Top 12 Chinese Phrases you should learn to speak when you move to China

The Mandarin purist police are going to get on to me for not giving the tones with the pinyin here. Technically this is not the way you would write out these phrases. (Although if you want to get really technical, to be written in Chinese they would actually be in characters. But then, that would be completely pointless for teaching pronunciation.) Every syllable has a tone with a special intonation that makes it understandable in Chinese. The truth is, if you’ve studied enough Chinese to know the tones… you already know these phrases so you could just skip this post anyway. AND if not, having me type them here won’t teach them anyway. (Ok, I admit it. The truth is, they’re just hard to type.)

Think of this as merely a crash course. For those phrases you’ll use all the time. To aid your charades when you really need the help of a word. The most basic of communication. And really, to let the Chinese know you aren’t just some stuck up foreigner who thinks the whole world should speak your language. That you really want to TRY. And no matter how bad you butcher it, you’ll get a smile. And usually an over-the-top appreciation for your efforts. Because even the Chinese know its hard. And they are, thankfully, so much more gracious than we (especially in America) are to those who don’t speak our language.

The Basics: Hello, Good-bye, and Thank you

1. Ni Hao: {nee how} Hello. The most basic greeting. Chances are, you already know this one. But if not, at least now you’ll know what’s being said when you hear this a hundred times a day.

2. Zai jian:{zI (rhymes with eye) jee-uhn} Good-bye. Another basic. Use it often.

3. Xie Xie: {“she she” or “shay shay”} Thank you. Now this one is really just for us, the foreigners. Actually, the Chinese don’t say thank you very often. And you might even get a few odd looks, but I think it still makes you sound polite, or at least friendly. I say it all the time, no matter if they don’t understand why you thanked the taxi driver for taking you home even though it’s his job.

Saying “Yes”:

First, let me say, there is no direct translation for the word “yes” in Chinese. Normally, if you want to agree you just repeat the verb. But there are a couple of phrases that get that point across. Learning when to use which can be a little tricky, but even if you guess wrong your point is made.

4. Ke yi: (kuh ee) Ok. But directly translated to “able to”. Taxi asks if he can drop you on this side of the street… “Ke yi” says “you can”.

5. Hao de: (how duh) Ok. (As a side note, “ok” also works.) That’s good. Hao = good. This is helpful when the lady at the grocery is scooping pasta into a bag… “Hao de” says “Good”. Or you’re out with new friends and they want to know how you liked something. “Hao” Or “{fay chang how}” if you want to get fancy and say “very good”.

6. Dui: (dway) Correct. I have a really funny story about how I learned this word… Let’s just say I didn’t learn it soon enough. And not only do you need to be able to say it, it’s also helpful to UNDERSTAND this word when it’s said TO you. Use it anytime someone asks you something and you want to say “That’s correct.” Like when a taxi driver verifies the place you want to go. “Dui” agrees with him.

Saying “No”

Like “yes”, Madarin also doesn’t have a simple stand alone word for “no”. But it IS simple to make any verb a negative. All you need is a “boo” in front. (The exception to this is the next phrase. “Don’t Have”.)

7. Bu Yao: (boo yow) Don’t want. Yao = Want. This is one you’ll probably use and hear often. It’s a little strong, but let’s you be clear when you do or don’t want something.


8. You Mei You? (yo may yo) Have or Don’t Have? It’s a handy way they phrase things in Chinese. Take a verb and combine it with the negative and you make a question. “You”(yo) means “have”. “Mei you (may yo)” means “don’t have”. (Also works with “Yao bu yao?”) Use them separately or together. And be prepared to hear “mei you” a LOT when you start shopping for American-sized (aka: big) clothes or shoes.

9. Duo shao qian? (d-whoa sh-ow (like ouch) che-uhn) How much money?
Bargaining is a way of life in China, although sometimes it can be tricky learning what is negotiable and what is a set price. Most of the time when they pull out a calculator, then it’s negotiable. And don’t worry, just because you ask how much in Chinese doesn’t mean they expect you can speak it. They still won’t expect you to “ming bai” (understand) and it’s understood that this is one of the phrases that nearly all foreigners know. That said, the next 10 words you should learn are the numbers!


10. Fu wu yuan: (foo yoo-an) Server. Waitress or Waiter. You use this word to call over a server. Service in restaurants is quite different than in the US. They don’t work for tips here. They get paid a flat rate no matter how much running they do. So obviously, they won’t be checking up on you. You’ll need to call them over if you need anything. And that brings us to…

11. Mai dan: (my dahn) Bring the bill.
If you wait on them to bring your check or to come and get your money, you’ll be waiting until closing time. In China, they won’t bring your check until you ask for it. Believe me, sometimes we still realize we’ve been sitting at the table 30 minutes after we’ve finished waiting to pay. They won’t rush you out but whenever you’re ready all you need is a quick shout of “mai dan” to get you on your way.

Arguably the Most Important

12. Home: Your hotel or address. Whatever that may be.
Yes, you can use a card or a taxi book, and it may even be easier the first few times. But it’s somehow very rewarding the first time you tell a taxi driver where to go and they understand. It’s one of the best confidence builders when you’re learning Chinese. If I can say that and be understood, then I can surely try to use these other words.

The first few times he probably won’t understand and you’ll have to pull out your card or book to show him. But as soon as that happens, be ready. Because he’s going to say it for you. Not really even to correct you, just to clarify. Even if you say it perfectly, he’ll nearly always repeat it back to you. The reason is not because your pronunciation is bad or that he didn’t understand. He just wants to verify. In Chinese, many words sound the same and it’s easy to misunderstand… even as a native Chinese.

So here’s the trick: Be a mockingbird. When he repeats you, copy him again. Mimicking his phrase and intonation as closely as possible. Study the way he says it. Just a few times of this will have you spouting off your home address without a second thought. And that’s a major victory in China. Just try it.

And it’s always great to know that you can get out and go and no matter how far you get from home base, whether you lose your purse or your phone dies, you’ll still be able to get back home.

Bonus Phrase: Wei shang jian zai nar?

(way sh-ah-ng jee-an zI (rhymes with eye) nah-er) = The bathroom is located where?

Because no matter where or how you travel… you’re gonna need one of these at some point.


16 thoughts on “Top 12 Chinese Phrases you should learn to speak when you move to China

  1. Kristin: There is a REASON you write my FAVORITE China Blog….and this is the best example. Thank-you for always enlightening others on our experiences half way around the Planet Earth! ~ Carol in Nanjing, CHINA.

  2. HA! I have to say that I was sitting at the table reading this post when I came to number 12 and had to share it with Jay. Instantly it reminded me of one evening when he came home from the Dodong plant. The first thing out of his mouth as he walked through the door was, “The taxi driver understood me and I didn’t even pull out my taxi guide!” Outside the plant he had told the driver to taken him to Taiyuan Jie and he just nodded and headed off. Jay was like a little kid, but that is exactly the feeling you get when you realize they understand what you are saying. I have to admit…it is kinda fun being a kid again!!!

  3. Pingback: My tricks for hearing and speaking Madarin Tones

  4. Wow! this is great! My girlfriend and I are visiting China in a few days and even though we will have a tour guide we plan to visit places without the group as well. So i have been looking up some of the need to know phrases and this page was great for that. The explanations of how some words can mean other things really helped, Thanks :-)

  5. There is a way to say no in mandarin Chinese: bu or bu shi. bu is down and bu shi is up down. You say yes in mandarin Chinese with shi and the tone is down or shi de down tone and neutral short with de. You can just say shi.
    It is the same word as the word to be in Chinese: shi

  6. How much Chinese do you actually know? Because 谢谢 is not pronounced “shay shay” also for yes and no you forgot 是 and 不是 (是和不是)

    • OK, maybe it is xièxiè, but shayshay seems to work, and I can remember it. All I have to do is be polite to and please certain Taiwanese people in the US. “Correct” is of no use to me. I have to have “what works”. This page obviously is what works because I have been understood on a first attempt.

  7. xie xie! Great help! Any way that you could add a recording of each word/phrase being spoken? That would be, given the nuances of Chinese, a really big help.But anyway, still a nice job and very nice of you to do!