Mandarin Monday: The Top 100 Chinese Words Known Outside China

Mandarin Monday is a weekly column where – similar to our Mandarin Month series from last year – we help you improve your Chinese by detailing fun and practical phrases and characters.

Chinese has been referred to as a difficult language to learn, so you'd think the most popular Chinese words known outside China would be the most basic to learn, such as "hello" or even "China." And yet, you'd be wrong.

Back in February, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Bureau published a list of the top 100 Chinese words known by non-Chinese that revealed its top word to be one of its top cultural exports: Shaolin (少林).

The Chinese words for the infamous Buddhist temple were by far the most well-known outside China, beating out other popular cultural exports like "ying-yang" and "kung fu" with a 44 percent familiarity rate. 

The Foreign Affairs Bureau compiled this list from an amalgamation of some 300 Chinese vocabulary lists found on foreign online platforms as well as surveys conducted in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Philippines, South Africa, Canada, Singapore, and India.

A look through the list shows numerous terms related to Chinese culture and festivals, such as hutong (#11) and Spring Festival (#64), as well as an assortment of China's famous sages that include Confucius (#44), Sun Tzu (#47) and Lao Tzu (#22). However, the list is also full of heavily-promoted Chinese government campaigns like One Belt, One Road (#80) and the Chinese Dream (#74).

Strangely, every foreigner's favorite Chinese dish, Kung Pao chicken, appears at the bottom of the list at #100. 

How good is your Chinese? How well do you know the top Chinese words known by foreigners? Have a look for yourself below:

Rank Chinese Pinyin English meaning Category
1 少林 shǎolín Shaolin Temple, widely regarded in China as the birthplace of martial arts culture
2 阴阳 yīnyáng  Yinyang, Taoist philosophy of balance culture
3 yuán Currency unit for Chinese money economics
4 故宫 gùgōng Forbidden City, Palace Museum culture
5 你好 nǐhǎo Hello language
6 武术 wǔshù Wushu, Chinese martial arts culture
7 气  Energy, air culture
8 气功 qìgōng Qigong, TCM concept of internal energy  culture
9 人民币 rénmínbì Renminbi, official Chinese currency economics
10 麻将 májiàng Mahjong, a traditional Chinese card game played with tiles culture


11 胡同 hú tòng Hutong, Beijing traditional architecture culture
12 户口 hùkǒu Hukou, Chinese residential permit government
13 lóng Dragon, mythical Chinese creature animal
14 拼音 pīnyīn Pinyin, Chinese language pronunciation system language
15 红包 hóngbāo Hongbao, red envelope, lucky money, bribe culture
16 功夫 gōngfū Kung fu, the general term for Chinese martial arts culture
17 太极 tàijí Tai chi, a type of Chinese martial art culture
18 关系 guānxì Guanxi, "backdoor relations" society
19 师父 shīfu Shifu, a master (kung fu) culture
20 大妈 dàmā Dama; middle-aged female demographic famous for square dancing society

21 嫦娥 Chángé Chang'E, mythical "woman on the moon" and Chinese space missions to the moon culture/govt
22 老子 lǎozi Lao Tzu, philosopher and founder of Taoism culture
23 dào Taoism; also means "way" or "road" culture
24 fèng Phoenix; mythical Chinese creature animal
25 武侠 wǔxiá Wuxia, a type of Chinese fiction featuring underworlds and chivalrous heroes culture
26 清明 qīngmíng Qingming Festival, an important date for worshipping past ancestors festival
27 谢谢 xièxie Thank you language
28 饺子 jiǎozǐ Jiaozi, Chinese dumplings food
29 长江 chángjiāng Yangtze River, the Long River geography
30 和平 hépíng peace language


31 普通话 pǔtōnghuà Putonghua, Mandarin, the "Common Tongue" language
32 买单 mǎidān Maidan, asking the waiter for the restaurant bill society
33 蘑菇 mógū Mushroom food
34 天坛 tiāntán Temple of Heaven geography
35 豆腐 dòufu Tofu, bean curd food
36 guān Government official government
37 八卦 bāguà The Eight Diagrams (used in the past for divinations); gossip culture
38 麻烦 máfan Mafan, trouble, frustration language
39 重阳 chóngyáng Double Ninth Festival festival
40 天安门 Tiānānmén Tian'anmen Square geography

41 央行 yāngháng Central Bank economics
42 老外 lǎowài Laowai, the general term for non-Chinese outsiders society
43 妈祖 māzǔ Mazu, Goddess of the Sea, mainly worshipped in southern China culture
44 孔子 kǒngzǐ Confucius culture
45 反贪 fǎntān Anti-corruption government
46 长城 chángchéng The Great Wall of China geography
47 孙子 sūnzi Sun Tzu, writer of "The Art of War" culture
48 Confucianism culture
49 孟子 Mèngzǐ Mencius culture
50 熊猫 xióngmāo Giant panda bear, endangered animal species animal


51 diǎ Sweet, coquettish; slang for father language
52 干杯 gānbēi "Bottoms up", a saying used when drinking alcohol society
53  春联 chūnlián Spring festival couplets, the red banners you see decorating entrances to homes festival
54 元宵 yuánxiāo Lantern festival, celebrated by eating glutinous rice balls festival
55 反腐 fǎnfǔ Anti-corruption government
56 中华 zhōnghuá China geography
57 中庸 zhōngyōng "The Golden Mean", "Everything in moderation" society
58 中国 zhōngguó China geography
59 端午 duānwǔ Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated by eating wrapped glutinous rice festival
60 春运 chūnyùn Spring festival travel rush, largest annual migration of humans in the world  festival

61 黄河 huánghé Yellow River geography
62 对不起 duìbuqǐ Sorry, apologize, "am not worth your respect" language
63 创新 chuàngxīn Innovation, creativity language/govt
64 春节 chūnjié Spring festival, Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year festival
65  华夏  huáxià China geography
66 蹴鞠 cùjū A ancient sport of kicking a ball, considered by some to be origin of football culture
67 火锅 huǒguō Hot pot food
68 中秋 zhōngqiū Mid-Autumn Festival festival
69 土豪 tǔháo Tuhao, nouveau riche, a derogatory term for rich but classless people  society
70 枸杞 gǒuqǐ Chinese wolfberry food


71 悟空 wùkōng Sun Wukong, Monkey King, character from "Journey to the West" culture
72 馒头 mántóu Mantou, steamed buns food
73 代购 dàigòu Purchasing agent society
74 中国梦 zhōngguómèng The Chinese Dream government
75 共产党 gòngchǎndǎng (Chinese) Communist Party government
76 两会 liǎnghuì Two Sessions; NPC, CPPCC government
77 和谐 héxié harmony; a type of high-speed train language
78 支付宝 zhīfùbǎo Alipay economics
79 中国制造 zhōngguó zhìzào "Made in China" government
80 一带一路 yīdài yīlù "One Belt One Road", OBOR government

81 dǎng Party, affiliation, group government
82 真实亲诚 zhēnshí qīnchéng  "Real friends, honest relations," commonly quoted as part of African diplomacy government
83 干部 gànbù cadre government
84 金丝猴 jīnsīhóu  Golden monkey, snub-nosed monkey animal
85 毛笔 máobǐ Calligraphy culture
86 公安 gōngān Public security, police society
87 灯笼 dēnglóng Traditional lanterns culture
88 针灸 zhēnjiǔ  Acupuncture culture
89 小康 xiǎokāng "Little comfort," reference to quality of life society
90 网购 wǎnggòu Online shopping economics


91 十三五 shísānwǔ The 13th 5-Year Plan government
92 煎饼 jiānbǐng Jianbing, a type of savory pancake food
93 高铁 gāotiě high-speed rail transportation
94 中国故事 zhōngguó gùshì "Story of China" government
95 命运共同体 mìngyùn  gòngtóng tǐ "Our fates are inextricably intertwined", a quote by Xi Jinping government
96 丝绸之路 sīchóuzhīlù Silk Road geography
97 兵马俑 bīngmǎyǒng Terracotta Warriors, famous archeological find in Xi'an history
98 中国道路 zhōngguó dàolù "China: Road to Socialism"  government
99 中国声音 zhōngguó  shēngyīn Voice of China, an upcoming merge of Chinese news media government
100 宫保鸡丁 gōngbǎo jīdīng Kung Pao chicken food

More stories from this author here.

E-Mail: charlesliu1 (at) qq (dot) com
Twitter: @Sinopath

Images: Waking Times, Reddit, precorder, Blogspot, nipic


I'm surprised at the mistakes the Foreign Affairs Bureau made in their 'English meaning' section of the list.

"Shaolin Temple, widely regarded in China as the birthplace of martial arts"

I've not met a Chinese person who has made this mistake. Most Chinese people I've ever spoken to about the Shaolin Temple understand that it is the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and a variety of martial arts styles, but certainly not Chinese martial arts themselves, which were of course around long before the Shaolin Temple was ever founded.

Qigong, TCM concept of internal energy

In TCM, qigong is the practice of working with qi, either by doctors or individuals, to attain a certain result, not simply the concept of internal energy itself.

Those were the two mistakes that stood out first, and in the top 10 list. I would have thought the FAB would have made sure their English explanations were a liitle more correct.

Feiyue shoes and the best Chinese cultural gifts in Beijing!

CK Culture Boutique

why would you trust Foreign Affairs Bureau in the first place?

I wouldn't be surprized if they say they invented jianbing and baozi.

stupid beuaratic shit

best writers in my book: Charles Liu, Kyle Mulin, sciencie, TBA

worst ones: Javajew, Mezzarr, TBA