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.
Below are some common Chinese euphemism phrases you should familiarize yourself with to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and "save face."
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.)
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 you!)
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.)
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!)
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.)
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.)
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?)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.