How to say “I don’t know” in Chinese

Zài Táiwān jiǔyuè èr shí bā rì shì jiàoshī jié
In Taiwan September 28th is designated as Teacher’s Day.

The reason is that this day is believed to be the birthday of Confucius, who is highly regarded by the Chinese people as a great educator and philosopher.

One day, after delivering a lesson to one of his students, Confucius asked the student if the latter understood the instruction material. Then Confucius added (in classical Chinese, of course):

知之为知之, 不知为不知, 是知也.
Zhī wèi zhī zhī, bùzhī wèi bùzhī, shì zhī yě.
Know what you understand, and know what you don’t understand. This reflects true knowledge.

(zhī), or 知道 (zhīdào), means to know, to realize or to perceive.

知识 (zhīshí) is knowledge.

知识分子 (zhīshífènzǐ) are intellectuals.

知识产权 (zhīshichǎnquán) is intellectual property rights.

无知 (wúzhī) means ignorant or badly informed (uneducated). This is different from 不知 (bùzhī) or 不知道 (bù zhīdào), which means not to know or not to be aware of something.

Many of us tend to think what little we know is the absolute and whole truth. In fact the sea of knowledge is deep and wide. It behooves us to know that there is a limit to a person’s knowledge and understanding. Then we are more apt to keep an open mind and to try to appreciate other people’s point of view.

通知 (tōngzhī) means to notify. As a noun it means a notice.

获知 (huòzhī) and 得知 (dézhī) is to have received information on something.

Wǒ jiànjiē dézhī tā yǐjīng líkāi Měiguó.
I learned indirectly that he had already left the United States.

不得而知 (bùdéérzhī) means unable to find out about something.

至于他什么时候回来, 就不得而知了.
Zhìyú tā shénme shíhòu huílái, jiù bùdéérzhī le.
As for when he will return, I have no idea.

无所不知 (wúsuǒbùzhī) describes a person who is knowledgeable and seems to know everything.

On the other hand, 一知半解 (yīzhībànjiě) is to have half-baked knowledge about something.

知其一, 不知其二 (zhīqíyī, bùzhīqíèr) means to know only one aspect of a matter and not the whole story.

略知一二 (lüèzhīyīèr) means knowing a bit or two about something.

You can probably guess what 一问三不知 (yīwènsānbùzhī) means. If one says “I don’t know” to every question asked, then he or she probably knows nothing about the subject matter.

一无所知 (yīwúsuǒzhī) is to be utterly ignorant about someone or something.

对于这位知名人士, 我一无所知.
Duìyú zhèi wèi zhīmíngrénshì, wǒ yīwúsuǒzhī.
I know nothing about this celebrity.

Following are a few commonly used four-character Chinese idioms involving 不知 (bù zhī).

不知所云 (bùzhīsuǒyún) translates to “Don’t know what he/she is talking about.” In everyday speech, you would say:

Bù zhīdào tā zài shuō shénme.

不知好歹 (bùzhīhǎodǎi) means not knowing what is good for one. You know that (hǎo) means good. (dǎi) means bad or evil. A scoundrel or ruffian can be referred to as 歹徒 (dǎitú scoundrel) or 坏人 (huàirén bad person).

不知所措 (bùzhīsuǒcuò) is to be at one’s wit’s end and not knowing what to do.

她不停地哭, 弄得我不知所措
Tā bùtíng de kū, nòng de wǒ bùzhīsuǒcuò.
She cried incessantly, causing me to be at a loss as to what to do.

All right. How many Chinese words do you have under your belt now? Do you know all of the characters grouped into phrases at this link?


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