How to Tell the Difference Between 3 “Famous” Chinese Words?

HSK 3 quiz

You asked, so I’m here to answer! An eChineseLearning student was recently puzzled about the differences among “有名 (yǒumíng),” “著名 (zhùmíng)” and 闻名 (wénmíng) in Chinese. She asked, “Why are there 3 words for the same thing?” I assured her that they really have different uses and are quite easy to differentiate once you learn them.
Since this is actually a common question that I get from many Chinese beginners I’d like to explain all of the differences among the 3 of them and clear up the confusion.
1. “有名 (Yǒumíng)” is the most common word used in relaxed, spoken Chinese and is often used in the following structures:
N + 很 (hěn) /最 (zuì) /非常 (fēicháng) + 有名 (yǒumíng)
有名的 (Yǒumíng de) + N
Literally, “有 (Yǒu)” means “has/have,” “名 (míng)” means “name” or “fame,” so “有名 (yǒumíng)” means “has one’s name (heard by others) /has fame,” hence “famous.” “很 (hěn)” / “非常 (fēicháng)“ means “very,” and “最 (zuì)” refers to “most.” They are all adverbs, which often pair with an adjective and play the role of emphatic rhetoric in the following sentences.

Example 1:

Zhèlǐ de fēngjǐng hěn yǒumíng.
The scenery here is very famous.

Example 2:

Tā shì yí wèi yǒumíng de lǎoshī.
She is a famous teacher.

2. “著名 (Zhùmíng)” is a more formal equivalent used especially to describe a person, place or thing that is famous for their achievements and most likely a positive reputation.
“著 (Zhù)” means “prominent,” so “著名 (zhùmíng)” means “(has) a prominent name (heard by many)” and is remarkable.

Example 1:

Gùgōng shì Zhōngguó zhùmíng de jiànzhùwù.
The Forbidden City is a remarkable building in China.

Example 2:

Shā shì bǐ yà shì shìjiè zhùmíng de zuòjiā.
Shakespeare is a world-famous writer.

3. “闻名 (Wénmíng)” is a word used in literary Chinese and formal written Chinese. It often used in 4-Character Idioms such as:
“举世闻名 (Jǔshìwénmíng) world famous,” “天下闻名 (tiānxià wénmíng) world famous,” “远近闻名 (yuǎnjìn wénmíng) well-known”
“闻 (Wén)” means “be heard of,” so “闻名 (wénmíng)” means “be known for/ have fame for.”

Example 1:

Zhōngguó de wànlǐchángchéng jǔshìwénmíng.
The Great Wall in China is world-famous.

(Learn One of the Most Famous Sayings Related to the Great Wall: 不到长城非好汉 (bú dào Chángchéng fēi hǎohàn)

Example 2:

Àodàlìyà yǐ gèzhǒng yěshēng dòngwù ér wénmíng.
Australia is famous for all kinds of wild animals.

It’s good to take note of this important aspect of how to properly use the three.
“有名 (Yǒumíng),” can be used as an adjective, while “著名 (zhùmíng)” and “闻名 (wénmíng)” can both be used as a verb and an adjective.
You can say “他是一位有名的教授。(tā shì yí wèi yǒumíng de jiàoshòu.) he is a famous professor,” or “他是一位著名的教授。(tā shì yí wèi zhùmíng de jiàoshòu.) he is a remarkable professor,” both are acceptable usages.
However, you can’t say “他是一位闻名的教授. (tā shì yí wèi wénmíng de jiàoshòu.) ” The correct expression is “他是一位远近闻名的教授。(tā shì yí wèi yuǎnjìn wénmíng de jiàoshòu.) He is a well-known professor.” or is best used when you want to express that someone has a reputation for something, e.g. “他是一位以博学而闻名的教授。(tā shì yí wèi yǐ bóxué ér wénmíng de jiàoshòu.) He is a professor who is famous for his known for his knowledge.”

HSK 3 quiz

Take the quiz to see how well you understood the differences in context by reading the dialogue then comment your answer below.

Lì Li: Nǐ zhīdào Lǐ Xiǎo Lóng mɑ?

Xiǎo Jūn: Dāngrán le, tā shì yǐ Zhōngguó gōngfu ér ______ de dòngzuò yǎnyuán.
小军:当然了,他是以中国功夫而______ 的动作演员。

Please choose the best answer to fill in the blank and make the dialogue complete.

A. 闻名 (Wénmíng)

B. 有名 (Yǒumíng)

C. 著名 (Zhùmíng)

—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 for drawing in her free time.

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