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Chinese Language

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 with the guides on our China tours.

Practice your Chinese using the sections below divided into different themes


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 All Important 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? 这里有人会说英语吗?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


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.

hand signals in Chinese counting


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

_____ 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

Chinese clock

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

January 一月 yī yuè
March 三月 sān yuè
May 五月 wŭ yuè
July 七月 qī yuè
September 九月 jiŭ yuè
November 十一月 shí yī yuè

February 二月 èr yuè
April 四月 sì yuè
June 六月 liù yuè
August 八月 bā yuè
October 十月 shí 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 ?


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
– dinner 晚饭 wǎnfàn
– pork 猪肉 zhūròu
– chicken 鸡 jī
– eggs 鸡蛋 jīdàn
– noodles 面条 miàntiáo
– dumpling 饺子 jiǎozi
– coffee 咖啡 kāfēi
– milk 牛奶 niúnǎi
– tea (drink) 茶 chá
– scented tea 花茶 huāchá
– water 水 shuĭ

– lunch 午饭 wǔfàn
– beef 牛肉 niúròu
– mutton 羊肉 yángròu
– fish 鱼 yú
– bread 面包 miànbāo
– fried rice 炒饭 chǎofàn
– rice 米饭 mĭfàn
– juice 水果 shuǐguǒ
– sugar 糖 táng
– green tea 绿茶 lǜ chá
– black tea 红茶 hóngchá
– 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


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 _____。

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