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The ubiquitous use of the character “吃”

chinese words, learning chinese, eating in china

Mel Patching (from UK)

In my experience of learning Chinese, I have found that the topic of eating plays a significant role in the language. I am often greeted with a considerate 吃饭了吗? (Chīfànle ma? Have you eaten yet?) – because if I have eaten, I must be alright, mustn't I? And there are a great many 成语 (Chéngyǔ/sayings) advising us on what to eat, when, where and how:


(Zǎo chī hǎo, wǔ chī bǎo, wǎn chī shǎo)

 (Eat well in the morning, to satisfaction in the afternoon and only a little in the evening)

However, the more I learn Chinese, the more I find this integral word 吃 (chī) strangely popping up in contexts that are entirely unrelated to eating. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend that went something like this:

Friend: 你中文进步得这么快,我太吃惊了! (Nǐ zhōngwén jìnbù dé zhème kuài, wǒ tài chījīngle!)

Me:  什么?你吃什么菜? (Shénme? Nǐ chī shénme cài?)

Friend: 不是,我是说,"我吃惊了"。  (Búshì, wǒ shì shuō," wǒ chījīngle".)

Me:  "惊"是什么样的菜呢?好吃吗? ("Jīng" shì shénme yàng de cài ne? Hào chī ma?)

Friend: 哈哈,不,吃惊就是 "surprised" 的意思。 (Hāhā, bù, chījīng jiùshì "surprised" de yìsi.)

Me:  哇!能吃surprise吗? (Wa! Néng chī surprise ma?)

Friend: 对,吃一惊,太吃惊了,大吃一惊,都可以。  (Duì, chī yì jīng, tài chījīngle, dàchīyìjīng, dōu kěyǐ.)

Me: 那这个词让我吃惊了! (Nà zhège cí ràng wǒ chījīngle!)

I couldn't understand how "surprise" was something you could eat. But I have discovered it is a popular figure of speech for all sorts of expressions in daily life – kind of similar to English expressions we use such as "Eat your words" or "Eat dirt". Here are some more examples of different ways 吃 is used in daily life:

Expression: 吃醋 (Chī cù)

Literally: To eat vinegar

In context: When your ex starts littering the internet with sunny holiday photos of their hot new partner you will naturally start to feel a kind of jealousy – a jealousy that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth that, come to think of it, is probably not dissimilar to eating vinegar. Your friends will hurriedly grab at straws to convince you that your sad life is better than your ex's:


(Chī shénme cù, tāmen mǎshàng jiù huì shài chéng tànle!)

(There's no need to be jealous, they will get sunburnt soon!)

Expression: 吃个大鸭蛋  (Chī gè dà yādàn)

Literally: To eat a large duck egg

Context: When you take a test and get absolutely nothing correct, not even one question, your paper will be returned with a big fat zero scrawled over your no doubt not-too-avid efforts in red pen, perhaps bearing a slight resemblance to a large duck egg? In such an unfortunate instance you may hear a few ‘friends' sniggering behind you, or worse, ratting you out to your parents:

这次考试, 他吃了个大鸭蛋!

(Zhè cì kǎoshì, tā chīle gè dà yādàn!)

(He got 0 in this test!)

Expression: 吃亏 (Chī kuī)

Literally: To eat loss

Context: Being a foreigner in China certainly has its advantages, but when it comes to bargaining over the price of that souvenir you so desperately need to show the world how cultural and well travelled you are, your kindly friends will warn you that you might be at a disadvantage:


(Nǐ shì wàiguó rén, zài zhōngguó jiǎngjià chīkuī)

(Because you are a foreigner, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to bargaining in China).

…and advise you:


(Huò bǐ sānjiā bù chīkuī)

(Shop around first and you won't get ripped off)

Expression: 吃软饭 (Chī ruǎn fàn)

Literally: To eat soft rice

Context: So you are attracted to those strong career women bringing six figure salaries? That's all well and good, but if you get too comfortable and start relying solely on your wife or girlfriend, you will likely be subjected some disapproving muttering from your mother-in-law:


(Tā shì chī ruǎn fàn de nánrén ma?)

(Is he the kind of man who lives off women?)

Or even worse, your wife:


(Nǐ xiǎng chī ruǎn fànle ma? Nǐ zuòmèng!)

(You think you can live off me? Dream on!)

And the list goes on. For now, as you go about your daily conversations in Chinese, try throwing in an expression or two and make your friends 吃惊了! (Chī jīng le!)  Have you spotted any other figures of speech that use "吃" lately? Share your favorite ones with us in the comments section below. 


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