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Talk like a Tianjiner


The city of Tianjin is nonetheless one of China’s most important cities. Along with Shanghai, Chongqing, and, of course, Beijing itself, it is one of the “Big 4” cities directly under the control of the central administration, whereas other cities fall under the jurisdiction of their provincial government. Despite the fact that it is now, with the advent of 高铁, only half an hour away from Beijing by train, it retains a distinctness in terms of culture and history, and, it turns out, in linguistics as well. Now, given the relatively short distance from the capital, you might imagine that there couldn’t be many glaring linguistic differences between the Tianjin dialect and Beijinghua, but just speak to a native of this great city, and you’ll soon see how wrong you were; that is, if you’ve managed to understand what they’ve said in the first place.

Much like advocates of Dongbeihua, speakers of Tianjinhua will probably describe their vernacular as 有个性 (full of character), or 豪爽 (Chilled out and confident), but it’s got to be said that people encountering it for the first time might well say that it sounds a bit crude or brutish, often downright angry. Why? It’s difficult to say, although a few subtle changes make all the difference. Here are some of the most recognizable phrases in the Tianjin dialect:





Nothing is more representative of the Tianjin dialect than this, which you probably know better as the rather less interesting 干什么呢  (of course, 嘎嘛 is pure transliteration) in written Chinese, the mà in the Tianjin dialect simply meaning “what”, and so we have:


“What on earth is he doing over there?”


and again:



“What’s that thing?”





Used in informal situations to indicate something’s superlative qualities.  It’s to be noted that the Tianjin dialect does away with h sounds like its southern cousins, but retains the 儿 suffix beloved of Beijingers.


Hey look at his clothes; they’re pretty slick!





Not the familiar zhè, or “this” that you probably know and love, the Tianjin accent, rather like the almost unrelated Taiwanese accent, does away with the “h” in the sounds “zh”, “ch”, and “sh”. Why is it jiè instead of ? Nobody seems to know.


“Why are you so unreliable?”



sèr (Think of it as kind of like “Sir” said in an American accent)

“Event” or “Happening”

Again, the sound is dropped


“What do you think you’re doing?”




Often accompanied by an exclamation mark, this word isn’t so much the “Hey!” in other parts of China, rather it often morphs into something more like the beloved Cockney “Oi!”


“Oi! Stop messing about over there.”



Unfortunately, there are no real set rules that allow you to convincingly convert your Putonghua to Tianjinhua, something much more complicated than converting it to the Beijing dialect, which you can try and ape your way through (although probably not very well) by just shoving in an 儿 here and there at random points.

As a general rule, however, try and emphasize the first word and keep it at a low pitch. Thus, for instance, where Tianjin itself, 天津 would be pronounced Tiānjīn (with even emphasis on both characters), someone from Tianjin would refer to their city as Tǐanjin (with a heavy thud onto the first character, and the second pronounced almost tonelessly).

Rather unfortunately, though, the youths of Tianjin are beginning to tone it down a touch and speak something rather more akin to Putonghua, but still with a marked Tianjin flavor. That’s bad for municipal heritage, but good  for you. This is not nearly as intimidating as trying to speak pure Tianjinhua and can be accomplished largely by simply introducing some of its rich idioms into your everyday speech without really going for the accent; you’d probably just embarrass yourself anyway.

It has to be said that Tianjin sayings are often more highly descriptive than other dialects, and most people will understand you if you start using a couple of these:

巴结(Bāji)-To irritate someone

背黑锅(Bēihēiguō)-To “Carry the black pot”, meaning to get punished for something unjustly

比划(Bǐhua)-Literally “going through the movements”, meaning to fight

撑死(Chēngsǐ)-This is commonly used all over China. It literally means “to hold out until death” and refers to the absolute limit that can be borne

臭美(Chòuměi)-Literally “smelly beauty”, it basically means “vanity”

臭嘴(Chòu zuǐ)-Literally “smelly mouthed”, it refers to a person who often says things that upsets others

穿小鞋儿(Chuānxiǎoxiér)-Making someone “Wear the little shoes”, this refers to one person intentionally harming another

钻老婆裤裆(Zuān lǎopó kùdāng)-Somewhat confusingly translating to “drilling your wife’s trouser-crotch”; it refers to a man who acts like a ‘knight in shining armor’ around women

瓷实(Cí shi)-Solid, reliable

撮(Cuō)-In Putonghua, it means “to rub”. In Tianjin, seemingly just to be difficult, it means “to eat”

大脖溜儿(Dà bó liūr)-To smack someone around the back of the head

打马虎眼(Dǎmǎhǔyǎn)-Literally to “hit horse tiger eye”, meaning to defraud somebody

打水漂儿(Dǎ shuǐ piāor)-Originally the name of a children’s game, now used to refer to something going to frivolity and waste

大大咧咧(Dàdaliēliě)-Refers to someone who is brash, brazen and lacks attention to detail

大已巴鹰(Dà yǐ bā yīng)-A “Large-tailed eagle” is a do-gooder

等雷(Děng léi)-To “wait for thunder” means to wait for a very rare event

掉点儿了(Diào diǎnr le)-“Falling drops” is drizzle

二把刀(Èr bǎ dāo)-“A pair of knives” refers to something/someone that isn’t very good/skilled

二皮脸(Èr pí liǎn)-“Double-layered skin on face” refers to someone shameless

二五眼(Èrwǔ yǎn)-The quintessential Tianjin phrase out of all of them, used to disparage the quality of a certain thing/person

匪(Fěi)-Originally meaning “villain”, now refers to an overly flashy appearance

海了(Hǎile)-Meaning “as profuse as the oceans”

猴顶灯(Hóu dǐngdēng)-“A monkey carrying a lamp on his head”-referring to something large supported by something inadequate to carry its weight


祸祸(Huò huò)-To mess something up big time

卷边(Juǎn biān)-“Curled up at the edges” refers to something being in a parlous state, much like a dog-eared old book

口冷(Kǒu lěng)-“Cold mouthed” means prone to making cold remarks which are apt to offend people

老鼻子了(Lǎo bízile)-“Old nose” refers to something being very profuse

老头钻被窝(Lǎotóu zuān bèiwō)-“Old man leaping into bed” means to fall over face up

愣头青(Lèng tóu qīng)-Brash-headed youth

脸子(Liǎnzi)-Does not mean “face” in the traditional sense associated with shame and honor, but rather one’s ‘facial color’, or expression


Master Image Courtesy of Flickr User Jean Wang. Used and edited under a Creative Commons license.


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