Is This the Most Awesome Word in Mandarin?

Word of the Week: lì hai

I was never a fan of karaoke in Britain. In fact I had to be very drunk to sing anything, and even then I hated it.

In China it’s a bit different because I made the effort to learn a few Chinese songs, even when my Chinese wasn’t very good. Singing in Chinese was not only a good way to improve pronunciation, it also resulted in lots of karaoke-going Chinese friends telling me I was very lì hai 厉害.

After a while my Chinese improved and occasionally people would tell me that my Mandarin was lì hai too, and when I started working out in China a lot of the older men in my gym seemed to think my deadlift was also very lì hai. Personally, I didn’t think there was anything particularly lì hai about the weight I was lifting, I know people who really are lì hai and can lift way more than me.

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This woman is lì hai. I’m not.

In these contexts lì hai is an adjective that can be roughly translated as “awesome”. It can be used to describe people when they do something well.

tā hěn lì hai 她很厉害 she’s awesome

tā de zhōng wén hěn lì hai 她的中文很厉害 Her Chinese is awesome

It can also be used as an adverb.

tā chàng gē chàng de hěn lì hai 她唱歌唱得很厉害 She sings awesomely/ her singing is awesome

However, lì hai is usually only used as an adverb when describing something that is a performance (such as singing) or something competitive (like a sport).

tā tán jí tā tán de hěn lì hai 他弹吉他弹得很厉害 (he plays guitar awesomely)

tā tī zú qiú tī de hěn lì hai 他踢足球踢得很厉害 (he plays football awesomely)

if you say tā shuō zhōng wén shuō de hěn lì hai (he speaks Chinese awesomely) it can sound a bit strange so maybe don’t say that. tā de zhōng wén hěn lì hai sounds much better.

In these examples lì hai just means “awesome”. But it can also be used to mean something that is extreme, and not necessarily in a good way. For example, the sentence tā hěn lì hai could mean “he/she is awesome” if you say it about a friend who has just sung a song in Chinese.

However, if your boss gives you a massive earful for being late and you say to your colleague tā hěn lì hai it could mean “he/she is very strict, bossy, powerful, doesn’t take shit”. In other contexts it could just mean “he is very capable”. For example, if your dad can fix anything you might also describe him as lì hai.

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don’t argue with this guy, he is really lì hai

This can be a bit confusing because it’s down to context whether lì hai is positive or negative. If you say wǒ dù zi téng de hě lì hai 我肚子疼得很厉害 (I belly hurts awesomely/ I have an awesome stomach-ache) it obviously isn’t a good thing, lì hai is just used to mean the pain is extreme.

When lì hai is used mean “awesome” in a good way is often shouted out as an exclamation. Chinese people often just shout out hǎo lì hai 好厉害 to mean “that’s awesome!” when what they’re referring to is clear from context.

You might also notice that here the word for good hǎo is placed in front of lì hai. This is because when used before an adjective hǎo doesn’t mean “good” it means “very”. hǎo lì hai and hěn lì hai basically mean the same thing, the difference is that hǎo sounds more like an exclamation. I actually like to think of it as a bit like the English word “how” when placed before an adjective in an exclamatory way.

For example, if you speak Chinese and someone is surprised by how good your pronunciation is they might exclaim hǎo biāo zhǔn 好标准 (how standard!) It’s also quite common for young Chinese girls to exclaim out loud hǎo shuài 好帅 (how handsome!) when they see a young “foreign” male. Or maybe that’s just me.

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