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A few years back I took a few weeks out of the Written Chinese Office to spend some time travelling with my parents and fiance, now husband, in China. I was really impressed by how quickly they picked up words and asked what they meant. Even on the first day, they were already saying 你好 (Hello) and 谢谢 (Thanks). I have to admit, rather embarrassingly, that it took me a lot longer to master these basic phrases when I first arrived in China.
You can hear what they thought of their first few days in China on the Two White Chicks in China podcast.
The following phrases are for complete beginners of Chinese, or for those who wish to have some basics under their belt for travelling in China. Unless you’re really interested in learning the Chinese language, you might not want to put a whole lot of time into studying Chinese, especially if it’s for a short time or you have a tour guide for your trip.
However, just like learning to say bonjour in French or danke schön in German, you can just as easily learn these essential Chinese phrases too!
Each Chinese phrase below is linked to our Online Written Chinese Dictionary where you can click on each word to hear the pronunciation and a more detailed breakdown of a character. We have also collated even more essential Chinese phrases for beginners or people travelling to China in our Written Chinese Mobile app as a flashcard set.
If you’re completely new to Chinese, it’s worth noting that the Chinese ‘alphabet’ is not the same as the English one, so listening to how words are pronounced is quite important.
Essential Chinese Phrases
1. Thank you! (xiè xie) 谢谢！
A simple way to say thank you
2. You’re welcome. (bú yòng xiè) 不用谢。
Literally translated as ‘no need for thanks’, this a common response to 谢谢 (thanks).
3. Hello (nǐ hǎo) 你好。
Hello in Chinese combines the words ‘you’ and ‘good’. To ask someone ‘How are you?’, just add the character ‘吗‘. This character is used when asking a question:
How are you? (nǐ hǎo ma) 你好吗?
5. Not OK/ Not Good (bù hǎo) 不好
6. May I ask… (qǐng wèn) 请问…
7. I’m sorry (duì bu qǐ) 对不起
The first character in this phrase, 对 (duì) also means ‘right’ and is often used in the same way we would use ‘yeah’ in English.
It is common in Chinese for short words such as 对 (right) and 好 (OK) are often repeated 3 times for emphasis.
Chinese Phrases for Travelling
8. Do you speak English? (nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?) 你会说英语吗？
If you’re travelling around China, I feel as though you should try and get this question mastered because you can never assume that everyone will speak English. On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised by how many people can speak English in China!
If you ask this question, you need to be able to understand their response, as they might not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’!
If they cannot speak English, they will probably respond with:
I can’t speak (bú huì) 不会。
9. Where is the bathroom/washroom/toilet? (xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ?) 洗手间在哪里？
This is a pretty important one, especially if the bathroom sign isn’t in English. Most people will point you in the correct direction!
10. Help! (jiù mìng) 救命！
Hopefully, you won’t need to use this whilst travelling in China, but it’s good to know how to get the attention of people around you.
There may be times when someone speaks to you in Chinese, and you have absolutely no idea what they’re saying. No need to be rude, just be honest and say so!
You may also be asked:
I relied heavily on the phrase 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng) instead of actually studying, but it’s definitely a useful phrase to know.
*没有 is a simple phrase that you will almost certainly begin to hear EVERYWHERE. Not only is it a useful phrase to be able to speak and listen out for, but when spoken it sounds like ‘mayo’.
It can be used to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t have (something)’.
12. Please excuse me. (jiè guò yī xià) 借过一下。
If you find yourself squashed on the metro and the doors open on the other side, you can politely use this phrase to have them move aside for you!
13. Wait a moment / hang on a sec (děng yī xià) 等一下。
You may not actually use this phrase yourself, but you’ll probably hear it spoken frequently.
An alternative version of this phrase is 等一等 (děng yī děng).
14. Welcome (huān yíng guāng lín) 欢迎光临
This is another phrase you will hear throughout your day when you enter shops, restaurants and cafes.
15. The bill, please. Thank you. (jié zhàng, xiè xie) 结账，谢谢。
Extra Sentence: I want…(wǒ yào) 我要。。。
Combine this sentence with the following items:
…a beer 。。。(yī píng pí jiǔ) 一瓶啤酒。
…a cup of coffee 。。。(yī bēi kā fēi) 一杯咖啡。
…a bottle of water 。。。(yī píng shuǐ) 一瓶水。
16. How much is it? (zhè ge duō shao qián?) 这个多少钱？
Even if you haven’t learned all the numbers in Chinese, you will either receive a paper bill in a restaurant, or be shown the price on a calculator (it’s pretty handy, especially if you want to haggle the price).
More Phrases for Beginners
17. How do you say that in Chinese? (zhè ge yòng hàn yǔ zěn me shuō?) 这个用汉语怎么说？
If you’re a curious beginner, you can use this phrase to ask someone how to say a particular object in Chinese. This is useful if you’re in your local supermarket or restaurant!
18. I don’t understand. (wǒ bú tài míng bai) 我不太明白。
This is a bit different than saying ‘听不懂’, which means you don’t understand the spoken language. 明白 means ‘clear’ or ‘obvious’ and is a good way to explain you don’t understand the person’s meaning.
Alternatively, you can also ask the following:
19. What do you mean? (shén me yì si) 什么意思？
This gives the speaker an opportunity to explain themselves more clearly. If you’re feeling confident, you can also ask the speaker to explain in more detail by using the following:
Can you explain a little more? I don’t really understand what you mean. (kě yǐ jiě shì yī xià ma? Wǒ bú tài míng bai.) 可以解释一下吗？我不太明白。
20. Please repeat that. (qǐng zài shuō yī biàn) 请再说一遍。
Once you start learning Chinese, you’ll definitely need to use this phrase to ask a speaker to repeat certain phrases or sentences.
You might also be interested in our other article about how to be polite in Chinese, 谢谢: 10 Polite Chinese Expressions and How to Use Them.