Do You Know Anything About This Chinese Word?

Word of the Week: yī wú suǒ zhī

When if first went to China I knew absolutely nothing about the language. Actually, that’s a lie. I’d studied Japanese so I recognised plenty of “kanji”, which definitely wasn’t a hindrance. But with regards to the grammar I literally knew nothing. For this we can use the phrase yī wú suǒ zhī 一无所知 to mean “know nothing”.

The sentence structure is duì … yī wú suǒ zhī 对 …一无所知 and you just insert the thing you know nothing about. So when I first arrived in China duì hàn yǔ yī wú suǒ zhī 我对汉语的语法一无所知 (I knew nothing about the Chinese language).

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And as far as drinking was concerned wǒ yě duì bái jiǔ yī wú suǒ zhī 我对白酒一无所知 (I also knew nothing about the Chinese “white alcohol”). But I would soon learn.

Another way to say “know nothing” is shén me dōu bù zhī dào 什么都不知道 and it fits into the same sentence structure, so you can say wǒ duì … shén me dōu bù zhī dào (I know nothing about…) This sentence is more common in spoken Mandarin, but I like the phrase yī wú suǒ zhī because it sounds a bit higher level, a bit more sophisticated and a bit better for showing off how great your Chinese is. Although now I think about it, it does seem a bit strange to try and show off by telling someone that you “know nothing”.

If, like me, you appreciate the elegance of the phrase yī wú suǒ zhī then you might also be a fan of the similar phrase yī wú suǒ yǒu 一无所有 which is “have nothing”. I came to China immediately after finishing my master’s degree; I had one small suitcase of clothes, a few hundred RMB, a Chinese textbook and £20,000 of student debt so I can say gāng gāng dào zhōng guó de shí hòu wǒ yī wú suǒ yǒu 刚刚到中国的时候我一无所有 (when first arrived in China, I had absolutely nothing).

You can’t use wǒ yī wú suǒ yǒu to mean you don’t have anything with you at the moment. So if you walk out the house and forget to take your keys, wallet, phone etc wǒ yī wú suǒ yǒu is the wrong phrase to use. wǒ yī wú suǒ yǒu basically means “I have no worldly possessions/ I don’t have a penny to my name” but you can of course be exaggerating when you say it.

Another similar phrase is yī wú suǒ huò 一无所获 “gain nothing”. It’s usually used in the context of failing to get something you expected to get, or failing to achieve what you expected to achieve. For example wǒ xué le sān nián de zhōng wén dàn yī wú suǒ huò 我学了三年的中文但一无所获 (I studied 3 years of Chinese but gained nothing.) Obviously that’s not true, it’s just an example. Hopefully no one reading this blog will actually have any need for this specific example.

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Similarly, I recently saw a beautiful lady and went to chat her up wǒ dā shàn le yī gè měi nǚ dàn shì yī wú suǒ huò 我搭讪了一个美女但是一无所获 (I chatted up a beautiful lady but completely failed/ gained nothing). This one is actually true.

If you’re observant you will have noticed that the phrase shén me dōu bù zhī dào (know nothing) mentioned above contains the word “what” (shén me 什么) but here it doesn’t mean “what”, it means “anything”. For more information on this use of interrogative pronouns click here.

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