Mandarin is a tonal language and not easy to master, even for long-term travelers. You’ll inevitably encounter some difficulties while communicating in China, but don’t worry: there’s always a way to get your meaning across!
While learning a fair amount of Mandarin will probably take you a while, these words and phrases are useful to know before you travel to China.
How to Say Hello in Mandarin
Knowing how to say hello in Mandarin is obviously the most useful phrase that you can add to your language repertoire. You’ll have plenty of chances to use your Chinese greetings throughout the day, whether or not the person to whom you are speaking understands anything else that you say!
The simplest, default hello to use in China is simply ni hao (pronounced like: “nee how”) which is the equivalent of “how are you?” You can also learn some easy ways to elaborate on the basic Chinese greeting and how to reply to someone.
Know How to Say No
Throughout China you’ll get attention from vendors, street hawkers, beggars, and people trying to sell you something. Perhaps the most persistent of annoying offers will come from the numerous taxi and rickshaw drivers you encounter.
The easiest way to tell someone that you don’t want what they are offering is bu yao (pronounced like: “boo yow”). Bu yao translates roughly to “don’t want/need it.” To be a little polite, you can add xiexie to the end (sounds like: “zhyeah zhyeah”) for “no thank you.”
Although many people will understand that you are declining whatever they are selling, you may still need to repeat yourself many times!
Words for Money
Just as Americans sometimes say “one buck” to mean $1, there are many ways to refer to Chinese money. Here are some of the terms that you’ll encounter:
- Renminbi (pronounced like: “ren-men-bee”): The official name of the currency.
- Yuan (pronounced like: “you-an): One unit of currency, the equivalent of “dollar.”
- Kuai (pronounced like: “kwye”): Slang for one unit of currency. Translates to “lump” -- a leftover of when currency would have been a lump of silver.
- Jiao (pronounced like: “jee-ow”): One yuan is divided into 10 jiao.
- Fen (pronounced like: “fin”): One jiao is further divided into 10 fen. Sometimes mao (feather) is used in place of fen. Fortunately, you won’t have to deal with these smaller units of currency too often.
Numbers in Mandarin
From seat and car numbers on trains to negotiating prices, you’ll often find yourself dealing with numbers in China. Fortunately, the numbers are easy to learn, as is the Chinese system for finger counting. To ensure that you understood a price, locals will sometimes give the equivalent hand gesture as well. The numbers above five aren’t as obvious as you might think when counted on fingers.
- Learn how to count in Chinese.
Not something you want to hear too often, mei you (pronounced like: “may yoe”) is a negative term used to mean “don’t have it” or “can’t do it.”
You’ll hear mei you when you’ve asked for something that isn’t on hand, isn’t possible, or when someone is disagreeing with a price that you’ve offered.
As you travel throughout China, you’ll often hear the word laowai (pronounced like: “laow-wye”) -- perhaps even accompanied with a point in your direction! Yes, people are most likely talking about you, but it’s usually harmless curiosity. Laowai means “foreigner” and typically isn’t derogatory.
- Read more about what laowai means and other terms for foreigners in Asia.
Shui (pronounced like: “shway”) is the word for water, and as tap water is generally unsafe to drink, you’ll be asking for it a lot when purchasing bottled water.
You’ll find kaishui (pronounced like: “kai shway”) spigots that dispense hot water in lobbies, on trains, and all over the place. Kaishui is useful for making your own tea and for boiling instant noodle cups -- a staple snack on long-haul transportation.
Other Useful Words and Phrases in Mandarin to Know
- Xie xie (pronounced like: “zhyeah zhyeah”): thank you
- Zai jian (pronounced like: “dzye jee-an”): goodbye
- Dui (pronounced like: “dway”): right or correct; used loosely as a “yeah”
- Wo bu dong (pronounced like: “woh boo dong”): I don’t understand
- Dui bu qi (pronounced like: “dway boo chee”): excuse me; used when pushing through a crowd
- Cesuo (pronounced like: “sess-shwah”): toilet
- Ganbei (pronounced like: "gon bay"): cheers -- used when giving toasts in China.