Just playing around
In Mandarin Chinese when you want to talk about playing a musical instrument, there are quite a few different words you could use, depending on the type of instrument.
- 拉 (lā) is used for bowed instruments such as the 二胡 (èrhú), violin (小提琴 xiǎotíqín), viola (中提琴 zhōngtíqín) and cello (大提琴 dàtíqín), and also means to pull, drag, draw or chat.
- 彈 [弹] (tán) is used for the piano (鋼琴 [钢琴] gāngqín), and string instruments such as the guitar (吉他 jítā), and also means to pluck, spring, leap, shoot , fluff, flick and so on.
- 吹 (chuī) is used for wind instruments such as the 笛 dí (flute), 簫 xiào (bamboo flute) and clarinet (單簧管 [单簧管] dānhuángguǎn) and also means to blow, blast, boast, brag and to end in failure.
- 打 (dǎ) is used for the drums (鼓 gǔ) and other percussion, and also means to beat, strike, hit, break, type, fight and so on. As well as meaning to play/beat a drum, 打鼓 (dǎgǔ) also means to be nervous. 打 also means to play games such as golf – 打高爾夫球 [打高尔夫球] (dǎ gāo’ěrfū qiú), and also to play cards – 打牌 (dǎ pái).
If you want to talk about playing music in general without mentioning a specific instrument you could say 演奏 (yǎnzòu) – to play a musical instrument, to perform music. I thought there wasn’t a general term like this in Chinese and that was what promoted me to write this post.
In other contexts, there are various was to translate to play in Chinese, including:
- 玩 (wán) is the most common one and can mean to play games (玩遊戲 [玩游戏] wán yóuxì) or to have fun. In English the phrase “Are you coming out to play?” is usually only uttered by children, but the equivalent in Chinese, 你出來玩嗎？ [你出去玩吗？] nǐ chūlái wán ma?, is used by both children and adults.
- 踢 (tī) means to kick and to play ball games such as football (soccer) – 踢足球 (tī zúqiú).
-弄 (nòng) means to play/fool/mess/toy with, to fix, do, manage or to handle – a useful word that can used in a variety of contexts.
Source: MDBG Chinese-English Dicitonary