Thanks for Nothing!

Word of the Weeek: bāng dào máng

Ever had someone try to help you in China? Sometimes there can be a fine line between helping and interfering. A colleague once tried to help me move a projector but unfortunately it was still attached to my computer. In the process of trying to help me he pulled my computer off the desk and broke it.

他想给我帮忙 tā xiǎng gěi wǒ bāng máng (he want give me help/ he wanted to help me)

Despite his heart being in the right place it turned out to be the very opposite of helpful. In fact, he was more of a hindrance than a help and Chinese has a great word for this 帮倒忙 bāng dào máng which literally means “upside down help”.

你只是给我帮倒忙 nǐ zhǐ shì gěi wǒ bāng dào máng (you’re just giving me an upside down help)

Another example is the nosy, interfering middle aged woman who lives next door to me. She often likes to give me stupid advice, such as littering my apartment with chillies to keep cockroaches away. I don’t mind bad advice, but when she threw away the cockroach traps I’d left outside my front door because they contain “unhealthy chemicals” that was just outright giving me and upside down help. 她就是给我帮倒忙 tā jiù shì gěi wǒ bāng dào máng.


my neighbour insisted on using dried chillies. I insisted on using chemical weapons

So we all know bāng máng means ‘help’. Interestingly, bāng on its own also means ‘help’ but máng on its own means ‘busy’. It kind of makes sense because people need you to bāng (help) when they are máng (busy). Thinking of it this way not only helps you remember the word, it also results in a funny play on words because you can say 越帮越忙yuè bāng yuè máng which means ‘the more you help busier I am’.

This is because the structure AB (yuè A yuè B) can be used to mean ‘as A increases B increases’. It’s such a simple sentence structure because A and B can be any variation of adjective or verb. This means you can say to your Chinese friend xiè xiè nǐ gěi wǒ bāng máng. yuè bāng yuè máng. This is like saying “thanks for your help. The more you help the busier I am.” Because of the play on words it sounds quite funny in Chinese. Unfortunately, the English doesn’t really sound funny at all so it’s difficult to translate but trust me it sounds funny. Try it out next time a Chinese friend tries to help you with something.

You might also notice that in the phrase bāng dào máng the word for upside down dào is in between the two parts of the word for help. This is one thing I really like about Chinese verbs. You can often split them in half and insert other bits to add to the meaning. This is perhaps most commonly used with time. bāng máng is ‘help’ and bang yī tiān máng is “help for a day”. It’s similar to how shuì jiào means “sleep” and shuì sì gè xiǎo shí jiào means “sleep for four hours”.

You need to be careful though because not all two syllable verbs can be split in half like this. In fact, there is another word for help 帮助 bāng zhù that basically means the same thing as bāng máng but with some big differences in how they’re used. These differences include the fact that bāng máng can be split but bāng zhù can’t.

bāng Vs bāng máng Vs bāng zhù

All jokes about upside down help aside, some people might need a bit of help getting their head around the fact that Chinese has more than one word for help. bāng on its own is a verb but afterwards you usually have to say who you are helping. Basically, bāng is usually followed by a name or a pronoun.

wǒ huì bāng nǐ (I will help you)

You can also add a verb after the name/ pronoun

lǐ lǎo shī bāng wǒ xué hàn yǔ (teacher Li helps me study Chinese)

Here the verb bāng can be replaced with bāng zhù and it would be the same. However, bāng on its own can only be used as a verb. bāng máng and bāng zhù  can both be used as a noun and are interchangeable.

wǒ huì gěi nǐ bāng máng/ wǒ huì gěi nǐ bāng zhù (I will give you help)

nǐ xū yào bāng máng ma? / nǐ xū yào bāng zhù ma? (do you need help?)

Although they are the same when used as a noun, bāng máng and bāng zhù are a bit different when used as a verb. As mentioned above, bāng máng can be split in half but it can’t take a direct object. Basically you can use bāng máng when you don’t need to specify what help you gave or will give. For example, ràng wǒ bāng máng ba. (let me help!)

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