32 Beautiful Chinese Words and Phrases Every Chinese Learner Should Know
Standard Mandarin Chinese is a language of subtlety and beauty. Its structure lends itself to tranquil succinctness; the written script gives meaning to every stroke. This is the language and culture of landscape paintings, lucky red couplets, and pentatonic scales. It’s an impossible task to narrow the breadth of this beautiful language into 32 measly phrases, but I’ve given it my best shot. Here are a few of the words and phrases in Chinese that I find most beautiful.
1. 岁月 [sùi yùe] “years, time, passing of time”
岁 [sùi] is used most often to mean “age, years,” as in, 你几岁了？[nǐ jǐ suì le] “How old are you?” The literal translation might be more like “How many years are you?”
月 [yùe] refers to “moon, month.”
Used together, these characters compose a phrase that refers to the--often poetic--passage of time. 岁月 [sùi yùe] brings to mind nostalgic childhood years, hazy memories, distant imaginings … a popular song sung by pop singers Faye Wong and Na Ying sings:
wǒ tīng shūo suì yùe xiàng xuán lǜ yǒng héng
I’ve heard that the passage of time is as eternal as a melody.
2. 银河 [yín hé] “Milky Way”
One of my favorite things about Chinese is the way it highlights the gorgeous elegance of simplicity. The Milky Way is described exactly as it is, 银河 [yín hé], or “silver river,” because when you look up into a clear night sky far from manmade light, faint night-sounds around you, that’s exactly what you see: a silver river streaming across the sky.
3. 金秋 [jīn qiū] “fall, autumn”
You might learn in class to speak of the fall season as 秋天 [qiū tiān] or 秋季 [qiū jì]. A more lyrical way to say it might be 金秋 [jīn qiū], which brings to mind crisp weather and brilliant, changing leaves.
金 [jīn], meaning “gold,” might be taken to describe the season, but it actually refers to the metal phase of Chinese philosophy. Each of the five elements is associated with a cardinal direction and a season, so wood 木 [mù] is East and spring, fire 火 [huǒ] is South and summer, metal 金 [jīn] is West and autumn, water 水 [shuǐ] is North and winter, and earth 土 [tǔ] is Center and supports the other elements. Hence, 金秋 [jīn qiū] “golden autumn.”
4. 遥望 [yáo wàng] “to look into the distance”
The unit 遥 [yáo] means “distant, remote” and is used in words like 遥控器 [yáo kòng qì] “remote control” and 遥远 [yáo yuǎn] “distant, remote.” 遥望 [yáo wàng] is used often in poetry and poetic language to speak of distant scenery, like a mountain wreathed in fog or the rising dawn. Cao Zhi, Three Kingdoms poet, wrote:
bù dēng běi máng bǎn, yáo wàng luò yáng shān
Tread by foot ascending Beimang slope, look into the distance to Luoyang mountain.
5. 苍茫 [cāng máng] “boundless, vast, hazy”
苍 [cāng] is a highly literary word that alludes to the heavens and their colors--ash-gray, deep blue, blue-green. Within other words, it points directly to heaven, as in 苍天 [cāng tiān] and 苍穹 [cāng qióng], both of which mean “heaven, firmament, blue dome of the sky.” Thus, the word 苍茫 [cāng máng] adds celestial flavor to 茫 [máng] “vast, unclear,” giving this new word a heavenly sort of magnitude and beauty.
6. 人海 [rěn hǎi] “sea of people”
There’s nothing quite like looking down into a crowd and seeing the motion of the bobbing heads and swishing arms roll like waves. Another similar phrase in Chinese is 人山人海 [rén shān rén hǎi], which quite literally means “people mountain people sea” but conveys a similar meaning to 人海 [rěn hǎi] “sea of people.”
7. 身旁 [shēn páng] “beside, alongside”
This phrase is evocative, equating emotional and physical accompaniment. In this way, it’s similar to the English phrase “at/by one’s side,” so 在我的身旁 [zài wǒ de shēn páng] would mean “at/by my side, beside me.” 身旁 [shēn páng] differs from the English in its directness, as it literally refers to the side of the body.
8. 彷徨 [páng huáng] “to pace back and forth, be indecisive”
Similar to this is the word 徘徊 [pái huái] “to pace back and forth, dither, linger.” Both of these words express a sort of insecurity--a hesitation.
qīng chūn de lù shàng chōng mǎn le páng huáng
The road of youth is full of indecision.
9. 控制 [kòng zhì] “to control, contain”
Control is something every language learner has to grapple with. We have to learn to contain time-wasting impulses and to harness productive energies. In the event that a student fails to stop themselves from wasting hours scrolling through social media, they might say:
wǒ kòng zhì bu zhù zì jǐ
I can’t control myself.
10. 依偎 [yī wēi] “to nestle against, snuggle up to”
The character 依 [yī] means “to rely on, consent,” while 偎 [wēi] means “to cuddle.” Together, they form a phrase that evokes feelings of love and comfort, of the coziness you inhabit when you snuggle up to someone you trust and adore.
11. 眼神 [yǎn shén] “expression in one’s eyes, gaze”
This is one of those hard-to-translate phrases that crops up all over Chinese. The closest equivalent in English might be “the look in one’s eyes,” but 眼神 [yǎn shén] also comprises the emotion and feeling behind one’s gaze. As described in my article on Internet slang, a song lyric by pop singer JJ Lin goes:
què rèn guò yǎn shén, wǒ yǜ shàng duì de rén
Having ascertained the gaze, I’ve met the right person.
--or, more colloquially, “When I look into your eyes, I know you’re the one.”
12. 宝贝 [bǎo bèi] “darling, baby, treasure”
This term of endearment is seen and used everywhere, from song lyrics to flashing ads, from poetry to everyday conversation. Chinese speakers say it to their babies, their family members, and even their close friends. Like any term of endearment, the word can also be used ironically to refer to someone useless or decidedly not endearing. Apart from this ironic usage, the casual practice of calling 宝贝 is a clear indicator of love and affection.
13. 失去 [shī qù] “to lose (something)”
This word does not encompass as many definitions as the English “to lose.” You cannot use it to talk about a misplaced item or a lost competition; the loss described by 失去 [shī qù] is more complex than that. It might be used to describe a lost sense of smell, lost ability, lost time, lost sense of self, or any other abstract ideas. For example, there is a song called 《失去爱的城市》[shī qù ài de chéng shì] “City of Lost Love” or “City Without Love,” and one lyric goes:
wǒ zài shī qù ài de chéng shì lǐ, ái le dòng chūi le fēng kàn tòu le nǐ
In the city of lost love, I endured frost, the biting wind, and saw through you.
14. 渴望 [kě wàng] “to thirst for, long for”
We saw 望 [wàng] “to look toward, gaze” used earlier in 遥望 [yáo wàng] “to look into the distance.” 望 [wàng] also has a more metaphorical meaning, “to hope,” and this is used extensively in various word formations. 渴 [kě] “thirsty” thus naturally combines with 望 [wàng] to make 渴望 [kě wàng] “to thirst for, long for,” as in to long deeply and desperately--for someone special, for a purpose, for meaning. On the flipside, you have the word 绝望 [júe wàng] “to despair, give up all hope.”
15. 心塞 [xīn sāi] “to feel stifled, feel crushed”
I love the way this word, like many others on this list, directly describes its meaning in a way that is elegant in its straightforwardness. 塞 [sāi] means “to stop up, stuff,” so when you get a cold, 鼻子塞 [bí zi sāi] “stuffy nose” might be one of your symptoms. 心塞 [xīn sāi] literally means that your heart is stopped up, clogged, and stifled, evoking the vivid imagery of a heart’s veins stuffed full of sadness.
16. 寂寞 [jì mò] “lonely, lonesome, silent”
Any Chinese learner who uses music to learn will undoubtedly come across this word in a song. 寂寞 [jì mò] combines 寂 [jì] “still, silent, quiet, desolate” and 寞 [mò] “still, silent, solitary” to make a word that expresses absolute isolation, both in mind and in body.
Here’s a song lyric of popular band Sodagreen:
ruò dà de fáng, jì mò de chuáng
Such a big room, a lonely bed.
And another from pop artist Hebe Tian:
wǒ jì mò jì mò jiù hǎo, nǐ zhēn de bú yòng lái wǒ huí yì lǐ wēi xiào
I’m fine alone, you really don’t need to come into my memories with your smile.
17. 无畏 [wú wèi] “fearless, dauntless”
This straightforward phrase literally means “without fear.” I find most constructions involving 无 [wú] “without, not” to be exceptionally beautiful, as in the following:
wú sī cái néng wú wèi
Only without self can you be without fear.
Alternatively, “Only the selfless can be fearless.”
18. 缺乏 [quē fá] “to lack, be short of”
不足 [bù zú] “insufficient, lacking” and 缺少 [quē shǎo] “lack, shortage of” are near-synonyms of this word, but they lack its literary bite. 缺乏 [quē fá] is a little elevated, a little dramatic.
wǒ hǎo xiàng quē fá ài rén de néng lì
I seem to lack the ability to love.
19. 是否 [shì fǒu] “whether, it is or isn’t”
Once again, I like this word for its straightforwardness. 是 [shì] “it is” plus 否 [fǒu] “it is not” equals “is it or is it not?” 是否 [shì fǒu] is also often used in an embedded whether-clause. The song 《是否》sung by Su Rui begins almost every line with this questioning word. Another song I love combines 是否 [shì fǒu] with another phrase on this list (see #31):
shì fǒu wǒ zhēn de yī wú suǒ yǒu
Is it true (or not) that I have absolutely nothing?
20. 曾经 [céng jīng] “formerly, before, once”
I love this word for the way it sounds, every syllable spoken at the tip of the tongue, coming out cleanly and crisply. There is a certain level of formality that sets 曾经 [céng jīng] apart from words like 以前 [yǐ qián] “previous, formerly, before,” as well as a more immense sense of time gone by. 曾经 [céng jīng] will never refer to yesterday or last week. It refers to past lives, lost loves, and other things that once were, before lost to the passage of time.
21. 反反复复 [fǎn fǎn fù fù] “over and over again”
There’s something so fun and playful about this alliterative phrase that I had to include it in this list. As with other words that reduplicate in the AABB pattern, the meaning of the original AB word, 反复 [fǎn fù] in this case, is emphasized in the doubled form. Every Mandarin Chinese learner should be able to appreciate the meaning here, since study of grammar and vocabulary requires review many times over, or 反反复复 [fǎn fǎn fù fù].
22. 磨磨蹭蹭 [mó mó cèng cèng] “to dawdle, dillydally”
I like the way the units of this word contrast in sound, 磨 [mó] resonating deeply before the sharp hiss of 蹭 [cèng]. I also feel nostalgic when I think of this word, having heard it used many times in my childhood during a rush out of the house:
bié mó mó cèng cèng le
Stop dawdling! Hurry up!
23. 绵绵 [mián mián] “continuous, uninterrupted”
This is another word that I love for the way it sounds. 绵 [mián] sounds gentle and mewling--no wonder it means “soft, weak.” Before the Song dynasty, 绵 [mián] also referred to cotton before the homophonous 棉 [mián] “cotton” took its place. 绵绵 [mián mián] is usually used figuratively:
qíng mián mián ài wú biàn
unending feeling, love without end
24. 假惺惺 [jiǎ xīng xīng] “hypocritical, insincerely courteous”
假 [[jiǎ] is a frequently occurring word in Chinese that means “false, falsehood, deception,” as in 假装 [jiǎ zhuāng] “to feign, pretend” and 假发 [jiǎ fā] “fake hair, wig.” The phrase 假惺惺 [jiǎ xīng xīng] is similar to 假心假意 [jiǎ xīn jiǎ yì], which literally translates to “fake heart fake intent,” meaning something like “insincerity, hypocrisy.” (In fact, before I learned how it was written, I incorrectly thought that the phrase was 假心心 [jiǎ xīn xīn].) A child shedding crocodile tears, for example, can be said to be 假惺惺 [jiǎ xīng xīng], as can someone who hypocritically touts beliefs they do not hold.
25. 无所谓 [wú suǒ wèi] “to be indifferent, not to matter, whatever”
This pithy construction escapes the lips in a single exhale. In casual conversation, it means exactly what it means: “I don’t care one way or another.” In more specific situations, the speaker’s tone might indicate that they are not as indifferent as their words would lead you to believe.
wǒ duì tā wú suǒ wèi
I don’t care about her.
26. 来不及 [lái bu jí] “no time, can’t make it”
来不及 [lái bu jí] might not be the most beautiful phrase on this list, but it’s certainly useful. The unit 及 [jì] “and, up to, in time for” is used in words like 及时 [jí shí] “promptly, in time,” 及早 [jí zǎo] “as soon as possible,” and the somewhat relevant 等不及 [děng bu jí] “can’t wait.” With 来不及 [lái bu jí], time is of the essence.
27. 越来越 [yuè lái yuè] “more and more”
Most beginner Mandarin learners will probably encounter the 越X越Y construction, as in 我越看越喜欢 [wǒ yuè kàn yuè xǐ huān] “The more I look, the more I like (it).” The simpler 越来越 [yuè lái yuè] “more and more” is also, in my personal opinion, also more graceful, as in 我看着越来越喜欢 [wǒ kàn zhe yuè lái yuè xǐ huān] “Looking (at it), I like (it) more and more.”
28. 前半生 [qián bàn shēng] “first half of one’s life”
Here’s another case of Mandarin Chinese showing that it can’t be beat in pithiness. 前半生 [qián bàn shēng] breaks down into 前 [qián] “ahead, first,” 半 [bàn] “half,” and 生 [shēng] “life,” and it means just that: “first half (of) life.” Beautiful simplicity at its finest.
29. 久而久之 [jiǔ ér jiǔ zhī] “over time, as time passes”
久 [jiǔ] refers to a “long (duration of) time,” as in 好久不见 [hǎo jiǔ bu jiàn] “long time no see.” To me, 久而久之 [jiǔ ér jiǔ zhī] speaks of a reverence for the passage of time.
jiǔ ér jiǔ zhī, lǎo shí yě fēng shā huà le
Over time, old rocks also eroded into sand.
30. 不厌其烦 [bú yàn qí fán] “to take great pains, show great patience”
A direct translation of the components of this phrase might read, “to not reject this troublesome (thing).” It’s a very socially-minded sentiment that, I think, a beginner Chinese learner might use to describe their language learning efforts, or even the efforts of their teachers.
wèi shén me dà zì rán yào bú yàn qí fán di chuàng zào wén zi ne?
Why did Mother Nature have to take such great pains to create mosquitos?
31. 一无所有 [yī wú suǒ yǒu] “not having anything at all, utterly lacking”
一无所有 [yī wú suǒ yǒu] can refer to a lack of material things as well as abstract concepts like knowledge. This is one of my favorite Chinese phrases of all time, since it takes four words that any beginner first-year Chinese learner would know, and combines them with precision to make a new phrase. Again, the language highlights the gorgeous elegance of simplicity.
32. 浪迹天涯 [làng jì tiān yá] “to roam far and wide, travel the world”
I wanted to end on a hopeful note, so here is a beautiful four-word phrase that brings to mind images of far-off grasslands, roving trains, and travelers without destinations. With greater understanding of different languages and cultures comes a greater capability to explore and comprehend what you see and hear, as well as greater appreciation for beautiful expressions like these.
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