Borrowing words from other languages is a common linguistic phenomenon, facilitating cross-cultural exchange and enriching our vocabulary. As you may have noticed, there is a growing trend of English words originating from the Chinese language, ranging from traditional Chinese culture to modern concepts. Among these borrowed terms, “Long Time No See” (好久不见) and “Add oil” (加油) have become quite common in English conversations.
Today, we’ll embark on a fascinating exploration of Chinese words that have gained prominence in various English contexts. These terms offer a glimpse into the intricacies of Chinese culture, language, and society.
- 1. 大妈 Dama
- 2. 牛逼 Niubi
- 3. 关系 Guanxi
- 4. Chinsumer
- 5. 蚁族 Antizen/Yi Zu
- 6. 双规 Shuanggui
- 7. 城管 Chengguan
- 8. 红包 Hongbao
- 9. 给力 Geilivable/geili
- 10. 二奶 Ernai
- 11. 纸老虎 Paper tiger
- 12. 洗脑 Brainwash
- 13. 人民币 RMB/Renminbi
- 14. 麻将 Mah-jong
- English loanwords from traditional Chinese culture
1. 大妈 Dama
The Wall Street Journal recently coined the term dama (big mother) from the Chinese pinyin to describe middle-aged Chinese women who are driving the global gold market.
While Dama’s presence in the global gold market has captured attention on Wall Street, it is also a commonly used word in daily life.
In Chinese, the word Dama has two meanings:
1) The wife of a father’s elder brother
A: 这 是 你 的 妈妈 吗 ？(Zhè shì nǐ de māmɑ ma?)
Is this your mother?
B: 不 ，这 是 我 的 大 妈. (Bù，zhè shì wǒ de dàmā.)
No, this is my father’s older brother’s wife.
2) A respectful term used to address elder women, similar to “aunty”
A: 大妈，您请坐在这个座位上吧。(Dàmā，nín qǐng zuò zài zhègè zuòwèi shàng bɑ.)
Aunty, please have a seat here.
B: 谢谢！(Xiè xie!)
2. 牛逼 Niubi
The word niubi, also written as NB, originates from the northeast dialect of Chinese and is a slang term for “awesome.”
While niubi’s literal translation is quite vulgar, “cow pussy,” it is not generally considered to be that offensive. A more appropriate translation would be “fucking awesome,” as it better conveys the speaker’s admiration.
你数学考试100分？真牛逼！(Nǐ shùxué kǎoshì 100 fēn？Zhēn niúbī！)
You scored 100 on the math exam? You are fucking awesome!
3. 关系 Guanxi
Around 10 years ago, there was a fascination among foreigners with the concept of “guanxi” (relationship). It refers to the fundamental dynamics of personalized networks and holds great importance in Chinese society.
In Western media, the use of the pinyin term “guanxi” is becoming more prevalent, as the common translations “connections” and “relationships” fail to capture the extensive cultural implications embedded in this term.
A: 小刘刚毕业就进入市政府工作了，真幸运啊！(Xiǎo Liú gāng bìyè jiù jìnrù shì zhèngfǔ gōngzuò le，zhēn xìngyùn ɑ!)
Xiao Liu works at city hall right after graduating, how lucky is he!
B: 他是因为家里有关系才能去市政府工作的。(Tā shì yīnwèi jiā lǐ yǒu guānxì cái néng qù shì zhèngfǔ gōngzuò de.)
He only gets to work there because his family has guanxi.
Chinese + consumer = Chisumer
“Chinsumer” is a term coined by Chinese internet users, combining “Chinese” and “consumer” to highlight the fervor of Chinese tourists shopping for luxury goods.
The word gained popularity when pop music producer and songwriter Gao Xiaosong shared it on Weibo, making it widely known among Chinese people. Chinsumer represents the “crazy rich Chinese consumers” who spend significant amounts of money on shopping during their overseas travels. Since there is no direct translation in Chinese, we use the phrase “中国购物狂” meaning “Chinese shopaholic.”
Interestingly, many renowned European department stores and luxury boutiques now employ sales associates and personal shoppers fluent in Chinese specifically to assist these Chinese tourists.
Even Selfridges, a famous London department store, accepts China Union Pay cards, making it more convenient for Chinsumers to use their typical cards instead of relying solely on Visa or Mastercard.
Chinsumer们每到一个城市都会先去大型百货公司购物。(Chinsumer men měi dào yígè chéngshì dōu huì xiān qù dàxíng bǎihuò gōngsī gòuwù.)
Chinsumers always go shopping in big department stores when they go to a new city
5. 蚁族 Antizen/Yi Zu
“Antizen” is a term created by combining “ant” and “citizen” to describe a group of individuals living a lifestyle reminiscent of ants. Originally, it referred to college graduates who earned low salaries, resided in low-income apartments, and worked tirelessly, similar to diligent ants.
This term, translated from the Chinese word 蚁族(yǐzú) captures the idea of people living in cramped conditions, performing laborious jobs, and earning meager wages.
In recent years, the scope of Antizens has expanded beyond college graduates to include migrant workers who flock to big cities and find themselves in similar living circumstances. Consequently, as the group of Antizens continues to grow, it attracts increasing attention from society as a whole.
有的大学毕业生不想在大城市过“蚁族”生活，选择回到家乡。(Yǒude dàxué bìyèshēng bù xiǎng zài dài chéngshì guò yǐzú shēnghuó, xuǎnzé huí dào jiāxiāng)
Some college graduates opt not to embrace the Antizen lifestyle in big cities and choose to return to their hometowns.
6. 双规 Shuanggui
Shuanggui, a form of investigative inquiry for government officers and political figures, has gained prominence in newspapers, both domestic and international, due to the Chinese government’s intensified efforts against corruption.
On June 8, 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that Xu Zongheng, the Mayor of Shenzhen City, was being investigated for serious offenses and was placed under “Shuanggui.” This meant he had to report his misconduct within a specified timeframe and at a designated location.
Shuanggui differs from police interrogations, as the officers do not use handcuffs, and provisions for food and drinks are made since the individuals may be subjected to it for several days. As a result, people sometimes refer to it as being “invited to have coffee or have tea.”
A: 我们市长被”双规”了。(Wǒmen shìzhǎng bèi shuāngguī le.)
Our mayor is under investigation.
B: 哦，他也被请去“喝咖啡”了? (O，tā yě bèi qǐng qù hē kāfēi le?)
Oh well, has he also been invited to “have a coffee”, huh?
7 . 城管 Chengguan
Chengguan refers to local government officers in China who often engage in public confrontations while performing their duties of removing unlicensed street vendors and checking permits. This was reported in the April 23, 2009 issue of “Official Chinese guide tells how to beat suspects and leave no marks.”
During their law enforcement operations, Chengguan frequently find themselves involved in public confrontations, which not only complicates their work but also leads to a negative reputation for unwarranted violence. Some people exaggerate, claiming that Chengguan will swiftly and aggressively attack street vendors, creating chaotic battlegrounds that seem to exclusively target Chinese individuals. Some even mockingly suggest it’s a “final solution” for world peace.
最近网上出现了一段城管打人的视频。(Zuìjìn wǎngshàng chūxiàn le yī duàn chéngguǎn dǎ rén de shìpín.)
Recently, there was a video clip of Chengguan beating people online.
8. 红包 Hongbao
Hongbao refers to the lucky money given by elders to children during the Spring Festival, symbolizing good luck and a healthy life for the upcoming year. Nowadays, it also encompasses money wrapped in red paper, used as wedding or birthday gifts, and is even associated with bonuses or bribes.
In recent years, the use of Hongbao as a bribe has become increasingly prevalent. People give Hongbao to doctors, hoping for more attentive care during their family members’ surgeries. Others offer Hongbao to school principals, aiming to secure admission for their children. This cultural practice has created a social atmosphere that can be disheartening at times.
A: 你妻子做手术，你准备好给医生的红包了吗？(Nǐ qīzi zuò shǒushù，nǐ zhǔnbèi hǎo gěi yīshēng de hóngbāo le ma？)
Your wife needs an operation, have you prepared a Hongbao for the doctor?he doctor?
B: 我准备了一千块作为给医生的红包。(Wǒ zhǔnbèi le yīqiān kuài zuòwéi gěi yīshēng de hóngbāo.)
I have 1000kuai to give to the doctor as a Hongbao.
9. 给力 Geilivable/geili
Geilivable, also known as geili, is an English-alphabet Chinese word that means something is cool, cooperative, or awesome. In Chinese, 给(gěi) translates to “give,” and 力(lì) means “power” or “force.” Combined, they mean “to give force (to)” or “to push something forward.”
Geili is a relatively new word even in the Chinese language, believed to have originated from the Chinese dubbing of a Japanese animated series, and has since gained popularity among Chinese internet users. On November 10th, 2010, The People’s Daily, a prominent newspaper, used Geili in the headline “Jiang Su Gei li Cultural Powerful Province,” marking its acceptance by mainstream media.
A: 你们队昨天的比赛怎么样？(Nǐmen duì zuótiān de bǐsài zěnmeyàng？)
How was your team’s match yesterday?
B: 我们队的表现太给力了！6:0大胜！(Wǒmen duì de biǎoxiàn tài gěilì le！6:0 dà shèng！)
We were awesome! We had a 6:0 landslide victory!
10. 二奶 Ernai
Ernai” is a newly coined Chinese term referring to the second wife or mistress of a married man. Typically, Ernai are young women engaged in an ongoing sexual relationship with married men. Their motivations for entering such relationships vary, including seeking financial support, a secure future, sexual satisfaction, or even genuine love. However, not all of them are driven by monetary gain or the desire for marriage.
Despite their differing motivations, Ernai often become a significant issue within families, making their social acceptance challenging. Being labeled as an Ernai carries a sense of shame.
有些年轻女孩为了富裕的生活而去做二奶。(Yǒuxiē niánqīng nǚhái wèi le fùyù de shēnghuó ér qùzuò èrnǎi。)
Some young girls choose to become Ernai in pursuit of a financially comfortable lifestyle.
11. 纸老虎 Paper tiger
“Paper tiger” is a term used to describe something or someone that appears strong and intimidating but lacks true power or substance. In Chinese, it is known as 纸老虎(zhǐ lǎo hǔ).
A paper tiger can be a nation, organization, or individual projecting a formidable image but ultimately lacking the capability to back it up. It suggests that their perceived strength is merely superficial and easily torn apart, like paper.
The term gained popularity during the mid-20th century when Chinese leader Mao Zedong used it to describe the United States and other imperialist powers. He believed that their power was overstated and that they were vulnerable to defeat.
所有反动派都是纸老虎。(Suǒyǒu fǎndòngpài dōu shì zhǐlǎohǔ.)
All reactionaries are paper tigers.
别怕，他看起来吓人，其实是纸老虎。(Bié pà, tā kàn qǐlái xiàrén, qíshí shì zhǐlǎohǔ.)
Don’t be afraid, he looks scary, but he is actually a paper tiger.
12. 洗脑 Brainwash
“Brainwash” is a term used to describe the psychological manipulation and control of an individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. In Chinese, it is known as 洗脑 (xǐ nǎo).
Brainwashing involves the systematic and deliberate alteration of someone’s mindset, often through techniques such as propaganda, indoctrination, and coercive persuasion. The objective is to influence their thinking, perception, and loyalty to conform to a particular ideology or agenda.
The term gained prominence during the 1950s in reference to methods employed by totalitarian regimes to control and shape public opinion. It reflects the notion of thoroughly cleansing and reprogramming an individual’s thoughts, akin to washing their brain.
小孩子容易被流行文化洗脑。(Xiǎo háizi róngyì bèi liúxíng wénhuà xǐnǎo.)
Young children are easily brainwashed by pop culture.
13. 人民币 RMB/Renminbi
Renminbi, commonly abbreviated as RMB, refers to the official currency of the People’s Republic of China. In Chinese, 人民币 (rén mín bì) translates to “the currency of the people.”
Renminbi holds significant importance as the legal tender in China.
The term gained prominence as China’s economy grew and opened up to international trade. Renminbi’s value and exchange rates have a significant impact on global financial markets and trade relations.
人民币的使用范围越来越广了。(Rénmínbì de shǐyòng fànwéi yuè lái yuè guǎngle.)
The use of RMB is getting more and more widespread.
14. 麻将 Mah-jong
Mahjong, also known as 麻将 (má jiàng), is a popular tile-based game that requires strategic thinking and skillful decision-making.
Mahjong involves a set of tiles adorned with various Chinese characters, symbols, and numbers. Players aim to form specific combinations or patterns with the tiles, similar to card games like rummy. The game requires mental agility, memory, and a keen understanding of the rules and tile combinations.
The term Mahjong originated in China and has gained popularity worldwide, becoming a cherished pastime for many. It serves as a source of entertainment, social interaction, and friendly competition.
四川人最大的爱好就是打麻将。(Sìchuān rén zuìdà de àihào jiùshì dǎ májiàng.)
The biggest hobby of Sichuan people is playing mahjong.
English loanwords from traditional Chinese culture
While we often encounter borrowed terms related to modern concepts, there is a wealth of English words that find their roots in the rich tapestry of Chinese traditions. In this exploration, we will highlight several renowned and influential terms that serve as windows into Chinese cultural heritage.
Qi, otherwise known as 气 (qì), is a fundamental concept in traditional Chinese culture. It represents the vital energy that flows through all living things. Qi is believed to be essential for health, balance, and overall well-being. Practices like qigong and tai chi aim to cultivate and harmonize the body’s Qi.
武术 (wǔshù), known as martial arts, encompasses various combat disciplines developed in China. These practices focus on self-defense, physical fitness, discipline, and personal development. Martial arts styles like kung fu and tai chi are renowned for their intricate movements, mental concentration, and philosophical foundations.
风水 Feng Shui
Feng Shui, or 风水 (fēngshuǐ), is an ancient Chinese practice of arranging one’s environment to harmonize energy flow. It aims to create a balanced and harmonious space by considering factors such as the orientation of buildings, placement of objects, and the flow of Qi. Feng Shui is believed to influence well-being, fortune, and prosperity.
阴阳 Yin and Yang
Yin and Yang, or 阴阳 (yīn yáng), symbolize the duality and interdependence of opposing forces in the universe. Yin represents the feminine, dark, and passive aspects, while Yang represents the masculine, bright, and active aspects. The concept of Yin and Yang emphasizes the need for balance and harmony in all aspects of life.
功夫 Kung Fu
Kung Fu, or 功夫 (gōngfu), is a term that encompasses various Chinese martial arts styles. It emphasizes discipline, perseverance, and the pursuit of mastery. Kung Fu involves rigorous training, physical conditioning, and the development of combat skills, along with moral and philosophical principles.
太极 Tai Chi
Tai Chi, or 太极 (tàijí), is an internal martial art practiced for health, meditation, and self-defense. It emphasizes slow and flowing movements, deep breathing, and mental focus. Tai Chi promotes balance, flexibility, and inner harmony, helping to cultivate a sense of tranquility and relaxation.
Zen, or 禅 (chán), is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China and later spread to other countries. It emphasizes meditation, mindfulness, and direct experiential understanding. Zen encourages the pursuit of enlightenment and the realization of one’s true nature through disciplined practice and the guidance of a Zen master.
These concepts offer profound insights into traditional Chinese culture and philosophy, capturing the essence of harmonizing energy, achieving personal growth, and attaining inner peace.