List of English words of Chinese origin

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Words of Chinese origin have entered the English language and many European languages. Most of these were loanwords from Chinese itself, a term covering those members of the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. However, Chinese words have also entered indirectly via other languages, particularly Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese, that have all used Chinese characters at some point and contain a large number of Chinese loanwords.

Different sources of loan words[edit]

English words with Chinese origin usually have different characteristics depending how the words were spread to the West. Despite the increasingly widespread use of Standard Mandarin among Chinese people, English words that are based on Mandarin are relatively few.

Some words spread to the West in the following ways:

  • via missionaries who lived in China. These have heavy Latin influence due to Portuguese and Spanish missionaries.
  • via sinologists who lived in China. These have heavy French influence due to the long history of French involvement in Sinology.
  • via the maritime trade route, e.g. tea, Amoy, cumshaw etc. Heavily influenced by the Amoy dialect in southern seaports.
  • via the early immigrants to the US in the gold rush era, e.g. chop suey. Heavily influenced by the Toisan dialect.
  • via the multi-national colonization of Shanghai. Influenced by many European countries, as well as Japan.
  • via the British colonization of Hong Kong, e.g. cheongsam. Heavily influenced by Cantonese.
  • via modern international communication, especially after the 1970s when the People's Republic of China opened its Bamboo Curtain to let its people migrate to various countries, e.g. wushu, feng shui. Heavily influenced by Mandarin.
  • via Japanese and (possibly) Korean and Vietnamese. These languages have borrowed large amounts of Chinese vocabulary in the past, written in Chinese characters. The pronunciation of such loanwords is not based directly on Chinese, but on the local pronunciation of Chinese loanwords in these languages, known as Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, and Sino-Vietnamese. In addition, the individual characters were extensively used as building blocks for local neologisms with no counterpart in the original Chinese, resulting in words whose relationship to the Chinese language is similar to the relationship between new Latinate words (particularly those that form a large part of the international scientific vocabulary) and Latin. Such words are excluded from the list.

Though all these following terms originated from China, the spelling of the English words depends on which dialect the transliterations came from.

The list[edit]

English Word Origin of Word Chinese Word Phonetic transliteration Description
Bok choy Cantonese 白菜 baak6 coi3 A Chinese cabbage: lit. 'white vegetable'
Brainwash Literal translation 洗腦 xǐnǎo A calque of Chinese 洗腦 (where 洗 literally means "wash", while 腦 means "brain", hence brainwash), a term and psychological concept first used by the People's Volunteer Army during the Korean War. It may refer to a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas; or persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship. The term "brainwashing" came into the mainstream English language after Western media sources first utilized the term to describe the attitudes of POWs returning from the Korean War.[1]
Cha Cantonese cha4 Colloquial English word for 'tea'
Cha siu Cantonese 叉燒 cha1 siu1 lit. fork roasted
Cheongsam Cantonese 長衫(旗袍) cheung4 saam1 lit. long clothes. Popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ch'i or "qi" Mandarin Energy of an object or person, literally air or spirit. (This word is correctly represented in Wade–Giles romanization by "ch'i," but the rough breathing mark (replaced by an apostrophe in most texts) has disappeared in colloquial English.)
Chin chin, or chin-chin Mandarin qǐng An exclamation used to express good wishes before drinking, lit. "please; to invite". While occasionally used in American English, chin-chin is an informal and outdated British English usage, for instance, the TV sitcom As Time Goes By.[2]
China Mandarin 秦 or 晉 qín Via Latin Sina, Persian چین Cin, and Sanskrit चीन Chinas; ultimately from the name of the Qin 秦 or Jin
Chop chop Cantonese 速速 chuk1 chuk1 lit. hurry, urgent[3]
Chopsticks Pidgin 筷子 Kuai zi from Chinese Pidgin English chop chop.
Chop suey Cantonese 雜碎 jaap6 seui3 lit. mixed pieces
Chow Cantonese chaau2 From "chao" which means cook, perhaps based on Cantonese. Lit. stir fry (cooking)
Chow chow Cantonese any of a breed of heavy-coated blocky dogs of Chinese origin
Chow mein Cantonese (Taishanese) 炒麵 chau2 mein6 lit. stir fried noodle, when the first Chinese immigrants from Taishan came to the United States.
Confucius Jesuit Latinization 孔夫子 kǒngfūzǐ Latinized form of 'Master Kong'
Coolie 苦力 kǔlì
Cumshaw Hokkien (Amoy) 感謝 kám siā feeling gratitude
Dim sum and Dim sim Cantonese 點心 dim2 sam1 lit. touches the heart, generally meaning "desserts"
Fan-tan Cantonese 番攤 faan1 taan1 lit. (take) turns scattering
Feng shui Mandarin 風水 fēngshuǐ from feng, wind and shui, water; (slang) Denotes an object or scene which is aesthetically balanced (generally used in construction or design)
Foo dog Mandarin Combination of '佛' (literally 'Buddha') and dog due to the statues resembling dogs. Refers to statues of lions that serve as guardians of Buddhist temples.
Ginkgo Sino-Japanese 銀杏 mistransliteration of ginkyō or ginnan in Japanese
Ginseng Hokkien 人參 jîn sim Name of the plant. Some say the word came via Japanese (same kanji), although 人参 now means 'carrot' in Japanese; ginseng is 朝鮮人參 ('Korean carrot').
Go Sino-Japanese 圍棋 igo Japanese name (囲碁) of the Chinese board game. Chinese 圍棋, Mandarin: Weiqi.
Guanxi Mandarin 關係 guānxi Refers to connections or relationships in Chinese culture. It is occasionally a reference to nepotism or cronyism among Chinese businesses and bureaucracies.
Gung-ho Mandarin 工合 gōnghé Short for 工業合作社
Gweilo Cantonese 鬼佬 gwáilóu Common Cantonese slur term for Westerners. In the absence of modifiers, it refers to white people and has a history of racially deprecatory and pejorative use, although it has been argued that it has since acquired a more neutral connotation.
Gyoza Sino-Japanese 餃子 gyōza from Chinese 餃子 (Mandarin: Jiaozi), stuffed dumpling. Gyoza in English refers to the fried dumpling style (as opposed to water boiled).
Hanfu Mandarin 漢服 hànfú lit. Han clothing. Traditional Chinese clothes; it includes several varieties for both men and women.
Har gow Cantonese 蝦餃 ha1 gaau2 lit. shrimp dumpling
Hoisin (sauce) Cantonese 海鮮 hoi2 sin1 lit. seafood
Junzi Mandarin 君子 chün1tzu3 lit. person of high stature; preferred translation 'respectable person' or just 'gentleman'
Kanji Sino-Japanese 漢字 Japanese name for Chinese characters. Chinese: Hànzì.
Kaolin Mandarin 高嶺 gāolǐng lit. high mountain peak, the name of a village or suburb of Jingde Town, in Jiangxi Province, that was the site of a mine from which kaolin clay (高嶺土 gāo lǐng tǔ) was taken to make the fine porcelain produced in Jingde.[4]
Keemun Cantonese 祁門 kei4 mun4 tea from Qimen in China
Ketchup Hokkien (Amoy)[5] 茄汁 In the 17th century, the Chinese mixed a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it (in the Amoy dialect) kôe-chiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁) meaning the brine of pickled fish (鮭, salmon; 汁, juice) or shellfish. By the early 18th century, the sauce had made it to the Malay states (present day Malaysia and Singapore), where it was later discovered by English explorers. That word then gradually evolved into the English word "ketchup", and was taken to the American colonies by English settlers.
Koan Sino-Japanese 公案 kōan From Chinese 公案 (Mandarin gōng'àn), lit. public record
Kowtow Cantonese 叩頭 kau3 tau4 lit. knock head
Kumquat or cumquat Cantonese 柑橘 gam1 gwat1 Name for tangerines
Kung fu Cantonese 功夫 gung1 fu1 the English term to collectively describe Chinese martial arts, lit. efforts
Lo mein Cantonese 撈麵 lou1 min6 literally scooped noodle
Longan Cantonese 龍眼 lung4 ngaan5 name of the fruit, literally "Dragon's eye"
Long time no see Mandarin 好久不見 Hǎo Jiǔ Bù Jiàn a common greeting literally translated[3]
Loquat Cantonese 蘆橘 lou4 gwat1 old name of the fruit
Lychee Cantonese 荔枝 lai6 ji1 name of the fruit
Mao-tai or moutai Mandarin 茅台酒 máotái jiǔ liquor from Maotai (Guizhou province)
Mahjong Cantonese 麻將 ma4 jeung3 lit. the mahjong game
Monsoon Cantonese 滿水 mun5 seoi2 lit. full of water
Mu shu Mandarin 木須 mùxū lit. wood shredded pork
Nankeen Mandarin 南京 Nán Jīng Durable cotton, buff-colored cloth originally made in the city Nanjing (Nánjīng, previously romanized as Nanking).
No can do Literal translation 唔可以 (Cantonese); 不可以 (Mandarin) m4 ho2yi5, or Bù kěyǐ Literal translation of no [3] Though more likely a literal translation from mandarin 不能做 bù néng zùo, literally “no can do”.
Nunchuk Hokkien (Taiwan/Fujian) 雙節棍 / 兩節棍 nng-chat-kun Via Okinawan Japanese, lit. double jointed sticks
Oolong Hokkien (Amoy) 烏龍 oo liong lit. dark dragon
Pai gow Cantonese 排九 paai4 gau2 a gambling game
Paper tiger Literal translation 纸老虎 zhǐlǎohǔ "Paper tiger" is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhǐlǎohǔ (纸老虎/紙老虎). The term refers to something or someone that claims or appears to be powerful or threatening, but is actually ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge. The expression became well known internationally as a slogan used by Mao Zedong, leader of the People's Republic of China, against his political opponents, particularly the U.S. government.
Pekin Cantonese 北京 bak1 ging1 Cantonese name for Beijing
Pidgin Mandarin 皮钦语 pí qīn yǔ a language used for communication between people not sharing a common language, made in an effort to communicate better
Pinyin Mandarin 拼音 pīnyīn lit. put together sounds; spelled-out sounds[6]
Pekoe Hokkien (Amoy) 白毫 pe̍khô lit. white downy hair
Pongee Cantonese 本機 lit. our own loom, homespun, and so a kind of thin silk
Pu'er or puerh Mandarin 普洱 pǔ'ěr Type of tea, named after a city in China
Qi Mandarin air
Qipao Mandarin 旗袍 qípáo lit. Manchurian dress. Manchurian ethnic female clothing
Ramen Sino-Japanese 拉麵 rāmen (lāmiàn) The word for Japanese noodle (Japanese ラーメン, rāmen) uses the sound from the Chinese pronunciation of the characters, which means pulled noodle. Ramen refers to a particular style flavored to Japanese taste and is somewhat different from Chinese lamian.
Rickshaw Sino-Japanese 人力車 rénlìchē A Japanese neologism, jinrikisha (c. 1887) composed of Chinese elements 人 (rén/jin) "human," 力 (lì/riki) "power," and 車 (chē/sha) "vehicle."
Sampan Cantonese 舢舨 saan1 baan2 the name of such vessel.
Shanghai Mandarin 上海 shànghǎi city of Shanghai, used as slang, meaning: to put someone aboard a ship by trickery or intoxication; to put someone in a bad situation or press someone into work by trickery. From an old practice of using this method to acquire sailors for voyages to Shanghai.
Shantung Mandarin 山東 shāndōng "shantung" (or sometimes "Shantung") is a wild silk fabric made from the silk of wild silkworms and is usually undyed.
Shaolin Mandarin 少林 shàolín One of the most important Kungfu clans.
Shar Pei Cantonese 沙皮 sa1 pei4 lit. sand skin.
Shih Tzu Taiwanese Mandarin 獅子狗 shih tzu3 kou3 lit. lion child dog (Chinese lion)
Shogun Sino-Japanese 將軍 lit. general (of) military. The full title in Japanese was Seii Taishōgun (征夷大将軍), "generalissimo who overcomes the barbarians"
Siu mai Cantonese 燒賣 siu1 maai2 pork dumplings, lit. to cook and sell
Sifu Cantonese 師傅 si1 fu2 master.
Souchong Cantonese 小種茶 siu2 jung2 cha4 lit. small kind tea
Soy Sino-Japanese 醬油 Japanese pronunciation of shoyu
Struggle Session Mandarin 批斗大会 pī dòu dà huì According to Lin Yutang, the expression comes from pīpàn (批判, 'to criticize and judge') and dòuzhēng (鬥爭, 'to fight and contest'), so the whole expression conveys the message of "inciting the spirit of judgment and fighting." Instead of saying the full phrase pīpàn dòuzhēng, it was shortened to pīdòu (批鬥).[citation needed]

The term refers to class struggle; the session is held, ostensibly, to benefit the target, by eliminating all traces of counterrevolutionary, reactionary thinking.[citation needed]

Tai Chi Mandarin 太極 tàijí T'ai chi "Great Ultimate" or T'ai Chi Ch'üan, usually miswritten as Tai Chi Chuan, a form of physical discipline, from Mandarin 太極拳, lit, "Great Ultimate(fist =) Fighting."
Tai-Pan Cantonese 大班 daai6 baan1 lit. big rank (similar to big shot)
Tangram Compound word tang from Tang + English gram
Tao/Dao and Taoism/Daoism Mandarin dào Hybrid word from "way; path" and -ism suffix
Tea Hokkien Most European languages called te/tea where tea came from Amoy port. Many others call it cha the Mandarin pronunciation where tea came via the Silk Road.
Tofu Sino-Japanese 豆腐 The Japanese pronunciation tōfu from Mandarin pronunciation dòufu.
Tong Cantonese tong4
Tung oil Cantonese 桐油 tung4 yau4 oil extracted from nuts of the tong tree
Tycoon Sino-Japanese 大君 lit. great nobleman
Typhoon Hokkien (Taiwanese) [7] or Cantonese or Mandarin 颱風 thai-hong (usu. hong-thai in Taiwanese now); toi4 fung1 (Cantonese) lit. The wind that comes from Taiwan. not to be confused with the monster: typhon.
Wok Cantonese wok6 lit. boiler or cauldron
Wonton Cantonese 雲吞 wan4 tan1 homophonous word in Cantonese of the original term "餛飩" wan4tan4, húntún
lit. 'cloud swallow' as a description of its shape
Wushu Mandarin 武術 wǔshù lit. martial arts
Wuxia Mandarin 武俠 wǔxiá lit. martial arts and chivalrous
Yamen Mandarin 衙門 yámén lit. court
Yen Cantonese yan5 Craving: lit. addiction (to opium)
Yen (Japanese currency) Sino-Japanese en from Chinese 圓, lit. round, name of currency unit
Yin Yang Mandarin 陰陽 yīnyáng 'Yin' meaning feminine, dark and 'Yang' meaning masculine and bright
Yuanfen Mandarin or Vietnamese 緣分 lit. fateful coincidence; similar to karma although interactive instead of individual and similar to predestination without the divine implications.
Zen Sino-Japanese chán from Chinese 禪, originally from Sanskrit ध्यान Dhyāna / Pali झन jhāna.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "brainwashing". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 15, 2012.
  2. ^ Oxford British & World English dictionary entry for chin-chin.
  3. ^ a b c Partridge, Eric, and Beale, Paul (2002). A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, p. 1386. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29189-5, ISBN 978-0-415-29189-7.
  4. ^ (accessed on 10 March 2008) Archived 24 April 2005 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Andrew F. Smith (1996). Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, with Recipes. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 5.
  6. ^ Hànyǔ means the spoken language of the Han people and pīnyīn literally means "spell ed-out sounds".Pinyin
  7. ^ "Meteorology Encyclopedia". Central Weather Bureau, Taiwan (R.O.C.).

External links[edit]