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How to express different levels of understanding: 理解 VS 了解

Oct. 8, 2020

As in English, in Chinese there are different ways to talk about understanding something. In English you might say, “I get it,” or, “Can you comprehend this?” or, “She understands that,” etc.

In Chinese, “理解(lǐjiě)” and “了解(liǎojiě)” are two verbs, both of which mean, “to know and understand”. However, there’s a difference: “了解” has a broader meaning and scope than “理解”. “了解” means “to understand” in the general, broader, and even superficial sense, but “理解” indicates a deeper comprehension.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

Example:

wǒ hěn liǎojiě tā.
我很了解他。
I understand him well.

In this case, “understand” just means knowing his name, what he likes, maybe what his job is, etc. In other words, more surface-level information superficial things.

wǒ lǐjiě tā wèishéme zhème zuò.
我理解他为什么这么做。
I understand why he did this.

Here, the “understand” means the speaker comprehends what happened at a deeper level, beyond just the facts that everyone knows.

Let’s look at another usage of “理解(lǐjiě)”, when its meaning of, “understand” is used to suggest allowance, tolerance, etc.

Example:

zhè jiàn shì shuāngfāng dōu yǒu cuò, dàjiā xiānghù lǐjiè yíxià.
这件事双方都有错,大家相互理解一下。
Both sides are wrong in this matter, please understand each other.

HSK 3 quiz

Please choose the best answer to fill in the blank.

A. 理解(lǐjiě)

B. 了解(liǎojiě)

1.wǒ xué zhōngwén shì wèile gèng hǎo de______zhōngguó wénhuà.
我学中文是为了更好的______中国文化。

2.zhè jiàn shì shì wǒ zuò cuòle, xīwàng nǐ ______yíxià.
这件事是我做错了,希望你______一下。

3.wǒ bù______tā de fǎnyìng wèishéme zhème dà.
我不______他的反应为什么这么大。

4.wǒ xiǎng shìzhe qù______tā.
我想试着去______他。

See Answer Analysis

You May Want to Learn More:

It’s déjà vu “all over again”: How and when to use “再” and “又”
How to Properly Use 以前(yǐqián) and 从前(cóngqián)? Take the Quiz!
A Helpful HSK Quiz on Using “也 (Yě)” and “还 (Hái)” in Chinese

HSK 1 quiz

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