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Chinese, when referring to language, describes a group of languages that are related but not necessarily mutually intelligible. Linguists describe them as belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family. With there being roughly 1.3 billion Chinese alone in the People’s Republic of China, as well as it being a recognised language of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore, it is spoken as a first language by around a 5th of the world’s population.

Although described as one language with different dialects by native speakers, the language differences between the dialects are really as great as the differences are between French and Spanish. Despite the different pronunciations they all share a common writing system, albeit having been split into the traditional characters and simplified versions of them that were introduced into the mainland to attempt to increase literacy since the 1950’s. Hong Kong and Taiwan still use the traditional characters.


The History of Standard Chinese

Putonghua or Standard Chinese language as it is also called, comes from the Beijing dialect of Mandarin and is the official language of the mainland and Taiwan but Cantonese is still widely spoken in Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Chinese can be traced all the way back to the earliest written records over 3,000 but has developed and diversified over it’s many years of existence, intertwining itself with regional dialects and languages that it encountered through the spread of Chinese people through Asia. There wasn’t, however, a standard national language until it was decided that the Northern Chinese dialect would be taken on as the common tongue in the 1930’s. The Communist revolution saw this putonghua “common speech” cemented and nowadays it is used by all on the mainland and Taiwan as well as being taught in schools in Hong Kong to the extent that most understand it.

Learning at least some Chinese goes down very well witht he guides on our China tours.

Practice your Chinese using the sections below divided into different themes

Contributed by Phil Stanley.


Guide to Pronunciation

There are four tones in Mandarin that must be followed for proper pronunciation. If you are not used to tonal languages then the importance of these tones cannot be emphasized enough. Consider a vowel with a different tone as simply a different vowel altogether, and you will realize why Chinese will not understand you if mess this up — mǎ is to mā as "I want a cake" is to "I want a coke".

The Tones
1. first tone ( ā )
    flat, high pitch — more sung instead of spoken
2. second tone ( á )
    low to middle, rising — pronounced like the end of a question phrase (Whát?)
3. third tone ( ǎ )
    middle to low to high, dipping — at the end of a sentence, before a pause, or before another third tone, the rising part is emphasized
4. fourth tone ( à )
    high to low, rapidly falling — pronounced like a command (Stop!)

The pronunciation guide below uses Hanyu pinyin, the official romanization of the People's Republic of China.

Pinyin allows very accurate pronunciation of Chinese if you understand how it works, but the way it uses letters like q, x and even i is not at all intuitive to the English speaker. Studying the pronunciation guide below carefully is thus essential.


b - as in ball or spall           
p - as in pit
d - as in do or stew                   
t - as in tongue
g - as in gang                           
k - as in king
j  - as in jeer                             
q - as in cheap
zh - as in jungle                       
ch - as in chore
z - as in re'd z'ebra                  
c - as in rats
m - as in mow                          
f - as in fun
n - as in none                           
l - as in lease
h  - as in her                           
 x - as in sheep
sh - as in shoot                        
r - as in genre
s - as in sag                            
ng - as in sing
w - as in wing                         
y - as in yet

a - as in father
e - as in the hen
i  - as in ping or key;
o - as in saw or sung
u - as in soon
ü - as in French lune


The Essential Basic Phrases in Mandarin

These are the essentials that you will find make a difference to your how you experience China so are well worth learning on the plane over if not before! Good luck!

- Hello                                                你好。                      Nǐ hǎo
- How are you?                                  你好吗?                  Nǐ hǎo ma?
- Fine, thank you                               很好, 谢谢。             Hěn hǎo, xièxie.

- May I please ask, what is your name?
        请问,你叫什么名字?    (Qing wen, ni jiao shenme mingzi?)

- Who are you?                                 你是谁?                   Nǐ shì shéi?
- My name is ______ .                      我叫 _____ 。          Wǒ jiào ______
- Nice to meet you.                           很高兴认识你。        Hěn gāoxìng rènshì nǐ
- Please                                            请。                          Qǐng
- Thank you                                      谢谢。                       Xièxie
- You're welcome                              不客气。                    Bú kèqi
- Excuse me                                     请问                           Qǐng wèn
- I'm sorry                                         对不起。                    Duìbùqǐ
- It's okay.                                         没关系                       mei guan xi
- Goodbye                                        再见。                       Zàijiàn
- I can't speak Chinese.                   我不会说汉语/我不会说中文。Wǒ bú huì shuō Hànyǔ
- Do you speak English?                  你会说英语吗?         Nǐ huì shuō Yīngyǔ ma?

- Is there someone here who speaks English?
                                                                  Zhèlĭ yǒu rén hùi shuō Yīngyǔ ma?

- Help! (in emergencies)                   救命!                       Jiù mìng!
- Good morning.                               早安。                       Zǎo'ān.
- Good evening.                                晚上好。                   Wǎnshàng hǎo.
- Good night.                                    晚安。                       Wǎn'ān.
- I don't understand.                         我听不懂。                Wǒ tīng bù dǒng.
- Where is the toilet?                        厕所在哪里?            Cèsuǒ zài nǎli? Tones


Dealing with Problems

It is highly unlikely you will experience the need to use any of the words and phrases listed below as China is one of the world’s safer destinations for travellers. The one exception is getting lost but you will find that if you get lost passers by will do their best to help you out even if they have little idea where they are themselves!

- Leave me alone.                                 不要打扰我。                 búyào dǎrǎo wǒ
- I don't want it!                                      不要                               búyào!
- Don't touch me!                                   不要碰我!                    búyào pèng wǒ!
- I'll call the police.                                 我要叫警察了。             wǒ yào jiào jǐngchá le
- Police!                                                 警察!                            jǐngchá!
- Stop! Thief!                                          住手!小偷!                zhùshǒu! xiǎotōu!
- I need your help.                                 我需要你的帮助。         wǒ xūyào nǐde bāngzhù
- It's an emergency.                               这是紧急情况。             zhèshì jǐnjí qíngkuàng
- I'm lost.                                               我迷路了。                    wǒ mílù le
- I lost my bag.                                      我丟了手提包。             wǒ diūle shǒutíbāo
- I lost my wallet.                                   我丟了钱包。                 wǒ diūle qiánbāo
- I'm sick.                                               我生病了。                    wǒ shēngbìng le
- I've been injured.                                我受伤了。                    wǒ shòushāng le
- I need a doctor.                                  我需要医生。                 wǒ xūyào yīshēng
- Can I use your phone?                       我可以打个电话吗?     wǒ kěyǐ dǎ ge diànhuà ma?

- I am an American/Australian/British/Canadian citizen.
                                                我是 美国/澳洲/英国/加拿大 公民。
                                                                 wǒ shì měiguó / àozhōu / yīngguó / jiānádà gōngmín

- I want to talk to the American/Australian/British/ embassy/consulate.
                                        我希望跟 美国/澳洲/英国/加拿大 的 大使馆/领事馆 联系。
                                        wǒ xīwàng gēn měiguó / àozhōu / yīngguó / de  dàshǐguǎn / lǐngshìguǎn liánxì


Numbers & Counting in Mandarin

0     〇    líng
1     一     yī
2     二     èr
3     三     sān
4     四     sì
5     五     wǔ
6     六     liù
7     七     qī
8     八     bā
9     九     jiǔ
10     十     shí

11     十一     shí-yī
12     十二     shí-èr
13     十三     shí-sān
14     十四     shí-sì
15     十五     shí-wǔ
16     十六     shí-liù
17     十七     shí-qī
18     十八     shí-bā
19     十九     shí-jiǔ
20     二十     èr-shí

21     二十一     èr-shí-yī
22     二十二    èr-shí-èr
23     二十三     èr-shí-sān
30     三十     sān-shí
40     四十     sì-shí
50     五十     wǔ-shí
60     六十     liù-shí
70     七十      qī-shí
80     八十     bā-shí
90     九十     jiǔ-shí

100    一百    yī-bǎi
101     一百〇一 yī-bǎi-líng-yī
110     一百一十 yī-bǎi-yī-shí
111     一百一十一 yī-bǎi-yī-shí-yī
200     二百      èr-bǎi
300     三百     sān-bǎi
500     五百     wǔ-bǎi
1000     一千    yī-qiān
2000     二千      èr-qiān

half   半    bàn
less than 少於  shǎoyú
more than 多於 duōyú
more   更   gèng

Below you can also see how the Chinese count with their hands. Keep an eye out and you will notice this all the time. Learn some yourself to bring a smile to the most jaded market trader.

counting with hands in chinese

  ► 时间 TIME

Telling the Time in Chinese

now                       现在           xiànzài
before                   以前            yǐqián
noon                     中午            zhong wu
evening/night        晚上            wǎnshàng
What time is it?     现在几点? Xiànzài jǐ diǎn?
later                      以后            yǐhòu
morning                早上            zǎoshàng
afternoon             下午             xiàwǔ
midnight               半夜             banye
  chinese clock

_____ minute(s) _____     分钟      fēnzhōng
_____ hour(s)  _____       小时      xiǎoshí
_____ day(s)  _____        天          tiān
_____ week(s)  _____      星期      xīngqī
_____ month(s)  _____    月          yùe
_____ year(s)  _____       年          nián

Weekdays in Chinese are easy: starting with 1 for Monday, just add the number after 星期 xīngqī.

Monday              星期一         xīngqīyī
Tuesday             星期二         xīngqīèr
Wednesday        星期三         xīngqīsān
Thursday            星期四         xīngqīsì
Friday                 星期五         xīngqīwǔ
Saturday             星期六         xīngqīliù
Sunday               星期天         xīngqītiān

Months in Chinese are also easy: starting with 1 for January, just add the number before 月 yuè.

January              一月             yī yuè                       February            二月           èr yuè
March                 三月            sān yuè                     April                   四月           sì yuè
May                    五月            wŭ yuè                      June                  六月            liù yuè
July                    七月            qī yuè                        August               八月            bā yuè
September         九月            jiŭ yuè                       October             十月            shí yuè
November          十一月        shí yī yuè                   December         十二月        shí èr yuè


Chinese Phrases for Shopping

- Do you have this in my size?            有没有我的尺寸?          yǒu méiyǒu wǒde chǐcùn?
- How much is this?                             这个多少钱?                 zhège duōshǎo qián?
- That's too expensive.                        太贵了。                         tài guì le
- Would you take _____?                     _____元可以吗              _____ yuán kěyǐ ma?
- expensive                                         贵                                    guì
- cheap                                               便宜                                 piányi
- I can't afford it.                                  我带的钱不够。              wǒ dài de qián búgòu
- I don't want it.                                   我不要。                         wǒ bù yào
- I’m not interested.                            我没有兴趣。                  wǒ méiyǒu xìngqù
- OK, I'll take it.                                   我要买这个。                  wǒ yào mǎi zhège
- Can I have a bag?                           请给我袋子。                  qǐng gěi wǒ dàizi

- I need...                        我要__         wǒ yào __
...toothpaste.                牙膏             yágāo
...a toothbrush.             牙刷             yáshuā
...tampons.                   卫生棉条     wèishēng miántiáo
...soap.                         肥皂             féizào
...shampoo.                  洗发精         xǐfǎjīng
...pain reliever.             镇痛剂          zhèntòngjì
...cold medicine.          感冒药          gǎnmào yào
...stomach medicine.   胃肠药          wèicháng yào
...a razor.                     剃刀              tìdāo
...an umbrella.             雨伞              yǔsǎn
...sunblock lotion.        防晒油          fángshàiyóu
...a postcard.               明信片          míngxìnpiàn
...postage stamps.       邮票             yóupiào
...batteries.                  电池             diànchí
...a pen.                       笔                 bǐ
...glasses.                    眼镜             yǎnjìng

...English-language books.               英文书         Yīngwén shū
...English-language magazines.       英文杂志     Yīngwén zázhì
...an English-language newspaper.  英文报纸     Yīngwén bàozhǐ
- black       黑色     hēi sè
- white       白色     bái sè
- gray        灰色     huī sè
- red          红色     hóng sè
- blue        蓝色     lán sè
- yellow     黄色     huáng sè
- green      绿色     lǜ sè
- orange    橙色     chéng sè
- purple     紫色     zǐ sè
- brown     褐色     he sè
- Do you have it in another color?  你们有没有另外颜色? nǐmen yǒu méiyǒu lìngwài yánsè ?
  ► 食物 FOOD

Food & Eating Out in China

One of the great pleasures of any trip to China is the food which is usually of excellent quality, fresh and cheap. You will quickly realise that the Chinese food we have in the West is mainly Cantonese style and that there is a lot more to Chinese cuisine than that so go out, experiment and enjoy!

- Can I look at the menu, please?     请给我看看菜单?     qĭng gĕi wŏ kànkan càidān?

- Do you have an English menu?     你有没有英文菜单?    nĭ yŏu méi yŏu yīngwen càidān?

Listen for... “Yes, we have one” :    有       yŏu
Or, “No, we don't.” :                        没有    méi yŏu

- I'm a vegetarian    我吃素的     wŏ chī sù de

Look for these characters to get an idea of what you're ordering.

- dīng    丁 (cubed/diced)
- piàn    片 (thinly sliced)
- sī        丝 (shredded) kuài    块 (bite-sized pieces)
- qiú      球 (curled)
- chăo   炒 (stir-fried)
- zhá     炸 (deep-fried)
- kăo     烤 (dry-roasted)
- shāo   烧 (roasted w/ sauce)

- breakfast              早饭              zǎofàn                                lunch              午饭               wǔfàn    
- dinner                   晚饭              wǎnfàn                               beef                牛肉               niúròu    
- pork                      猪肉              zhūròu                               mutton             羊肉              yángròu
- chicken                 鸡                  jī                                        fish                  鱼                  yú
- eggs                     鸡蛋              jīdàn                                   bread              面包              miànbāo
- noodles                面条              miàntiáo                             fried rice          炒饭              chǎofàn
- dumpling              饺子              jiǎozi                                  rice                 米饭              mĭfàn
- coffee                   咖啡              kāfēi                                   juice                水果              shuǐguǒ    
- milk                      牛奶              niúnǎi                                 sugar               糖                 táng
- tea (drink)            茶                  chá                                     green tea        绿茶              lǜ chá
- scented tea          花茶              huāchá                               black tea         红茶             hóngchá
- water                    水                 shuĭ                                    beer                 啤酒            píjiŭ

- red/white wine     红/白 葡萄 酒           hóng/bái pŭtáo jiŭ
- bottled water        矿泉水                     kuàngquán shuǐ     
- It was delicious.   好吃極了。              hǎochī jí le
- The bill, please.   请结帐。                  qǐng jiézhàng
  ► 啤酒 DRINK

Drinking in Mandarin

There is no shortage of drink in China and some of the local beers such as Qingdao and Yanjing are not bad at all. Be wary of imbibing too much Chinese Rice Wine (Baijiu) though as it can have thoroughly nasty side effects the next morning and you don’t want to miss that travel connection do you!?

- A beer/two beers, please.                 请给我一杯/两杯啤酒。        qǐng gěi wǒ yìbēi/liǎngbēi píjiǔ
- A glass of red/white wine, please.     请给我一杯红/白葡萄酒。    qǐng gěi wǒ yìbēi hóng/bái pútáojiǔ
- A pint, please.                                   请给我一品脱。                    qǐng gěi wǒ yìpǐntuō
- A bottle, please.                                请给我一瓶。                        qǐng gěi wǒ yìpíng

    whiskey             威士忌         wēishìjì
    vodka                伏特加         fútèjiā
    rum                   兰姆酒         lánmǔjiǔ
    water                水                 shuǐ
    bottled water    矿泉水          kuàngquán shuǐ
    club soda         苏打水          sūdǎshuǐ
    tonic water       通宁水          tōngníngshuǐ
    orange juice    柳橙汁           liǔchéngzhī
    Coke (soda)    可乐              kělè

- Do you have any bar snacks?            有没有吧臺点心?yǒu méiyǒu bātái diǎnxīn?
- One more, please.                              请再给我一个。    qǐng zài gěi wǒ yígè
- Another round, please.                       请再来一轮。    qǐng zàilái yìlún
- Where is the toilet?                             厕所在哪里    cèsuǒ zài nǎli?


Mandarin to use in Hotels

- Do you have a safe?     你们有没有保险箱?Nǐmen yǒu méiyǒu bǎoxiǎn xiāng?
- Can you wake me at_?     请明天早上__叫醒我。Qǐng míngtiān zǎoshang __ jiàoxǐng wǒ.
- I want to check out.    我现在要走。 Wǒ xiànzài yào zǒu.

- pay               付            fù     
- cash             现钱        xiàn qián
- credit card    信用卡    xìn yòng kǎ

Telephone & Internet

- Can I make international calls here?          可以打国际电话吗?    kěyǐ dǎ guójì diànhuà ma?
- How much is it to America/Australia/Britain/Canada?
                                                                      到 美国/澳洲/英国 是多少钱?
                                                                                       dào měiguó/àozhōu/yīngguó/ shì duōshǎo qián?
- Where can I find an Internet cafe?              哪里有网吧?              nǎlǐ yǒu wǎng ba?
- How much is it per hour?                            一小时是多少钱?       yī xiǎoshí shì duōshǎo qián?

Common Signs
入口       Entrance     rùkǒu
出口       Exit              chūkǒu
推          Push            tuī
拉          Pull              lā
厕所      Toilet            cèsuǒ
男          Men             nán
女          Women        nǚ
禁止       Forbidden    jìnzhǐ
吸烟       Smoking      xīyān


Guide to Directions in Chinese

The words here are particularly useful for taxi drivers but we strongly recommend that you make sure you have addresses written down in Chinese with the telephone number of the place you are trying to get to so the driver can call for further directions if necessary.

- How do I get to _____ ?     怎么去_____     zěnme qù _____?

...the train station?         ...火车站?         ...huǒchē zhàn?
...the bus station?          ...汽车总站?      ...qìchē zǒngzhàn?
...the airport?                 ...飞机场?          ...fēijī chǎng?

street 街 jiē or you can use 路 lù

- Turn left.       左拐             zuǒguǎi
- Turn right.     右拐             yòuguăi
- Go straight    一直走         Yìzhízŏu
- I arrived.       到了到了      Dàole dàole!
- U-turn           掉 头            Diàotóu!

The proper way to address a taxi driver     师傅         shīfu
Please use the meter machine                   请打表     Qǐng dǎbiǎo

- left     左边     zuǒbiān         
- right     右边     yòubiān
- straight ahead  往前走 wǎngqián zǒu

- north        北     bĕi         
- south       南     nán
- east         东     dōng         
- west         西     xī

- Taxi 出租车 chū zū chē
- Take me to _____, please        请开到_____。       qǐng kāidào _____。