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Confucius Institute

Tucking in to multiple meanings

26 May 2017

We explore the different meanings of the Chinese word "chī".

Chinese cartoon

In Chinese“吃( chī)” literally means to eat, but it means much more than just eat. For example, we can say: 吃苹果 (chī píng guǒ) eat apples; 吃饭(chī fàn) have dinner; 吃药 (chī yào) take medicine. Here is how to avoid a misunderstanding.

Over time, 吃 (chī ) has taken on many extended meanings. For instance: 吃(chī) also means to stand, suffer, or bear, such as 吃不消(chī bú xiāo) be unable to stand; 吃亏(chī kuī), suffer losses; 吃苦(chī kǔ), bear or suffer hardship. Besides, certain Chinese expressions concerning 吃(chī) have both basic and extended meanings. You can make a distinction between the two depending on the context. If you are attending some party or dinner and hear someone say “我吃素(Wǒ chīsù)”, it means that he does not eat meat. But if you hear “我不是吃素的(Wǒ búshì chīsù de)”, it means that he is not to be bullied or he is not that easy to be taken advantage of.

Another interesting use of the word ‘eat’ is 吃醋 (chī cù ), which means literally ‘to eat vinegar’ and is based on a story from the Tang Dynasty era. According to the Shanghai Daily: Emperor Taizong decided to reward his chancellor Fang Xuanling by giving him a choice of beautiful women from his concubines. Fang's wife was angry and jealous, however, and refused to accept a new woman to share her husband's bed. The emperor himself was annoyed and gave Fang's wife a choice: either accepts new, young lovers for her husband, or drinks a cup of poisoned wine and ends her life. She chose to drink poison, which turned out to be vinegar in the emperor's test of her courage and devotion to her husband.

Hence, ‘eating vinegar’ has come to signify a woman's romantic jealousy, so to ‘eat vinegar’ essentially means to be jealous in a romantic context. For example:

dāng tā fā xiàn tā ài bié rén de shí hòu ,tā chī cù le.
He was jealous when he discovered that she loved someone else.

Therefore, whenever you come across吃 (chī ) in Chinese, you must figure out its meaning by considering the related context. Otherwise you may look very foolish indeed.

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