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What to be careful of when you are in China

Jul. 20, 2016

Seen regularly near low ceilings and doorways, many foreigners would be confused by a sign asking them to “carefully bang head.” This is just one of the many wonderful ways “小心碰头 (xiǎoxīn pèng tóu)” has been mistranslated – others include “carefulness bump head,” “carefully hits to the forehead,” and the more threatening “look out, knock-head.”

So what’s the meaning of this sign? Let’s start with the handy Chinese expression: 小心 (xiǎoxīn).

The basic meaning of the phrase “小心 (xiǎoxīn)” can be used to mean “be careful (of something),” or “look out.” Although it is literally translated to mean “small heart.”

For example, signs reading “小心滑倒 (xiǎoxīn huá dǎo)” can be found near wet floors. Signs like this can be found indoors in public buildings and outdoors in rainy areas. Many times they will be mistranslated into “carefully slide” or “careful of land slide.” But really this sign is a warning that the floor is slippery and to be careful.

warning sign-carefully slide

The confusion here arises because “小心 (xiǎoxīn)” can also be used to mean “carefully” or “carefulness”–as in–drive carefully.

That’s why signs instructing you to “bang head carefully,” “carefully slip and fall down,” and “fall into water carefully” are common in China.

“碰 (pèng)” means “bang” or “knock,” while “头 (tóu)” is the word for “head.” So, instead of misguidedly commanding you to hit your head carefully, this example should read: “be careful of banging your head,” or more formally, “mind your head.”

Examples:

Wàimiàn fēng dà, xiǎoxīn zháoliáng.
外面        风   大,小心      着凉。
The wind is so strong, be careful not to catch a cold.

Búyào dǎ diànhuà, xiǎoxīn kāichē.
不要     打   电话,小心      开车。
Do not make phone calls, drive carefully.

Nǐ yīnggāi xiǎoxīn yì diǎn, zhidào ma?
你    应该   小心   一 点, 知道   吗?
You ought to be more careful, you know.

Quiz:

1. A sign marked “小心碰头 (xiǎoxīn pèng tóu)” would warn someone to:
A. Mind your face
B. Mind your head
C. Be careful of slipping
D. Be careful of hot water
See Answer Analysis

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