Phrases to sound more natural in Chinese (Mandarin) conversation in Mainland China and Taiwan
Living every day in Mainland China (or Taiwan) you encounter a bunch of situations where you need to use a little Chinese phrase but it’s not something you were ever taught.
This is what happened to me when I arrived many years ago. I had a whole bunch of basic Chinese in my head (like lists of vegetables — which proved invaluable for ordering hot pot! — and an awkwardly formal version of “where is the bathroom?”).
But soon I, like most travellers, was pressed with much more urgent situations.
- How do I get past someone on a crowded bus or metro car?
- Do I ask “How are you?”
- And how do I get someone’s attention in a polite way, and get them to respond in Chinese?
Here’s what I learned was most useful — Mandarin Chinese phrases for everyday situations. Hopefully, it’s useful to you too.
Quick note: I may sometimes call the language “Chinese”, which is how Mainland Chinese speakers refer to it when speaking English, but I’m always referring to Mandarin (普通话/国语), spoken in Taiwan and in Mainland China. The characters here are in simplified form, which is how I learned it, but which is different from the Taiwanese standard.
Summary of Chinese Phrases — Download the table as a PDF!
Here is a summary table of the phrases I think are most important. I might add to this over time (let me know if I should in comments). There are notes on it below.
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|Hello/how are you?||你好||nǐ hǎo|
|Sorry to bother you||打扰一下||dǎrǎo yīxià|
|I just want to ask…||我想问一下||wǒ xiǎng wèn yīxià…|
|I just want to talk to you for a second…||我要跟你说一下||wǒ yào gēn nǐ shuō yīxià|
|(in a crowded place) Let me get past please||过一下||guò yīxià|
|Are you getting off here? (Yes, I am)||你下吗？我下，我下||nǐ xià ma? wǒ xià, wǒ xià|
|Can we walk through here?||这里可以走过去吗？||zhèlǐ kěyǐ zǒu guòqù ma?|
|Where is the bathroom?||洗手间在哪里？||xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ?|
|I’m just going to the bathroom.||我去洗手||wǒ qù xǐshǒu|
|Hey, watch out!||看点！||kàn diǎn!|
|Excuse me/”Very” excuse me||（真）不好意思||(zhēn) bù hǎo yìsi|
|No problem.||没问题||méi wèntí|
|Don’t worry about it.||没关系||méiguānxi|
|(to a taxi) “Excuse me, driver, are you free?”||你好，师傅，你走吗？||nǐ hǎo, shīfù, nǐ zǒu ma?|
|We missed it!||过了！||guòle!|
|Pull over here please.||这里靠边||zhèlǐ kàobiān|
|Please, you go first!||您先走！||nín xiān zǒu!|
|On a phone: “Hello?”||喂？||wéi?|
|OK, good. Thanks. Bye. I’m hanging up.||好的。谢谢。再见。我挂了。||hǎo de. xièxiè. zàijiàn. wǒ guàle.|
|Can we order food?||可以点菜吗？||kěyǐ diǎn cài ma?|
|What’s good to eat here?||这里有什么好吃？||zhè li yǒu shé me hǎo chī?|
|Delicious!||太好吃了！||tài hǎo chīle!|
|What is this?||这是什么东西？||zhè shì shénme dōngxī?|
|How much is this?||这个多少钱？||zhège duōshǎo qián?|
|That’s too expensive!||太贵了！||tài guìle!|
|Make it cheaper.||便宜一点。||piányí yīdiǎn.|
|I don’t need that, thanks.||我不用，谢谢。||wǒ bùyòng, xièxiè.|
|Check/the bill, please.||埋单！or 买单！||máidān! or mǎidān!|
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Notes on the Everyday Chinese Phrases
I want to add a few clarifying notes to the above. These are cultural tips and usage notes that would be useful to Europeans/Americans (perhaps even the odd other Australian) visiting Greater China.
Pleasantries — Saying “hello/how are you” in Chinese
Pleasantries don’t really exist in Chinese.
To translate English ways of doing this (“How are things? Nice weather today isn’t it?”) is unnatural and almost absurd. You can talk about the weather, but it’s not something in your arsenal of standard things to stay to a stranger.
So there’s basically just the phrase nǐ hǎo (你好). That’s it. Look someone directly in the eye, pausing as you say it. Bow slightly. Give them a handshake. That’s all you need. You can repeat it a few times if you like, nǐ hǎo, nǐ hǎo.
(If it’s tough for you to give up “How are you?”, think of the Persians — Greeting and pleasantries in Chinese is a strong opposite to the much more flowery Persian culture, where a totally standard exchange will include phrases like “I trust you are not tired”, “May you be at peace”, “I am your humble servant”, “I am your true friend”).
Getting someone’s attention in Chinese, and getting them to respond in Chinese
In much of Greater China, people aren’t used to non-Chinese speaking Mandarin. It’s a learned behaviour. Foreign looking = unintelligible.
So if you open your mouth and start speaking Chinese, you might just get a response of someone shaking their hand and saying they don’t understand.
The best way to grease the wheels and to put the listener into “Chinese-hearing mode” is to start with some basic standard phrases.
These are the equivalent of “Excuse me, may I please ask a question if you’ve got a second?” or “Sorry to bother you…”.
The best one for these is nǐ hǎo, dǎrǎo yīxià (你好, 打扰一下). It best translates to “excuse me, may I bother you”. The word dǎrǎo (打扰) means “bother” or “disturb”.
Use that phrase, or something similar, and you’ll find people are more receptive and likely to understand you.
Saying you’re sorry in Chinese
People say sorry in different situations in Chinese and use different phrases in each one.
If you want to get someone’s attention or to squeeze past someone, you can use bù hǎo yìsi (不好意思). This is slightly apologetic, courteous, and will get respectful attention.
If you step on someone’s toe or bump into someone, you can use the same phrase bù hǎo yìsi, and maybe add a “very” in front with zhēn (真). You can also repeatedly say duìbùqǐ! duìbùqǐ! (对不起). This is more apologetic.
In response, people may not say anything or may respond with a simple “no problem”, méi wèntí (没问题).
Note that people say “sorry” a lot less than they do in western cultures, particularly British (or ex-Colonial). For example, if you ask if someone in China if they accept cash and they don’t, they probably won’t say sorry. If you bump into someone, they won’t say sorry for being in the way.
Metro etiquette in Greater China
People are polite in China (even if the rules are a bit different), but they say little, especially to foreigners, who they assume don’t understand (as they usually don’t).
In a metro or any crowded situation where you have to push past someone, the best thing to say is gùo yí xia! (过一下！), which just means “coming through!”. The yí xia has no real meaning, but is used like “please” in phrases like this, and softens the blow.
People asking if you’re getting off may ask ni xìa ma? to which you’ll reply wǒ xià, wǒ xià.
Taxi talk in China
Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’d know that these days you call a taxi by using Didi in Mainland China or Uber in Taiwan.
But if you see a driver in a quiet area or a three-wheeled taxi driver, you can ask them if they’re free with nǐ zǒu ma? (你走吗). This means “are you going?”
When you get to where you’re going, you can say zhèli kàobiān! (or kàobiār! in Northern China) to ask them to “pull over”. It’s a bit more natural than just “stop” that textbooks teach you.
Restaurant etiquette in Chinese
So many situations in China are about restaurants and eating. It’s where I do the bulk of my speaking Chinese!
The core basics which you’ll inevitably learn living in China are calling over a waiter, and then getting your bill.
The word you have to say — sometimes loudly — is “Waiter!” which is fúwùyuán! (服务员！) You’ll hear others yelling it. You don’t have to yell but you’ll definitely have to speak up.
When you’re done you can yell fúwùyuán!!! again and say you want the bill: máidān! (埋单). You can also say mǎidān (买单). They have different origins but are used the same way. In practice, they sound nearly identical.