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It’s all about eating—Or is it?— Expressions about“吃”in Chinese

In China, people say that “民以食为天 (Bread is the staff of life.),” and that is true. Eating is such an important element of our lives that friends meet at restaurants, contracts are signed at the wine tables, and even working plans are carried out at dinner tables. It is all about eating. But today, we are going to see some words that seem relevant to eating, while actually they are not.

1. 饭碗: fàn wǎn

The word “饭碗” means “rice bowl.” Nowadays, it is often used as “job,” “market,” or “business.”


tā yīn wèi jīng cháng chí dào ér diū le fàn wǎn 。
他 因为 经 常 迟 到而 丢了 饭碗 。
He lost his job because of his lateness.

Similarly, the word “铁饭碗”, which literally means “iron rice bowl,” means a stable, lifelong job, or a permanent income they would never lose whether they work hard or not.


A: xiǎo wáng zài hǎi guān gōng zuò 。
小  王 在 海 关 工作 。
Xiao Wang works at the customs.

B: nà zhēn shì gè tiě fàn wǎn ɑ !
那 真 是个 铁饭碗 啊 !
That’s a stable job with a satisfying salary!

2. 吃香: chī xiāng

吃香 is an adjective. It has the same meaning as “受欢迎” (be popular). “香” means fragrance; it is something that makes people feel pleasant, so “吃香”(eating fragrance) must be a pleasing feeling.


hàn yǔ xiàn zài zài ōu měi guó jiā hěn chī xiāng 。
汉 语现 在在 欧 美 国家 很吃 香 。
Chinese is very popular in the Occident.

3. 吃软饭:chī ruǎn fàn

“吃软饭” is used to define men who are “sweetbacks,” who live off women rather than work for a living, or husbands who benefit through petticoat influence.

It is said that “吃软饭” comes from Shanghai dialect, and that in the old society of Shanghai, these kinds of men were sort of common to see. “吃软饭” was used to describe these men, and then eventually to describe a way of life they represented.


chī ruǎn fàn de nán rén bèi dà jiā kàn bù qǐ 。
吃 软 饭的 男 人被 大 家看不 起 。
People look down upon those men who live off a woman.

4. 吃豆腐:chī dòu fu

“吃豆腐” indicates the action when men take liberties with woman or flirt with them. But when this phrase was made, it was not about flirting but about taking advantages of others. Back in olden times, people went to a funeral to offer their condolence as well as to help, so the host would treat people with a meal, of which tofu was the main course. So people called this funeral meal “吃豆腐” or “吃豆腐饭”. There are people who didn’t help at all but were only interested in the meal, so people would say that these people just come to “吃豆腐”, that is, just to take advantage.
Since tofu is white and soft, people think it is quite like girls’ porcelain-like skin and tender character, so now “吃豆腐” is used with the meaning of a man flirting with a woman.


shì chǎng bù jīng lǐ ài chī nǚ yuán gōng de dòu fu, dàjiā dōu bù xǐ huān zài nà gōng zuò 。
市 场 部经理 爱吃女 员 工 的 豆腐 ,大 家都 不喜欢 在 那工 作 。
The manager of marketing likes to flirt with female staff; no one likes to work there.

5. 吃小灶:chī xiǎo zào

Literally, “吃小灶” means to eat by a small kitchen stove. In olden times, families were usually bigger; there may have been over 10 family members living in a big house, so housewives normally would cook with big stoves and big pots. Dishes cooked in big pots are less delicious than dishes cooked in small pots .Thus, people use “吃小灶” to describe those who are taken special care of, or those who are being paid special attention to, because in olden times, only people with a high social status were able to have dishes cooked in small pots.


A: xiǎo lì kǎo le dì yī míng !
小丽 考了 第 一名 !
Xiao Li got the first place in the exam!

B: lǎo shī gěi tā chī le xiǎo zào ,yǒu tè shū zhào gù ā 。
老 师给她 吃了小灶 , 有 特 殊照顾 啊。
Our teacher has taken special care of her.

6. 啃老族:kěn lǎo zú

The boomerang child is called “啃老族” in Chinese, which could be directly translated as “gnaw the old group.” There are also similar words, like “吃老族” (eat the old group) or “傍老族” (nestle on the old group). All of these words are used to describe those who are able to find a job, but take the initiative to give up their employment opportunities and stay at home living with their parents. They not only spend their parents’ money on basic living needs, but they also cost a lot of money on different things, even on luxuries. “啃老族” are in their 20s, and have the ability to make a living by working an ordinary job; most of them are college graduates. They often hold the attitude that it’s not fair that they need to work for a low salary while they are well educated, yet some of them can’t bear stressful jobs, wanting easy jobs with a good salary, hence, they are stuck in the state of unemployed and not looking for new jobs aggressively. Sociologists call them the “new unemployed community.”


A: wǒ yě bù xiǎng zuò kěn lǎo zú ā ,kě shì gōng zī zhè me dī !
我 也 不 想 做 啃老族 啊,可 是工 资 这么 低 !
I don’t want to be a boomerang child, but my salary is so low!

B: nà nǐ bú yào xiàng fù mǔ yào qián mǎi zuàn shí ěr huán ā!
那 你 不 要向 父 母 要 钱买  钻 石耳环 啊!
Then don’t ask your parents for money to buy diamond earrings!

7. 吃老本: chī lǎo běn

“吃老本” is a figure of speech describing one who lives off one’s past achievements, or live on one’s own fat.
“吃老本” first appears on on January 9th, 1977. The Daily quoted Primary Zhou Enlai: “We need to educate cadres not to rest on our laurels, we must establish new feats.”


dāng jīn shì jiè ,kē xué zhī shi gēng xīn hěn kuài ,wǒ men bù néng chī lǎo běn ,yào shí shí
当 今世 界,科 学 知识 更 新 很 快 ,我 们 不 能 吃老本 ,要 时 时
xué xí xīn dōng xī 。
学 习 新 东 西 。
Nowadays, scientific knowledge updates very fast; we can’t just rest on our laurels, we must always learn new things.

8. 吃不消:chī bu xiāo

“吃不消” means to be unable to bear; it has a similar meaning to “受不了”.


zài zhè yàng de dà rè tiān lǐ pǎo bù ràng wǒ chī bù xiāo .
在 这样 的 大 热天里 跑步 让 我 吃 不消.
Jogging in such hot weather makes me hard to stand.

9. 吃不了兜着走:chī bu liǎo dōu zhe zǒu

“吃不了兜着走” literally means “if you can’t eat up all the food, then you have to take away the leftover food.” This slang comes from dialect, but we don’t use its original meaning already, people use this sentence because it shows a warning and threatening tone, which can be translate into English as ”Watch out, if things go wrong ,you are going to bear all the consequences.”


rú guǒ lǎo bǎn zhī dào le zhè jiàn shì ,wǒ men dōu děi chī bù liǎo dōu zhe zǒu 。
如果 老板 知道 了 这 件事 ,我 们 都 得 吃不了 兜 着走 。
If boss knows this, we are going to be screwed.

10. 吃亏:chīkuī

吃亏 is used as a verb which means suffer losses or get the worst of it. The loss could be materially or mentally.



Gēn tā zuò shēngyì nǐ shì yào chīkuī de.


You will stand to lose if you do business with him.

Tā chīkuī jiù chī zài tā de miànkǒng shàng.


She suffers the losses because of her face.

11. 吃官司:Chī guānsī

官司 means lawsuit. Literally, 吃官司 is “to eat the lawsuit”. This expression actually means to get sued or get in trouble with the law.


Tā zuìjìn hǎoxiàng yòu chī guānsī le.


Recently it seems he got in trouble with law again.

Nǐ xiǎoxīn diǎn, bié chī guānsī!


Be careful. Don`t get sued!

12. 吃惊: chījīng

We`ve learned some words about “惊”, such as 惊喜 (pleasant surprise),惊讶 (shock). So here “吃惊” means be amazed, be startled or be shocked.



Ràng wǒ chījīng de shì, mén shì kāi de.


To my surprise, the door opened.

Tā shēngyīn zhōng de dānxīn ràng wǒ hěn chījīng.


I`m surprised at the worry in his voice.

Lesley Xu

Lesley Xu

Lesley Xu has been working as a middle management and a Chinese teacher in an international school since 2008. She loves teaching Chinese to students from all over the world, and receives good reviews from her students. She feels very satisfied when Mandarin learners find out the culture behind the language.

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