Knowing how to say hello in Chinese allows you to properly greet more than 1.3 billion people who speak Chinese. Not only will these basic Chinese greetings work in 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 — 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 with a familiar alphabet.
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.
A Little About Mandarin Chinese
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 serves as the native language for around 1 billion people, and many more have learned to speak it.
Mandarin is often referred to as "simplified Chinese" because it contains only four tones:
- First tone: flat (mā means "mother")
- Second tone: rising (má means "hemp")
- Third tone: falling then rising (mǎ means "horse")
- Fourth tone: falling (mà means "scold")
- No tone: Ma with a neutral/no tone turns a statement into a question.
Words tend to be shorter than in English (2 – 4 letters), so one word can have several different meanings depending on the tone pronounced. As the famous example with (ma) above shows, using the wrong tones at the wrong times can cause great 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 instead. 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 mainland China, a simple ni hao will suffice!
You will probably hear "hi" and "hello" often when being greeting 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 nin hao (pronouned "neen haow") — a more polite variation of the standard greeting — when greeting older people. 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" with two falling tones) 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! (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's similar to Mandarin, Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong and southern parts of China, has a slightly modified greeting. 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 in Chinese?
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 in Chinese, learning some useful phrases in Mandarin before traveling in China is a good idea.