Saying "So-so; Mediocre" in Mandarin Chinese

White Tiger

Irfan Saghir Mirza Photos / Getty Images

The rules of etiquette in Chinese culture state that compliments must be rejected. Therefore, if someone tells you that you speak Mandarin well, a good way of responding would be, “Not at all, my Mandarin is very poor.”

One way of saying this is with the Mandarin Chinese phrase mǎmǎhūhū. This could be prefaced with nǎli nǎli, which means “where?”—as in, “Where is my good Mandarin? I don’t see it.”

Mǎmǎhūhū is made up of four Chinese characters: 马马虎虎/馬馬虎虎 (the second is traditional Chinese). The first two characters mean “horse” and the second two characters mean “tiger.” This makes the phrase very easy to remember, but why does “horse horse tiger tiger” mean “mediocre?” It’s neither one nor the other—it’s so-so, mediocre.

Example of Mama Huhu

Click on the links to hear the audio.

Nǐ de guóyǔ shuō de hěn hǎo.你的國語說得很好。你的国语说得很好。Your Mandarin is very good.
Nǎli nǎli - mǎmǎ hǔhǔ.

哪裡哪裡 馬馬虎虎。
哪里哪里 马马虎虎。
Not at all—it’s very bad.

It should be noted that this phrase is very common in many beginner textbooks, but that few native speakers actually use it and it might come across as a bit strange or out-dated. It's a little bit similar to textbooks in English as a second language having "it's raining cats and dogs" because it's a cute expression that students like, but very few people actually say that. It's fine to use, of course, but don't be surprised if you don't hear other people saying it all the time.

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Your Citation
Su, Qiu Gui. "Saying "So-so; Mediocre" in Mandarin Chinese." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Su, Qiu Gui. (2023, April 5). Saying "So-so; Mediocre" in Mandarin Chinese. Retrieved from Su, Qiu Gui. "Saying "So-so; Mediocre" in Mandarin Chinese." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).