‘You can do it’–phrase of the week

Soruce: SupChina (6/10/22)
‘You can do it!’ — phrase of the week
What do purple buttocks have to do with China’s college entrance tests? For students who sat for gaokao exams this week, hard work was key, but so, too, were superstitions about what to eat or wear for good luck.
By Andrew Methven

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: You can do it! (紫腚能行 zǐ dìng néng xíng!).


A record 11.93 million Chinese students sat for the grueling national college entrance exams, also known as the gāokǎo 高考, in schools across China on June 7 and 8 this week.

The gaokao tests are notoriously hard in normal times, but with the added stress of COVID and lockdowns, this year’s university hopefuls faced even greater challenges, and needed all the luck they could get.

Different regions in China have their own traditions for bringing good luck, or avoiding bad results on exams. Cooking certain meals the night before, or saying certain things on the day, are all important final superstitious touches to the months of preparations and hard work.

In northern China, one way to wish students good luck has become popular across the country in recent years, and especially in 2022:

Today is the gaokao, I’m sure you can do it!
jīn tiān gāokǎo le, wǒ juédé nǐ zǐ dìng néng xíng!


You can do it literally translates as “purple” (紫 zǐ), “buttocks” (腚 dìng), and “can do it” (能行 néng xíng).

It’s a kind of phrase known as a homophone (谐音词 xié yīn cí). Homophones in Chinese are characters, words, or phrases that sound similar to other words but originally mean something completely different and unrelated.

The Chinese language has around 400 different syllable sounds, not including tonal changes. Adding in tones means there are plenty of things that sound the same or similar in Chinese. As well as being confusing, homophones in Chinese are also rich sources of humor and puns.

This week’s phrase of the week is a homophone from the northeastern dialect of Chinese.

In that dialect, the idiom 紫腚能行 zǐ dìng néng xíng — “purple buttocks can do it” — sounds like the Mandarin 指定能行 zhǐ dìng néng xíng — meaning “you can definitely do it.”

In recent years, this way to wish people good luck has taken on a more colorful twist to bring hopeful students that extra bit of luck in gaokao halls across China:

If you wear purple underpants, you’ll definitely do well!
Chuānzhuó zǐsè nèikù jiù yīdìng néng xíng!

While others joke that they want to be the Marvel character Thanos of the gaokao:

Thanos’s gaokao results are bound to be amazing because his buttocks are naturally purple!
Miè bà kǎoshì chéngjī kěndìng hěn hǎo, tā tiānshēng zǐ dìng!

In northeastern dialect, the character for buttocks (腚 dìng) is also a metaphor for hard work, and evokes an image of farmers grafting away in the fields, but is used to describe contemporary work or study pressures in China, such as in the phrase 撅腚 juē dìng, meaning “to work really hard.”

Entrepreneurial clothing companies in China have jumped on this opportunity with specially designed gaokao purple underpants, with sales hitting their peak around this time, while one company has even registered the phrase itself as a brand name in China.

If you enjoyed this, check out Andrew Methven’s Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 newsletter, a resource to help you master modern Mandarin and understand how people speak Chinese today. Andrew Methven is the author of the Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 newsletter, a resource to help learners of Chinese maintain and improve their language skills, and keep on top of the latest language trends in China. Read more

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