The mistranslated Chinese character - 很 (hěn)

How to say “very” in Chinese?

Hmm, that’s a complicated question.

When learning Chinese,  students almost always learn the meaning of (hěn) in the first few lessons. Its meaning is always translated into “very”. Also, in Chinese-English dictionaries, (hěn) is usually translated into “very, quite, awfully”. In Google Translate, (hěn) is translated into “very, quite, extremely, mightily”, and so on.

However, in reality, unless it is emphasised in speaking, (hěn) does not mean “very”. The correct understanding of 我很好 (wǒ hěn hǎo) is “I am good”, not “I am very good”.

The reason that (hěn) is translated into “very” is because there isn’t any equivalent word in English. This mistranslation serves its purpose until a more elaborate answer can be given.

This article is that elaborate answer to the exact meaning of (hěn).

(hěn) is a commonly used word to indicate a degree. There are many words having the same function in Chinese. And the best way to understand (hěn)‘s meaning is by comparing it with other degree-indicating words in Chinese.

To indicate a small degree

There are two commonly used words to indicate a small degree, or a bigger degree only in a comparative sense (still a small degree):

  • 有一点儿 (yǒu yī diǎnr)
  • 比较 (bǐ jiào)

For example:

  • 他有一点儿累。(Tā yǒu yī diǎnr lèi.) He’s a little tired.
  • 这个比较大。(Zhè ge bǐ jiào dà.) This one is relatively bigger.

To indicate a great degree

There are many commonly used words that indicate a great degree:

  • (jí)
  • (tài)
  • 非常 (fēi cháng)
  • 格外 (gé wài)
  • 十分 (shí fēn)
  • 极其 (jí qí)
  • (zuì)
  • (dǐng)
  • 相当 (xiāng dāng)
  • (zhēn)
  • (hǎo)
  • 多么 (duō me)

For example:

  • 她真好。(tā zhēn hǎo.) She is so nice.
  • 这儿好极了。(zhèr hǎo jíle.) Here is really nice.

A degree somewhere in between

There are two words that indicate a degree somewhere in between the above two categories, (hěn) is one of them:

  • (hěn)
  • (tǐng)

For example:

  • 我很好。(wǒ hěn hǎo.) I’m good.
  • 这个挺大。(zhè ge tǐng dà.) This one is big.

A degree that is a step further

Different from the above three categories of degree indicators, there is the fourth category that indicates various stages of the development of the same thing, or when comparing two things, indicate a step further from the norms. 

There are two words:

  • (gèng)
  • 更加 (gèng jiā)

For example

  • 我很高,他更高。(wǒ hěn gāo, tā gèng gāo.) I am tall. He is taller.

Practice makes Perfect

Fill in the blanks with an appropriate words introduced in this article:

  1. 她去年的生意很好,希望今年____好。(tā qù nián de shēng yì hěn hǎo, xī wàng jīn nián ____ hǎo.)
  2. 我有三个孩子,_____大的十岁,老二七岁,______小的四岁。(wǒ yǒu sān ge hái zi, _____ dà de shí suì, lǎo èr qī suì, ______ xiǎo de sì suì.)
  3. 昨天天气很暖和,可是今天_______冷。(zuó tiān tiān qì hěn nuǎn huo, kě shì jīn tiān _______ lěng.)
  1. (gèng)
  2. (zuì), (zuì)
  3. 有一点儿 (yǒu yī diǎnr)


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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