Clichés, Stereotypes and Euphemisms

Let me start off by saying that clichés, stereotypes and euphemisms have always seemed to me to be quintessentially “Western” concepts; it’s for that reason that I’ve been using them as foundations for lesson plans in my ESL teaching. These words, I believe, evolved after centuries of critical theory in linguistics, sociology and other fields, and examining them reveals so much about the cultural underpinnings of linguistic systems. My aim is to figure out whether Chinese shares these concepts – and, if it does, how we are supposed to deal with these in translation. I’ll also give some interesting examples along the way.


For linguistic clichés we readily have the term 陈词滥调 chéncílàndiào in Chinese. But what about clichés which aren’t about those pesky turns-of-phrase we have gotten bored with, but rather, overrused stories or artistic devices? Dictionaries will try and give you 老一套 lǎoyītào for those contexts, but I’m not entirely convinced. One of my friends suggested, for cinematic contexts, 电影里的滥剧情 diànyǐng lǐ de làn jùqíng (“overrused plotline used in movies”), which seems workable.

Some (possible) examples of clichés in Mandarin:

  • 好好学习,天天向上 hǎohāo xuéxí, tiāntiān xiàngshàng – Study well and make progress every day.
  • 实事求是 shíshìqiúshì – Seek the truth from the facts.
  • 太阳从西边出来了 tàiyáng cóng xībian chūlái le – The sun has rose from the West. (Describes something unbelievable.)

Yet whether or not these phrases can be considered clichés is probably a matter of opinion – and I haven’t even bothered to look at all the worn-out expressions originating from communist discourse! Maybe it’s just me, but in English we seem to be in agreement that some phrases are tired and worn-out, though lower-quality publications will inveitably use them. Essentially I’m talking about irksome utterances like “surreal”, “like the plague”, “at the end of the day”, etc. I’d definitely like to know more about how the Chinese critique clichés in their language, if at all.


As for stereotype, these are all possible translations to choose from:

  • 刻板印象 kèbǎn yìnxiàng (“cut-block impression”)
  • 脸谱化 liǎnpǔhuà (“made-up all the same, like theatrical make-up”)
  • 一概而论 yīgài’érlùn (“generalise”)
  • 陈规 chénguī (“outmoded convention”)
  • 模式化概念 móshìhuà gàiniàn (“modelled concept”)
  • 典型 diǎnxíng (“typical model”): This is a very common word, but doesn’t really go far enough to emphasis the “stereo” of “stereotype”.

Given this long list, perhaps my theory that stereotyping is a Western phenomenon is moot. And yet most of these aren’t really all that useful or common. Something tells me that if you’re going to translate a sentence like:

“Some Westerners hold the stereotype that all Chinese are good at mathematics.”

A paraphrase strategy, substituting “hold the stereotype” for “believe”, might suffice:


Back-translation: Some Westerners believe that all Chinese are good at mathematics.

Interestingly, though, if the stereotype was negative, for instance:

“Some Westerners hold the stereotype that all Chinese are terrible at driving.”

We might suggest it was a kind of prejudice:


Back-translation: Many foreigners have the prejudice to believe that all Chinese are terrible at driving.

Perhaps you could supply me with your ideas as to what kind of stereotypes traditional Chinese have about the world in the comments section.


Essentially euphemisms perform a very important function in language – to communicate an idea without directly expressing it in literal terms. This is especially useful when talking about sensitive or taboo topics. The word “euphemism” may be translated as 婉辞 wǎncí, 委婉语 wěiwǎnyǔ and 委婉的说法 wěiwǎn de shuōfǎ. The first two are relatively formal, whilst the third is better understood in conversation.

Some examples of euphemisms in Mandarin:

  • If someone has put on weight you may use the verb 发福 fāfú (“to send out fortune”) – traditionally without the negative connotations it has in English.
  • If a woman is pregnant you may say 她有了 yǒule (“she has [something]”).
  • Like in English, there are many euphemisms for dying, for instance, 回老家 huí lǎojiā (“to return home”) and 仙逝 xiānshì (“saintly-pass-away”).

These are only off the top of my head – I’m sure hundreds more could be added to the list.

Today’s post really only skims the surface of these pivotal ideas. I hope you can all contribute some enlightening examples in the comments. A deeper question to contemplate might be this: are clichés, stereotypes and euphemisms common in both languages? Could they be universal concepts?

12 Comments to "Clichés, Stereotypes and Euphemisms"

  1. 07/01/2011 - 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post, informative as always. Once my level of Mandarin is a bit higher maybe I can start contributing but you may not be interested by that time hah.

  2. 08/01/2011 - 3:57 am | Permalink

    Very interesting post Carl. I wonder though about the cliches. That is a really tough one for foreign learners, of any language I presume. Unless you have a native-like exposure to the language, it’ll be tough to determine them yourself. Good post. Got me thinking!

  3. 08/01/2011 - 4:34 am | Permalink

    About clichés…
    It seems to me (but I am probably wrong) that intolerance to repetition in language is not as important in Chinese as in European languages. First of all, word repetition often provides rythm and pattern to a sentence, which is appreciated; while in English or French, for instance, one generally tries to work his way around repeating things (except for conscious effects of style). Would it be too bold to extrapolate this to the point of stating that the repetition of certain word patterns (which in English would qualify as clichés) does not feel as quickly tiresome in Chinese? Especially when considering 成语, and certain 谚语, which are such wonderfully concise and efficient ways to convey a meaning that avoiding them would be a bother – and might not even provide such an accurate result.

    Maybe people get fed up more easily with expressions most closely representative of übertraditional ways of thinking (as in your first example?), or political slogans/catchphrases so dated and over-repeated that they have lost all meaning (“以人为本”, “为人民服务” …?) — than with phrases which, thanks to their being so useful and self-evident, will never feel stale or empty (to the point of being as easy to use and neutral, “basic” in a word, than an ordinary verb or noun)…

    Just a wild guess!

    • 10/01/2011 - 2:12 am | Permalink

      You’re definitely onto something here. Repetition and redunancy are the two golden rules one avoids when writing formal English, but this framework is not universal since different languages maintain cohesive links differently.

  4. 08/01/2011 - 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I used to think a lot about cliches and even wrote a post about it: . I argued that “win win” and its Chinese equivalent were unacceptable cliches. More interesting was the response though, with hundred of comments on Douban attacking me and my view: .

  5. Bo's Gravatar Bo
    11/01/2011 - 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Carl! 一針見血(deep), as always!!! Anyhow, to the best of my knowledge, Japanese is most famous for it cliché, and sometimes it’s a little bit too much for the “outsiders” though…

  6. Greg's Gravatar Greg
    18/01/2011 - 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the euphemism of all euphemism — "那個"

    Your blog is great, by the way.

  7. Ray's Gravatar Ray
    21/01/2011 - 5:20 am | Permalink

    Hi, i just discovered your site—it’s great! Thanks so much!
    May i ask, do you mean that cliches, stereotypes and euphemisms are Western forms, or that the content of English cliches, stereotypes and euphemisms tells us something about basic assumptions in English-speaking culture?
    Also, you’ve probably seen this Lakoff stuff, but if not here’s a teeny intro:
    There have been quite a few research projects done on Chinese/English comparative metaphor, but the ones i’ve seen haven’t seemed all that earthshaking.
    And one more thing: I’ve been surprised on more than one occasion to find a nearly identical set phrase in both English and Chinese, only later to discover that the Chinese was actually adopted from the English. So i often remind myself that modern Mandarin has been deeply influenced by English, perhaps even a sort of mix, in places. If you’re looking for a non-English “Chinese” Chinese, you’d have to go back at least 150 years or so, i’d guess.
    多謝,and 加油 !

  8. SKP's Gravatar SKP
    14/02/2011 - 7:13 am | Permalink

    After reading your post, I got to thinking about where exactly these concepts fit into Western, English-speaking, 21st-century culture. Aren’t they relatively new words? To find out, I looked in the Online Etymology Dictionary (which is compiled from the real OED and several other sources.) Apparently they are fairly recent: “cliche” and “stereotype” acquired their current meanings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though “euphemism” came into use before 1800.

    The following content is from

    1832, from Fr. cliché, a technical word in printer’s jargon for “stereotype,” supposedly echoic of the sound of a mold striking molten metal, thus pp. of clicher “to click” (18c.). Figurative extension to “worn-out expression” is first attested 1888, following the course of stereotype. Related: Cliched (1928).

    1798, “method of printing from a plate,” from Fr. stéréotype (adj.) “printing by means of a solid plate of type,” from Gk. stereos “solid” (see sterile) + Fr. type “type.” Noun meaning “a stereotype plate” is from 1817. Meaning “image perpetuated without change” is first recorded 1850, from the verb in this sense, which is from 1819. Meaning “preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group” is recorded from 1922. Stereotypical is attested from 1949.

    1650s, from Gk. euphemismos “use of a favorable word in place of an inauspicious one,” from euphemizein “speak with fair words, use words of good omen,” from eu- “good” + pheme “speaking,” from phanai “speak” (see fame). In ancient Greece, the superstitious avoidance of words of ill-omen during religious ceremonies, or substitutions such as Eumenides “the Gracious Ones” for the Furies (see also Euxine). In English, a rhetorical term at first; broader sense of “choosing a less distasteful word or phrase than the one meant” is first attested 1793. Related: Euphemistic; euphemistically.

  9. David's Gravatar David
    16/08/2011 - 12:02 am | Permalink

    On euphemisms, I seem to recall Paul Theroux, in his book “Riding the iron rooster”, mentioning that the Chinese have a lot for the cultural revolution. I actually read it before I started studying mandarin so I have forgotten most of them, and never knew the Chinese equivalents … but “10 years confusion” springs to mind.

    Also, politically sensitive historical incidents are usually referred to obliquely, eg “six four incident (六四事件)”, not sure if that counts as a euphemism though.

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