Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Get Sick in Chinese

Note:  I am now including some pronunciation help in the vocab list at the end of each post.  In addition, from now on all old vocab words included within each post will link to the posts wherein they were introduced.

If you've ever been sick, and who hasn't, you know how important it is to be able to tell others about it.  They say misery loves company, but misery also loves sympathy, so being able to talk about how awful you feel in another language means you can communicate your misery to more people (and have a better chance of someone bringing you some soup).

Let's say that you're feeling sick.  You have a headache and a sore throat and you're clearly too ill to go to biology class (but not too sick for chemistry since you've been sensing some "chemistry" between yourself and your lab partner...).  What will you say to your biology buddies when they call you to ask where you were (we're assuming these are real honest-to-goodness genuine human beings who actually care)?  First and foremost, you'll want to let them know that you're sick (生病 shēngbìng).  Saying "I'm sick" is as simple as saying " shēngbìng."

Now that your classmates know that you're deathly ill, they're probably going to start asking some questions.  To avoid suspicion, you're going to want to be able to tell them exactly how you feel.  An easy way to do this is to simply tell them what hurts.  If you want to say, "My throat hurts", say, "de sǎngzi téng" (我 的 嗓子 疼).  Let's break this phrase down into parts.  We know already that "" means "I".  "Wǒ de" is how we express "my". The word "de" means "of" and denotes possession.  The next word in our phrase is "sǎngzi" (嗓子), which means "throat".  The last word in the phrase is "téng" (疼), which in the context of our phrase means "hurts".

You can also take the phrase we've just learned and substitute other parts of the body in place of the word "sǎngzi" (throat).  For example, the word "tóu" (头) means "head", as in, "His head (tóu) was oddly-shaped, like a butternut squash."  If you want to say, "My head hurts.", you say, "de tóu téng."  I have included more body words that you can complain about on the master vocab list - after all, we want to be comprehensive here.

As we return to our scenario above for a moment, we'll assume that your classmates have stopped by your apartment to check on you.  After you quickly throw on your grungy pajamas and draw some dark circles under your eyes, go ahead and open the door.  While they plead for mercy from heaven for your miraculous healing (I guess you look worse than you thought), you can easily tell them what's "wrong" with you by simply saying, "this hurts" (zhège téng) and pointing to various parts of your body.  You may remember that we learned the word "this" (zhège 这个) a couple posts ago.  Now it's time to bring out that word again to use it in a new context and really burn it into our brains.  Using new words in a variety of contexts is a great way to keep those words from escaping your brain forever.  Just don't go overboard telling your friends that things hurt or they may take you straight to the hospital and you'll never get to finish that "Lost" marathon you were enjoying.

So now you've got some basic complaining skills.  Make sure to use them as often as you can - to the point where people start to think of you as sickly.  Practice makes perfect, after all!

1.  shēngbìng ("shung-bihng") 生病 生病 sick
A person as sick (shēngbìng) as I am should certainly not be required to take this mid-term.

2.   sǎngzi  ("sahng-zuh") 嗓子 throat
My throat (sǎngzi) feels like sandpaper, should I swallow some two by fours?

3.  téng ("tuhng") 疼 hurt(s), ache(s), to be painful
My food hurts (téng).  Can I go to the nurse?

4.  tóu ("tow") 头 head
His head (tóu) is full of dancing clowns.

Feel free to share your own favorite sickness words in the via comments below.

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help with Mandarin pronunciation, click here.

Photo courtesy of uzi978 via Flickr. 


  1. bu4 shu1fu would be my favorite. Can also literally be translated as "not comfortable" but can be stretched a little further.

    Someone could ask you na3li3 bu4 shu1fu "where is the problem/pain".

    shu1fu without the bu4(which means not) can be stretched in the other direction as well, beyond what we would consider merely comfortable, but that is a bedroom scene of an entirely different nature...... maybe after the chemistry lesson.

  2. Ha Chris! Good phrases for a doctor visit as well. I recall one poor soul who was on a tour of China with us who required a trip to the doctor after becoming ill from who knows what. Imagine if we hadn't had translators! I'm sure she was at *least* uncomfortable.