Looking for some concrete answers on the difference between and

From what I have been able to understand:

  • bad: as in 坏人 (bad person) or 鱼坏了 (rotten food)
  • broken: as in 手机坏了 (broken mobile phone,) or 腿坏了 (a broken leg)

  • ripped: as in 这张纸破了 (ripped piece of paper)
  • worn out: as in 鞋破了 (worn out shoes)
  • broken: as in 手机破了 (broken mobile phone,) but not a broken leg

My issue is the overlap, unless I'm wrong. It looks to me to be something like a venn diagram (http://maass.nyu.edu/images/venn.jpg) where broken is shared by both words, and there are other meanings that belong only to each word. Is this right?

  • I don't know where you get the translated meanings. But try understand the meanings using a Chinese dictionary and use the English one only as a reference. means bad or spoilt, not broken. But in English, anything that is broken is spoilt.
    – 杨以轩
    Feb 25, 2014 at 1:54
  • @QuestionOverflow as in 电视机坏了 is broken?
    – Ming
    Feb 25, 2014 at 1:56
  • It means the tv is spoilt (broke down). 腿坏了 doesn't mean a broken leg (腿断了 does).
    – 杨以轩
    Feb 25, 2014 at 2:09
  • 1
    @QuestionOverflow hmm, in English spoilt isn't typically used on machinery, but rather for food or enjoyment. Broke down in this instance is the same as broken.
    – Ming
    Feb 25, 2014 at 2:17
  • What I am trying to say is that there is no one-one mapping for languages. Neither is 破 used on a broken phone unless it is literally broken (into pieces).
    – 杨以轩
    Feb 25, 2014 at 2:47

7 Answers 7


“坏” is a very general word meaning something "useless", but what makes the thing "坏了" has many reasons, and “破了” is one of them, so when something's state is “破了”, you can also say something is “坏了”;However “破” means something is broken or has cracks. So when you describe something that is useless because of inner reasons such as quality, but it still looks nice in its aspect, “破了” is no longer used.

Try to compare the two sentences:

1)这热水袋破了(The warm-water bag is broken, maybe is of cracks by falling down onto the ground).

2)这热水袋坏了(The phone is useless, maybe it doesn't keep warm anymore but NOT of cracks).

  • This is the best answer of the five existing ones IMHO. Feb 25, 2014 at 20:34
  • I really like this, congusbongus' and Eldium's answers, however this answer has been explained in a really easy to understand way. Thanks! :)
    – Ming
    Feb 26, 2014 at 0:29
  • It's very uncommon to say 这手机破了. we only say 这手机坏了. You may often hear 破手机, which means this mobile phone has poor quality. Feb 26, 2014 at 9:19
  • “破手机” sometimes also means this style of the phone is overtime (not popular). However thank you for your tip, sotodolphin;)
    – xqMogvKW
    Feb 26, 2014 at 9:23
  • You can also string the two together - "这热水袋破坏了。" means "This warm water bag is split/cracked/damaged to the point of being useless."
    – Joe Z.
    Feb 27, 2014 at 6:21

Yes, they both have the "broken" meaning, with subtle differences. Unfortunately there are not many situations where you can simply replace one with the other - everyone will understand but you will still sound awkward if you use the wrong character. Plus there may be regional differences!

I suppose if you had to generalise, is used when the breakage is obvious, there's a clear mark or split or wound, whereas is for things that are broken in more subtle ways, or less obvious. also tends to be used by default, when the situation is ambiguous (other characters for "broken" include 碎, 败, 漏, 裂 etc.)

So here's where you'd use and why:

手机坏了 (broken mobile phone), because the phone may look fine

鱼坏了 (the fish has spoiled), because the fish may otherwise look fine

Here's where you'd use and why:

纸破了 (the paper is broken), because the paper has a visible hole or rip

鞋破了 (the shoe is worn), usually because you wear through the sole so that there's a hole

碗打破了 (the bowl is shattered), because the bowl is now in many pieces

Also watch out for words that use or since, as you may know already, Chinese words cannot be mixed-and-matched by replacing similar characters in them. E.g. you cannot replace the in the word 破裂 with to get 坏裂, as Chinese doesn't work that way.

For a bit of etymology which somewhat explains the subtle differences, has the "earth" radical and originally meant "unfired clay", so outward appearance is fine but it's not really "made"; has the "stone" radical and originally meant stones shattering, so there's a visible, obvious breakage.


the meanings of 坏 correspond more to the English words "bad"/“rotten”.

好人/坏人 - Good guy/Bad guy 牛奶坏了 - The milk's spoilt / gone bad 一粒老鼠屎,坏了一锅粥 - One bad apple spoils a whole bunch (lit. a drop of mouse poo spoils a pot of congee.=)

破 has less of these negative connotations, and may sometimes even have positive ones in the sense of

突破 "making a breakthrough/breaking new ground" 打破纪录 “breaking a record/setting a new record time"

In every everyday speech/slang, 破 along with 烂 is used as an adjective to mean disapproval, in the same was as crappy/shitty.

这什么破玩意 - what is this crap? 这破电影真难看 - this crappy movie is just awful

Incidentally, "破坏" means destruction, which kinda tells you what the two characters have in common with regards to meaning.

  • 1
    +1 for mouse poo and slang.
    – neubau
    Feb 25, 2014 at 9:42

坏了 = doesn't work / out of order, usually after an objects for example 电视机坏了 坏了 = very generally refer to some parts of your body impaired. for example 腿坏了 = cripple 坏了! = exclamation. similar to DAMN it!! 坏了,我忘带钱包了。 damn it! I forgot to bring my wallet. 坏了 = something goes bad/expired 牛奶坏了,不能喝了: the milk is expired, can't drink it.

破了 = broken

破了 = injured 手破了,流血了。 hand is injured and bleeding.


  • 1. for "破"

    In fact in china, few people will directly say 手机破了, but say 手机屏破了 or 手机壳破了, here means the screen of the phone, and means the shell of the phone, because in Chinese, 破了 is often related to things like glass, or something used for packaging, or containers, so you can say: 我的包裹(package)破了, 我的信封(envelope)破了, 我的纸箱(carton)破了, 我的花瓶(vase)破了, they are both ok.

    but, sometimes you can simply use it as old, or outdated, and so on, because we often use with 旧(old, outdated) together as 破旧, here the two characters have the same meaning, one example is: 我的手机很破了, 我的鞋很破了, note here I use a character , it means very, when you see these two characters used together, maybe someone wants to tell you something he is using is very old or outdated(and one possible reason maybe he doesn't have much money to afford a new one)

  • 2. for "坏"

    literally meaning of 坏了 is broken, doesn't work any more, if you say 手机坏了, may be the screen and the shell are both fine but you just can't turn on the phone, tons of reason can cause this.

    while there is another meaning of "坏了" --> you can simply understand it as "damn it!", so if something happened in a sudden and you don't know what to do, you would say "坏了!"


    Just a side note to the other answers. One way to capture the difference is to look at each one as the resultative element of a compound. For 破, we might find this:

    他把我的手機打破了 ‘He smashed my cell phone.’

    For 壞, this:

    他我的手機用壞了 ‘He was using my cell phone and now it doesn’t work.’

    In both cases the cell phone is broken. But in the first case it’s physically broken, in the second something more subtle happened. 打破了 and 用壞了 sound natural for this reason. I don’t know if 打壞了 and 用破了 are possible compounds or not, but even if possible they would be going against the semantic grain as it were.


    坏:bad -> roted -> malfunction. Something that is not good internally. NOTE, this does not mean it is useless, just mean there are some function that expected to work but actually not.

    破:broken -> holes/spots in skin -> old. Something that is not good in the surface.

    So, you say 坏手机 for a malfunction mobile, say 破手机 for an old mobile. If a pair of high heels was broken on the heel, you say "高跟鞋坏了", but if some one can see you leaked toes from your leather shoes, "这皮鞋破了"。

    BTW: be careful to use the word "破鞋", this means "second hand woman" in a bad sense!

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