Misheard in Chinese

My family has a ball with misheard English (“dancing plaid” being a favorite), but a whole new world of hilarious confusion opens up when you switch to a different language. These two were heard the other day:

香橙 (“fragrant orange”) mistaken for 香肠 (“sausage”) as an ice cream flavor

谢谢光临 (“thank you for coming”) mistaken for 西瓜 (“watermelon”) as a farewell greeting

Given China’s myriad of dialects/topolects/languages and the resulting substandard varieties of Mandarin, one can expect this kind of thing to be quite commonplace in the PRC. The miscommunications seem especially bizarre when you translate them into English. Have you heard any good ones in Chinese?


John Pasden

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


  1. I don’t personally recall any, but there’s this classic joke: 北京公交车上,一南方小伙子手里拿着一张十元的纸币在售票员大嫂的面前挥舞,一边使劲喊:“见过吗?见过吗?”售票员耐着性子不理他,几次之后,终于不厌其烦,猛得从包里抽出一张五十元的纸币,冲着小伙子喊:“你见过吗你?”小伙落荒而逃,心想:“北京的售票员怎么这么厉害?我到建国门也没犯法呀?”But it seems too perfect to be real.

    There doesn’t seem to be a central repository of misheard lyrics (like Kiss This Guy in English), but here’s one for Jay Chou, and a big long list of mistakes.

  2. I was teaching students how to play baseball, and in particular I was telling them rules behind the windup of the pitcher. I wanted to say that their foot has to be on the rubber until the ball has left their hand. I asked how to say rubber, because I wasn’t sure if everyone knew what I was talking about (as I was making the windup motions). They yelled out “橡胶” and I heard ”香蕉“. I was like, yes keep your foot on the banana!

  3. This is cross language, but, once in Changchun a waitress announced that a dish was “不辣的,” and I thought she was announcing that were being served “blood.” The folks I was with got a good laugh out of that…

  4. Hiking in 太白山 once, a park guard told me to stay off the small trails because there were dangerous animals.

    “What kind of animals?” I asked skeptically.

    “羊“ I heard him reply.

    “Psh,” I thought, “I ain’t afraid of no sheep.”

    …it wasn’t until after the wolf attacked me that I realized he had said 狼, not 羊.

  5. This one only works if your Chinese has a southern accent:

    Spiderman是什麼顏色? (What color is spiderman?)
    他是白的. (He’s white. —- “Ta sibaide”, i.e., “Ta spider”)


  6. My friend’s friend told him she hated “Xin Tai Ruan” because it was too nationalistic. It turns out she thought Richie Ren was saying “Sink Taiwan”! She thought it went, “Sink Taiwan, sink Taiwan, xiaojie yige ren maidan.”

    I bet there are at least a few people out there who are surprised Wang Lee Hom has a whole song about lazi ji, and somebody who likes audio tape so much they sing a song that goes “forever lu yin dai.”

    The first time I heard “The Moon Represents My Heart,” I thought the line was “wo ai ni duo qi fen,” which isn’t very romantic.

    I’d like to write a story about funny misunderstood Chinese song lyrics, but I haven’t been able to get it together yet.

  7. I thought that “Mice Love Rice” song was about a teacher who loved rice…

  8. Matt in Madison Says: June 25, 2007 at 7:52 am

    One time going through Jiangxi and then into Hunan, I kept running into people talking about spicy “Fulan” (Hunan) food and pretty “fa” (hua) alongside the road. That was pretty entertaining and definitely a good listening exercise for learning how to interchange my h’s and n’s with r’s and l’s. When in Rome…

  9. 音弗丽娅 Says: June 26, 2007 at 4:57 am

    I remember reading this book someone wrote about his experiences while living/working in China. At one point he mentioned that he was out with a business partner (who was Chinese) and the partner ordered “凉的开水” and the waitress was completely confused and thought the guy had ordered “两个开水”, then he went on about how dialects can be really confusing. This part actually really threw me off because I’ve never ever anyone say “凉的开水” before, usually people just say “凉开水”.

  10. This one would be intentional:


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