5 interesting uses of the word ‘difficult’ in Chinese

The word for ‘difficult’ in Chinese is an interesting one, by itself it’s conveys a simple concept, but as a compound word it’s meaning becomes much more varied and it is truely a versatile character.

難(难)

Pinyin: nán
English: difficult; hard

Difficult

As mentioned, when used by itself the meaning is simply ‘difficult’, here’s a basic example that I’m sure everyone reading this article can relate to:

Traditional
學中文真

Simplified
学中文真

Pinyin
xué zhōngwén zhēn nán

English
Learning Chinese is really difficult

難吃(难吃)

Pinyin: nán chī
English: unpaletable; unappealing (of food); tasteless etc.

This first example is possibly the most interesting, because at first you would be forgiven for thinking that it meant something was difficult to eat, rather than it didn’t taste good. 難(难)can be used in the same way for many other words, such as 難喝(难喝 nán hē), 難看(难看 nán kàn)”ugly”, 難聽(难听 nán tīng) “unpleasing to the ear” or “offensive”. Here’s an example that shows how you can use this word:

Traditional
那家餐廳的食物很難吃

Simplified
那家餐厅的食物很难吃

Pinyin
nà jiā cāntīng de shíwù hěn nánchī

English
That resturant’s food tastes really bad*

* this is more of a literal translation, obviously in English you’d say something more like ‘the food was awful/disgusting’ or something more specific.

難過(难过)

Pinyin: nán guò
English: upset; sad; miserable

Next we have 難過(難過 nán guò), If you already know that the meaning of 過 is to “pass”, to “cross”, or to “live” then this word should make a lot of sense. Here we are essentially saying that something is difficult to get over, or in other words, you are sad or miserable about something.

Traditional
她因為跟男朋友分手了就很難過

Simplified
她因为跟男朋友分手了就很难过

Pinyin
tā yīnwèi gēn nánpéngyǒu fēnshǒu le jiù hěn nánguò

English
She’s really upset because she broke up with her boyfriend

難得(难得)

Pinyin: nán dé
English: rare; doesn’t happen often

As with all of the examples here, they key in 難得 is the second character. 得 means to “obtain” or to “get”, for which we could also say “to come by”, so here 難得(难得)means that something is rare, or doesn’t often happen – it is difficult to come by.

Traditional
難得你這麼早醒來

Simplified
难得你这么早醒来

Pinyin
nánddé nǐ zhème zǎo xǐnglái

English
It’s rare for you wake up this early

難怪(难怪)

Pinyin: nán guài
English: it’s no wonder that…; it’s not suprising that

Again, let’s first look at the second character: 怪(guài)which means strange. We are saying that something is “diffcult to be strange”, or in other words “it’s not suprising that”, or “it’s no wonder that”. As shown in the example below, this is word is usually used when you find out the reason for something:

Person A: 大衛出車禍了(大卫出车祸了 dàwèi chū chēhuò le)”Dave was in car crash”

Person B: 難怪他今天沒來上班(难怪他今天没来上班 nánguài tā jīntiān méi lái shàngbān )”No wonder he didn’t come to work today”

難道(难道)

Pinyin: nán dào
English: could it be that…? (rhetorical question)

The last example is a it different form the rest since it’s used in the form of a rhetorical question, and the meanning might not be immediately evident. 道 can mean a lot of things, but the meaning here is most likely ‘truth’. Though rather than mean “It’s difficult for [something] to be true”, it’s used in the question form and means “could it be that [something] is true”, or just “could it be that…”.

Traditional
他開車開的這麼不好,難道他沒有駕照?

Simplified
他开车开的这么不好,难道他没有驾照?

Pinyin
tā kāichē kāi de zhème bùhǎo, nándào tā méiyǒu jiàzhào?

English
He doesn’t drive very well, could it be that he doesn’t have a drivers licence?

Other words that use ‘difficult’

The list of words that use the Chinese character 難(难)is by no means limited to the examples here. Others include 難免(难免 nán miǎn) 難忘(难忘 nán wàng) 難以(难以 nán yǐ) 難懂(难懂 nán dǒng) 難說(难说 nán shuō) 難解(难解 nán jiě) among many others but I’ll leave it up to you to find out the meaning for these!

  • 谢谢啦!

  • Carlos

    Thanks! I didn’t know 难得 or 难过. In the 难得 example the Simplified characters are still Traditional.

  • Kaiwen

    I always thought of the 道 in 难道 as “to say”…

    • Jay

      Kaiwen, I think you might be right. It would be the same meaning of 道 as in the first line of the 道德經, 道可道非常道, “The Way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way”

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