How to interpret and use 起来 QiLai in Chinese

起来 or Qǐlái in Chinese can be interpreted and used in many ways. Sometimes it’s really hard to explain what 起来 means exactly, even for a native speaker (perhaps especially for a native speaker like me, because most of the time I don’t think about what it means at all!). You would have to interpret 起来 in a sentence or a context.

In this post I will talk about the most basic meaning of 起来, and go over a few instances of 起来 that have popped up in Peppa Pig so far.

The most basic meaning of 起来 is to arise or to get up

The most basic meaning of 起来 is to arise or to get up. Actually, the national anthem of PRC starts exactly with this word, “起来!不愿做奴隶的人们!” which means “Arise, the people who don’t want to be slaves!”

  • 站起来 = zhàn qǐlái, to stand up. You can ask somebody to stand up by simply saying “你站起来”.
  • 坐起来 = zuò qǐlái, to sit up (say, to sit up from the laying in bed.)
  • 跳起来 = tiào qǐlái, to jump up.
  • You may have heard of 起床 = qǐlchuáng which means to get up from the bed. It’s kinda short for 从床上起来 = cóng chuángshàng qǐlái, to arise from the bed.
  • Similarly, you may have heard of 起飞 = qǐfēi which means (airplane) to take off. You can also say 飞机飞起来了 literally means the airplane started to fly.

Use 起来 in the context of lifting an object

Related to its most basic meaning, you often use 起来 in the context of lifting an object or to move one up. The grammar structure is 把 + object + verb + 起来. This expression focuses on the vivid upward movement.

In S01E46 Part 5, Peppa was demonstrating to George how to make a sand castle. The final step was:

bǎ tǒng tí qǐlái
把 桶 提 起来
Lift the bucket up

提 = tí, to lift. Note that you 提 an object if the object has a handle. You can lift things barehanded, but it wouldn’t be 提, probably 抬 = tái.

There are many similar examples with different verbs:

  • 把手举起来 = bǎshǒu jǔ qǐlái, to raise one’s hands. This sentence can be used as an imperative. A police may yell exactly this sentence at a criminal suspect under arrest while pointing a gun at him.
    • If you’re answering a question in a lecture, you’d 举手 = jǔ shǒu which is a set phrase for raising your hands to answer a question in a classroom.
  • 把头抬起来 = bǎtóu tái qǐlái, to lift one’s head
    • Depending on the context, you can also just say 抬头, but 把头抬起来 to me is more vivid and it focuses on the process of moving
  • 把石头捡起来 = bǎ shítou jiǎn qǐlái, to pick up the stone/rock
    • You can also use 捡石头, but 捡石头 simply describes the action of picking the stones. 把石头捡起来 makes me think of somebody bending down and picking up the stone from the ground. The imaginary is much stronger.

Use 起来 in the context of putting things away

In S01E09 Part 3, Daddy Pig couldn’t find his glasses anywhere. He complained:

kěndìng yǒurén bǎ wǒde yǎnjìng cáng qǐlai le
It must be that somebody hid my glasses.

藏 means hide. 藏起来 has nothing to do with lifting but everything to do with putting something away. Somebody must have deliberately put it away, and hidden it away, so Daddy Pig couldn’t find it.

There are quite a few related expressions such as:

  • 装起来 = zhuāng qǐlái, to pack away (in a backpack or something similar)
  • 收起来 = shōu qǐlái, to keep away (in a closet or something).
  • 放起来 = fàng qǐlái, to put away (in a closet or something similar)

Usually you’d append the above expressions after “把 + object”. For example, you can say: 洗完衣服,我妈把衣服收起来了 = xǐ wán yīfú, wǒ mā bǎ yīfú shōu qǐláile. After laundry, my mom just put the clothes away.

If the context is clear, you don’t have to explicitly name the object. For example “快收起来!“ could be asking somebody to put something away quickly.

You can also use 藏起来 to describe somebody has hidden away. For example, 他藏起来了 = tā cáng qǐláile, he has hidden away, such as in the game of hide-and-seek. In a way, they put themselves away.

If you want somebody to put something away, you can also use 好 instead of 起来 for all the above cases. However, in our original example from Peppa Pig, you can’t say “肯定有人把我的眼镜藏好了” because Daddy Pig doesn’t want the glasses to be hidden away.

Use 起来 to subjectively describe characteristics of an object

Daddy Pig in S01E51 Part 2 thought his new movie camera would be too difficult for Peppa to use. He said this about the movie camera:

duì háizi láishuō, yòng qǐlai yǒu yìdiǎn kùnnan na
对 孩子 来说,用 起来 有一点 困难 哪
It would be a bit difficult for a child to use

The verb 用 means to use. In this sentence, my interpretation is that 起来 turns “to use” into “if/when used”. 摄像机用起来困难 can be literally translated as the movie camera, if used, is difficult. See more examples down below. The verb, which is 用 here, is how you would actually use the thing you are describing, which is the movie camera in this sentence.

Verb + 起来 + 有一点/很 + adjective is a commonly used phrase to express an subjective opinion of characteristics of an object. The literal English translation may be awkward but here are a few examples of 起来 in sentences for you to think through:

  • 这个冰激凌吃起来有点甜 = zhège bīngjīlíng chī qǐlái yǒudiǎn tián: This ice cream, when eaten, is a bit sweet.
    • The verb is 吃 to play. You would normally 吃 the ice cream or 冰激凌. But the sentence’s subject is 冰激凌.
  • 这个广播放起来有点吵 = zhège guǎng bòfàng qǐlái yǒudiǎn chǎo: This radio, when played, is a bit noisy
    • The verb is 放 or to play. You would normally play the radio or 广播. But the sentence’s subject is 广播.
  • 这道题做起来有点难 = zhè dào tí zuò qǐlái yǒudiǎn nán: This question, when solved, is difficult.
    • The verb is 做 or to do. You would do the question or 题, the object. But in this sentence 题 becomes the subject.

Note that you can replace 有点 with 很 in all the cases above.

You may ask: How is 这个冰激凌吃起来有点甜 different from just saying the ice cream is sweet 这个冰激凌有点甜? The former reflects the speaker’s subjective opinion. The latter expression sounds more objective (well, although it’s not necessarily true that the statement is in fact objective).

A very commonly used phrase is 看起来 = kànqǐlai, it looks like. It can be interpreted the same way.

In S01E46 Part 2, Daddy Pig commented this about the beach ball:

kànqǐlai néng wánr
看起来 能 玩儿
It looks like it is still good for playing. 

The use of 起来 is very similar to 用起来 above. The subject of this sentence is the ball. Literally, the ball, if looked/checked, is still good for playing.

In the same episode, S01E46 Part 3, Daddy Pig also said the following about George

dài shàngbì juān hòu, nǐ kànqǐlai hěn kěài
戴 上臂 圈 后, 你 看起来 很 可爱
After you put on the water wings, you look very cute

The subject of this sentence is 你, referring to George. Literally, George, if looked/checked, is cute. You can also just say 你很可爱. It doesn’t make a huge difference because this is clearly expressing an opinion either way. I’d still say that 你看起来很可爱 emphasizes more on the subjectivity of the opinion.

Use 起来 when one starts to do something or to indicate a change of activity

Another common way to use 起来 is when one begins an activity, indicating a change of status.

In S01E46 Part 6, as Mummy Pig, Peppa and George were about to leave the beach, George thought of Daddy Pig who they all forgot about. After they found Daddy Pig who were napping in the sand, Mummy Pig told Daddy Pig:

dàn qiáozhì xiǎng qǐlái le
但 乔治 想起来 了
But George remembered.

想起来了 = xiǎng qǐlái le, is a set phrase for remembered or just thought of something. Used specifically when you couldn’t think of something, or you forgot about something, but just remembered it or just thought of it.

A change in the status or activity is required, which is different from 想到了 = xiǎngdàole, also used in S01E46 Part 6.

If you want to explicit add the subject “you” into the sentence, you’d say 想起你来了, the object would be in between 想起 and 来了.

There are many other examples of using 起来 to indicate the start of an activity.

In S01E17 Part 3, Grandpa Pig showed George how to be a worm.

nǐ yào quánshēn bǎidòng qǐlai
你 要 全身 摆动 起来
You should start to swing your whole body

摆动起来 = bǎidòng qǐlái, started to swing.

唱起来 = chàng qǐlái, started to sing. 唱起来 by itself sounds like an imperative. In a regular sentence, you typically use it this way:

他开始唱起歌来 = tā kāishǐ chàng qǐ gē lái. He started to sing a song.

The verb is 唱, the object is 歌, you insert 起来 in between them 唱.

Earlier I translated 跳起来 to be “to jump”. 跳 can also refer to dancing. So 跳起来 could mean started dancing. This depends on the context a lot. (I recognize that this could potentially be ultra confusing because you can be jumping while dancing.)

Similar to the above example about 唱歌, you 跳舞, so in a sentence you usually use: 他开始跳 = tā kāishǐ tiào qǐwǔ lái. He started to dance.

Another useful phrase is 说起来, which literally mean started talking. It’s often used to express “now that we’ve started talking about it…”

What’s next?

I started to write this post because 起来 is a reoccurring word in Peppa Pig, and it’s super commonly used in spoken Chinese.

In addition to going over examples of 起来 in sentences from Peppa Pig, I ended up writing about a couple other interpretations and usages of 起来. Honestly, as I was writing this post, it became more and more obvious to me that it’s much easier to explain 起来 using real sentences from a story or context such as Peppa Pig. Alas, I tried my best to provide relevant examples.

There may be other ways to use 起来 or qǐlái. I am sure 起来 or qǐlái will come up again in Peppa Pig and I’ll update this post then.

Leave a Comment