Emotional Intelligence – expressing emotions in Chinese

Emotional intelligence is the ability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and that of others. It also includes people’s ability to discern between different types of emotions, appropriately label them, and use this information to adjust to their environment in order to achieve their goals.

Why are we talking about this? The first step in developing emotional intelligence is to correctly identify emotions and to do that, you need to know the words to describe them. Even if you’re only interested in getting your child to have basic daily conversation in Chinese, knowing the correct Chinese terms for emotions is very necessary. After all, talking about how they feel is a normal part of general conversation.

You could get away with just teaching your child some basic rote responses to questions like, “How are you?”. Even in Anglophone societies, no one actually expects a real, truthful answer the question beyond, “Fine, and you?”. However, if you want your child to be able to effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings in Chinese, they will need to go beyond the basics. They will need access to the full spectrum of human emotions (or at the very least, be able to identify them). This will equip our children with the tools to navigate socially and thus be aware of others, and also to name their own emotions and thus be more self-aware.

 Basic Emotions  

In psychology, there is a general theory that there are only four basic biological emotions: anger, fear, happiness, and sadness. For a quick review, here are some ways to say these terms in Chinese:

Happy 快樂
Sad 難過
Angry 生氣
Scared 害怕

While it may be tempting to teach your child the emotion while they’re experiencing it, it may not stick so well in their brain unless they’re feeling happy. However, you can say things in Chinese like, “Oh, I’m sorry you’re feeling sad.” (嗯,我知道你很難過。) Even though they’re not officially learning the term, they are hearing it in its correct application.

In the following weeks, we will share activities with which you can teach your children basic emotion terms as well as harder, more complex phrases. In the meantime, you could probably start with the more common feelings such happy, sad, scared, and angry. Those tend to be the emotions we all feel on a regular basis anyway.

 Complex Emotions 

While basic emotions are easy to grasp, complex emotions are a little harder to explain but are just as necessary. Depending on the age and developmental stage of your children, these terms may be easier or harder to explain. But when in doubt, a story usually works! (Be sure to check out our article on the power of story to find out why.)

Using stories and books, you can illustrate the more complex emotions a person can experience to your children. For your easy reference, here are some of the more layered emotions and their Chinese counterparts.

Guilt 内疚(nèi jiù)
Shame 慚愧(cán kuì)
Despair 失望(shī wàng)、絕望(jué wàng)
Embarrassment 尷尬(gān gà)、難為情(nán wéi qíng)
Pride 自豪(zì háo)
Lonely 寂寞(jì mò)、孤單(gū dān)
Jealous 妒忌(dù jì)
Surprise 意外(yì wài)、驚訝 (jīng yà)

 Common Sayings re: Emotions 

If you want your child to be a little more advanced and culturally literate, you can also teach your child emotion-related idioms. While this isn’t vital, like many things, it will enrich your child’s Chinese vocabulary, making them sound more native in conversations. Plus, it will also illustrate the color and creativity of the Chinese language.

For instance, 吃醋literally means, “to eat vinegar.” It describes the situation of being envious that someone else is getting something that you’re not. Doesn’t eating vinegar adequately capture both the facial expression as well as the feeling itself? It’s also similar to the English idiom, “sour grapes” wherein a person disparages something they wanted but didn’t get. Isn’t it interesting that both of them have the same “sour” description?

For your reference, here are a few more Chinese idioms and phrases that relate to emotions. Some of them are quite vivid and fun for children to learn:

Emotion Chinese expression Literal translation
To feel sad 心酸 to feel sore in your heart
Worry 提心吊膽 carrying your heart and dangling your gut
Angry 發火 set off a fire
Scared 屁滾尿流 to piss in one's pants in terror
Shameless 死不要臉 doesn't care about losing one's face
Proud, Arrogant 自高自大 to praise one's own greatness
Happy 眉開眼笑 brows raised in delight, eyes laughing

Again, while your child can understand and explain their feelings without the usage of these terms, the fuller and more robust you can make your child’s vocabulary, the more likely they will use Chinese in everyday speech. We tend to default to whatever language we’re the most capable in to express ourselves. Teaching our children a range of emotional vocabulary will help them internally, socially, and with Chinese fluency.