Having fun with Chinese colloquialisms from 奋斗

Posted in Linguistics at 10:18 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, it’s been almost a week and I’m now 8 episodes into 《奋斗》. It still continues to be an invaluable learning experience, and I probably haven’t really felt myself pushed like this since my first 6 months of Chinese study. One of the benefits has been a whole new slew of fun new colloquialisms I have been picking up on, and wanted to take a minute to share.

动手动脚 literally means “move hands and move feet.” But more precisely it’s what we’d probably call in English “hooking up,” sexual relations in the Clintonian sense, if you will. 动手动脚 doesn’t necessarily imply having sexual intercourse, but it does tend to mean more than just kissing.

胡说八道 is an idiom which is sometimes shortened to just 胡说. It means “nonsense” or “bullshit.” For example, if somebody tells you that Hu Jintao is doing an autograph signing at Starbucks, you can reply 胡说八道.

物质主义 means “materialism,” and oh I wish I knew this word when I was still living in China. In the show, the concept is introduced by the main character’s father who has spent the last 22 years in the US. He asks his son 你知不知道物质主义 是什么 ? (Do you know what “materialism” is?) to which his son replies that he does not. Therefore, I’m not sure how commonly used this term is in China, although it sure is applicable.

One of the more interesting characters thus far is the mother of 杨晓芸, one of the main characters.  In the words 杨晓芸, her mother is 小市民 or “small town folk.” This issue arises several times and embarrasses 杨晓芸, including an instance during her wedding when she asks the MC not to announce her mother by name because it sounds 太土了,* “too dorky.”

杨晓芸, 何翠凤
Conflict is already starting to brew between 杨晓芸 and her 小市民 mom.

One of the small town mother’s side jobs is that she works as an agent selling and renting apartments. For this, she is called a 房虫, literally “house worm.” The small town stereotype is evoked when at one point she rents an apartment to her daughter’s friend for 500 RMB over the actual asking price. I’m thinking this small town folk/Beijinger dichotomy is going to get juicier and juicer as the plot progresses.

And finally, what TV drama would be complete without a 三角恋 or “love triangle?” 《 奋斗》 is no exception, with multiple 三角恋 ‘s already at the forefront.

Can’t wait for more. And I must admit, I am honestly interested in how this plot further develops.

*This is probably my all-time favorite Chinese adjective. It’s difficult to translate directly into English, but implies that the object is out of touch with what is cool and hip.


  1. Alex United States said,

    December 1, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Hey Ben, thanks for cluing me in to 奋斗. I just finished the first episode, and I’ve got to say it wasn’t bad!

    Watching and listening to Chinese media is such a valuable learning method, but I can’t force myself to sit through most of the melodramatic, overacted, and poorly produced mainland soaps. If you find any more dramas that, like 奋斗, do a good job of reflecting what is really going on in China today, please share them.

    Regarding 土, a good translation might be parochial or provincial. It definitely denotes that the subject is hick, or a farmer that works in the dirt.

  2. Martin China said,

    December 1, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Hi Ben,

    thanks for this suggestion. May I ask where you got the TV series from? Did you buy a DVD, did you download it or are you watching it online? Are therer Chinese subtitles available online?


  3. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    December 1, 2009 at 6:36 am

    Provincial, to put it politely, but words like hick and bumpkin are definitely good translations for 土.

  4. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 1, 2009 at 9:04 am


    Emule, You can get pretty much any Chinese show ever made.

  5. Brendan China said,

    December 1, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    “Hick” and “bumpkin” are the original meanings of 土 in this context, but sometimes it can just mean “dorky” or “lame.”

    小市民 traditionally means “petty bourgeoisie,” rather than “small town folk” — it apparently still gets used in Shanghai, a city to the entirety of which it applies. Haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know if it’s being used in this sense here, but that’d be my guess.

  6. xge Germany said,

    December 1, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Besides downloading the show, you can also watch it online. Please try youku.com or http://www.ppstream.com. ppstream has a client software and offers more than 100,000 DVD quality movies and TV shows.

  7. GAC China said,

    December 2, 2009 at 2:03 am

    Question, does 物质主义 carry both of the main meanings of “materialism” — (the common one “pursuit of material wealth over spiritual pursuits”, and the more technical meaning: “belief that nothing exists outside the material/physical world”)?

  8. xge Germany said,

    December 2, 2009 at 5:17 am

    No it does not. The second meaning should be 唯物主义

  9. Brenton United States said,

    December 2, 2009 at 5:59 am

    I’ve yet to watch it, but my tutor highly recommends 蜗居: http://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/%E8%9C%97%E5%B1%85

  10. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 2, 2009 at 9:58 am


    I Chinese friend of mine has also highly recommended 蜗居. Says it’s both extremely popular and controversial. I think I’m going to try to tackle it after I finish 奋斗.

  11. shan China said,

    December 2, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    动手动脚 doesn’t have as consensual of a connotation as “hooking up”. it’s more of a trying to get some, trying to hook up. usually it’s in the context of 他 (male) 跟 XX 动手动脚, with the emphasis on “他跟”, as in he took the initiative to try to get some with XX

    the phrase itself doesn’t really mean having actually hooked up, but rather the attempt

  12. GAC China said,

    December 3, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Dang, looks like a debate starting on 动手动脚 right after I added it to Skritter. I wish they’d let me edit my submissions.

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