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Fun with Chinese Homonyms

“Do you believe my tears can tear up the world?” Well, if you are a native English speaker, you probably feel nothing special about this sentence. An English learner however must contend with the two different meanings of “tear” here before finally arriving at the intended meaning. A group of words that share some same spellings and pronunciations but have many different meanings are called homonyms in linguistics. What about homonyms in Chinese? I dare say there are so many homonyms in Chinese that would beyond your imagination.

There are two categories of Chinese homonyms, one is that the words share the same characters and pronunciations but have different meanings, such as生气(shēng qì) not only means being angry with somebody but also means vigor or vitality in Chinese; the other is that they share the same pronunciations but have different characters and meanings, such as 代价(dài jià) means price or expense and 待嫁(dài jià)which has the same pronunciation 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

Teacher: This topic is very important. Mark this section with a star.
老师:这一题很重要,在前面画星星。
Lǎoshī: Zhè yì tí hěn zhòngyào, zàiqián miàn huà xīngxing.

Xiao Zhi: Can I just use a checkmark? A monkey is too hard to draw…
小志:老师…可不可以打勾,‘猩猩’好难画……
Xiǎo Zhì: Lǎoshī, kě bù kěyǐ dǎ gōu , “xīngxing” hǎo nán huà …

In Mandarin, “star” (星星) and “gorilla” (猩猩) have the same sound and tone and they are homonyms. The student was very naughty and naïve to ask this question and that also represents the humors of daily life in Chinese homonyms.

Since there are a significant numbers of homonyms in Chinese, we need to learn more to avoid these awkward situations just like the joke. There are also some useful word-homonyms in Chinese that can help you with general Chinese study.

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 once had a funny story about “bēijù”. It was his Chinese girlfriend’s birthday and he knew that she broke many cups a few days ago so he thought she might need a new set of cups. On her Birthday, he took out those cups he bought as a birthday gift and said in Chinese

“这是我送你的杯具,希望你喜欢”. ( Zhè shì wǒ song nǐ de bēi jù, xī wàng nǐ xǐ huān)
I want to send these cups as a gift for you and I hope you will like them.

Well, the problem is that “bēijù” also sounds “tragedy” in Chinese so giving cups to her can be understood as giving a tragedy. So when the girl heard this, the girl thought he wanted to end up this relationship and she was really sad without saying any words to him for a long time. He was so confused and did not figure out what was the problem until he told me his unpleasant experience and I told him “你‘杯具’了” (Nǐ ‘bēi jù’le)( You were a tragedy).

香蕉 VS 相交 xiāng jiāo

Using Chinese homonyms, we can make some brain twisters. Let us see this short conversation:

A: Nǐ zhī dào hóu zi wèi shén me bù xǐ huān píng xiàn ma?
A: 你知道猴子为什么不喜欢平行线吗?
(Do you know why monkeys do not like parallel lines?)

B: Bù zhī dào
B: 不知道。(I do not know.)

A: Hā ha, yīn wèi hóu zi ài chī xiāng jiāo ya.
A:哈哈,因为猴子爱吃香蕉(相交)呀。
(Haha, Because Monkeys love bananas)

In Chinese, 香蕉 (“banana”) and 相交 (“to cross over; to intersect; to make friends”) are both called “xiāngjiāo” in pronunciation.

班花 VS 搬花 bān huā

Another interesting thing I would like share with you is “bān huā” which can be understood as “班花” (Class Beauty) and “搬花” (move flowers). A teacher came into the class hurriedly and said “来两个人,我要搬花”(Lái liǎng gè rén, wǒ yào bān huā)(Please find two persons for me to move flowers). After hearing this, the boys in the class were so excited and they carefully select two beautiful girls to the teacher. Then the teacher said “走,和我到教务处搬花” (Zǒu, hé wǒ qù jiào wù chù bān huā) (Come to the dean’s office and move flowers with me). The boys thought beautiful girls when the teacher said “bān huā”but they misunderstood just because of the homonyms.

沉默 VS 沉没 chénmò

Besides some jokes that foreign learners would meet in communication, sometimes you can learn to use them accurately to demonstrate your excellent performance in Chinese. Here is another example. An English guy read the book of “Titanic” in Chinese version. After reading, he wrote a very smart comment, which surprised his Chinese teacher a lot. He wrote “泰坦尼克,我们可以忍受你暂时的沉默,但我们不愿看到你最终的沉没”( tài tǎn ní kè ,wǒ men kě yǐ rěn shòu nǐ zàn shí de chén mò ,dàn wǒ men bú yuàn kàn dào nǐ zuì zhōng de chén mò)(Titanic, we can accept your temporary silence but we do not want to see that you sank into the sea). In Chinese沉默 (“silent; taciturn”) and 沉没 (“to sink”) have the same pronunciation “chénmò”. So he cleverly made a sentence with Chinese puns to express the sad feelings.

There are also other useful and practical Chinese homonyms for you to read, such as:

  • 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; et al”) and 胶带 (“tape”)
  • yuányīn: 原因 (“cause; origin; reason”) and 元音 (“vowel”)
  • wángguó: 王国 (“kingdom”) and 亡国 (“country/kingdom heading 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; et al”) and 利害 (“pros and cons”)

Do you have some interesting stories about Chinese homonyms? Share with us!

Helen Fang

Helen is a master of Teaching Chinese as A Foreign Language. She worked in South Korea for one year to teach Chinese in Confucius Institute. She has published some thesis relating to teaching Chinese on “Chinese teaching and research”. Many years learning and teaching make her put the theories into practice. Now, she is working as senior Mandarin teacher at TouchChinese.

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