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Meat is not always meat – The most common expressions with “肉” in Chinese

In Chinese, you will often meet words with the character “肉” (ròu) in them. One of the key reasons is that food is an important part of people’s daily lives, and among all sorts of food, “肉” is an essential part of Chinese cooking culture. So “肉” appears in the names of a lot of dishes and is even associated with fruit. For extended usage, people will also use it in slang or to indicate something abstract, like personal characteristics. To make this concept more clear, here is a list of commonly used phrases including “肉”.

  1. For food
  2. For fruit and seasoning
  3. For people
  4. For relationships
  5. For feelings and characteristics

For food

  • 猪肉 /zhūròu/ pork
  • 牛肉 /niúròu/ beef
  • 鸡肉 /jīròu/ chicken
  • 羊肉 /yángròu/ lamb
  • 肉食动物 /ròushí dòngwù/ carnivorous animal

One thing to note is that when you just simply say “肉” without any details or further info, most listeners will think of it as “猪肉” as the default instead of other types of meat. That’s because pork is traditionally the most consumed meat in China. Then how about others? In a restaurant, when you want to order beef, chicken, lamb, and so on, you can directly put attribute words “牛”, “鸡”, “羊”, etc. before “肉”, which forms “牛肉”, “鸡肉”, “羊肉”, etc.

When talking about a specific dish, you may already know a famous food “烤鸭” (kǎo yā, roasted duck), but you will not often hear ‘duck meat’ in Chinese since people more often use “鸭” alone to refer to the meat instead of using “鸭肉”. It’s not unique, and people apply the same logic to “鱼” to talk about fish meat without “肉” after it. Also, for animals which are carnivorous, we can simply directly say “肉食动物”.

For example:

早点儿去菜市场,早上的猪肉会新鲜点儿。(Zǎo diǎn’r qù càishìchǎnɡ, zǎoshɑnɡ de zhūròu huì xīnxiān diǎn’r.) Go to the market early because the pork in the morning is fresher.

吃火锅的时候,他特别喜欢吃牛肉。(Chī huǒɡuō de shíhou, tā tèbié xǐhuɑn chī niúròu.) He likes eating beef while eating hotpot.

这碗米线的浇头是鸡肉做的。(Zhè wǎn mǐxiàn de jiāotóu shì jīròu zuò de.) The topping of this rice noodle dish is made of chicken.

For fruit and seasoning

  • 果肉 /guǒròu/ pulp
  • 肉桂 /ròuguì/ cinnamon

As shown in the word, “果肉” literally indicates the meat of fruit, which is in fact the pulp. When talking about “肉桂”, we have to talk about its parrel “桂皮” (guìpí) first. In China, “桂皮” is not only a cooking seasoning but is also a commonly used Chinese herbal medicine. While “肉桂” is also a species in the Lauraceous family and since it grows thicker than “桂皮”, it is named “肉桂”.

e.g.

这个饮料里真的有果肉吗?(Zhèɡe yǐnliàolǐ zhēnde yǒu ɡuǒròu mɑ?) Does this drink really have pulp in it?

他喝咖啡的时候喜欢加肉桂。(Tā hē kāfēi de shíhou xǐhuɑn jiā ròuɡuì.) He likes to add cinnamon when drinking coffee.

For people

  • 肌肉 /jīròu/ muscle
  • 肉眼 /ròu yǎn/ unaided eye
  • 肉身 /ròu shēn/ mortal body
  • 血肉 /xuè ròu/ blood and flesh
  • 有血有肉 /yǒuxuè yǒuròu/ true to life
  • 行尸走肉 /xíng shī zǒu ròu/ an utterly useless person
  • 肉票 /ròu piào/ hostages

“肉” is also often used to express things about people. For muscle, we can say “肌肉”, which sounds like “鸡肉”, but the character is different. “肉眼” and “肉身” stress using our eyes and our body purely without other outside assistance. “血肉” emphasizes our blood and flesh. Regarding “血肉”, there is an expression “有血有肉”. It indicates someone literally has blood and flesh, which actually stresses that someone is true to life, mainly in literary works.

Talking about people, there are two interesting expressions. One is “行尸走肉” and the other is “肉票”. “行尸走肉” literally means walking corpse and running flesh, but it is in fact a metaphor for a person who doesn’t use their brain, doesn’t work, and lives a confused life. And “肉票” means meat tickets literally, but it usually refers to hostages who were taken for ransom.

e.g.

刚运动完要拉伸一下肌肉。(Gānɡ yùndònɡ wán yào lāshēn yí xià jīròu.) You need to stretch your muscles after exercising.

这里太脏了,桌子上的灰都肉眼可见。(Zhèlǐ tài zānɡ le, zhuōzishànɡ de huī dōu ròu yǎn kě jiàn.) It’s so dirty here that the ashes on the table are visible to my naked eye.

我太喜欢这本小说里的主角了,有血有肉很生动。(Wǒ tài xǐhuɑn zhè běn xiǎoshuōlǐ de zhǔjué le, yǒu xuè yǒu ròu hěn shēnɡdònɡ.) I like the protagonists in this novel so much because he is true to life and very vivid.

能不能多思考一下,别像个行尸走肉一样。(Nénɡ bu nénɡ duō sīkǎo yí xià, bié xiànɡ ɡè xínɡ shī zǒu ròu yíyànɡ.) Can you think about it a little more? Don’t act like an utterly useless person.

他被绑了,会被当作肉票向他家里要赎金。(Tā bèi bǎnɡ le, huì bèi dànɡzuò ròupiào xiànɡ tā jiālǐ yào shújīn.) He was kidnapped and would be used as a hostage to ask his family for ransom.

For relationships

  • 眼中钉,肉中刺 /yǎn zhōng dīng, ròu zhōng cì/ (of someone) to be hated very much
  • 手心手背都是肉 /shǒuxīn shuǒbèi dōu shì ròu/ to value both equally
  • 骨肉 /gǔròu/ blood relation

“骨肉” is a word to express blood relation, which means bones and flesh literally. And the saying “眼中钉,肉中刺” means a sting in the eye and a thorn in one’s flesh literally, but actually, it is used as a metaphor for a person who is extremely hated in the heart of another. Another expression, “手心手背都是肉” literally means the palms and backs of the hands are meat, but it actually means all things involved are relative, so they should be treated equally, and you can’t choose to abandon anyone.

e.g.

她就是我的“眼中钉,肉中刺”,我永远都不会原谅她的。(Tā jiù shì wǒde “yǎn zhōnɡ dìnɡ, ròu zhōnɡ cì“, wǒ yónɡyuǎn dōu bú huì yuánliànɡ tā de.) She is a thorn in my eye, and I will never forgive her.

你们都是她的女儿,手心手背都是肉,你让她帮谁?(Nǐmen dōu shì tā de nǚ’r, shǒuxīn shǒubèi dōu shì ròu, nǐ rànɡ tā bānɡ shuí?) You are all her daughters, so she should be equal to you all, and she will help nobody.

因为一场意外,王先生一家骨肉离散,直到五年后大家才相聚。(Yīnwèi yì chǎnɡ yìwài,Wánɡ xiānshenɡ yì jiā ɡǔròu lísàn, zhídào wǔ nián hòu dàjiā cái xiānɡjù.) Because of an accident, Mr. Wang’s family was separated and did not get together until five years later.

For feelings and characteristics

  • 肉麻 /ròu má/ cheesy
  • 性格很肉 /xìnggé hěn ròu/ introversion and reticence

“肉麻” literally means the flesh is numb, but actually, people usually use it to describe a physical sensation when someone is overtly excessively romantic and makes the witnesses feel kind of weird and gives them creeps, to the point of giving them goosebumps. “性格很肉” literally means someone’s characteristic is meat. But it actually originates from a dialect, indicating that someone has low efficiency, is slow to respond, and rarely talks with others proactively, which often makes bystanders anxious.

e.g.

看他们俩在那里互相喂东西就觉得肉麻。(Kàn tāmenliǎnɡ zài nàlǐ hùxiānɡ wèi dōnɡxi jiù juéde ròu má.) Watching the two of them feed each other there gave me goosebumps.

性格很肉,你跟她说十句话,她才会回你一句。(Tā xìnɡɡé hěn ròu, nǐ ɡēn tā shuō shí jù huà, tā cái huì huí nǐ yí jù.) She is reticent, and if you say ten words to her, she will just reply with one.

“肉”, this simple word forms lots of words and expressions. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but don’t underestimate their utility since they are practical and useful in daily life, which will help your spoken language and can improve your understanding of Chinese dramas and literature.

Cecilia He

Cecilia majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. She has vast experience in educating her students on how to listen to and speak Chinese, and is trained to teach HSK courses. She has mastered the method and practice of teaching the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages as an academic subject, and has also done extensive research on Intercultural Communication and Sinology.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks Helen! As you say, 肉 generally means meat, flesh or pulp.

    肉眼 (ròuyǎn) is an interesting expression, it means ‘naked eye’, I suppose in this case 肉 conveys the meaning of ‘naked’ or ‘raw’.

    I always wondered why 肉 appears in the word for cinnamon: 肉桂 (ròuguì). Do you know? My guess is that here, 肉 also means ‘naked’ or ‘raw’, since cinnamon comes from the raw bark of certain trees.

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