Laughing at Chinese People

Word of the Week: xiào

I recently moved into a new apartment building in Canton (Guangzhou) and found that it’s quite easy to start a conversation with people in the lift. Assuming they speak guó yǔ (Mandarin) and not guǎng dōng huà (Cantonese) I feel it’s sort of my duty to be friendly to everyone since, even in this large city, I may be the only Westerner that some of these people come into contact with.

Obviously, to get people chatting with you, you need to look friendly. So I usually smile at people as they get in the lift. In Mandarin you can use the particle duì, which indicates direction, along with the verb xiào, which means ‘smile’. So you have a sentence structure that looks like this

A duì B xiào (A smiles at B)

wǒ duì tā men xiào (I smile at them)

xiào is a verb and in this sentence using duì it means to smile. However, when used with a direct object it means ‘laugh at’, so the sentence wǒ xiào tā men means “I laughed at them”.

To make it clear that you mean ‘smile’ and not ‘laugh’ you can you use the word wēi xiào and say wǒ duì tā men wēi xiào.  This word  wēi xiào can also be used as a noun and you can also use the word xiào róng as a noun to mean smile. There is not much difference, but xiào róng sounds a bit more figurative and literary. wǒ xǐ huan tā hěn piào liang de xiào róng (I like her beautiful smile.)

Of course there are other types of smile too, all of which can be verbs. cháo xiào means to smile or laugh at somebody (usually as a form of ridicule) so if you do something stupid then your friends might laugh at you for it.

wǒ péng you dōu cháo xiào wǒ (my friends all laughed at me)

with cháo xiào it’s important to remember two things. Firstly, it means laugh at someone for being stupid, not because they’re funny. Secondly, it takes a direct object so doesn’t need to use the word duì. Instead you have the sentence

A cháo xiào B (A laughed at B)

There is a similar word jī xiào which also means to laugh at someone for being stupid. The difference is that jī xiào is a bit more sinister. cháo xiào sounds more light hearted, the sort of thing your friends do if you say something stupid when drunk. jī xiào sounds a bit more like you’re looking down on the other person and trying to make them feel bad

tā men jī xiào wǒ (they sneered [at] me)


I need to do a lot of smiling on my way up to the 26th floor

Obviously when in the lift with a bunch of strangers I don’t cháo xiào or jī xiào, I just wēi xiào in a friendly way when they look at me. Being in Guangzhou they also have the habit of speaking to me in Cantonese, which I don’t understand a word of.

tā men duì wǒ shuō guǎng dōng huà, suǒ yǐ wǒ jiù duì tā men wēi xiào (they speak at me in Cantonese, so I just smile at them)

duì can mean “yes” or “correct” but in this sentence it indicates the direction of an action. The direction can be a person or an inanimate object, but sometimes the connotations change. For example, you can say wǒ duì… yǒu xìng qù. Here yǒu xìng qù means ‘have interest’. When used towards something inanimate, like basketball, it means you like that thing.

nǐ duì lán qiú yǒu xìng qù ma? (are you into basketball?)

But if you use it with a person it means you are ‘into’ them in that you like them. wǒ duì tā yǒu xìng qù (I’m into him/ I’m interested in him romantically)