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The two have very similar meanings and can both be used to mean "detest, despise, look down upon" but there seems to be a subtle difference.

According to these entries:

看不起 http://www.zdic.net/c/b/149/321190.htm

看不上 http://www.zdic.net/c/b/164/364508.htm

看不上 can also carry the meaning of "cannot suit for one’s idea". There's also a blog post that states that 看不起 is more of an objective judgement whereas 看不上 is more subjective, hence the latter could simply mean something is not up to the speaker's standards. However I'm not entirely convinced, and was hoping there were better sources outlining the differences between the two.

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As a native speaker, when I hear A看不起B, it means 'A despise B because B is bad (at subject X)', while A看不上B means 'A doesn't think B is as good (at subject X) as A himself, but B is not necessarily bad'. In other word, 'B is inferior than most' vs. 'B inferior than A'. This is my personal understanding and could be wrong, just a data point for you. –  NS.X. Aug 27 '13 at 8:22
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When A看不起B, it means A looks down on B. B has to be a person whom A considers as inferior. When A看不上B, it usually means A has no desire for B. B can be an object or a person. Both are subjective in nature as it is from A's personal point of view. –  Question Overflow Aug 27 '13 at 10:19
    
@QuestionOverflow 'no desire' is the most accurate translation for 看不上 so far, IMO. Another supporting example is 'A不想和B玩,因为A___B', 看不起 here means A finds B cheating or unsporting or having other behavioral problems; 看不上 means A find B's skill not as good as an interesting game requires. –  NS.X. Aug 28 '13 at 18:52
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5 Answers 5

看不起 : look down somebody because his value is low. based on a value judgement on him/her.

看不上 : will not accept/choose somebody because of many choices or better choices. based on demand on him/her.

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看不起 + 某物品 (something)

表示 觉得这个物品没有价值,不值得拥有。

Indicates that you think that thing is worthless or not worth having

看不起 + 某人 (someone)

表示 觉得这个人某方面能力或某方面不好,带贬义。

Indicates that you think this person is, in some respect, bad. Pejorative term.

看不上 + 某人 (someone)

觉得这个人不适合。 比如团队需要人,选择男女朋友时。

You think this person is unsuitable. For instance, when a team is selecting new members, or when one chooses a boy or girl friend.

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Hi fazhang. Welcome to Chinese SE. When you write Chinese, please provide the pinyin and English translation as not all of us can fluently read Chinese. Thank you –  Growler Sep 17 '13 at 13:21
    
Where is the regulation that the question/answer must attach English translation? Not all of us can speak English fluently either. Mr @Growler. –  congliu Sep 18 '13 at 2:25
    
@congliu Providing Chinese, pinyin, and English creates a standard that facilitates Q&A for native and non-native Chinese speakers. Moreover, this is a Chinese language learning Q&A site, so you would expect that it would pander to non-native Chinese learners. Several non-native learners have mentioned they would like English explanations, and often down vote if there are none. –  Growler Sep 18 '13 at 2:39
    
Show us the link of the regulation, or it may be regarded as your own opinion. Mr @Growler. –  congliu Sep 18 '13 at 2:41
    
@congliu It is an opinion shared by many Chinese SE users. As I expressed in my comment above, several users have down voted and requested mod support for this reason. Therefore, as a mod, I have added explanation that might clarify why their answers are getting down votes. –  Growler Sep 18 '13 at 2:45
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看不上

没有达到自己的心理预估值,或者想要更好的

He/she/it doesn't meet your expectations, or you want something/someone better

看不起

一点都没有看上

No desire for, totally despise

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Hi user3242. Please provide pinyin and English translation for long Chinese sentences. Most of us on this site are still learning Chinese. –  Growler Sep 17 '13 at 13:22
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看不起 - Derogatory term

看不上 - Neutral term

example:

A boy likes a girl, but the girl doesn't like the boy.

girl 看不上 boy. boy isn't a bad person, just isn't attractive enough.

A man stole something, so everyone hates him.

The man is really bad, so everyone 看不起 him.

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I am not a linguist. So I can only give you my perspective as a native Chinese speaker.

To make it short: 看不起 is rarely used on an object, whereas 看不上 can be used on both persons and objects.

Some examples:

  1. 我最 看不起 他这种自私的人。 CORRECT
  2. 我最 看不上 他这种自私的人。 CORRECT
  3. 品味一向很高的她根本 看不上 这种便宜货。 CORRECT
  4. 品味一向很高的她根本 看不起 这种便宜货。 Understandable but AWKWARD
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Which one is more similar to 小看? –  tao Aug 28 '13 at 5:47
    
@tao i would say neither. 小看 is usually used in its negative form. e.g. 别小看我。 不要小看他。 –  Farticle Pilter Aug 28 '13 at 5:53
    
4. is not so awkward, as far as I can perceive. –  congliu Aug 28 '13 at 11:05
    
@congliu as I said, I am not a linguist, but a native speaker. For me, I rarely hear 4. –  Farticle Pilter Aug 28 '13 at 11:07
    
I'm native too, and I heard about it a lot. –  congliu Aug 28 '13 at 11:08
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