If you were to Google “confusing things about Chinese”, you’d get approximately 39,100,000 results (trust us, we just tried).
Learning the language involves various challenges, from pronunciation to writing characters and diverse ways to say “grandparent”. Today, we’ll have some fun explaining a few phrases that might be confusing when you first encounter them.
Also, our last example has some insight into Chinese humor and internet vocabulary, so make sure you read to the end!
1. tiào jìn huáng hé yě xǐ bù qīng
Literal meaning: “Unable to wash oneself clean even if one jumps into the Yellow River.”
Metaphorical meaning: to be unable to rid oneself of a connection to something bad or of suspicion
In fact, this expression was originally phrased as an allegorical saying: “Jumping into the Yellow River can’t wash it clean” due to the fact that the Yellow River was known for its turbid water, i.e., “these bad results were inevitable”—washing in the Yellow River would only make someone dirtier!
As such, people were careful not to say, “Even jumping into the Yellow River can’t wash it clean,” because everyone knew that already.
However, over time the word “also (yě 也)” was added, and the phrase gradually changed to mean “Unable to wash oneself clean even if one jumps into the Yellow River”, making the Yellow River a stand-in for any body of water and giving a more subjective agency to the meaning, like “that’s not the way to clear your name” or “there’s no way to get out of this one.”
The two meanings, the old and the new, are very similar, though when most people use the expression nowadays they are referring to the latter.
nǐ zhè shì wū miè wǒ！ nǐ zhè yàng shuō wǒ jiù shì tiào jìn huáng hé yě xǐ bù qīng.
你 这 是 污 蔑 我！ 你 这 样 说 我 就 是 跳 进 黄 河 也 洗 不 清。
You’re slandering me! If you say something like this there’s no way I can clear my name.
2. shě bù dé hái zi tào bú zhù láng
Literal meaning: “You can’t catch a wolf if you’re afraid to risk losing your child.”
Metaphorical meaning: to achieve a certain purpose one must pay the price
This expression suggests that individuals must make sacrifices or be ready to make sacrifices to achieve a goal.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Then why all this talk about losing a child?
One not-so-happy idea is that a child might be the bait that draws a wolf into a trap—perhaps not the model for responsible parenting we should draw on these days—hence we must be prepared to risk losing something precious to us if we’re looking to gain something precious.
There is, however, the fact that in ancient Chinese there were no ‘j-‘, ‘q’ or ‘x’ pinyin sounds, and pronunciation was slightly different overall. At that time, the word for “shoes” was not pronounced the same way it is today, as “xié zi”, but rather as “hái zi”… the modern word for “child”.
Looking at it this way, the expression carries a significantly less morbid meaning: “Worrying about ruining your shoes, you can’t catch a wolf.”
This simply referred to the fact that catching a wolf might mean climbing mountains and crossing significant distances, and shoes might get worn out in the process.
Funnily enough, this old word for shoes, “hái zi”, has survived in many local dialects to this day, such as those of Sichuan, Shaanxi, Guangxi, Jiangxi, and Hubei, and so the original version of the expression survived, too.
shě bù dé hái zi tào bú zhù láng，yào xiǎng yǒu suǒ shōu huò，
舍 不 得 孩 子 套 不 住 狼， 要 想 有 所 收 获，
bì xū yǒu suǒ fù chū.
必 须 有 所 付 出。
You can’t catch a wolf if you’re afraid of losing your child; if you want to gain something, you must pay something.
3. dǎ pò shā guō wèn (wèn) dào dǐ
Literal meaning: “To break the pot, even cracking the bottom”
Metaphorical meaning: to incessantly question; to get to the bottom of the matter
How does an expression about breaking a pot come to mean asking lots of questions?
There’s a character in this expression you may have not seen before: 璺 (wèn). This literally means “a crack”, as might appear in porcelain or earthenware.
Well, this word for crack (“wèn”) also sounds like another word you’re probably familiar with— 问 (wèn) which, you may know, means “to ask.” Ah ha! Looks like we’re getting to the bottom of this…
How do you know when a pot is truly broken and unusable? When the bottom (底dǐ) is cracked, it’s probably time to get a new one; likewise, when you have “问到底 (wèn dào dǐ)” you have gotten to the bottom of something by asking questions; the imagery of a broken pot really emphasizes how much you have asked.
This is a fun example of how homophones can be used in allegory, word play, jokes, online euphemisms, and (quite often for new and long-time learners alike) confusion in Chinese!
wèi le zhuī xún shì shí zhēn xiàng ，wǒ men yào yǒu
为 了 追 寻 事 实 真 相 ， 我 们 要 有
dǎ pò shā guō wèn dào dǐ de yǒng qì hé jué xīn.
打 破 砂 锅 问 到 底 的 勇 气 和 决 心。
In order to find out the truth, we should have the courage and determination to ask questions and get the truth.