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How to break a heart

A short guide to that tragic farewell in Chinese

11·29·2015

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.

咱俩不合适。

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.

我们没有共同语言。

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.

我们的三观不合,没办法继续在一起了。

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.

我们不是一个世界的人。

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.

我家的狗不太喜欢你家的猫。

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.

你支持西班牙队,我支持意大利队,我们不合适,还是分手吧。

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?

我俩的词汇量不一样,怎么能在一起?

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.

我俩没有缘分。

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.

算命的说我俩八字不合,还是分手吧。

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.

我妈觉得我们不合适。

My parents will not allow us to be together.

Wǒ fùmǔ bù tóngyì wǒmen zài yìqǐ.

我父母不同意我们在一起。

My family disagrees.

Wǒ jiāli yǒu yìjiàn.

我家里有意见。

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.


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

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