The Chinese Concept of “Cha Bu Duo” Is Not What You Think It Means

Philip Chang
11 min readJan 23, 2019

Spend enough time in the Greater China region and you’ll learn about “cha bu duo” (差不多), yet the Internet still gets this wrong by suggesting bad solutions. Cha bu duo translates to“difference not much,” but it means, “close enough.” At personal levels, cha bu duo is positive, and a way for saying, “This is practical.” In a professional setting, it usually means something negative.

1. Expressing forgiveness or acceptance

In your personal life, cha bu duo can help you be kinder towards situations you don’t understand, and more tolerant. Not everything has to be a big deal. Short a few renminbi or New Taiwan dollars? No big deal. Cha bu duo.

This also includes Chinglish. For example, “So many luggage?” It should be, “So much luggage,” but many vs. much in a different use case is correct — like, “So many cookies.” Cha bu duo. Still, bad examples where a double meaning applies - “Understanding Wild Asses” at the zoo - should be called out.

2. Describing substandard quality

A half-assed job. A disregard for procedure. Philosopher Hu Shih (胡適) wrote a famous allegory about cha bu duo to protest substandard work by government employees. Shih also wrote, “Each day, Mr. Chabuduo’s name is uttered by countless people to the extent that he has come to represent the entire population of China.” Sadly, that’s still true.

When cha bu duo seems pervasive, it’s fair to question whether everything will be cha bu duo from now on.

The most obvious explanation is there are many more workers than bosses, but Shih put the power in the hands of workers, a reasonable presumption in 1924, when the Communist movement was taking hold in China.

“Mr Cha Buduo doesn’t understand why he misses trains by arriving at 8:32 instead of 8:30, or why his boss gets angry when he writes 1,000 instead of 10, or why Iceland is different from Ireland. He falls ill and sends for Dr Wāng, but ends up getting Mr Wáng, the veterinarian, by mistake. Yet as he slips away, he is consoled by the thought that life and death, after all, are close enough.” — The Life of