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This has to be one of the more ambiguous words I have struggled with.

厉害 can be:

  • very well performed = 玩得很厉害;
  • harsh = 骂得很厉害;
  • severe = 生病得很厉害;
  • probably a bunch of other stuff...

Can anyone give a comprehensive summary of the meanings and related contexts?

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not ambiguous, just too many meanings (like the words great, like if you look up their entries in a dictionary) :p –  prusswan Jan 5 '12 at 11:22
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Don't forget that 厉害 can be easily confused with 利害 which sounds exactly the same and means pros and cons –  TiansHUo Oct 10 '12 at 4:09
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5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It is somewhat similar in usage to the word great in English, with the following meanings I can recall:

Impressive or skilled:

他的功夫非常厉害。= He is very skilled in martial arts.

太厉害了,他是怎么做到的? = Very impressive, how did he manage to achieve that?

formidable:

厉害的角色 = A formidable figure (not one to be messed around with)

厉害的手段 = formidable tactics (in a sporting game, or as part of political intrigue)

severe:

某某股跌得太厉害了 = Stock X has taken a severe fall (in value)

However, 厉害 is not usually the phrase/word of choice to describe a performance (of the arts).

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I think when 厉害 is used to describe the performance, it means "to be skillful to do, to be good at something, as you mentioned. I would say "他的三分球很厉害" He is good at three-point shot (as in basketball). –  Huang Jan 5 '12 at 14:47
    
That is true but I have this feeling that it is turning into an often-abused word (just like great and like in English) used by people are unable or too lazy to think of a more appropriate word. –  prusswan Jan 6 '12 at 12:03
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prusswan's answer is great.I just want to make a supplement . 厉害 can be a noun and means

harsh(or severe) means(or way,manoeuvre,measure,etc.)

Example:

看来我得让你看看我的厉害。 It seems that I should make you know my severe means.

This is a warning to the listener that you will do something bad to him.

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You have an example sentence of when it is a noun? –  Lars Andren Jan 5 '12 at 14:19
    
@LarsAndren Ok, I added an example to the answer. –  Huang Jan 5 '12 at 14:37
    
Very interesting example! Two excellent answers, wish I could choose both as the correct answer. –  Lars Andren Jan 5 '12 at 15:24
    
@LarsAndren You may suggest this on meta. Well, just kidding. I think prusswan's answer is better since it's more comprehensive. For me, the up-vote is enough. –  Huang Jan 5 '12 at 15:33
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厉害 can also mean quite a few things when describing a person and relies heavily on the context. For example the sentence:

他是很厉害

Has numerous possibilities and it would be wrong to assume something without further explanation.

Some examples:

  • This person is very strict or harsh
  • This person has a sharp personality
  • This person is very skillful / capable

The same with the use of 太厉害. This could have a positive or negative connotation. It could describe someone who is amazingly skillful or someone that is overly strict.

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This is exactly the kind of ambiguity I was talking about. Great addition –  Lars Andren Jan 8 '12 at 13:39
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An idiomatic English translation of 厉害 might be something like "beast" or "monster." Such a person might be "very capable." Or else overly harsh, strict, or overbearing. But basically "out of control."

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I have been quite busy preparing for my Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) exam, a Mandarin certification exam held twice annually. There are five levels and I started from the third level. Translator in Beijing

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Lovely answer to another question. –  Lars Andren Jun 5 at 5:19
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