Common Chinese Phrases

Visitors to China usually speak Chinese for three things:

  • Being polite
  • Buying something
  • Asking directions.

So here are some essential expressions that will allow you do these essential things.

Casual Greetings and Polite Words

How are you? Nǐ hǎo ma? (knee-haoww-mah?)

Wéi (way), mostly used on the ‘phone, is the closest Chinese to “hello” or “hi“. Nowadays most Chinese speakers know the English word “hello” and might use it even when meeting Chinese people. It has become an English loanword in the Chinese language pronounced hāluo (haa-lwor), so it may sound odd when Chinese-speakers try to say “hello”.

“Nǐ hǎo ma?” literally means “You good?” (nǐ = you, hǎo = good, ma = ?). Similar to “How are you?”, it can mean “Are you ok?”.

“Nǐ hǎo” (knee haoww) is said frequently. It might mean “Nǐ hǎo ma?”, but it typically means something like “It’s you — good.” or “Nice to see you.” It’s the most basic and standard Chinese greeting.

The Good, the Bad, and the “Good or Bad?”

Good or bad? Hǎobùhǎo? (haoww-boo-haoww)

Hǎo means “good”. Hǎo also means “ok”.

Bùhǎo means “not good”. (“Bu” means ‘no’ or ‘not’.) Chinese speakers use “hǎo” and “buhao” to say something is good or bad, and to signal agreement or disagreement.

Combining “hǎo” and “bùhǎo” gives “Hǎobùhǎo?”, which is a question. It means ‘Good or not good?’ or ‘Is it ok?’ After this or “Nǐ hǎo ma?” you can reply “hǎo” or “bùhǎo”.

Thanking

Thank you. Xièxie. (sshyeah-sshyeah)

This is the basic and simple way to say thank you.

Apologising

I’m sorry. Duì buqǐ. (dway-boo-chee)

This phrase can be used both to apologise and to ask for repetition. It literally means “I didn’t begin correctly.” or “You’re right, that isn’t upright.”

“Duì” means ‘correct’. It is often repeated two or three times to indicate agreement while nodding the head (Duì duì duì).

Buying Something

Here are some basic shopping words and phrases. When you first walk into a store or meet someone selling something, you can establish what you want to buy is there and ask how much it costs.

Asking What Something Is

Here is a good way to both indicate your interest in an item and to learn a lot of new words.

What is this? Zhè shì shénme? (Jer shrr shnn-muh?)

The three important words are: Zhè (this), shì (is), and shénme (what). Combined with pointing, “Zhè shì shénme?” can be used to find out what things are called.

Shì (all forms of the verb “to be”) is also used to mean “yes”, like “duì” and “hǎo”, and can also be combined with bù for “it’s not” (bùshì).

Asking for an item

Do you have …? Yǒuméiyǒu …? (Yoh-may-yoh ...?)

Yǒu means ‘have’, and méiyǒu means “to not have”. The word méi means lack. So the phrase “yǒuméiyǒu …” literally means “have or not have …?”

How much?

How much money? Duōshao qián? (Dwor-sshaoww chyen?)

The phrase “duōshao?” is composed of the words duō (much) and shǎo (few), and means “how much?” or “how many?” Qián means ‘money’.

Travel — Going Somewhere

Getting directions

Where is ...? ... zài nǎlǐ? (... dzeye naa-lee?)

The three words are: zài (on or in), nǎ (where or which), and lǐ (inside or very roughly the word “place”). Put the name of the place or object you want to find before zài nǎlǐ.

Telling Someone You Want to Go Somewhere

I want to go to ... Wǒ xiǎng qù... (Wor sshyang chyoo …)

The three words are: wǒ (I), xiǎng (want), and qù (to go). Then add the name of the place. This is useful for buying train tickets, taking a taxi, etc.

Toilet signs in ChinaBathroom

Rest-room. Cèsuǒ. (tser-swor)

As in English, there are several words and phrases used to mean bathroom. The most common word for public toilets, or a room with a toilet in, is “cèsuǒ.” “Cè” means ‘toilet’. “Suǒ” means ‘place’.

Say “I want to go to the bathroom.” (Wǒ xiǎng qù cèsuǒ.), and the meaning would be readily understood. You could also ask “Cèsuǒ zài nǎlǐ?”