Keeping a Secret in Chinese

The Chinese word for secrets is 秘密 (mìmì). (mì) means secret or mysterious. (mì) can mean close, closed, dense, closely spaced, or secret. Today we will focus on the last definition of this word mentioned above.

我告诉你一个秘密.
Wǒ gàosù nǐ yī gè mìmì.
Let me tell you a secret.

秘方 (mìfāng) is a secret recipe. 祖传 (zǔchuan) means passed down from one’s ancestors. It used to be very difficult to find out how certain Chinese foods are prepared, because the 祖传秘方 (zǔchuan mìfāng heirloom secret recipe for food or herbal medicine) are jealously guarded from being leaked to outsiders. Granted that it’s still not likely for a restaurant to hand you the recipe for your favorite dish, many “secret” tips are now freely shared on the Internet.

秘史 (mìshǐ) means secret history or an inside story. Many Chinese movies and TV serials are based on the unofficial history of ancient Chinese dynasties.

秘书 (mìshū) is a secretary, an assistant designated to handle confidential matters or documents.

奥秘 (àomì) is profound mystery. (ào) stands for 深奥 (shēnào profound or esoteric).

神秘 (shénmì) means mysterious or mystical.

诡秘 (guǐmì) means secretive and clandestine.

隐秘 (yǐnmì) is a deep secret.

秘密 (mìmì) can also be used as an adverb, as shown below.

他们秘密地订了婚.
Tāmen mìmì de dìng le hūn.
They got engaged secretly.

You could also say:

他们偷偷地订了婚.
Tāmen tōutōu de dìng le hūn.
They got engaged in secret.

机密 (jīmì) is classified or confidential information.

我们不可以泄漏公司的机密.
Wǒmén bù kěyǐ xièlòu gōngsī de jīmì.
We should not leak our company’s confidential information.

密件 (mìjiàn) is classified material or a confidential document.

密码 (mìmǎ) is a secret code. 解密 (jiě mì) means to decode.

密约 (mìyuē) is a secret agreement or treaty.

密告 (mìgào) is to inform on someone secretly. 告密 (gàomì) has the same meaning.

他常常向老板告密.
Tā chángcháng xiàng lǎobǎn gàomì.
He often goes to the boss to inform on others.

You could also say:

他常常向老板打小报告.
Tā chángcháng xiàng lǎobǎn dǎ xiǎo bàogào.
He often goes to the boss to inform on other employees.

保密 (bǎomì) is to keep a secret. So, before you tell someone a secret, you might want to get some assurance that it won’t be divulged to other people.

你要保密哟!
Nǐ yào bǎomì yō!
You must keep it a secret, OK? (Cross your heart!)

千万不要告诉别人.
Qiānwàn bùyào gàosù biérén.
Under any circumstances don’t tell anyone else.

And we all know this is exactly how a secret gets spread around and become an open secret, or 公开的秘密 (gōngkāi de mìmì). In fact, to have a secret kept in strict confidence, you will need to start with yourself. If you cannot resist telling the secret to someone, how could you expect another person to keep it for you?

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Chinese idioms that follow the AABB pattern (2)

Let’s start today with a few four-character Chinese idioms that feature a couple nouns arranged in the AABB pattern.

You know that 妈妈 (māma) means mother, and 婆婆 (pópo) could refer to a married woman’s mother-in-law or an old lady in general. Put together, 婆婆妈妈 (pópomāmā) means to be fussy or mushy like an over-sentimental mother or old lady. You can apply this phrase to anyone (male or female) who behaves in this mawkish way.

我最怕她的婆婆妈妈.
Wǒ zuì pà tā de pópomāmā.
I dread her mawkish ways.

As the constituent words suggest, 朝朝暮暮 (zhāozhāomùmù) means mornings and evenings. It implies day and night, or all the time. You may have come across this phrase in a song or a poem.

她朝朝暮暮思念她的情人.
Tā zhāozhāomùmù sīniàn tā de qíngrén.
She misses her sweetheart every waking moment.

世世代代 (shìshìdàidài) means generation after generation.

他们家世世代代都行医.
Tāmen jiā shìshìdàidài dōu xíngyī.
Their family has for generations practiced medicine.

口口声声 (kǒukoushēngshēng) means to maintain a statement by adamantly making the claim with each utterance. This phrase is shown below in a compound sentence. For additional examples of compound sentences, please see Chapter 25 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”.

她口口声声说她爱我, 但我看不出她的真心.
Tā kǒukoushēngshēng shuō tā ài wǒ, dàn wǒ kàn bù chū tā de zhēnxīn.
She maintains that she loves me, but I fail to see her sincerity.

(diǎn) is a dot, a point, or a bit. (dī) is a drop of liquid. 点点滴滴 (diǎndiǎndīdī) stands for bits of details. Note, however, that 点滴 (diǎndī) is the medical term for intravenous drip.

他用幽默的语气描述这场比赛的点点滴滴.
Tā yòng yōumò yǔqì miáoshù zhèi chǎng bǐsài de diǎndiǎndīdī.
He used a humorous tone to describe the bits of details of this competitive match.

Here are a few idioms that employ verbs in the AABB pattern.

拖拖拉拉 (tuōtuōlālā) is to drag one’s feet, to procrastinate, or to do things inefficiently.

快一点! 别拖拖拉拉.
Kuài yīdiǎn! bié tuōtuōlālā.
Hurry up! Don’t drag your feet.

指点 (zhǐdiǎn) means to give directions or pointers. On the other hand, 指指点点 (zhǐzhǐdiǎndiǎn) is to point fingers at another person or other people to place a blame or to gossip about them.

奶奶老爱指指点点.
Nǎina lǎo ài zhǐzhǐdiǎndiǎn.
Grandma always likes to point to people and say this and that.

蹦蹦跳跳 (bèngbèngtiàotiào) means bouncing around vivaciously.

孩子们活泼地蹦蹦跳跳.
Háizǐ men huópō de bèngbèngtiàotiào.
The children bounced around energetically.

(tōu) means to steal. (mō) means to touch, to stroke, or to grope around. 偷偷摸摸 (tōutōumōmō) describes doing things in a surreptitious way.

他们偷偷摸摸地溜了.
Tāmen tōutōumōmō de liū le.
They slipped away in secret.

If you could like to hear some of the above sentences sounded out, please click on this link then select “Idioms in AABB Pattern.mp3”.

Chinese idioms that follow the AABB pattern (1)

Have you ever wondered why many Chinese idioms contain exactly four characters? It’s because a phrase with four syllables simply sounds good, much like the four quarter beats in a measure of a musical composition. Well, that’s just one of the reasons. Written classical Chinese is concise, perhaps to minimize the amount of time and effort it takes to write the characters using a brush dipped in ink one makes by grinding the ink stick on a wet stone slab. A four-character phrase is short in length but can still accommodate a multitude of combinations of single-character and double-character words to form a meaningful expression or even summarize an entire story. Traditional Chinese people like to have things 四平八稳 (sìpíngbāwěn), i.e. very stable, well grounded and well organized. A four-character phrase is like a table that is flat on all four sides and stable in all eight directions. Therefore, generations of students studied text books filled with four-character phrases and idioms, and scholars took pride in being able to judiciously or cleverly incorporate choice idioms in their stereotyped essays. Many of the Chinese idioms are made up of pair of four-character phrases, which further strengthen the robust structure.

Today we will look at a few Chinese idioms that are relatively easy to learn because each consists of just two different characters in duplicate. Most of the examples below are adjectives or adverbial phrases.

You’re probably already familiar with 马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū), which means so-so, not too bad, not very good,or being careless. When someone asks how you’ve been, you could use this phrase as a response.

三三两两 (sānsānliǎngliǎng) means in twos and threes.

他们三三两两一道回家.
Tāmen sānsānliǎngliǎng yīdào huíjiā.
They went home together in twos and threes.

慢慢腾腾 (mànmànténgténg) means unhurried or slowly.

他做事慢慢腾腾.
Tā zuòshì mànmànténgténg.
He takes his time in doing things.

鬼鬼祟祟 (guǐguǐsuìsuì) and 偷偷摸摸 (tōutōumōmō) both refer to doing things stealthily or covertly. The opposite is 堂堂正正 (tángtángzhèngzhèng), which means to be open and aboveboard. This phrase also describes an honest and dignified person, with nothing to hide or to be ashamed of.

轰轰烈烈 (hōnghōnglièliè) describes doing something on a grand scale with a bang, as in a revolution.

干干净净 (gāngānjìngjìng) means clean and tidy, or spick-and-span. 规规矩矩 (guīguījǔjǔ) means punctilious or following rules to a T.

断断续续 (duànduànxùxù) means intermittently.

他们断断续续通了几次信.
Tāmen duànduànxùxù tōng le jǐ cì xìn.
They wrote to each other off and on a few times.

战战兢兢 (zhànzhànjīngjīng) literally translates to “trembling with fear”. It describes a state of being extremely cautious.

舒舒服服 (shūshūfúfú) means comfortably.

他舒舒服服地睡了个午睡.
Tā shūshūfúfú di shuì le gè wǔshuì.
He took a sweet nap.

叽叽喳喳 (jījīzhāzhā) means to twitter like birds.

嘻嘻哈哈 (xīxīhāhā) means laughing and acting happily.

她们叽叽喳喳, 嘻嘻哈哈, 非常快乐.
Tāmen jījīzhāzhā, xīxīhāhā, fēicháng kuàilè.
They chattered and laughed, feeling very happy.

哭哭啼啼 (kūkutítí) is to weep and wail incessantly.

她哭哭啼啼地回家去了.
Tā kūkutítí di huíjiā qù le.
She went home crying and wailing along the way.

扭扭捏捏 (niǔniǔniēniē affected, not straightforward, unmanly) describes the mincing manners of some people, particularly ladies.

他扭扭捏捏, 似乎不好意思.
Tā niǔniǔniēniē, sìhu bùhǎoyìsi.
He acts hesitantly, appearing to be shy and ill at ease.

On the other hand, 大大方方 (dàdàfāngfāng) means to behave graciously, naturally and unaffected.

她大大方方地伸出手来.
Tā dàdàfāngfāng di shēnchū shǒu lái.
She graciously extended her hand.

里里外外 (lǐlǐwàiwài) means inside and outside of a person, a household or an establishment.

这件事, 里里外外的人都知道了.
Zhèi jiàn shì, lǐlǐwàiwài de rén dōu zhīdào le.
Everybody around already knows about this.

来来回回 (láiláihuíhuí) means going back and forth.

他来来回回找了三次.
Tā láiláihuíhuí zhǎo le sān cì.
He went back and forth searching (for it) three times.

来来往往 (láiláiwǎngwǎng) means going to-and-fro.

街上来来往往的人很多.
Jiē shàng láiláiwǎngwǎng de rén hěn duō.
On the street many people are coming and going.

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