This article is written by one of the language teachers at italki                                                      Image by martinak15 (CC by 2.0)


Surely in every country, and every culture, there are some very commonly used words –  common according to their literal meanings – which also have dark meanings that are tacitly understood among native speakers. If people who are not aware of the hidden meanings use these words incorrectly, they may insult themselves, or even other people, unknowingly.

The following Chinese terms all have dark meanings. Some of them have existed for a long time, so you can find their hidden meanings in a dictionary, but some, although well known among Chinese people, are not mentioned in any dictionary… Lets take a look!


1.     戴绿帽子(Wearing a green hat)

If you are traveling in China, you might notice a curious thing – you will never find a Chinese man wearing a green hat. Let it be a warning to you: no matter how curious you are, you’d better not ask them why they don’t wear a green hat! The reason is, in Chinese culture, wearing green hat has a dark meaning: the one wearing it was cuckolded. And, be sure you don’t wear one yourself, either.

The source is a story from the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang enacted a law, which required men who worked in the prostitution trade to wear green hats. Later, it became common to say about man whose wife had an affair, that she made her husband wear a green hat. It’s best to stay away from those green hats!


2.     吃软饭(Eating soft rice)

No one likes to eat rice that’s hard because it’s not cooked enough, but if you are a man you cannot say: “I like eating soft rice,” because eating soft rice has a dark meaning: it means a man who is supported financially by a woman (other than his own mother). It’s traditional, in practically every culture, that a man should be the breadwinner for the family, so if the wife becomes the breadwinner, her husband will be called “a man who eats soft rice.” Of course, that’s a big insult, both for the husband and the wife. This doesn’t only refer to a husband and wife situation – any man who gets financial support from a woman will be called “a man who eats soft rice”.


3.     小姐(Miss)

What? Calling a young lady “miss” is wrong? Yes, you need to watch out for this.

Generally speaking, if you call a lady “Miss” together with her surname, that’s no problem, but if you call a female stranger “miss”, you might very well offend her. The dark meaning of “miss” is a woman who works as a prostitute. So don’t misunderstand, if your Chinese friend tries to warn you: “She is a miss,” he or she actually means she is a bad girl.


Then if you try to call a waitress’ attention in a Chinese restaurant or bar, how should you address her? Play it safe – 小姐is always risky, so call her “服务员(server)” instead.

Also, you should know, that the dark meaning of “Miss” is treated more seriously in northern and northeast Chinese cities such as Beijing and Harbin; in southern China such as Shanghai or Guangzhou, though people also know its dark meaning, they won’t be as upset as northern girls when they are called “小姐”.


4.飞机场 (Airport)

What’s wrong with a Chinese airport?

Well, airport started having a dark meaning not so long ago, maybe the last 15 to 20 years. After China reopened her door to the whole world in 1978, Chinese audiences have been exposed to more and more Hollywood movies. Nobody knows who was the first Chinese man that claimed: “Compared with western girls, Chinese girls’ chests are as flat as airports,” but, nowadays, if a man says something like this: “Oh! She is an airport!” – everyone knows what he is talking about.


5.     恐龙(Dinosaur)and 青蛙(Frog)

Image by by Dave Catchpole (CC by 2.0)

Dinosaur and frog started to have dark meanings after social networking became popular in China.

Young people like to make friends through the internet. Normally they keep such friendships strictly online, but some of them cannot resist the desire to meet each other “in the real world.” Since their desire to meet is so strong, no doubt they imagine the opposite one is very attractive, but sometimes there is a big difference between one’s fantasy and reality.


Sometimes, boys imagine, the girl hidden by the internet is a beauty, but after meeting her, they’re shocked to learn the truth. In their own words: “as shocking as if I’d met a dinosaur!”


So the dark meaning of ‘dinosaur’ is “ugly girl met on internet.” And, for ‘frog’,“ugly boy met on internet.”


A useful list for some other dark meanings

Chinese words Literal meaning Dark meaning
二or二百五 2 or 250 stupid
yellow obscene
破鞋 worn out shoes loose woman
sun f**k
穿小鞋 make somebody wear small shoes make things hard for somebody

As you can see from these examples, learning a new language involves more than just studying vocabulary and grammar. Every language has its dark meanings, but it is important to know these other meanings so you don't accidentally make a mistake. Hopefully this article will help prevent you from making a Chinese language mix-up!