The Difference Between “Things” in Chinese

In English the word “thing” is quite vague and can imply animate and inanimate objects as well as concepts and general life transactions. For example if I were to say, “The thing is, that thing I was thinking about made me drop the thing.” It covers, well… a lot of things. Thankfully, in Chinese “thing” is a little more defined according to its intended purpose. There is a word to describe people, animals, and object “things” as well as a different word to describe life affairs and more conceptual “things.” Since we already know the difference between “néng” and “kěyǐ” and the difference between “néng” and “huì.” Let’s learn the difference between “东西 (dōngxi) thing” and “事情 (shìqing) matter.”

First let’s examine “东西 (dōngxi) thing.”

东西 (Dōngxi): thing; people and animal.

东 (Dōng): east.

西 (Xī): west.

The word “东西 (dōngxi) thing” literally means “east-west.” It originates from the Eastern Han Dynasty, which had two capital cities. There was a western one in Chang’an, which is modern day Xi’an, and an eastern one slightly to the northeast in Luoyang. These were the two main places during the period where people went to shop and trade goods. When people shopped at Luoyang, they referred to it as “buying East”, and when in Chang’an, it became “buying West.” Put together, shopping for “things” itself became “buying East-West”, or in Chinese, “买东西 (mǎi dōngxi).”
Therefore, this version of “thing” only refers to various concrete or tangible things, or things you can buy.
To make it clear, “东西 (dōngxi) thing” is used especially for people or animals and objects. You use this version to ask about preferences or items. The word you would use for the question, “What thing do you like best at the zoo?” is “东西 (dōngxi) thing” because it refers to animals. You would also use “东西 (dōngxi) thing” to talk about picking up certain things at the grocery store on your way home from work. It’s very versatile but not overly vague. Just remember it’s things you could physically touch.


Nǐ zuì xǐhuān de dōngxi shì shénme?
What is your favorite thing?

Wǒ zuì xǐhuān de dōngxi shì wǒ de gǒu.
My favorite thing is my dog.

Àidíshēng fāmíng le yīqiān duō zhǒng dōngxi.
Edison invented more than a thousand things during his life.

Finally we can examine “事情 (shìqing) matter.”

事情 (Shìqing): affair; matter.

事 (Shì): business; accident; incident.

情 (Qíng): emotion; feeling; affection.

How can we properly use “事情 (shìqing) matter” in a sentence? Since it applies to all activities and phenomena in human life use it in place of abstract and conceptual instances. This version of “thing” takes the form of life events, actions, and situations. We could use “事情 (shìqing) matter” to talk about “things” you have to do during the weekend. Perhaps this could be various errands, meetings, a date, or even the dreaded time you have to spend cleaning the house. It could be anything on a to-do list. Just remember this version is things you cannot actually physically touch.


Dāyìng biérén de shìqing, yídìng yào zuò dào.
You must do this to keep your promise.

Jīntiān de shìqing jīntiān bìxū yào zuò wán.
Today’s things must be done today.

Shìqing méiyǒu diàochá qīngchǔ zhīqián, búyào qīngyì xià jiélùn.
Don’t make a conclusion easily until things are not investigated.

HSK 3 quiz

1. Please choose the appropriate answer to fill in the blank.
Qǐng nǐ búyào zàishuō nà jiàn bù hǎo de ______ le.
请你不要再说那件不好的 _____ 了。

A. 东西 (Dōngxi)

B. 事情 (Shìqing)

C. 事故 (Shìgù)

— Written by Julia Liu —

Julia Liu teaches Chinese with eChineseLearning. She has been successfully teaching for 5 years and loves reading and practices her passion of drawing in her free time.

Know How to Distinguish Similar Chinese Words:

The differences between “我们” and “咱们”
The Difference between “给 (gěi)” “跟 (gēn)” and “和(hé)”
Which Will You Choose: 水货 (shuǐhuò) VS. 行货 (hánghuò)
HSK Test
General Chinese (Beginner Level) 
General Chinese (Intermediate Level) 

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