Expressing Difficult in Chinese with 难 (nán): A Beginner’s Guide

Expressing Difficult in Chinese with 难 (nán)

The word 难 (nán) is truly versatile in Chinese. By itself, it conveys a simple concept: “difficult”, but when it’s used as a compound word, its meaning becomes much more diverse. In this article, we’ll explore the various ways of using 难 (nán) in Chinese to help you sound truly authentic when speaking the language.

Let’s get started!

Use 难 (nán) by Itself

Using 难 (nán) by itself is very simple as it directly translates to the English word “difficult” or “hard”. Here is a basic example:

  • 日语很
    Rìyǔ hěn nán.
    Japanese is hard.

Use 难 (nán) in Combination with Verbs

In Chinese, you can just add a verb after 难 (nán) to express “something is hard to do or to be done”.

For example,

  • 日语很学。
    Rìyǔ hěn nán xué.
    Japanese is hard to learn.


难 (nán) + verb

Let’s look at some more examples:

  • 这很说。
    Zhè hěn nán shuō.
    It’s hard to say.
  • 这真的很办。
    Zhè zhēnde hěn nán bàn.
    It’s really hard to be done.
  • 这个字不写。
    Zhège zì bù nán xiě.
    This character is not hard to write.
  • 坏习惯非常改。
    Huài xíguàn fēicháng nán gǎi.
    Bad habits are hard to change.
  • 一等奖很赢。
    Yī děng jiǎng hěn nán yíng.
    The first prize is hard to be won.
  • 现在口罩很买。
    Xiànzài kǒuzhào hěn nán mǎi.
    Face masks are hard to buy now.
  • 最近工作不找。
    Zuìjìn gōngzuò bù nán zhǎo.
    Jobs are not hard to find nowadays.
  • 这辆车太骑了!
    Zhè liàng chē tài nán qí le!
    The bike is so hard to ride!
This bike is so hard to ride

难 (nán) in Compound Words

Some “难 (nán) + verb” combinations appear so often in Chinese that they sort of have become compound words themselves already, with a meaning on their own. (their Pinyin are often written without any space in between)

One of the most noticeable examples would be “难吃 (nánchī)”. Following the previous pattern, you would probably think that it means “something is difficult to eat”, but actually it means it doesn’t taste good (therefore “eating it” is difficult).

难 nán + 吃 chī = 难吃 nánchī
hard (to) + eat → unpleasant to eat, unsavory

And you use this type of word as an adjective in Chinese.

  • 这个菜太难吃了!
    Zhège cài tài nánchī le!
    This dish is so unpleasant to eat!
  • 难吃的菜
    nánchī de cài“unpleasant-to-eat” (unsavory) dish
This dish is so unpleasant to eat

Obviously, this is a literal translation, in English, you would say something like “this dish is disgusting/awful” or something more specific, but this is the most common way that Chinese speakers describe food that tastes bad.

When learning Chinese, it’s always important to remember that some expressions don’t have exact equivalence in other languages, translations of the same word, or the same structure will often be different.

难 (nán) can be used in the same way for many other words. Here are some most common examples:

  • 难 nán + 喝 hē = 难喝 nánhē
    hard (to) + drink → unpleasant to drink, unsavory

    Zhè kāfēi chāo nánhē!
    This coffee is super disgusting! (hard to drink)
  • 难 nán + 看 kàn = 难看 nánkàn
    hard (to) + look at → unpleasant to look at, ugly

    Wǒ juéde zhè shuāng xié bù nánkàn.
    I don’t think this pair of shoes are ugly. (hard to look at)
  • 难 nán + 听 tīng = 难听 nántīng
    hard (to) + listen to → unpleasant to listen to, sounds bad

    Búyào chàng le! nántīng sǐ le!
    Stop singing! Sounds horrible! (hard to listen to)
  • 难 nán + 闻 wén= 难闻 nánwén
    hard (to) + sniff → unpleasant to sniff, smells bad

    Liúlián yǒu zhǒng nánwén de wèidào.
    Durian has a kind of awful smell. (“hard-to-sniff” smell)
  • 难 nán + 忘 wàng = 难忘 nánwàng
    hard (to) forget → unforgettable, memorable

    Zhè shì yí cì nánwàng de lǚxíng!
    This is an unforgettable trip! (“hard-to-forget” trip)
  • 难 nán + 过 guò = 难过 nánguò
    hard (to) + pass → sad

    Tā kànshàngqù hěn nánguò!
    She looks very sad. (hard to pass)
She looks very sad

If you already know that the meaning of 过 (guò) is to “pass”, to “cross”, then this word should make a lot of sense. Here we are essentially saying that, to her, something is difficult to get over, or in other words, she is sad or miserable about something.

Wrap up

难 (nán) is a versatile word in Chinese. By itself, it means “difficult” or “hard”. You can use it in combination with verbs to express “something is hard to do or to be done”. When it’s used as a compound word, its meaning becomes more diverse. Some common examples include 难吃 (nánchī), 难喝 (nánhē), 难看 (nánkàn), 难听 (nántīng), 难闻 (nánwén), 难忘 (nánwàng), 难过 (nánguò), etc. Slip these into your conversation and you’ll sound very Chinese.

Don’t forget to check other grammar articles on ImproveMandarin.Com’s Grammar Channel. Remember, grammar is the glue that holds the pieces of language together!


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