Chinese Euphemisms: The Advanced Phrases You Need for Smooth Sailing Through 15 Delicate Topics
Imagine you’re talking with a friend.
All of a sudden, she blurts out “I killed my dog last night.”
What?! You’re shocked—and quite honestly a little bit scared.
In the end, it turns out your friend actually had to put her dog down last night.
Phew! Still sad, but a lot less crazy.
Now, a native English speaker probably wouldn’t make that mistake.
But what about when you’re talking in Chinese?
When you need to describe something slightly uncomfortable or unpleasant to your Chinese friends—do you know the culturally appropriate way to do so?
When you’re in a formal setting, do you know the polite way to express yourself?
After reading this post, you’ll be prepared for it all! Understanding Chinese euphemisms can help you avoid uncomfortable circumstances, and learn how to speak about them in a culturally sensitive way.
Why Learn Advanced Phrases to Express Chinese Euphemisms?
You may be a master at Chinese tones and know all the essential sentence structures, but euphemisms are advanced Chinese phrases that you may not learn in a classroom.
Advanced Understanding of Language and Culture
Similar to Chinese colloquial slang words or the infamous Chinese idioms (chengyu), knowing Chinese euphemisms will often require an advanced understanding of not only the Chinese language, but also history and culture.
Euphemisms will often refer to a common story or historical figure. In Chinese, it is very normal for characters with similar sounds to replace each other. For example, in the phrase 她是个鸡 (Tā shì yīgè jī)—which literally means “She is a chicken,” but actually means “lady of the night,” 鸡 (chicken) replaces 妓 (Jì), which means prostitute.
The best way to have an advanced understanding of the Chinese language and culture is to create an authentic immersion environment for learning. Short of traveling to China, I recommend FluentU!
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Allows You to Speak About Topics in a Subtle Way
Euphemisms exist in languages to allow us to speak about conventionally taboo topics. When someone says “He’s gone to a better place,” “We had a talk with our children about the birds and the bees,” or “I have a food baby,” we understand that these euphemisms are not literal in English. They describe something else entirely—like death, sex, or in the last example, eating too much or feeling overweight.
It is especially important in Chinese culture to be wary of certain topics due to the emphasis on 留面子 (Liú miànzi – saving face). From preserving national face to personal interactions, Chinese euphemisms can help with saving your face.
Universal Topics vs. Specific Language Topics
Euphemism phrases will slightly vary in different languages, but there are universally sensitive topics that most languages will cover. Depending on the culture and certain people, the opinion of what phrase is considered a euphemism will vary. As euphemisms are phrases that are meant to replace other words with negative connotations of offensive or unpleasant topics, what people consider offensive can widely differ.
An example of this in English is saying “She is unpleasant to look at.” Some people may consider this is a euphemism, while others might think this is a very direct and hurtful way to refer to someone you think is unattractive.
Below are some common Chinese euphemism phrases you should familiarize yourself with to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and “save face.”
Chinese Euphemisms: The Advanced Phrases You Need for Smooth Sailing Through 15 Delicate Topics
1. Death 死亡 (Sǐwáng)
One of the universally common topics where euphemisms are used is death. The literal translation for this one is “left the world,” and is similar to the English equivalent of saying “She passed away.”
我奶奶去世了. (Wǒ nǎinai qùshìle.)
(My grandmother passed away.)
见阎王 (Jiàn yánwáng)
A not-so-kind way of saying someone you dislike has died, the translation of this is “Gone to see Hades.” This could be similar to the English euphemism “Burning in hell.”
他去见阎王了. (Tā qù jiàn yánwángle.)
(He went to see Hades.)
见马克思 (Jiàn mǎkèsī)
Translated as “Going to see Marx,” this witty phrase has its origins in the history of communism in China. Starting out as a slang that Chinese communists used to refer to death, it is now relatively common and has a slightly humorous tone when used. A similar comparison to an English death euphemism would be somewhere between “He/she joined his/her ancestors.” and “He/she went to meet his maker.”
我爸去见马克思了. (Wǒ bà qù jiàn mǎkèsīle.)
(My dad went to see Marx.)
2. Murder 杀死 (Shā sǐ)
Similar to if you were to hear “I’ll do away with you!,” the term 干掉 is a death threat. You may hear this phrase appear in Chinese movies and TV shows.
我把他干掉了. (Wǒ bǎ tā gàndiàole.)
(I did away with him.)
送你上西天 (Sòng nǐ shàng xītiān)
送你上西天 translates to “Send you to Western Pure Land.” In Buddhism, Pure Land is a place of bliss where people go when they die.
Sometimes this will be said in a joking way, in a fight similar to “I’ll kill you!” (even when you do not literally mean it.) So don’t be alarmed if you do hear this!
送你上西天! (Sòng nǐ shàng xītiān!)
(I’ll kill him!)
3. Suicide 自杀 (Zìshā)
自我了断 (Zìwǒ liǎoduàn)
Literally meaning “self shortening,” this is a gentle way to refer to suicide. An English comparison would be to say “She wanted to end her life” instead of “She wanted to kill herself.”
她想自我了断. (Tā xiǎng zìwǒ liǎoduàn.)
(She wants to end her life.)
Similar to the above, 轻生 is another indirect way of saying suicide, and translates to “light life,” as in someone values their life lightly enough to end it.
他有轻生的想法. (Tā yǒu qīngshēng de xiǎngfǎ.)
(He is thinking of suicide.)
4. Physical Unattractiveness 丑 (Chǒu)
恐龙妹 (Kǒnglóng mèi)
This relatively new phrase, which literally translates to “dinosaur’s sister,” has gained popularity due to the Internet. Reserved for talking about ladies, it is a product of the phenomenon of online dating and the whole idea of meeting people for the first time after assuming how they look from pictures.
别给我介绍到恐龙妹! (Bié gěi wǒ jièshào dào kǒnglóng mèi!)
(Don’t introduce me to an ugly girl!)
Now that we have picked on the ladies, here is a phrase for describing the unattractive men out there—in looks or personality. Similar to the English saying “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to meet your prince,” in Chinese 癞蛤蟆 means “toad.”
他真是个癞蛤蟆. (Tā zhēnshi gè làihámá.)
(He is such a toad!)
5. Weight Gain 增重 (Zēng zhòng)
In historical Chinese times and in more recent events in China, being larger meant you had enough money to buy food. Someone with a larger built can be described as 富态 (Fùtai) or “in a rich state,” and to say someone has gained weight, you would use 发福了 (Fāfúle). The literal translation to this is “Send blessings!”
他发福了. (Tā fāfúle.)
(He’s getting fat!)
啤酒肚 (Píjiǔdù), 将军肚 (Jiāngjūn dù), 罗汉肚 (Luóhàn dù)
Just as in the English “beer bellies,” in Chinese you can use 啤酒肚 (Píjiǔdù). Another way to say the same thing is 将军肚 (Jiāngjūn dù), which translates directly to “General’s belly” and 罗汉肚 (Luóhàn dù), meaning “pork belly.”
他这几年长了个啤酒肚/将军肚/罗汉肚. (Tā zhè jǐ nián zhǎngle gè píjiǔdù/jiāngjūn dù/luóhàn dù.)
(He has a beer belly.)
6. Intoxication 喝醉 (Hē zuì)
There is not a great euphemism for this in Chinese, but two nicer ways of saying someone is intoxicated is to simply use 喝多了 (Hē duōle) or 喝高了 (Hē gāole). The first literally means “drank too much,” and the second, “drank high.”
他喝多了/高了. (Tā hē duōle/gāole.)
(He is drunk.)
7. Mental Illness 精神病 (Jīngshénbìng)
神经病 (Shénjīngbìng) is a play on words of 精神病 (Jīngshénbìng) by switching and replacing a character for a similar sounding alternative. This is not the nicest thing to say about people, and is often used as an insult. The English translation is “mental disorder.”
他是个神经病！(Tā shìgè shénjīngbìng!)
(He is a crazy person!)
脑子有问题 (Nǎozi yǒu wèntí)
Most euphemisms for mental illness in Chinese are negative, and are often used to insult others. The “politically correct” way to say it would be the above, 精神病 (Jīngshénbìng). I am not advising you to use 神经病 (Shénjīngbìng) or 脑子有问题 (Nǎozi yǒu wèntí), but instead want to make you aware of these phrases in case you do hear it in a conversation.
脑子有问题 (Nǎozi yǒu wèntí) means “the brain has problems,” and depending on the situation can also mean someone who has done something stupid.
你脑子有问题吗？(Nǐ nǎozi yǒu wèntí ma?)
(Does your brain have problems?/Are you stupid?)
8. Stupidity 愚蠢 (yúchǔn) or 傻 (shǎ)
A way to say “fool,” 笨蛋 (bèndàn) literally translates to “stupid egg.” This phrase, along with 脑子进水 (Nǎozi jìn shuǐ) are both seen as insulting.
你是个大笨蛋！(Nǐ shìgè dà bèndàn!)
(You are a huge fool!)
脑子进水 (Nǎozi jìn shuǐ)
This phrase literally means “water in the brain” and does not need to have much more explaining as to why it might come off as rude! It is usually used to describe an isolated situation, for example, someone who may usually be rational but suddenly started acting stupid.
她脑子进水了。(Tā nǎozi jìn shuǐle.)
(Water has entered her brain./She has done something stupid.)
9. Extramarital Affairs 外遇 (Wàiyù)
出轨 (Chūguǐ) is a subtle way to refer to infidelity as “derail” or going “off the tracks.”
(She has gone off the tracks./She has had an extramarital affair.)
Meaning “new happiness,” this phrase refers to a new lover. It can be seen as slightly more positive than simply saying “I cheated.”
我离婚因为我有新欢了。(Wǒ líhūn yīnwèi wǒ yǒu xīnhuānle.)
(I divorced because I have a new love.)
一人劈腿儿 (Yīrén pītuǐ er)
A slightly comical way of looking at extramarital affairs, 一人劈腿儿 (Yīrén pītuǐ er) means that “someone has done the leg splits.”
他们两，一人劈腿儿了。(Tāmen liǎng, yīrén pītuǐ erle.)
(Between the two of them, one of them did the splits./Between their relationship, one person cheated.)
10. Going to the Bathroom 上厕所 (Shàng cèsuǒ)
Directly translated to “wash hands,” this comes from the toilet being called 洗手间 (Xǐshǒujiān), as in the washroom. This is an ambiguous term that simply means you need to do something in the bathroom, whether this be washing your hands or not.
我要去洗手. (Wǒ yào qù xǐshǒu.)
(I have to go wash my hands./I have to go to the bathroom.)
A slightly more direct way of using the restroom, this translates to “relieve hands,” and is the same as saying “relieve myself” in English.
她去解手了. (Tā qù jiěshǒule.)
(She went to relieve herself./She went to the toilet.)
11. Menstruation 来月经 (Lái yuèjīng)
大姨妈来了(dà yímā láile), 老朋友来了 (lǎo péngyǒu láile), 喜事来了, (xǐshì láile)
All variations of the same idea, the above three phrases are ways to talk about “that time of the month.” The literal translations are “Older aunt is coming” (大姨妈来了 – dà yímā láile), “Old friend is coming” (老朋友来了 – lǎo péngyǒu láile), and “Good things are coming” (喜事来了 – xǐshì láile).
她大姨妈来了/老朋友来了/喜事来了。 (Tā dà yímā láile/lǎo péngyǒu láile/xǐshì láile.)
(Her period is coming.)
This means “to go on public holiday,” and is also a subtle way to talk about a woman’s period without having to mention the exact words.
她例假 了. (Tā lìjià le.)
(She is on public holiday./She is on her period.)
12. Sex 性交 (Xìngjiāo)
Just as in English, where we have phrases from “made love” to more ambiguous terms like “hooked up,” Chinese euphemisms have very similar characteristics when it comes to this category.
发生关系 (Fāshēng guānxì)
This directly translates to “had relations,” and has the same meaning as English.
他们俩发生关系了。 (Tāmen liǎ fāshēng guānxìle.)
(The two of them had relations.)
This phrase translates literally to “go to bed,” but means “They slept together.”
他与她上床了. (Tā yǔ tā shàngchuángle.)
(He went to bed with her.)
行了房事 (Xíngle fángshì)
行了房事 (Xíngle fángshì) simply means “did room matters,” and is another way to talk about sexual relations without having to be too direct. A similar saying in English would be “they did the deed.”
他们行了房事。(Tāmen xíngle fángshì.)
(They did bedroom matters.)
正快活着 (Zhèng kuàihuózhe)
Similar to saying “they are fooling around,” 正快活着 (Zhèng kuàihuózhe) is an informal way of describing sex.
他们正快活着. (Tāmen zhèng kuàihuózhe.)
(They are having a good time.)
The direct translation is “make love” and does not need much more explanation to it!
昨天晚上， 我们做了爱。 (Zuótiān wǎnshàng, wǒmen zuòle ài.)(Last night, we made love.)
打野战 (Dǎ yězhàn)
打野战 (Dǎ yězhàn) means “guerrilla warfare,” and is a slightly humorous way to talk about people who decide to “do the act” outside in public places. Once again, not something I would personally advise, but if you hear this, you will understand they are probably not talking about a serious war.
他们去打野战。 (Tāmen qù dǎ yězhàn.)(They engaged in guerrilla warfare./They went to have sex in public.)
13. Sex Worker 性工作 (Xìng gōngzuò)
Similar to how in English there is a variation from “paid escort” to “prostitute,” the Chinese terms for sex worker will vary as well in meaning.
出台女 (Chūtái nǚ)
This directly translates to “coming on stage girl,” and is usually used to refer to a paid escort.
他请了一位出台女. (Tā qǐngle yī wèi chūtái nǚ.)
(He hired an escort.)
鸡 (jī)，鸭 (yā)
As mentioned in the beginning, 鸡 (jī), the word for chicken refers to a “lady of the night” because of the similarity to the word for prostitute: 妓 (Jì). 鸭 (yā) translates to “duck,” and is used to to refer to male prostitutes.
她/他是个鸡／鸭. (Tā shìgè jī/yā.)
(She/He is a chicken/duck./She is a prostitute.)
青楼女 (Qīnglóu nǚ)
青楼 (Qīnglóu) was the term for a brothel in ancient China, and the name has stuck. 青楼女 (Qīnglóu nǚ) directly translates to “Brothel woman,” or simply put, a prostitute.
那青楼女很美. (Nà qīnglóu nǚ hěn měi.)
(The girl in the brothel is beautiful.)
站街女 (Zhàn jiē nǚ)
Directly translated to “standing street woman,” this phrase is reference to how some prostitutes will find work. It has a slightly more negative tone to it, and could be similar to the English phrase “a woman of the streets” or “a woman of the night.”
她是个站街女. (Tā shìgè zhàn jiē nǚ.)
(She is a woman of the streets.)
This is a discreet way to talk about an escort or a hired service, and simply means “miss” or “lady.”
他请了一位小姐. (Tā qǐngle yī wèi xiǎojiě.)
(He invited a miss.)
14. Fired Employees 解雇 (Jiěgù)
被炒鱿鱼 (Bèi chǎoyóuyú)
A humorous way to describe something usually thought of as negative, 被炒鱿鱼 (Bèi chǎoyóuyú) translates to “turned into fried squid.”
昨天，我被炒鱿鱼了. (Zuótiān, wǒ bèi chǎoyóuyúle.)
(Yesterday, I was fried squid./I was fired yesterday.)
下岗 (Xiàgǎng) is a subtle way to say “fired,” and translates to “laid off.” It is a polite way of referencing other people and is a nice phrase to use instead of 解雇 (Jiěgù).
他们都下岗了. (Tāmen dōu xiàgǎngle.)
(They were both laid off.)
15. Jobless 失业 (Shīyè)
Instead of saying someone is jobless, 待业 (dàiyè) spins the same idea into a positive light of “waiting for work.”
他这几个月在待业. (Tā zhè jǐ gè yuè zài dàiyè.)
(These past few months, he has been waiting for work.)
赋闲在家 (Fùxián zàijiā)
Another nice way of saying someone is unemployed is 赋闲在家 (Fùxián zàijiā), meaning “staying at home.”
她现在赋闲在家. (Tā xiànzài fùxián zàijiā.)
(She is currently staying home./She is currently unemployed.)
家里蹲 (Jiālǐ dūn)
A little less positive than the two phrases above, but still not as direct as saying “unemployed,” 家里蹲 (Jiālǐ dūn) literally means “at home squatting.” This has a undertone of laziness, compared to the other two more uplifting ways of saying “unemployed.”
夫妇俩都在家里蹲. (Fūfù liǎ dōu zài jiālǐ dūn.)
(The couple both are at home squatting./The couple both are unemployed.)
Of course, there are many other euphemisms for countless other topics. These are just a few common ones that you will hear around the street.
From the embarrassing to the taboo, these phrases can help you feel a little more confident when you are experiencing everyday situations in Chinese.