7 ways in which learning Chinese will turn your world upside down

Learning Chinese enables you to gain an insight into the extraordinary way Chinese people view certain things, in turn helping to better understand their culture. Here are some examples of how learning Chinese will turn your world upside down and boggle your brain!


Learning Chinese enables you to gain insight into the way Chinese people view things and to better understand their culture [Tweet this]


1. You will think of dolphins as sea-pigs

Sea pigs’; 海豚 (hǎitún), are what the Chinese refer to for  dolphins. Picturing a pig diving and splashing around like a sea creature su re makes for great imagery!

大熊猫 (dàxióngmāo) meaning literally: ‘big bear cat‘, also sheds some light into h ow the Chinese perceive their nation’s favorite animal, the panda bear. These cuddly monochrome  creatures do have cat-like eyes and bear-like bodies after all (pandas have vertically slit pupils compared to bears with round pupils).

Other memorable animal names include ‘river horse’ for  hippopotamus:河马(hémǎ), ‘change colour dragons’ for  chameleons;变色龙(biànsèlóng), and ‘sand bag mice’ for wallabies: 沙袋鼠 ( shādàishǔ).

Let’s also not forget the oh so creatively named giraffe, which is ‘long neck deer’,  长颈鹿 (chángjǐnglù) in Mandarin, and 猫头鹰 (māotóuyīng) or ‘cat head eagle’ for owls.



English NameChinese NamePronunciation (pinyin)Meaning
Dolphin海豚hǎitúnhǎi: sea
tún: pig
Panda 大熊猫dàxióngmāo dà: big
xióng: bear
māo: cat
Hippopotamus 河马hémǎhé: river
mǎ: horse
Chameleon变色龙 biànsèlóng biàn: change
sè: colour
long: dragon
Wallaby 沙袋鼠shādàishǔ shā: sand
dài: bag
 shǔ: mouse
Giraffe长颈鹿chángjǐnglùcháng: long
jǐng: neck
lù: deer
Owl 猫头鹰māotóuyīngmāo: cat
tóu: head
yīng: eagle


 2. You will think about olives the next time you play rugby

The Chinese word for rugby is:  橄榄球 (gǎnlǎnqiú), meaning ‘ olive-ball’; but this type of olive would not be so tasty on a pizza!  Interestingly, the Chinese have kept the expression 美式橄榄球 (měishìgǎnlǎnqiú), meaning ‘ American-style olive ball’ for ‘American football ’, which can be seen as a more accurate term when you think about it, using the expression for ‘ rugby’ rather than ‘football’.

The Chinese word for rugby is: 橄榄球 (gǎnlǎnqiú), meaning ‘olive-ball’; but this type of olive would not be so tasty on a pizza! [Tweet this]

Relating to sports, you could say, “let’s hit the ‘slippery snow’ ’” when referring to skiing: 滑雪 (huáxuě); “how about a game of ‘fist attack’?” instead of boxing: 拳击 (quánjī); or, “I’d really fancy a game of ‘shoot arrow’ for archery: 射箭 (shèjiàn).  Other sport names include: 台球 (táiqiú), ‘table ball’ for billiards, and 曲棍球 (qǔgùnqiú), ‘crooked stick ball’ for hockey.

It kind of goes to show that if you have forgotten the Chinese word for something, sometimes guessing a word by its literal translation of the main verbs or objects involved can actually help! Of course this is not true all of the time though.  In some cases, the Chinese have lacked inspirationentirely and just gone for a name that sounds like the foreign name after all, for example 高尔夫 (gāo’ěrfū) sounds very similar to ‘golf’, and  保龄球 (bǎolíngqiú) which sounds very close to bowling (and qiú means ball).


English NameChinese NamePronunciation (pinyin)Meaning
Rugby 橄榄球 gǎnlǎnqiúgǎnlǎn: olive
qiú: ball
American football美式橄榄球měishìgǎnlǎnqiúměishì: American-style
gǎnlǎn: olive
qiú: ball
Skiing滑雪huáxuěhuá: slippery
xuě: snow
Archery射箭 shèjiànshè: shoot
jiàn: arrow
Billiards 台球táiqiútái: table
qiú: ball
Hockey曲棍球qǔgùnqiúqǔ: crooked
gùn: stick
qiú: ball
Golf 尔夫 gāo’ěrfūSounds like ‘golf’
Bowling保龄球 bǎolíngqiúSounds like ‘bowling’


3. You will look at every crisis as an opportunity

危机 (wēijī), meaning ‘crisis’ is made up of the words for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.  This idiom shows a great concept whereby encountering certain perils can often lead us to think of previously unimagined possibilities of action.  Superb optimism of the Chinese is conveyed here and there is great wisdom in looking at a situation positively when during a time of crisis. 


4. You will draw a link between ‘fish’, ‘scarves’ and ‘trousers’

You probably would not usually class these as linguistically similar in the English language, but in Chinese, the same measure word, 条 (tiáo) applies when counting and specifying fish 鱼 (yú), scarves 围巾 (wéijīn) and trousers  裤子 (kùzi), as they all represent long, narrow, flexible objects.  The same measure word can also be used for river 河 (hé), road 路 (lù), leg 腿 (tuǐ) and snake 蛇 (shé).


Measure Word ClassExamples
把 (bǎ)Objects with handles knives 刀 (dāo), chairs 椅子 (yǐzi), umbrellas 雨伞 (yǔsǎn)
张 (zhāng)Flat surfaced objects, rectangular objectstables 桌子 (zhuōzǐ), paper 纸 (zhǐ), beds 床 (chuáng), photos 照片 (zhào piàn)
只 (zhī) One of a pair, animalsfoot 脚 (jiǎo), shoe 鞋 (xié), dog 狗 (gǒu), chicken 鸡 (jī)


While these examples refer to classifiers depending on the nature of what they represent, more broad measure words also exist, even for abstract categories. For example, the same measure word: 件 (jiàn) is used for clothing 衣服 (yīfu), issues/matters/things 事 (shì), and presents 礼物 (lǐwù).


5. You will see a difference between riding your bicycle and riding the subway

The co-verbs used in Chinese for different modes of travel will definitely make you think more about the way you are seated during your trip!  Whilst you (zuò) or ‘ride on a seat’ whilst taking the subway 地铁 (dìtiě) or aeroplane飞机 (fēijī), you would instead (qí) or ‘straddle’ when taking your bicycle 自行车 (zìxíngchē) or horse 马 (mǎ)… if you are fortunate enough to travel by horse!  Though perhaps the verb indicating that you ‘sit’ on the subway should actually be updated to 站 (zhàn) – ‘to stand’.  After all, the chances of actually getting a seat on the subway are close to zero in China’s big cities such as Beijing or Shanghai!


6. You will picture grapes and teeth every time somebody mentions the country Portugal

The phonetic approximation of the country name Portugal translates to 葡萄牙 (pútáoyá), meaning ‘grapes teeth’; this can also be seen as a reference to the country’s sweet grapes.  Some names are translated literally such as ‘ice island’ 冰岛 (bīngdǎo) for Iceland.  The Chinese name for America is 美国 (měiguó) meaning: ‘beautiful country’, and England is 英国 (yīngguó) meaning ‘brave land’.

A country name is not just that: the Chinese name for America is měiguó: beautiful country; and England is yīngguó: brave land [Tweet this]

Yugoslavia is an interesting example of a word that is half translated and the o ther half transliterated: 南斯拉夫 (nánsīlā) where 南 (nán) means south and 斯拉夫 (sīlāfū) is a phonetic equivalent of Yugoslavia. And some names even have links to history, for example, 旧金山(jiùjīnshān) for San Francisco means ‘old gold mountain’, a name given by Chinese migrants who flocked over during the Gold Rush.

English Name Chinese NamePronunciation (pinyin)Meaning
Portugal 葡萄牙pútáoyá pútáo: grapes
yá: teeth
Iceland 冰岛bīngdǎobīng: ice
dǎo: island
America美国 měiguó měi: beautiful
guó: country
England英国yīngguó yīng: brave
Yugoslavia 南斯拉夫nánsīlāfū nán: south
sīlāfū: sounds like ‘slavia’
San Francisco 旧金山jiùjīnshānjiù: old
jīn: gold
shān: mountain


7. You will believe that your computer is very brainy

The word for computer is ‘electric brain’ 电脑 (diànnǎo).  And what can adding the word ‘electric’ 电 (diàn) to other words mean?  Some examples include: ’electric + speech’ or 电话 (diànhuà)  = telephone; ‘electric + (to) view’ 电视 (diànshì) = television, and ‘electric + shadow’ 电影 (diànyǐng) = movie. It is logical and economical of the Chinese to combine two ancient characters to create new words with a literal meaning.  It also makes remembering vocabulary a doddle! 


English Name Chinese NamePronunciation (pinyin)Meaning
Computer电脑 diànnǎodiàn: electric
nǎo: brain
Telephone电话diànhuà diàn: electric
huà: speech
Television 电视diànshì diàn: electric
shì: to view
Movie电影diànyǐng diàn: electric
yǐng: shadow


Well there you go, here were just a few examples how learning Chinese will change your way of seeing the world.  Now it’s your turn to go off and discover your own examples!

Would you like to know how to start learning Chinese? Or are you more interested in all the great places China has to offer? Read our article on Top 5 Places to Visit in Mainland China

Even better, come discover China by yourself! Start your studies right away, apply today!

by Amy Wong

Updated: 02/10/2018

17 Apr 2014

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