Knowing how to say hello in Chinese the correct way allows you to properly greet more than 1.4 billion people who speak one of the Chinese languages. Not only will these basic Chinese greetings work in Asia, they'll be understood in communities all over the world.
It's true: Mandarin is a difficult language for native-English speakers to master. A relatively short word takes on a completely different meaning depending on which of the four tones in Mandarin is used. To make matters worse, the lack of a common alphabet means that we have to learn Pinyin — the Romanization system for learning Chinese — along with the caveats and pronunciations for it. Think of Pinyin as a "middle language" between English and Chinese.
Fortunately, tones aren't much of an issue for learning simple ways to say hello in Chinese. You'll usually be understood and will get lots of smiles for the effort, particularly if you utilize these tips for communicating with Chinese speakers.
A Little About Mandarin Chinese
Don't feel bad if you're baffled when confronted with Chinese characters; people from different regions in China often have trouble communicating with each other!
Although there are several variations, Mandarin is the closest thing to a common, unified dialect in China. You will encounter Mandarin while traveling in Beijing, and because it is the "speech of officials," knowing how to say hello in Mandarin is useful everywhere you go.
Mandarin is often referred to as "simplified Chinese" because it contains only four tones. Words tend to be shorter than ours, so one word can have several different meanings depending on the tone used. Along with knowing how to say hello in Chinese, learning some useful phrases in Mandarin before traveling in China is a good idea.
How to Say Hello in Chinese
Ni hao (pronounced "nee haow") is the basic, default greeting in Chinese. The first word (ni) is pronounced with a tone that rises in pitch. The second word (hao) is pronounced with a "dip," a falling-then-rising tone. The literal translation is "you good," but this is the easiest way to say "hello" in Chinese.
You can enhance your greeting — more so when saying hello casually or informally — by adding the question word "ma" to the end to form "ni hao ma?" Turning "you good" into a question essentially changes the meaning to a friendly "how are you?"
- Hear the correct pronunciation for ni hao.
Saying Hello in Formal Occasions
Following the concept of saving face in Asia, elders and those of higher social status should always be shown additional respect. To make your greeting a little more formal, use nin hao (pronouned "neen haow") — a more polite variation of the standard greeting. The first word (nin) is still a rising tone.
You can also make nin hao into "how are you?" by adding the question word ma to the end for nin hao ma?
Simple Responses in Chinese
You can simply respond to being greeted by offering a ni hao in return, but taking the greeting one step further is sure to get a smile during the interaction. Regardless, you should reply with something — not acknowledging someone's friendly ni hao is bad etiquette.
- Hao: good
- Hen Hao: very good
- Bu Hao: not good (bad)
- Xie Xie: thank you (pronounced similar to "zh-yeh zh-yeh") is optional and can be added to the end.
- Ni ne: and you? (pronounced "nee nuh")
A simple greeting sequence could proceed like this:
You: Ni hao ma?
Friend: Hao. Ni ne?
You: Hen hao! Xie xie.
How to Say Hello in Cantonese
Note: Although neih hou ma? is grammatically correct, it is uncommon to say this in Cantonese.
A common response in Cantonese is gei hou which means "fine."
Should I Bow When Saying Hello in Chinese?
The short answer is no. Unlike in Japan where bowing is common, people tend to only bow in China during martial arts, as an apology, or to show deep respect at funerals. Many Chinese opt to shake hands, but don't expect the usual firm, Western-style handshake. Eye contact and a smile are important.
Although bowing in China is rare, make sure you return one if you receive a bow. As when bowing in Japan, maintaining eye contact as you bow is seen as a martial arts challenge!
How to Say Cheers in Chinese
After saying hello in Chinese, you may end up making new friends — particularly if at a banquet or in a drinking establishment. Be prepared; there are some rules for proper drinking etiquette. You should certainly know how to say cheers in Chinese!