辛 (bitterness) and 苦 (hardship) mean different things but 辛苦 means hard work

what is the method to the madness here? is there some sort of busuo methodology or etymological origins? or what?

tldr; naively, i had mistaken 辛苦 to be written as 心苦 - meaning hard work comes from the heart.

corollary: i'm curious why the first was chosen for hardwork and not some other combination?

  • 1
    how do you comprehend “hotdog”, “ladybird”, one is a yummy food, another one is an insect 🙀 would you call it as “madness”, that these two are not “dog”, “bird” related? Commented Jun 6 at 4:36
  • search "compound words" and read some of the posts and you will get the idea
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 6 at 5:44

3 Answers 3


辛苦: 比喻艰难困苦
辛苦: metaphorically: difficult, toilsome

Well, hard means: solid and firm, not soft:

Another meaning of hard is difficult, a meaning preserved in the phrase: hard of hearing

Related to hard is the Spanish word:

harto: fed up (with something), tired of (because of too much)

辛苦: pungent
originally referred to a spicy bitter taste, metaphorically (it means) difficult, toilsome

辛苦: literally: pungent: metaphorically: something which leaves a bitter taste behind, like too much difficult work. (Getting out of bed in the morning is just too much!)

努力: try hard, hardworking: 努力工作: work hard
艰苦: difficult, hard, arduous: 艰苦的工作: hard work
差事: job, task: 苦差事: arduous task
辛苦的工作: hard work

You have had a tiring day.


辛苦 is a Chinese phrase,
读音是xīn kǔ,
(which) is spoken xīn kǔ
originally referring to a spicy bitter taste,
metaphorically (it refers to a person) in difficult circumstances, whose life is hard,
(or) a very weary feeling.
Nowadays (辛苦 is used) mostly in the sense of work and manual labour.
(just) hard work and toil
expending (time or energy) is difficult,
(this phrase is) used to politely express putting someone to some trouble or inconvenience.

In Dong Zhongshu's 《"The Meaning of the Five Elements in the Spring and Autumn Annals"》is written:
"Gold, wood, water fire although each have their place, not so earth, (earth) can't ????(be added??), if the taste is sour salty or pungent this does not mean sweet and fat cannot be ingredients yeah."

I would be very grateful to 水巷孑蠻 if he could check this last part:


This Old Chinese is not easy for me!

  • the context: in 董仲舒‘s time, according to “ 五德終始說”, the 漢 dynasty belongs to “土德”. so, mr 董 distorted the equality of elements, emphasised that the earth element (土) has a higher status amongst 5 elements. therefore, when 5 tastes (五味) associated to 5 elements (五行), the taste sweet (甘) became a centralised, irreplaceable notion in tasting. imo, it’s bxxx sxxx 😼 Commented Jun 6 at 14:04

I wouldn't go as far as to call it "madness", but I don't think there is any rationale or methodology that determines which characters form which words (apart from the meanings in the characters themselves, which can be quite broad). It just happens in an ad-hoc fashion as new concepts emerge and people find ways to express them, and some of those enter into common usage and are passed down. It's more like evolution, and not very much like "intelligent design"

As such, you can learn a new word such as 辛苦 and understand post-hoc (with a little imagination) how the sense of "hard work" could be related to the characters for "spicy" and "bitter", but I don't think there is any way you could hear xīnkǔ and know for certain that it should be 辛苦 and not 心苦, without consulting a dictionary or asking somebody.

It seems quite probable that if you could rerun world history and have the Chinese language evolve all over again you might end up with 心苦 or more likely something completely different not related to flavours at all!

  • Q -- "It seems quite probable that if you could rerun world history and have the Chinese language evolve all over again you might end up with 心苦 or more likely something completely different not related to flavours at all" I doubt that because food and flavors, (and thus culinary taste, spicy or otherwise), are so embedded in the Chinese "victual DNA" that it would still end up as it is, which is why it ended up as it is in the first place. To the Chinese therefore nothing causes more "hardship" than having to eat "bitter" food, though the love of coffee, recently, is an isolated apparition :) Commented Jun 7 at 1:50
  • I don't know, my in-laws seem to like using 苦瓜 in their cooking... Commented Jun 7 at 2:47
  • As always, there's an answer to that, 苦尽甘来 :) Commented Jun 7 at 8:16
  • 想享福先吃苦......... Commented Jun 10 at 1:28

Never thought about it but a good question. Regardless we learn phrases in sentences

I always look at this issue, as reinventing a new letter (a-z) issue.

Chinese Characters (words) on their own are weak, and a new character cannot be reinvented (the computer could not recognise it), so ppl keep on creating new phrases to keep up the creativity in language.

The madness is the beauty of how a spice can be created to express creativities. Like English, a phrase can be created by merging 2 words, e.g. chillax, it's one of the beauties of English

I believe 辛苦 means its literal meaning. e.g. 谢谢您, 辛苦了! thank you for the 辛 (bitterness) and 苦 (hardship) you've been through!

To me, it pointed to the effort a person made, not sure about mental hardship.

心苦, however, it's not a real phrase to me, I would consider it's typo error and read it as 辛苦 if in the letter.

But if you emphasize 心苦 is what your intention is, I probably think you have a bitter heart. the common phrase in conversation is 我的心好苦, and the response will be, I feel you mate! (委屈你了)

  • There is 苦心, meaning to put a lot of effort, energy in doing a task. Commented Jun 7 at 1:35

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