One fascinating effect of China’s continuing growth and modernization on its popular culture is the explosion in slang expressions that has occurred in recent years, in large part because of the use of the Internet by ever-larger numbers of Chinese citizens. As in the United States, wildly creative, funny, and vulgar new slang expressions can become popular overnight as a result of mass exposure online. Posts tagged with “China” on the Schott’s Vocab blog in the New York Times will give you a brief taste of recent developments in Mandarin slang.

If you’re interested in learning much more about Chinese slang, either as part of a serious course of study or just for the hell of it, I highly recommend Eveline Chao’s book Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School, which I’ve been enjoying lately. Many expressions I’ve heard my Chinese friends and in-laws use quite frequently (disclaimer: not the dirty ones!) but didn’t fully understand are given a clear and thorough explanation in the book. If you want to really speak like a native and have fun with the dynamic, living language that is contemporary Mandarin, this book is a great resource. Here is a selection of some widely used expressions, along with some of my personal favorites that I’ve come across so far, in both my own daily life and her book.

For more Chinese slang expressions, read my later post, Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 2: Flirting, Dating, Romance, Marriage, and Heartbreak. Comprehensive learning resources, advice, reviews, and links for people interested in Chinese can be found on our Chinese Language Resources for Travelers and Students page.

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Click on the pronunciation key for each expression to hear an MP3 recording of it. (Warning: Keep in mind that although my pronunciation is considered very good, I am not a native speaker of Chinese.)

加油 (jiāyóu)
literal meaning: “add fuel” (add + fuel)
colloquial usage: “Go!” or “Let’s go!” (a way of offering encouragement, e.g. to players in a sporting event)

()
literal meaning: ruthless, strong (e.g. wine)
colloquial usage: “cool” (a loanword from English slang)

给力 (gěilì)
literal meaning: “give power” (give + power)
colloquial usage: “cool,” “awesome,” “exciting” (northern slang)

无聊 (wúliáo)
literal meaning: “nothing to chat (about)” (nothing/lacking + chat)
colloquial usage: “boring” or “bored”; also used to playfully scold someone who’s making a joke of questionable taste

郁闷 (yùmèn)
literal meaning: “melancholy,” “depressed” (melancholy + depressed)
colloquial usage: “boring”/“bored,” “depressing”/“depressed,” “(I’m) bored/depressed!”

白吃 (báichī)
literal meaning: “blank imbecile” (white/blank + stupid/imbecile)
colloquial usage: “idiot,” “dumbass”

笨蛋 (bèndàn)
literal meaning: “stupid egg” (stupid + egg)
colloquial usage: “dummy” (not necessarily harsh; often affectionate)

滚蛋 (gǔndàn), 滚开 (gǔnkāi)
literal meaning: “roll egg,” “roll away” (roll + egg, roll + away)
colloquial usage: “Go away!”, “Get out of here!”, “Get lost!”

(), 土包子 (tǔbāozi)
literal meaning: 土 = “dirt” or “earth”; 包子 = “steamed bun,” a common food in poor and rural areas (“dirt”; “dirt” + “steamed bun”)
colloquial usage: 土 = “ignorant,” “uncultured,” “rural,” “untrendy,” “out”; 土包子 = “yokel” or “bumpkin” (also, anyone out of touch with or ignorant about modern or trendy things)

土得掉渣 (tǔdediàozhā)
literal meaning: “so rural that [one is] shedding dirt”
colloquial usage: “What/Such a bumpkin!”, “So ignorant/untrendy!”

狗屁 (gǒupì)
literal meaning: “dog fart” (dog + fart/butt)
colloquial usage: “BS!”, “Nonsense!”

废话 (fèihuà)
literal meaning: “wasted words” (waste + words/speech)
colloquial usage: “Nonsense!” or “Duh!” (“Well, of course, you dummy!”, “Thank you, Captain Obvious!”)

瞎说 (xiāshuō)
literal meaning: “speak blindly” (blind + speak)
colloquial usage: “to speak nonsense,” “Nonsense!”

拜托 (bàituō), 帮帮忙 (bāngbāngmáng)
literal meaning: “please”; “help [me] out”
colloquial usage: “Oh, please!”, “Yeah, right!”, “Come on!”, “Gimme a break!” (sarcastic)

吹牛 (chuī niú) [from 吹牛皮 (chuī niúpí)]
literal meaning: “to blow up (inflate) a cow” [“blow up a cowhide”]
colloquial usage: “to brag” (especially when making exaggerated or false claims)

(niú)
literal meaning: cow, ox
colloquial usage: “awesome,” “badass” (For an explanation of the surprisingly vulgar origin of this widely used expression, see Eveline Chao’s book.)

拍马屁 (pāi mǎpì)
literal meaning: “pat the horse’s butt” (pat + horse + butt)
colloquial usage: “flatter” (especially to flatter someone in a position of authority or someone with the power to help you with something)

没劲 (méijìn)
literal meaning: “lacking strength” (lacking/no + strength)
colloquial usage: “lame”

(miàn), 面瓜 (miànguā)
literal meaning: “noodles”; “noodle melon” (noodles + melon)
colloquial usage: “wimpy,” “timid,” “weak”; “wimp,” “wuss,” “coward” (northern slang)

傻瓜 (shǎguā)
literal meaning: “foolish melon”
colloquial usage: “little fool,” “silly billy” (usually affectionate)

三八 (sānbā)
literal meaning: “three eight” (three + eight)
colloquial usage: “silly” (often used to describe feminine silliness), though it can have a stronger, more insulting meaning among some Mainland Chinese

书虫 (shūchóng), 书呆子 (shūdāizi)
literal meaning: “bookbug” (book + bug/insect), “bookish fool” (book + fool/idiot)
colloquial usage: “bookworm,” “nerd,” “a person with no social skills”

In her book, Eveline Chao doesn’t pull any punches; she includes a wide array of vulgar and extremely insulting expressions that I’ve elected to leave out of this post. So if you want to know when people are saying bad things about or to you (or want to be able to dish it out in return), you’ll find her book extremely useful.

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