This Phrase Will Make Your Chinese Sound Naturally Hopeless

Word of the Week: méi bàn fǎ

Last week I took a flight to Hangzhou where I would spend a few days for the upcoming holiday (qīng míng jié 清明节 tomb sweeping festival). I thought I’d got the jump on all the other tourists and would be safe from the crowds because I was heading to the airport a couple of days before the holiday actually started. But I was wrong.


the road to the airport looked a bit like this

The taxi driver expressed surprise that there were already that many people heading to the airport so I said méi bàn fǎ, zhōng guó rén tài duō le 没办法,中国人太多了 (no means, Chinese people too many)

The phrase méi bàn fǎ is literally “no method/means” or “ “there is no way” but is perhaps better thought of idiomatically as just “there’s nothing that can be done”. It’s often used in a perfunctory sort of way, like a passive shrug of the shoulders. For example, someone complains about the pollution in China jīn tiān wū rán hěn zāo gāo 今天污染很糟糕 (today pollution terrible) so you reply méi bàn fǎ (there’s nothing that can be done)

You can also say wǒ méi bàn fǎ 我没办法 (there is nothing I can do) so if someone is complaining to you in Chinese you can just throw wǒ méi bàn fǎ right at them. Imagine you’re late for work and getting a bit of an earful from your boss. You can just say wǒ méi bàn fǎdǔ chē le 我没办法,堵车了 (there’s nothing can do, traffic jam)

I was reading a crime novel last week and the killer, dragging the corpse away from the murder scene, said to the guy he had just murdered lǎo xiōng, wǒ yě méi bàn fǎ, dōu shì wèi le qián 老兄,我也没办法,都是为了钱 (brother, there’s nothing I can do, this is all for the money) This out of context quote makes more sense if you know he killed the guy to steal his money.

méi bàn fǎ is often used as a response to the question zěn me bàn? 怎么办 (what should we do/ what can be done?) When I arrived at the airport I found the flight was delayed and said to my girlfriend zěn me bàn? (what do we do now?) to which she replied méi bàn fǎ, zhǐ néng zài děng 没办法,只能再等 (there’s nothing we can do, we’ve just got to keep waiting).

If you do actually have an idea about what to do you can say wǒ yǒu gè bàn fǎ 我有个办法 (I have means/ I’ve got an idea) If someone has a problem and you think you can solve it then it’s normal to exclaim wǒ yǒu gè bàn fǎ (I’ve got an idea/ I know what we can do!) But in my case there was méi bàn fǎ and we just had to wait a long time in a crowded airport.