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How to break a heart

A short guide to that tragic farewell in Chinese


How to break a heart

A short guide to that tragic farewell in Chinese


So many expressions in our language describe love and relationships as eternal: until the seas run dry and the rocks crumble (海枯石烂 hǎikū shílàn), until heaven and earth get old (地老天荒 dìlǎo tiānhuāng). A lover’s pledge is called 海誓山盟 (hǎishì shānméng, an oath to the sea and mountains), expressing the idea that two people sharing true love will spend their lives together (一生一世 yìshēng yìshì), or, for that matter, every life (生生世世 shēngshēng shìshì), if you believe in reincarnation. The whole thing seems like an epic fairytale produced by Disney. But, it doesn’t always turn out that way, does it?

To be fair, the ancients who came up with those expressions were lucky to live past 30, so a lifetime together would probably only be a decade or so. Nowadays, failed relationships are more common than successful ones, a type of trial-and-error that deserves its own pedestal in the pantheon of love’s lexicon.

How do you deal with that inevitable break-up moment? Don’t even think about text messaging or phone calls if you have any decency. Here are some common break-up lines from which you might draw some inspiration.

First you want to explain your decision, obviously, telling the other person what went wrong. A good principle to follow is 好聚好散 (hǎojù hǎosàn, give a good ending to a good time together). If the break-up is really nobody’s fault, you want to stay neutral and objective. A common word to use is 合适 (héshì, fit), here referring to “compatibility”.


We are not compatible.

Zánliǎ bù héshì.



Today, compatibility means more than the traditional standard of 门当户对(méndāng hùduì, the status and wealth of the two families should match). Shared views, interests, and values are often cited as reasons for a break-up:


We don’t have a lot in common to talk about.

Wǒmen méiyǒu gòngtóng yǔyán.


We don’t share the three views, there’s no way we can stay together.

Wǒmen de sānguān bù hé, méibànfà jìxù zài yìqǐ le.



The 三观 (sānguān, the three views) is short for 世界观 (shìjièguān, view of the world), 人生观 (rénshēngguān, view of life), and 价值观 (jiàzhǐguān, view on values). Originally, the “three views” was a Marxist term taught widely in China and is often now used to refer opinions in general.

Some are a bit more dramatic, saying:


We are not from the same world.

Wǒmen bú shì yí gè shìjiè de rén.



Of course, you could simplify things a tad:


My dog does not like your cat.

Wǒ jiā de gǒu bù tài xǐhuān nǐ jiā de māo.


You support the Spanish football team and I support the Italian football team. We are not a match and should break up.

Nǐ zhīchí Xībānyáduì, wǒ zhīchí Yìdàlìduì, wǒmen bù héshì, háishi fēnshǒu ba.



A popular online joke states that people with different vocabularies can’t be together because of the gap in academic achievement:


We don’t have the same vocabulary. How can we manage to stay together?

Wǒliǎ de cíhuìliàng bù yíyàng, zěnme néng zài yìqǐ?



Under the smokescreen of these strange reasons are some real differences in personality. Others may avoid mentioning any specific reason but cite fate as the reason for the separation.


We are not destined to be together.

Wǒliǎ méiyǒu yuánfèn.



The term 缘分 (yuánfèn), or 缘 (yuán), is a concept from Buddhism, referring to a fateful coincidence that brings people together, especially lovers. It might sound romantic, but it can get ridiculous.


The fortune-teller said our birth times do not match. We’d better break up.

Suànmìng de shuō wǒliǎ bāzì bù hé, háishi fēnshǒu ba.



八字 (bāzì), or 生辰八字 (shēngchén bāzì, literally, the eight characters of birth), was (and still is) believed to be an important factor for a successful life and marriage. It’s also called the “four pillars of destiny”, which are the year, month, day, and hour of your birth. Each of the four pillars is represented by two characters. In an arranged marriage, the eight characters of the couple must be sent to a fortune-telling master to see if they are compatible. If the couple gets married with mismatched bazi, the consequences could be disastrous.

Much like the arbitrary relationships between zodiac signs, it was and is purely superstition. If you hear someone use this as a reason for breaking your heart, they probably have some strong traditional influences. Run fast. Run far.

Of course, if your stars are aligned, your birth times match up perfectly, and you both hold the same views—well, you can always pass the buck. Judgmental families are a great scapegoat.


My mom doesn’t think we are a match.

Wǒ mā juéde wǒmen bù héshì.


My parents will not allow us to be together.

Wǒ fùmǔ bù tóngyì wǒmen zài yìqǐ.


My family disagrees.

Wǒ jiāli yǒu yìjiàn.



Regardless of your parents’ feelings, you’re not going to actually find yourself in a Montagues and Capulets situation. You might hear these phrases from mommy’s boys and daddy’s girls still in their 20s so absolutely used to having their parents planning everything for them they cannot think on their own, let alone be a responsible partner. Of course, there’s also the possibility that they’re just using the parents excuse to avoid confrontation. In any case, if you want to borrow these lines, your break-up will be successful but your ex will always remember you as a jerk.

When it comes to breaking up, indirectness and ambiguity are an anathema to a successful split. You might be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings and try to soften the blow.


You are a person with outstanding qualities. I can’t possibly match you.

Nǐ de tiáojiàn tài yōuxiù le, wǒ shízài pèi bú shàng nǐ.


You are such a good person and you should find someone who’s better than me.

Qíshí nǐ zhēn de hěnhǎo, yīnggāi zhǎo yí gè bǐ wǒ gènghǎo de rén.


You will definitely find someone better in the future.

Nǐ jiānglái yídìng huì zhǎodào gènghǎo de.



A spoon full of sugar does not make this medicine go down; it just means you choke longer. In their shock and grief, they might accept the compliments with aplomb, but in the fullness of time, they’ll realize it was utter nonsense. Some women toss the phrase “you are a good person”(你是一个好人 nǐ shì yí gè hǎorén)around as the ultimate rejection. There’s always a “but” after that lovely sentiment. Some guys like to say, “I don’t want to waste your time”(我不想耽误你 wǒ bù xiǎng dānwù nǐ).


I am doing this for your own good. I don’t want to waste your time.

Wǒ shì wèi nǐ hǎo, wǒ bù xiǎng dānwu nǐ.



The absolute worst thing you can say is:


After the break-up, we can still be good friends.

Fēnshǒu yǐhòu wǒmen hái kěyǐ zuò hǎopéngyǒu.



Staying as far as you can from the other person is the humane thing to do. It’s so they can recover. All the “friend” talk is selfishness.

It should come as no surprise that economic status plays a big part in a romantic relationship in China. An apartment, a car, and a handsome income (or at least these things on the horizon) are some of the most highly sought after qualities in a man and naturally, a frequent reason for break-ups. But, one would never be so vulgar as to mention this; why be honest about your lack of moral character when a well-considered waffling will do the same?


I don’t think we have a future.

Wǒ juéde wǒmen méiyǒu wèilái.



The flip side is a guy claiming that he is too busy making money to have a relationship. They will say:


Right now, I want to focus on my work.

Mùqián wǒ xiǎng bǎ zhòngxīn fàngzài shìyè shàng.


I want to first start a career and then a relationship.

Wǒ xiǎng xiān lì yè zài chéng jiā.


I’m too busy to have a relationship.

Wǒ tài máng le, bù xiǎng tán liàn’ài.



Of course, gender roles have changed over the years and both men and women in this case can play the part of the self-interested, greedy, no-good bastard. Man or woman, this excuse might win you a slap in the face.

In any case, being straightforward and clear about a break-up is the right thing to do. Hiding behind fake excuses fools yourself and hurts the other person. Choose your break-up line carefully and it could save you drama. Remember to appreciate your time together and give them your best wishes.


Thank you for our time together. I hope you will find someone to love.

Xièxiè nǐ de péibàn, xīwàng nǐ néng zhǎodào nǐ xǐhuān de rén.



“How to break a heart” is a story from our newest issue, “Mental Health”, coming out soon. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.