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Versatility of Chinese words

English is full of polysemes which are words that are written in the same way and have multiple related meanings. An example of polysemy would be the words; ‘mole’ – a small burrowing animal, and ‘mole’ – a person burrowing for information without wanting to get found out. However, ‘mole’ – a blemish on the skin is a homonym, i.e. a word spelt and pronounced the same but with an altogether different meaning.

If you want to learn Chinese in China, Keats School in Kunming can prepare you for similar linguistic challenges.


意思 (yisi) is an example of a word in Chinese that has a variety of uses with related meanings that can often lead to confusion for non-native speakers. 意思 (yisi) generally connotes ‘meaning’, for example 这是什么意思? (zhe shi shenme yisi), but depending on how it is used it can also have various nuances in meaning. A common phrase in Chinese is 不好意思 (bu hao yisi) which equates literally as ‘not good meaning’, but would commonly translate as ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’. 不好意思 can also have the meaning of embarrassed. 有意思 (you yisi) or 没意思 (mei yisi) would translate literally as ‘have meaning’ and ‘no meaning’ respectively, but when translated properly take on the meaning of interesting and not interesting. The latter could also connote ‘no meaning’ used, for instance, when someone saw a nonsensical image and wanted to comment on it. In the same way if someone saw something interesting they could comment ‘很有意思’ (hen you yisi) = very interesting.

Then are examples that slightly veer away from the original word but are still related etymologically. 小意思 (xiao yisi), literally ‘small meaning’, has a slightly more complex cultural meaning. We would most likely translate it as ‘a token gesture’, or ‘a small token of appreciation’ with an emphasis on modesty. Someone might self-deprecatingly describe a gift to someone else as a 小意思.

A phrase which is very difficult to explain, let alone translate, is 意思意思 (yisi yisi, lit. trans. meaning meaning) . Again, the general meaning would be a token gesture, with modest connotation, but this time, maybe with a slight emphasis on the action being something that ought to be done as natural. Discussing a colleague’s birthday present some workers might decide to buy somethings a token gesture but also as it would be right and natural to do so – 意思意思.

Here is a well-known joke in Chinese translated into English and with a literal translation to show the confusing humorous element of the conversation:

A student wants to offer his teacher a red envelope with money in. This, ambiguously, could be out of respect for the teacher or maybe with an intent to secure better grades

      Teacher:“你这是什么意思?”       What’s the meaning of this?

  Student:“没什么,意思意思。”     Nothing, meaning meaning

  Teacher:“你这就不够意思了。”   You giving me this is not enough meaning

  Student:“小意思,小意思。”       Small meaning, small meaning

  Teacher:“你这人真有意思。”      You really have meaning

  Student:“其实也没有别的意思。” Actually there is no special meaning

  Teacher:“那我就不好意思了。”     Well, no good meaning

  Student:“是我不好意思。”             No, it’s me that has no good meaning

A translation without the humour might look like this

Teacher: What’s the meaning of this?

Student: Nothing, just a gesture (as you are my teacher and I respect you I should offer this)

Teacher: This means nothing. (here there is some ambiguity – does the teacher mean not enough money to bribe him/her or that the student should do more to earn respect than offer money.)

Student: It’s just a token gesture.

Teacher: You really are interesting (sarcastically implying the student has intention to bribe the teacher)

Student: Actually, there’s no special meaning

Teacher: Well then, I’m somewhat embarrassed.

Student: No, it’s me that’s embarrassed

So, we can see that Chinese also has polysemy, but can manifest in even simple words that can become quite confusing when the meaning strays further and further from the original source – 有意思。