Feeling fish, injecting chicken's blood and flip-flopping - a typical day at the office in China

Slow Chinese Weekly 每周漫闻


Welcome to the Slow Chinese newsletter - 每周漫闻. 

It’s a weekly dose of useful words and phrases from the news for learners of Chinese who lack the time, motivation, materials or environment to keep their language skills going.

This week:

  1. Word of the week: 折腾 (Zhē Téng)

    Making trouble out of nothing // suffer hardships (as well as other meanings…)

  2. Slang: 摸鱼 (Mō yú)

    Slacking off at work // being creative at work (changing attitudes towards work in China as well as other livestock words in the office)

  3. Study Group: 学习小组 (Xuéxí xiǎozǔ)

    A correction from last week: 扔炸弹 (Rēng zhàdàn) - throwing grenades

    Reviewing some previous words: 绊脚石 (Bànjiǎoshí) - stumbling blocks

But first, if you happen to watching a Chinese reality TV show and see something like this….

You can describe it with the following vocab:

所有的女明星都被打马赛克了 - all the female stars have been pixelated [马赛克 Mǎsàikè is ‘mosaic’; this was a new one on me - which I picked up in SupChina’s Access newsletter yesterday]

明星们身上都被打码了 - they’ve all been pixelated [被打马 is short for 马赛克]

荧幕上灰蒙蒙一片 - the screen is all blurred

她有一幕被糊掉两只脚 - in one scene both her feet were blurred

有争议品牌标志进行模糊化处理 - some brands involved in the dispute have had their logos blurred

出现了不少"满屏马赛克"的尴尬画面 - there were many scenes where, awkwardly, the entire screen was pixelated

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1. Word of the Week: 不折腾 (Bù Zhē Téng)… don’t flip flop?

不折腾 (Bù Zhē Téng) was in the Chinese read out of the Wang Yi conversation with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi earlier in the week:


The official MFA translation:

ensure bilateral relations do not flip-flop, stagnate or backpedal, and do not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries.

One of the meanings of Zhē Téng is to flip flop (翻来覆去) - to do something over and over again. So technically the translation isn’t wrong. But I don’t think it captures the full meaning.

According to Baidu, Zhē Téng can also mean….

  • to make trouble out of nothing (没事找事);

  • discomfort, pain, frustration, annoyance or trouble;

  • something that is a total waste of time;

  • a problem that’s self-inflicted.

Perhaps a combination of these meanings were behind Wang’s words.

Some useful examples of how to use this excellent word….

趁时间睡一会儿,别折腾了 - have a rest and don’t put yourself through it

这个问题折腾了我好几天 - this has been annoying me for days

Like many useful slang words in Chinese, 不折腾 (Bù Zhē Téng) is originally from a dialect - in Northern China.

It became more mainstream following an article by President Hu Jintao in 2009, in which he wrote:

只要我们不动摇、不懈怠、不折腾,坚定不移地推进改革开放 - we just need to not waver, not slacken [our resolve] nor become distracted [from our mission], unswervingly promoting reform and opening up

Confusingly, here it means to ‘stick to the plan’ or ‘not get distracted’ (which is also another meaning of it - similar to not flip-flopping I suppose).

折腾 Zhē Téng can also be used in the positive:

  • It’s a popular way to say ‘keep things simple’.

    别折腾了嘛 - keep it simple

  • Zhē Téng can also be a compliment. If you are impressed with somebody’s entrepreneurial pluck and persistence, for example, you can say:

    这个人还是挺能折腾的 - this person is formidable / won’t take no for an answer / will just keep going no matter what / is going to be very successful

  • Finally, it’s also a way to be modest when you know you’ve done a great job:

    “你最近干嘛呢?” Q: what have you been up to recently?

    “没什么,就瞎折腾呗。” A: oh, you know, just been getting some useless stuff done [meaning: I’ve been working really hard, done a fantastic job but I’m trying not to show off about it while waiting for you to say nice things about how productive I am…]

Further reading

If this is not enough, and you fancy Zhē Téng-ing yourself a bit more, feel free to dig into these more in-depth explainers:

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2. Slang: 摸鱼 (Mō yú) - ‘feeling fish’, slacking off

摸鱼 (Mō yú), ‘feeling fish’ means slacking-off or being lazy on the job. It’s not a new word but it’s become much more popular in recent months.

[Note: it’s normally translated as ‘touching fish’, but I prefer ‘feeling fish’].

It was a popular tag on Chinese social media last month with the launch of an online course, Introduction to Feeling Fish (摸鱼学导论 - Mō yú xué dǎolùn) by a Tsinghua Uni student. The course, which was not officially a Tsinghua thing at all, but benefitted from the association of the name, attracted over 1,300 sign-ups.

Students on the program are encouraged to share techniques for relieving stress in the office, things that help cheer them up at work and ways in which they can improve their knowledge while Mō yú-ing on the job.

Mō yú originally comes from the idiom:

浑水摸鱼 (Hún shuǐ mō yú) - a fish in troubled waters; getting what you can from a bad situation

But with its recent popularity, mō yú has also gained a more positive twist.

And China’s working people (“打工人” - Dǎgōng rén) are slowly starting to question the ‘996’ work ethic that’s expected of them, recognising the need to switch off, relax and reflect.

There are three types of mō yú - each with increasing levels of expertise needed:

  1. 见缝插针 (Jiànfèngchāzhēn) - ‘putting the needle in where ever there is room’ - idiom meaning squeezing it in whenever / wherever possible

  2. 明明在工作 (Míngmíng zài gōngzuò) - ‘err, I’m actually working…’ - pretending to work while slacking off

  3. 摸一番大事业 - (Mō yī fān dà shìyè) - ‘create something big on the side’. The most famous example of this is the science fiction author Liu Cixin 慈刘忻 who apparently wrote the San Ti (三体) trilogy while Mō yú-ing on the job.

I’d like to think I’m quite good at all three types, with an ambition to follow in the footsteps of Liu. After all, this newsletter is the result of some very dedicated fish feeling.

As well as fish, Chinese has so many words and phrases about live-stock or farming that you might hear in the office.

I’ve divided the vocab section below into livestock-related words, more words about being lazy, idioms about feelings and classical references which sum up the Chinese work ethic (old and new).

Useful words about livestock

  • 社畜们 (Shèchùmen) - ‘social animals’; meaning: the masses, the people [I have never heard anyone actually say this, but it comes up a lot in articles, normally referring to under-appreciated over-worked 996 workers]

    如此高的热度足以表达社畜们的心声 - such a high level of passion is enough to express the feelings of the working masses

    摸鱼是当代社畜996的调味剂 - feeling fish is used by ‘996 workers’ to spice up (or flavour) their otherwise boring working lives

  • 反哺 (Fǎnbǔ) - ‘to regurgitate’; meaning: to return to

    进而能更好的反哺到工作之中 - …meaning they are able to return to work in a much better state

  • 打鸡血 (Dǎ Jī Xuě) - ‘inject chicken’s blood’ - to inspire, or be inspired

    [useless fact 1: sometimes blood is fourth tone xuè, sometimes third xuě; here it is third tone which is more in spoken language; xuè is more used in technical or medical terms - such as 血型 - ‘blood type’]

    困了打个鸡血 - if you’re tired you need to pick your energy up

    没有人能够时时刻刻充满鸡血 - no one can maintain high energy levels all the time

    为自己打一针鸡血 - pick your self up

  • 喂鸡汤 (Wèi jītāng) - ‘serve chicken soup’ - to inspire, to move, to make someone feel good.

    [useless fact 2: this is one of an increasing number of Sinocised Americanisms I am finding. It originally comes from Jack Cranfield’s 1993 self-help book, Chicken Soup for the Soul. In Chinese it’s come to mean - and is used a lot for - talking about warm and cuddly ‘feel good’ topics during meetings to make everyone feel great and motivated, perhaps even shed a tear or two of joy - while expecting them to carry on with self-harming 996 working practices]

    心灵鸡汤 - Chicken Soup for the Soul

    有着浓浓的鸡汤味道 - This has a rich aroma of chicken soup [meaning: you are talking about heart-warming warm inspirational things]

  • 槽头吃食 (Cáo tóu chī shi) - ‘feeding trough’; meaning: place of work; linked to 跳槽 (Tiàocáo) - quitting your job and going to another patch

    我在这个槽头吃食已经太久了,令人昏头脑涨,你给我喝了这个鸡汤,就像打了鸡血一样,才能去折腾争取早日跳到自己喜欢的槽 I’ve been at this feeding trough for too long. I’m exhausted. That bowl of ‘chicken soup’ [encouraging words] that you gave me, feels like I’ve injected with some ‘chicken’s blood’ [feel full of energy], so I now have the motivation to jump to another patch of grass that I enjoy much more

[This text tries to put chicken soup, and chicken blood into context]

Different words for being lazy

As well as 摸鱼, Chinese is full of different ways to relax, be lazy or take some downtime:

  • 清闲 (Qīngxián) - leisurely

    遇上一些清闲的工作,一边摸鱼一边工作也来得及 - while doing some more leisurely tasks, you can do some feeling fish and work at the same time

  • 玩耍 (Wánshuǎ) - to play

    只工作不玩耍,聪明的孩子也变傻 - all work and no play makes even the cleverest people go stupid [‘all work no play makes Jack a dull boy’]

  • 宕机 (Dàng jī) - down time

    让你的大脑就此宕机 - give your mind some downtime

  • 开小差 (Kāi xiǎo chāi) - absent minded, mind starts to wander

    你的大脑已经在时不时地开小差了 - you become absent minded from time to time

Idioms about feelings

Just two idioms this week - about opposite feelings.

  • 心安理得 (Xīn 'ān lǐ dé) - peace of mind, contented

    我们可以像猪一样懒,却没办法像猪一样懒得心安理得 - we can be as lazy as pigs, but we can never be as contented as them

  • 头昏脑涨 (Tóu hūn nǎo zhǎng) - dizzy, exhausted, frustrated

    我被方案折腾的头昏脑涨 - I’ve had it up to the eye-balls with this proposal

Classics about the changing Chinese attitude towards work

If there was one idiom that could sum up the traditional attitude towards work, it would be:

天道酬勤 (Tiāndào chóu qín) - Heaven blesses those that work hard

Similarly, there are other common sayings that you need to know to have an informed conversation about traditional attitudes towards work:

一分耕耘,一分收获 (Yī fēn gēngyún, yī fēn shōuhuò) - hard work gets rewards; you reap what you sow; no pain no gain (re income)

Another way to say the same thing:

吃得苦中苦,方为人上人 (Chī dé kǔ zhōng kǔ, fāng wéirén shàng rén) - hardship increases status; no pain no gain (re social status)

And of the ruthless competitive environment in China:

人不为己,天诛地灭 (Rén bù wéi jǐ tiān zhū dì miè) - Heaven destroys those who don't look out for themselves

[All of these can be used as standalone statements.]

But, with working people becoming more aware of the need for balance and not just endless hours in the office, different attitudes can also expressed….

  • 过一天和尚撞一天钟 (Guò yītiān héshàng zhuàng yītiān zhōng) - a day in the life of a monk and another ringing of the bell; meaning: each day is like the next, ‘groundhog day’

    过一天和尚撞一天钟,说白了就是猫狗的日子 - each day is the same, it’s like living ‘cat-dog days’

  • 习焉不察 (Xí yān bù chá) - too accustomed to sth. to call it in question [焉 yān is classical Chinese for ‘here’ - so it means ‘used to being here, and not scrutinising anything]; meaning: sleep walking

    是年轻人对过去习焉不察的竞争机制的敏锐觉察,是对以“996”为代表的职场文化和生活压力的不满 - young people are waking up to the numbing and mindlessly competitive system from before; it’s a way of showing that they are not happy with the pressures of the 996 culture

Further reading

If you really should be doing something more important, but need a distraction, you can dig into these entertaining articles:

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3. Study Group 学习小组

To finish off this week, a few things from previous newsletters.


A correction from last week.

扔炸弹 (Rēng zhàdàn) - ‘throwing grenades’

I mistakenly used 仍 (Réng), ‘still’ (as in 仍然), which is totally wrong.

Slip-ups like this can happen all the time in spoken or written Chinese. So, to avoid that one happening again, while putting some of the words above into use, here are four easily mixed-up characters - all with the same core radical (乃):

  • 扔 (Rēng) - to throw

    我被这个方案折腾疯了,简直想把它扔到垃圾桶去了 - this proposal is driving me absolutely bonkers, I want to chuck it in the bin

  • 仍 (Réng) - still

    此事仍然折腾着我 - this thing is still bothering me

  • 乃 (Nǎi) - and even

    在团队中过度摸鱼,会造成整个工作流程的卡顿乃至全线崩溃 - too much fish feeling within the team can stall the entire work flow, and even cause it to collapse

  • 奶 (Nǎi) - milk

    边摸鱼边喝奶茶 - feeling fish while you’re drinking milk tea

Refresh of words from previous issues

A goal of Slow Chinese is to try to increase the active Chinese language of its readers, helping them to have intelligent conversations in Chinese about what’s going on in the news at the mo.

So in this section I try to pick out words from previous issues that have also come up in the news recently.

Two words this week

  • 绊子(Bàn zi) - stumbling block; to hobble something

    Originally mentioned in 8 Feb newsletter, from a speech by Yang Jiechi as part of a dialogue with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations on 1 February:

    搬掉阻碍两国各界交往合作的“绊脚石” - remove stumbling blocks that get in the way of progress of bilateral cooperation in all areas

    This week, Yang’s wing-man, Wang Yi, used a similar phrase to make a similar point in an article published on Monday:

    竞争应当公平公正,遵守市场规则,而不应下绊子、用强权,剥夺别人正当的发展权利 - Competition should be fair and abide by market rules; it should not seek to hobble, or use [political] power to deprive others of their legitimate development rights

  • 救命稻草 (Jiùmìng dàocǎo) - life saving straw - a pointless or futile activity

    First mentioned in 20 Feb newsletter in the context of extortionately priced CNY cinema tickets:

    他那样做好像一个快要淹死的人拼命想捞救命稻草一样 - it’s like someone gasping for air desperately clutching for straw as they drown

    This idiom comes up a lot in press articles. This week it was also in the ‘feeling fish’ discussion:

    摸鱼对于我们职场人士来说可谓是救命稻草一样的存在啊 - to professionals, ‘feeling fish’ can be described as something that they desperately cling onto when at work

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That’s it for this week. 

Thanks for reading. 

I’ll see you in your inbox around the same time next Saturday.

And please do help share Slow Chinese with anyone who you think needs to brush up on their spoken, written, slang, idiomatic, poetic or classical Chinese language skills. 

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