Medicine Ingredients = Pun Ingredients

Ever since I started doing my Chinese pun posts, I’ve been deluged with requests for more*. So today I am finally getting around to posting one that I’ve been seeing for something like a year in an ad on the subway:

> 药材好,药才好。

> Only good ingredients can make good medicine.

The pun is with the words (medicine), (an adverb meaning something like “only if”), and 药材 (medicinal ingredients). You have two three-character phrases with exactly the same character pronunciation, but the difference of one character in the two phrases (材 and 才, both read “cái”) gives the sentence clear meaning.

The two parts can’t be said to be entirely identical, because read naturally, there would definitely be different pauses in the first part and the second part. Still, the identical pronunciations still make it kind of charming.

* This is a total lie.

UPDATE: John B has provided a picture of the ad. Thanks, John B!


Weight Loss Pun
Weight Loss Pun #2


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Interesting! 🙂 And the request for Chinese puns might not be a total lie, since I’m sure I’m not the only one always appreciating this kind of post.

    On unrelated matters, I had sort of expected you to sing the swansong on TTC though..

  2. I saw one about an iPod competition. The ad (in English) read, “Buy an ipod for your chance to win!”. In chinese: “买机会有机会!“

  3. One of the first advertising puns I was able to understand was for a laptop (I want to say Sony, but I don’t remember) that was being touted as “ultra-mobile.” In English it was “No wires, no limits,” Chinese: “没有线,没有限”

  4. Argh, actually it was 无线无限, which might be better as “wireless, limitless.”

    My memory sucks.

  5. Yes, you are right. It is amazing that many chinese words are similar in pronunciation. Even as a native speaker, I sometimes puzzled about it if I don’t see the words in writing:-)

  6. I liked an ad for a computer that challenged you to resist their financing plans:


    Not exactly a pun, but it was clever.

  7. Ben,

    I didn’t even know TTC had stopped until I read your comment. I have not been keeping up with blogs at all lately.

    TTC was fun while it lasted, but it was clearly not going to go on forever. What more is there to say?

    Anyway, good to know that at least one other person likes these pun entries.

  8. maxiewawa, John B, and Micah,

    Thanks for the other examples!

  9. John B,

    You rule, man. Thanks for posting the pic!

  10. here is the most controversial example ever:

    literally,it means being a women is kinda fine,here the character 挺(ting)is an adverb that means kinda, rather or quite.since it is a polysemous charactor,in the ad,it changes to be a verb that means straighten,erect or force the body into an erect posture.obviously,a busty women is better at doing that than those less busty ones.
    so here comes the meaning of the ad:
    it is good for you to be a well developed women!

  11. schtickyrice Says: November 17, 2006 at 8:13 am

    Here’s another example of Chinese pun in advertising, this time for a Chinese-Canadian food company:

    好煮意 (meant for easy boiling) is the literal translation of the Chinese brand, 好主意 (good idea) is the double meaning.

  12. Did you that there is actually a homonym that is the same in both Chinese and English?
    燕 (yan) = swallow
    咽 (yan) = swallow
    If you ever discuss eating small birds in China, you might possibly say a sentence that includes this term for someone who really wolfs it down; “The banquet guests watched him swallow the swallow”
    In Chinese it’s remarkably the same: “宴会客人看他把燕子咽下去.”

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