Know “电灯泡 (Diàndēngpào)” for When You May be an Unwanted Guest

Chinese General diandengpao

An essential part of learning Chinese, or any other foreign language, is to follow the popular slang of contemporary life. Much of this I have learned by watching popular Chinese dramas and comedy shows, just as many Chinese people learned English slang through watching Friends. One spoken term I heard on TV and asked my Chinese teacher about is “电灯泡 (diàndēngpào)”. My teacher explained to the class what this popular expression means and today I’ll share the meaning with you!

In short, “电灯泡 (diàndēngpào)” means “third wheel”. Or, a friend who gets in the way of two lovers on a date or romantic situation. The origin of the term, which comes from Cantonese, doesn’t translate to “third wheel”, oddly enough it translates to a “light bulb”.

The popular, everyday phrase “电灯泡 (diàndēngpào)” comes from an old Cantonese saying:

电灯胆 – 唔通气 = electric light – no ventilation.

电灯胆 = 电灯泡 (diàndēngpào) = bulb;

唔通气 = 不通气 (bù tōng qì) =no ventilation.

“电灯泡 (diàndēngpào) bulb”, is a vacuum object. Air cannot go through it.

In Cantonese, “唔通气 (én tōng qì)” also means that someone doesn’t know the ways of the world and doesn’t have the sense and adaptiveness to get along with people. In Mandarin Chinese, we say “不通气 (bù tōng qì)” to replace of “唔通气 (én tōng qì)”. Later on, people gave “电灯泡 (diàn dēng pào)” a similar meaning in use. “电灯泡 (diàn dēng pào)” is used to express a person who does not understand the world or intrudes into some situations that are not suitable for her/him.This kind of person would therefore not know how to act and behave in the presence of a couple and may be an unwelcomed “third wheel” in that situation.

So, if you’re “in the way”, why are you a “light bulb”? It’s simple! If a couple wants some romantic “alone time” and you are there, it’s like being a bright distraction in a dark, romantic.

Nǐ bàmā chūmén yuēhuì qù le, nǐ kě qiānwàn bié qù dāng diàndēngpào.
你 爸妈   出门      约会   去 了, 你 可   千万     别  去  当      电灯泡。
Your parents are going out on a date. You’d better not go and be the third wheel.

Jīntiān shì qíngrénjiē, wǒ bùxiǎng chūmén dāng diàndēngpào.
今天   是    情人节,  我  不想     出门        当      电灯泡。
Today is the Valentine’s Day. I don’t want to go out and be the third wheel.

So, now you know what to call yourself if you are intruding on someone else’s romantic time, or what to call that intruder into your own intimate evening. It’s not the best situation to be in either way, but it’s an important Chinese term to know how to use in daily conversation!

1. In which situation would you be the “电灯泡 (diàndēngpào)”?
A. Your best friends from college get together to see a movie and have dinner.
B. You go on a “double date” with your girlfriend, your best friend, and his girlfriend.
C. Your friend sets you up on a “blind date”.
D. You ask to join your sister and her fiancée’s romantic dinner.

―Written by Elena Trevino―
Elena Trevino is a Mandarin Chinese student in Beijing studying the language to get a head start in international trade. She is most interested in seeing how Mandarin is affecting the fashion industry throughout the world as Chinese shoppers are now such a large factor. She is frequently attending fashion industry events in Beijing and throughout China.

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