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21 Essential Phrases You'll Need in China

Travellers don't have to master Chinese to enjoy their time in China
Travellers don't have to master Chinese to enjoy their time in China | © Claire mono
Chinese can be difficult for Western travellers, but luckily you don’t have to master it to enjoy your time in China. Knowing these simple phrases will make your trip much easier, and you might make one or two local friends.

Greetings and essentials

你好 (nǐ hǎo) / Hello

It’s always good to start a conversation with ‘Ni Hao’. Although Chinese people are friendly, they’ll be even more willing to chat with you if you greet them in their native language. If you need help with the tone syllables for this or any of the following words, just refer to this guide.

谢谢 (xiè xiè) / 不客气 (bú kè qì) – Thank you / You’re welcome

There’s an old saying that goes ‘Don’t hit a smiling guy’ (伸手不打笑脸人). A simple ‘thank you’ along with a smile will make your life a lot easier in China. If someone else says ‘Xie Xie’ to you, it’s considered polite to return it with a ‘Bu Ke Qi’.

Chinese people 'don’t hit a smiling guy' © Apple / Pixabay

Chinese people ‘don’t hit a smiling guy’

是的 / 不是 (shì de/bú shì) – Yes / No

Most Chinese people know ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in English, but in case you meet someone whose English isn’t strong, it’s essential to know how to say them in Mandarin.

不好意思 (bù hǎo yì sī) / Excuse me

Considering how crowded China is, don’t be surprised by how often you’ll need to say this phrase when walking the streets.

对不 (duì bù qǐ) / 没关系 (méi guān xi) – Sorry / No worries

If you bump into someone on the street, or if you accidentally step on somebody’s toes in the crowded subway cars, ‘Dui Bu Qi’ is the best way to smooth the situation.

我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng) / I don’t understand

This is your master key to all the complicated things Chinese people say. Even more helpful, consider pulling out a blank piece of paper (or your phone) and ask them to write on it.

Chinese people will be happy to help when you don't understand something © ErikaWittlieb

(zài jiàn) / Goodbye

Goodbye in Chinese literally translates to ‘see you again’. Chinese people believe in 缘分 (Yuanfen), which means ‘fate’, and if there is yuanfen between two people, they will meet again no matter how impossible it might seem.

Directions

卫生间在哪? (wèi shēng jiān zài nǎ) / Where is the bathroom?

Remembering this complex sentence might be difficult when nature calls, so know that you can also simply say ‘W.C.’ to locals, as most Chinese people will know this as the English translation for ‘bathroom’.

左拐 / 右拐 (zuǒ guǎi / yòu guǎi) – Turn left / Turn right

It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that tourists will be ripped off on the roads in China thanks to the invention of taxi-hailing apps that show the real-time trip map. For those foreign travellers who don’t have an app, be sure to know the basic directions to give to taxi drivers.

停下 / 走吧 (tíng xià / zǒu ba) – Stop / Go

Did your driver pass your destination? That’s when saying ‘Ting Xia’ (or a simple ‘Ting’) will be useful. Use the same phrase on a rickshaw in a hutong and to ask to stop to take a better look at something.

Rickshaws in Beijing's hutong © Dennis Jarvis / Flickr

/ 西 / / (dōng / / nán / běi) – East / West / South / North

There are some places in China that don’t have cardinal directions embedded on their maps, but in some cities, such as Beijing and Jinan, it’s essential to master the Chinese words for east, west, south and north in case someone points the way by saying ‘往东!’ (‘Wang Dong’), which translates to, ‘Go east’.

At the restaurant/bar

点餐 (diǎn cān) / 买单 (mǎi dān) – Can I make the order please? / Bill, please!

Chinese restaurants (especially the good ones) can be quite busy during dining hours, and it can be difficult to get the waiters’ attention to ask for or pay the bill. Just make sure not to mix up the two phrases.

饿 (wǒ è le) / I’m hungry

A highly useful phrase to express to locals that you need some food (and to make it quick) without having to exaggeratedly frown while rubbing your belly. “Wo E Le” is a rather informal expression that most Chinese won’t expect to hear from a foreigner, so it might be a surprisingly effective ice breaker, as well.

开水 (bái kāi shuǐ) / Water

A special tip: Don’t drink the tap water in China. Unboiled water is believed to contain pollutants, so when in a Chinese restaurant, people ask for ‘Bai Kai Shui’, which translates to ‘plain boiled water’.

不要辣 / 少辣 (bú yào là / shǎo là) – No spicy / Less spicy

A variety of Chinese cuisines, such as Sichuan (known for Kung Pao chicken and sliced fish in hot chilli oil) and Hunan, use chilli as their main ingredient. If you can’t take the heat but would like to try the authentic local food, ask the chef to make your meal ‘Shao La’.

Sliced fish in hot chilli oil © Alpha / Flickr

好吃 (hǎo chī) / Delicious

Everyone loves compliments, and you might even get a discount if you say ‘Hao Chi’ to the owner of the small restaurant where you’ve just enjoyed the food.

At The Market

多少钱?(duō shǎo qián) / How much is this?

With the exception of supermarkets, where the prices are set, you’ll need this phrase to start a conversation with the vendors.

Beijing's food market © Yufan Lu

便宜点吧 (pián yi diǎn ba) / Make it cheaper

In Chinese markets, bargaining is a must. It can even be fun. The price might seem reasonable enough, but it’s still worth giving it a try. If you say the phrase ‘Pian Yi Dian Ba’ in a cute way (with the ‘Pian’ tone stretched), it might have a better effect.

Numbers:

一 (yī) / 1

二 (èr) / 2

三 (sān) / 3

四 (sì) / 4

五 (wǔ) / 5

六 (liù) / 6

七 (qī) / 7

八 (bā) / 8

九 (jiǔ) / 9

十 (shí) / 10

Making Friends

我喜你,可以和你认识一下吗? (wǒ xǐ huān nǐ, kě yǐ hé nǐ rèn shi yí xià ma) / I like you. Can I make friends with you?

You might have heard that Chinese people are shy and reserved, but when communicating with shy people, sometimes the best strategy is to be straightforward. Forget about the implications and simply tell them you like them and you want to be friends. Treat people with honesty, and you’ll get honesty in return – that’s what Chinese people believe.

Although Chinese people are known to be reserved, it's best to be straightforward with friends © PxHere

For Everything Else

随便 (suí biàn) – Whatever

Although many people use this phrase in China, it’s not universally loved. When Chinese people can’t think of an answer to a question, such as “What do you want to have for dinner?”, they muddle through with “Sui Bian”, which translates to ‘Whatever’, or ‘Meh’. It’s somewhat disrespectful to the person who asked the question, so avoid this one while in China.