How to Say Hello in Chinese

Banners on Dazhalan Jie in Beijing, China

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Knowing how to say hello in Mandarin and Cantonese allows you to properly greet more than 1.3 billion people who speak the languages. These basic greetings won't only help in your travels through China and the rest of Asia, they'll be understood in communities no matter where you go. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world—knowing how to say "hello" is a good thing!

It's true: Mandarin is a difficult language for native-English speakers to master. A relatively short word can take completely different meanings 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—a Romanization system for the Chinese characters—along with the caveats and pronunciations for it. While pinyin is essentially phonetic, you'll need to leave your English pronunciation habits behind.

Fortunately, tones aren't much of an issue for learning simple ways to say hello in Chinese. Context helps. You'll usually be understood and will get plenty of smiles for the effort, particularly if you utilize a few tips for communicating with Chinese speakers.

 TripSavvy / Ellie Yang

A Little About Mandarin Chinese

Although there are several dialects and languages spoken in China, Mandarin is spoken by the largest population. 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 serves as the native language for around 1 billion people, and many more have learned to speak it.

Mandarin has four tones:

  • First tone: flat (means "mother")
  • Second tone: rising ( means "hemp")
  • Third tone: falling then rising ( means "horse")
  • Fourth tone: falling ( means "scold")
  • No tone: Ma with a neutral/no tone turns a statement into a question.

Tones can entirely change the meaning of a word. As the above example with (ma) shows, using the wrong tones at the wrong times can cause serious confusion.

As for reading and writing, 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! That's why we begin by learning how to use Pinyin.

The Easiest Way to Say Hello in Chinese

Ni hao (pronounced "nee haow") is the basic, default greeting in Chinese. It is written as 你好 (nǐ hǎo). The literal translation is "you ok/good," but this is the easiest way to say "hello" in Chinese.

Although both words in Pinyin are marked as third tone (nǐ hǎo), the pronunciation changes a bit because two consecutive third tones occur back to back. In this instance, the first word (nǐ) is pronounced with a second tone that rises in pitch while the second word (hǎo) keeps the third tone and is pronounced with a "dip," a falling-then-rising tone.

Some people, particularly in Taiwan, choose to enhance the greeting by adding the interrogative "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?" But this isn't used as often in Beijing as language guides seem to think it is. When traveling in mainland China, a simple ni hao will suffice!

You will probably hear "hi" and "hello" often when being greeted as a Westerner in Beijing. You can reply with ni hao for a little fun and practice.

Saying Hello in Formal Occasions

Following the concept of saving face in Asia, elders and those of higher social status should always be shown a little extra respect. Adding just one additional letter (ni becomes nin)will make your greeting a bit more formal. Use nín hăo (pronounced "neen haow")—a more polite variation of the standard greeting—when greeting older people. The first word uses 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.

  • Hǎo: good
  • Hěn hǎo: very good
  • Bù hǎo: not good (bad)
  • Xiè xie: thank you (pronounced similar to "zh-yeh zh-yeh" with two falling tones) is optional and can be added to the end.
  •  ne: and you? (pronounced "nee nuh")

A simple greeting sequence could proceed like this:

You: Ni hao! (hello)

Friend: Ni hao ma? (how are you?)

You: Wo hen hao! Xie xie. Ni ne? (I am very good, thanks. And you?)

Friend: Hao. Xie xie. (Good. Thanks.)

How to Say Hello in Cantonese

Although it seems similar to Mandarin, Cantonese is actually quite different with six different tones instead of four. However, when it comes to greetings, saying hello in Cantonese is quite similar to Mandarin. Neih hou (pronounced "nay hoe") replaces ni hao. both words have a rising tone.

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."

Given Hong Kong's English history, you'll often hear "ha-lo" as a friendly hello! But reserve "ha-lo" for casual and informal situations. All other times, you should be saying neih hou.

Should I Bow When Saying Hello?

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 people 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!

Along with knowing how to say hello, learning some useful phrases in Mandarin before traveling in China is a good idea.