The philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” These five phrases are the beginning of your Chinese-speaking journey! If you’re trying to impress a Chinese client, dazzle your dim sum server, or survive a layover at the Beijing International Airport — know these words
- 你好 (nǐ hǎo) – “Hello”
“nǐ” = you. “hǎo” = good. “nǐ hǎo” = you good. It may sound like caveman speak to Western ears, but “you good” means “hello”! You can respond to this greeting with “nǐ hǎo” or simply “hǎo.” That character 好 (hǎo) has an interesting backstory. On the left is 女 “woman,” holding 子 ”boy.” In ancient China, giving birth to a son was great fortune (a daughter? not so much). ShaoLan and I are not huge fans of this sexist origin story. We interpret the character as “every boy needs a woman to have a good life” or “every boy needs a good mom.” You can turn “hello” (nǐ hǎo) into “how are you?” by adding the question particle “ma”. “nǐ hǎo ma?” = “You good?” You can answer that with “hǎo” (good). Three words and you’ve already learned an entire conversation. Chinese is easy!
- 谢谢 (xiè xie) – “Thank you”
Saying “xiè xiè” will impress your Chinese friends. Saying it correctly will amaze them. This important word is often mispronounced, so here’s a useful trick. Try saying “shee-yeh shee-yeh” through a wide smile, to get the sound just right.
- 对不起 (duì bù qǐ) – “I’m sorry”
In China, you’ll hear this phrase wherever you go. “duì bù qǐ” can mean both “I’m sorry” and “excuse me.” When translated literally, duì = match, bù = no, qǐ = lift. What could this possibly mean? In ancient China, the educated public played a game called “couplet.” It was essentially a rap battle. One person would freestyle a line of poetry, and the other would return a line that matched it in theme and rhythm. If one couldn’t match it — couldn’t “lift” a match — they’d say “duì bù qǐ”. After thousands of years, this ancient apology for inferior poetic skills has become “I’m sorry”. If you have trouble remembering this phrase, listen to “duì bù qǐ, wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo” (“Sorry, my Chinese isn’t good”), a hit single by UK-based band, Transition!
- 我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào) – “I don’t know”
This is an important phrase! When you find yourself enjoying mystery meat from a Xi’an food stall and your friends ask what you’re eating, you reply “wǒ bù zhī dào” (I don’t know). I = wǒ. No = bù. Know = zhī dào. Take out the “bù” to get “I know” (wǒ zhī dào).
- 再见 (zài jiàn)- “Goodbye”
The Chinese farewell is more optimistic than its English counterpart. It literally means “again see.” It is a promise to meet again! Sometimes this phrase can convey drama. When one says “zài jiàn” to a deceased relative, they may hope to see them again in the afterlife. When a mother sends her son off to war and says “zài jiàn,” she is expecting him to return. When you wave your friends goodbye, you can say, “wǒ bù zhī dào when I’ll see you again, but zài jiàn!”
Well done, young grasshopper! These are the first steps of your thousand mile journey. But wait, there’s more! Have a listen to our Talk Chineasy podcast (episodes #004, #009, #029, #030, and #005) to hear ShaoLan and friends go deeper into the meaning of these basic phrases!