“Don’t play dumb!” This English phrase has a Chinese equivalent that, although its meaning is the same, has a very different literal translation with unique origins. The Chinese “装蒜 (zhuāngsuàn)” literally means “to pretend garlic” which may sound kind of funny in English. It is used to mean “feign ignorance” and “make a pretense.” Read the examples below to better understand how it is used in Chinese.
Bié zhuāngsuàn le, nǐ zhīdào wǒ zài shuō shénme.
别 装蒜 了,你 知道 我 在 说 什么。
Don’t play dumb, you know what I’m saying.
Nǐ hái zhuāngsuàn, nǐ yǐwéi wǒ shǎ a?
你 还 装蒜， 你 以为 我 傻 啊？
You’re still feigning ignorance, do you think I’m stupid?
Nǐ bié zhuāngsuàn le, wǒ shénme dōu zhīdào le.
你 别 装蒜 了，我 什么 都 知道 了。
Don’t you act coy, I know everything.
By now you may be wondering why “pretending garlic” means the same thing as playing dumb. Read this interesting story set in the Qing Dynasty about deceiving an emperor to find out!
Listen to the Story:
Xiàngchuán yǒuyìnián chūntiān, Qīngcháo de Qiánlóng Huángdì dào nánfāng mǒudì xúnchá,
相传 有一年 春天， 清朝 的 乾隆 皇帝 到 南方 某地 巡查，
According to legend, the Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor went on an inspection tour to the south during spring one year.
tā kàndào dì lǐ yí piàn qīngsuàn zhǎngde fēicháng hǎokàn, duìcǐ zànbùjuékǒu.
他 看到 地 里 一 片 青蒜 长得 非常 好看， 对此 赞不绝口。
He saw a garlic leaf on the ground that looked very beautiful, and was full of praise over it.
Dìèrnián dōngtiān, Qiánlóng yòu qù xúnchá,
第二年 冬天， 乾隆 又 去 巡查，
The following year Qianlong went back to the south for inspection,
Yíwèi guānyuán jìde Qiánlóng xǐhuān kàn zhěng piàn suànmiáo, kěxī dōngtiān qīngsuàn hái méiyǒu
因为 官员 记得 乾隆 喜欢 看 整 片 蒜苗， 可惜 冬天 青蒜 还 没有
An official remembered that Qianlong liked to see garlic bolts, but it was a pity as none of the winter garlic leaves had sprouted yet.
Wéile tǎohǎo Qiánlóng Huángdì, guānyuán xiǎng le yí gè bànfǎ.
为了 讨好 乾隆 皇帝， 官员 想 了一 个 办法。
For the sake of currying Qianlong Emperor’s favor, the official thought of a solution.
Tā mìngrén bǎ xǔduō shuǐxiān yízhí dào yìqǐ,
他 命人 把 许多 水仙 移植 到 一起，
He picked many daffodils and transplanted them together,
Yuǎnyuǎn wàng qù, shuǐxiān de yèzǐ yǔ qīngsuàn fēicháng xiāngsì.
远远 望 去， 水仙 的 叶子 与 青蒜 非常 相似。
Looking from a distance, the daffodil leaves looked very similar to garlic leaves.
Huángdì yě yǐwéi zhè shuǐxiān jiùshì qīngsuàn,
皇帝 也 以为 这 水仙 就是 青蒜，
Qianlong thought that the daffodils were his admired garlic leaves.
bìng chēngzàn shuō: “zhè qīngsuàn guǒrán háishì rútóng qùnián yíyàng hǎo a!”
并 称赞 说：“ 这 青蒜 果然 还是 如同 去年 一样 好 啊！”
He approvingly said, “Sure enough this garlic leaf is just as nice as last year!”
Bùjiǔ, zhè wèi guānyuán yīncǐ dédào le shēngqiān.
不久，这 位 官员 因此 得到 了 升迁。
Not long after, because of this, the official got promoted.
Therefore, any time someone was putting up a pretense, the phrase “装蒜 (zhuāngsuàn)” could be used. Because not only did the official deceive the emperor, but also the emperor pretended to know what time garlic leaves sprouted when he clearly didn’t!
Mǎ kè: Wǒ zhēnde bú rènshi nàgè nǚhái’er.
马 克：我 真的 不 认识 那个 女孩儿。
Mark: I really don’t recognize that girl.
Lǐ lì: Nǐ bié zhuāngsuàn.
李丽:你 别 装蒜。
What does Lily mean?
A.She thinks that Mark knows the girl.
B.She doesn’t think that Mark knows the girl.
C.She doesn’t care whether Mark knows the girl or not.
Chinese Mini-Test: 大蒜 (intermediate)
—Written by Jennifer Zhu—
Jennifer Zhu is a professional Chinese teacher from eChineseLearning. She has many years of Chinese language teaching experience and received her B.A. and M.A. in “Teaching Chinese as a Second Language.”