Reversible Chinese Words


Sometimes, you can create two different words by putting two of the same Chinese characters into a different order.  In this article, we are going to take a look at 5 examples of reversible Chinese words.


Same Characters, Different Meaning

It’s believed that a Chinese learner should master around 3500 frequently-used Chinese characters to be able to hold conversations on different topics, including discussions related to various academic fields. One interesting feature of the Chinese language is, that the same sets of characters can form different words. And sometimes, two characters put in a reverse order can create 2 different words. Such words might differ in both meaning and use.


适合 vs. 合适

Reversible Chinese Words

适合 shìhé is a verb which means “to suit”, whereas 合适 héshì is an adjective which means “suitable”. Many Chinese learners feel confused about the use of these two words because they can be easily mixed up.

Let’s have a look at two simple examples to help you clarify the difference:

我觉得这份工作适合我。Wǒ juéde zhè fèn gōngzuò shìhé wǒ.

I think this is the right job for me.

As you can see, 适合 shìhé in this sentence is used as a verb, which literally means “I think this job suits me.”

这件红色的衬衫最合适。Zhè jiàn hóngsè de chènshān zuì héshì.

This red shirt is the best (“the most suitable”).

Here, 合适 héshì is the correct choice, as we need an adjective after 最 zuì (“the most”).


租房 vs. 房租

Reversible Chinese Words

租房 zū fáng is a phrase which means “to rent a house/flat”, whereas 房租 fángzū is a noun which means “rent” (the money you pay for your house/flat every month).

Here is an example including both of these two words, to give you a better understanding of the difference between them:

如果你想租房,你必须付房租。Rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng zū fang, nǐ bìxū fù fángzū.

If you want to rent a house/flat, you’ll have to pay rent.

  • 如果 rúguǒ – if
  • 想 xiǎng – to want
  • 必须 bìxū – must, have to
  • 付 fù – to pay


牙刷 vs. 刷牙

Reversible Chinese Words

牙刷 yáshuā is a noun meaning “toothbrush”, whereas 刷牙 shuā yá is a phrase which means “to brush one’s teeth”.

Here’s an interesting sentence that can help you grasp the difference between the two:

我用牙刷刷牙。Wǒ yòng yáshuā shuā yá.

I’m using a toothbrush to brush my teeth.

上楼 vs. 楼上

Reversible Chinese Words

上楼 shàng lóu means “to go upstairs”, whereas 楼上 lóu shàng indicates a specific location, which is “upstairs”.

我坐电梯上楼。Wǒ zuò diàntī shàng lóu.

I’m taking the elevator to go upstairs.

我在楼上。Wǒ zài lóu shàng.

I’m upstairs.

下楼 vs. 楼下

Reversible Chinese Words

Similarly, 下楼 xià lóu means “to go downstairs”, and 楼下 lóu xià means “downstairs”.

我坐电梯下楼。Wǒ zuò diàntī xià lóu.

I’m taking the elevator to go downstairs.

我在楼下。Wǒ zài lóu xià.

I’m downstairs.


事故 vs. 故事

Reversible Chinese Words

Unlike the previous word pairs, these two words have completely different meanings.

事故 shìgù is a noun which means “accident”. 故事 gùshì is also a noun – but with a completely different meaning, which is “story”.

他在事故中受伤了。Tā zài shìgù zhōng shòu shāng le.

He was injured in the accident.

我喜欢听有趣的故事。Wǒ xǐhuān tīng yǒuqù de gùshì.

I like listening to interesting stories.


We hope this post will raise your awareness of such reverse Chinese words – and that you’ll start noticing them around, too!

Which other similar words do you know?

Share in comments – or tweet us at @thatsmandarin.

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