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Stop! Think Before You Use 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) or 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén)

Jun. 23, 2017

Chinese General Shameful and Embarrassing

When teaching my foreign students the importance of using the correct Mandarin Chinese speaking tones, I often use the example of “问 (wèn) ask” and “吻 (wěn) kiss” to show how a change of tone can completely change the meaning of a word. This speaking mistake can create an embarrassing situation. Today, I will introduce two Chinese phrases that are similar in their literal meaning, but used with different intentions. These expressions are: 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) and 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén).

Recently, a user on the Quora discussion forum asked about the meaning of the phrases 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) and 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén). I thought that there needs to be clarity and a friendly warning before Chinese learners confuse these two Mandarin expressions. I’d like to share the difference with you. Be careful!

不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) means shameless, faceless. It is used to refer to someone that does not seem to care for his/her reputation.

见不得人 (jiànbùdérén) means cannot be seen by people, unpresentable.

The latter is generally neutral; however the former is negative and could be seen as a taboo word in China.

As a rule, you’d better not use 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) in your daily conversations because it’s a serious insult in Chinese, and 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén) can be used when you feel embarrassed, shy or ashamed and don’t want to go out and face others.

As you probably know, the concept of “face” and how you’re viewed amongst peers is crucial in Chinese culture. As a Mandarin Chinese learner, you must be careful about what you say and how you say it. Some Chinese phrases are good to know, but you never want to use personally. One of these sensitive phrases is 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn), which means “shameless” or to have no awareness of your hurtful or shameful actions. This phrase is taken very seriously in China and may be considered a serious insult of character here. Is that partner a cheater? 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn)!

不(): not; no; (negative prefix).

要脸(yàoliǎn): to care for or be concerned about saving one’s face.

On the other hand, 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén) is generally used in a lighter or self-deprecating context. The translation of 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén) means that we “cannot be seen” or that we “cannot see others”. We use it to show embarrassment or bashfulness, often at our skills, some bad deed or the way we look. We may use 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén) jokingly or refer to ourselves as unfit to go out in public or show our talents on stage. 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén) is not as insulting as 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) but may be used in an undesirable situation as well.

Examples:
Zhè méiyǒu shénme jiànbùdérén de.
这    没有       什么     见不得人    的.
There’s nothing shameful or shady going on.

Tāmen zuò zhe jiànbùdérén de shì.
他们      做  着    见不得人   的  事.
They are clowning around.

So, as I teach my students, it’s always good to know these sensitive phrases such as 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn) to be sure that it is not being confused with a more playful phrase such as 见不得人 (jiànbùdérén). You’ve been warned!

Quiz:

1. Which of the following is a serious and impolite phrase in Chinese?

A. 见不得人 (jiànbùdé rén)

B. 不要脸 (búyàoliǎn)!

C. 可怕 (kěpà)

See Answer

―Written by Becky Zhang―
Becky Zhang is a teacher at eChineseLearning.com. She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!

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