two people to help me move flowers.” After hearing this, the boys in the class got excited and selected two beautiful girls for the teacher. However, the teacher clarified, “走，和我到教务处搬花” (Zǒu, hé wǒ qù jiào wù chù bān huā), meaning “Come to the dean’s office with me to move the flowers.” The boys misunderstood and thought the teacher wanted beautiful girls.
沉默 VS 沉没 (chénmò)
In addition to encountering jokes, foreign learners can also use homonyms to skillfully showcase their excellent Chinese skills. For instance, an English man who read the Chinese version of “Titanic” wrote a clever comment that surprised his Chinese teacher. He said:
Tàitǎnníkè，wǒmen kěyǐ rěnshòu nǐ zànshí de chénmò，dàn wǒmen bú yuàn kàn dào nǐ zuìzhōng de chénmò.
Titanic, we can tolerate your temporary silence, but we do not want to see you ultimately sink.
The play on words lies in the fact that both 沉默(silent; taciturn) and 沉没(to sink) are pronounced as “chénmò” in Chinese. By using this pun, the English man was able to express his sad feelings about the Titanic in a creative way.
Here are some other useful Chinese homonyms:
- yóuyú: 由于 (because of; due to) and 鱿鱼 (squid)
- jìyì: 记忆 (remember) and 技艺 (skill; art)
- jiāodài: 交代 or 交待 (to hand over; to explain; to make clear) and 胶带 (tape)
- yuányīn: 原因 (cause; origin; reason) and 元音 (vowel)
- wángguó: 王国 (kingdom) and 亡国 (kingdom headed for destruction or that has vanished)
- quánlì: 权利 (power; right; privilege) and 权力 (power; authority)
- yìyì: 意义 (sense; meaning; significance) and 异议 (objection; dissent), plus 意译 (meaning-based translation)
- shǒushì: 手势 (gesture; signal) and 首饰 (jewellery), plus 守势 (defensive position)
- gōngshì: 公式 (formula) and 攻势 (military offensive)
- xíngli(lǐ): 行李 (luggage) and 行礼 (to salute)
- lìhai(hài): 厉害 (ferocious; awesome) and 利害 (pros and cons)
Chinese homonyms are not only a source of humor and confusion but also a practical tool in daily communication. Learning to recognize and use homonyms correctly can greatly enhance your understanding and mastery of the Chinese language. By keeping an eye out for these linguistic quirks and playing with their multiple meanings, you can add depth and nuance to your Chinese conversations and writing. So next time you encounter a Chinese homonym, don’t be afraid to embrace its complexity and unleash your creativity!