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Deciphering Chinese New Year Greetings

Andrea Lo

The Chinese culture is filled with superstitions, and over the New Year is when they go into overdrive. During the new year, auspicious greetings rarely escapes anyone’s lips – they are believed to bring luck, joy and happiness to the recipient.

Consisting of four Chinese characters, these greetings each have special meanings. But when you take the four words apart, they could end up meaning something completely different.

… And that’s exactly what we’ve done here. We’ve taken some of the most popular CNY greetings and given them an unorthodox twist. But can you guess what they really mean? Read on below.


“Four Expensive Cheap Safe” 四季平安

What does it say in Chinese? This greeting is more accurately translated as “safe across the four seasons”. The word for “expensive” happens to rhyme with the word for “season”, and if you break up the two characters that make up the word “safe”, you’ll get “cheap safe”. Yep, that’s right – they don’t call Cantonese one of the most difficult languages in the world for nothing!

What does it actually mean? It’s straightforward enough. This is an expression that wishes others well in the year ahead from spring through winter.

How do I say it?

When do I say it? Whenever! The greeting is universal.


“Need Sheep Have Sheep” 要咩有咩

What does it say in Chinese? This peculiar greeting can be translated as “want what have what.” The Cantonese word for “what”, “meh”, is slang for “sheep” after the sound the animals make.

What does it actually mean? The greeting is used to wish for your recipient to “get what your heart desires”. In Cantonese, the words for “want” and “need” are the same. Which makes asking for gifts a whole lot easier…

How do I say it?

When do I say it? Say it to someone who wants stuff. So that’s everyone, basically.


“Year Born Dear Baby” 連生貴子

What does it say in Chinese? “Year born baby born” can also be construed as “continuous baby birthing.” Hopefully they didn’t mean literally.

What does it actually mean? The “baby” part should give you a clue. This greeting wishes the recipient a fast-growing family. The “dear” part refers to the baby being a precious one. Altogether now: awww.

How do I say it?

When do I say it? This phrase is most likely uttered by parents desperate for their single offspring to give them grandkids. But feel free to say it to new parents because hey, the more the merrier!  


“One Trouble Wind Smooth” 一帆風順

What does it say in Chinese? Literally translating as “one trouble wind smooth”, this expression is also known as “one sail smooth”. The Cantonese word for “trouble” rhymes with “sail”.

What does it actually mean? The closest English translation for this expression is “smooth sailing”, which is used to wish someone an effortless, trouble-free year ahead.

How do I say it?

When do I say it? While this greeting is used throughout the new year, you can also say it to a student during exam season, a worker going into a job interview… or your stronger-willed friends who actually followed their new year’s resolution to run a marathon.


Andrea Lo is a freelance journalist and translator based in Hong Kong. After cutting her teeth in the industry as a staff writer at a lifestyle magazine, she embraced the freelance life in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. She spends her time exploring the best of Hong Kong’s dining and nightlife scene, trialling new fitness trends, and travelling to exotic locales – all in the name of “research”.