Elementary Mandarin for Travellers to China

Part of the Language section of A Better Guide to Běijīng

The Emperors once forbade their subjects to teach foreigners Chinese on pain of death. Never shy of considering their jurisdiction to be global, they also forbade foreigners to learn it. James Flint, sent by the East India Company in 1759 to present complaints to the Qīng court about corruption in Canton and restrictions on trade, was subsequently imprisoned for three years, partly for having learned the language. Today the Chinese tourist industry still makes a great deal of its money from foreigners’ unwillingness to tackle even Mandarin rudiments by charging them high prices for services that they would be able negotiate directly for themselves at a fraction of the cost.

Although learning English is back in fashion, and many cities have ‘English corners’, sometimes in public parks, where enthusiasts gather to practise, visitors will encounter few English speakers away from the travel agents and the police stations of larger cities. In larger international hotels most of the staff speak some English, but in others that accept foreigners there is perhaps one designated English speaker whose reputation amongst her colleagues may last only until she actually has to deal with a foreigner.

Most foreigners spend their entire time in China without being able to speak a word, but those who at least master the ability to order food, ask prices and ask for directions have an easier time. While Chinese do sometimes take lost foreigners in hand and try to solve their problems, many consider the gulf of understanding too vast even to try, and most are anyway getting on with sorting out their own problems. Having just a few words can rapidly break these barriers down and greatly add to the enjoyment of the trip.

Mandarin isn’t quite a universal as the authorities would like you to think, and even they have been known to admit that only about 70% of the population speaks Mandarin, and merely one in 10 of that number speak it fluently. Nevertheless, for communication in China, Mandarin is the language you need to learn.

Learning Mandarin

According to China Daily there has in recent decades been a swelling of interest in learning Mandarin around the world. The official view is:

Obviously [which, when used in China Daily, always precedes something contentious], one of the major factors has to be the allure of Chinese culture, its values and long history, and its inaccessibility in previous years. This has been increased by the rise of China as an economic power and an important force working for world peace and stability.

China Daily, Study of Chinese becomes global fashion, 3 August 1999

To understand accounts in China’s own newspapers of its work for ‘world peace and stability’ you’ll need to know the Mandarin for ‘South China Sea’, ‘strike hard’, and ‘reclaim Táiwān’.

George III’s ambassador to the Qiánlōng emperor, Lord Macartney, thought rather daftly that the difficulty of the language was much exaggerated, on the grounds that, ‘I never heard it complained of by the Chinese themselves.’ He mistakenly thought the population largely literate, but even today, fully one in five over the age of 14 is thought not to be so. He did, however, accurately describe one particular difficulty with the language:

The Chinese language seems, however, to have on material defect. It is liable to be equivocal, and appears to depend in a great measure upon the tone or pronunciation of the words used by the speakers, for I took notice that in their conversation together they were often subject to mistake one another, and to require frequent explanations. The same word as written having different significations according as it is spoken with a grave or with an acute accent.

Lord Macartney, An Embassy to China, J. L. Cranmer-Byng [Ed.], 1962

An account of tones and their use in Mandarin is given with an introduction to Chinese characters and a few basic grammar points in How Chinese Works.

No-one needs to be able to assemble perfectly grammatical sentences in Mandarin to get what they want, anymore than they do in any other language. Learning to pronounce the sounds or near approximations is vital, and to get a grip on the tones is important, although context will often help you out of difficulties.

What follows is a simple pronunciation guide (although there’s simply no substitute for listening to a native speaker or to recordings, e.g. those that come with dictionary apps for your phone), and basic everyday vocabulary to do with greetings, common questions, common practical travel issues, numbers, money, times and dates, directions and getting around, and sights.

Pronunciation

Pīnyīn, the official Romanisation of Mandarin, uses the familiar alphabet and leaves the letters with values that most English speakers expect. Differences are:

c ts, as in bits

q ch, as in chin, but more aggressive

r no true English equivalent; the r in reed is close (and you will be understood), but the tip of the tongue should be near the top of the mouth and the teeth together

x between the s in seep and the sh in sheep

zh like the dge in judge

Vowels sounds are simple and consistent:

a as in father

e as in err; lěng (‘cold’) is exactly like lung in English

i after most consonants is pronounced ee, but after c, ch, r, s, sh, z, and zh, sounds a little like the u in upon (and will be understood), but the teeth are together and the noise is more a buzz at the front of the mouth

o as in song

u as in too

ü as the purer French tu and German ü; a more forward oo, with the lips pursed. After j, x, q and y, ü (annoyingly) is written without the ¨. Since l and n can be followed by either u or ü, the ¨ is used when necessary.

Two vowels together retain their individual sounds, (e.g. ai like eye, ei as the ey in hey), with the exception of ian, where the an sounds like the en in engine, and the whole like yen. This is very common: qián (‘tchee-en’) is money. Also watch out for the difference between ou as in toe, and uo, which sounds a little like war. ui sounds like way. i by itself is written yi, and ian by itself is yan.

To learn these sounds, and in particular to master the tones, there is no substitute for listening to recordings or a native speaker. To get the purest sounds try to find a northern Chinese. Cantonese speakers who know Mandarin as a second language rarely seem able to shed their southern accent. The student should begin with a sing-song approach, overstressing the tones to get them right. In relaxed everyday speech, Chinese only actually stress the tones of the words necessary to make the meaning of the sentence clear. Note that when two or more third (dipping) tone sounds follow each other, only the final one is clearly sounded, the others becoming second (rising) tones.

The Běijīng dialect has influenced Mandarin, and tends to contract some sounds and add an r to them. This is done more frequently the more colloquially it is spoken, but some are now almost enshrined in official Mandarin. Nǎli (where), becomes nǎr, which rhymes with far, with a little more stress on the r. Yìdiǎn, ‘a little’, is written yìdiǎnr, but the n is not pronouced so that the final sound is also –ar. The final r sound is indicated phonetically with the Chinese character 儿 which by itself is pronounced ér.

Unless you’re prepared to put some time into mastering these sounds the best approach is simply to locate the characters you need, either here or in a printed or electronic dictionary, and point to them. With asking for directions or directing taxi drivers that will always be the simplest way.

Names

It helps if you can arrange a Mandarin name for yourself, otherwise you will be addressed throughout any conversation as Lǎo Wài, ‘Foreigner’. Ideally get an English speaker to make a name that suits you and sounds genuinely Chinese, rather than a phoneticised version. ‘Peter’, for instance, is often rendered as Bǐdé, but this is obviously foreign whereas its translation as Yán (ee-en, remember, not yang without the g) meaning ‘rock’, as ‘Peter’ does, is more Chinese. Surnames are not sur- at all — they come first. For foreigners the trick is often to take the first sound of the family name, and look for a similar Mandarin sound which is part of the very limited list of Chinese family name possibilities.

The Chinese often refer to common people, the ‘masses’, as lǎobǎixìng, ‘old hundred names.’ There are only 3,100 family names, of which all but 150 are single character names. The number of people called Wáng in China is greater than the total population of many other countries, and the masses show precious little imagination in their choice of given names, either.

Back in 2000 it was reported that in the port city of Tiānjīn east of Běijīng, more than 2300 people were called Zhāng Lì, while Shěnyáng in the north-east had 4800 residents all called Liáng Shūzhēn, and several other names had more than 3,000 takers. Notoriously police round up dozens of people who share the name of a suspect and only then sort out who’s who, but even Chinese newspapers have told stories of people crushed in political campaigns and imprisoned for years before it was discovered that the real culprit was walking free. As in other parts of the world, names come and go in fashion, and it’s a fairly safe bet that if someone’s given name means ‘Love Máo’ or ‘Build Socialism’, then they were born between 1966 and 1976 during the Cultural Revolution (and are sometimes embarrassed by their names).

People are usually called by their entire name, rather than by given name alone, but friends may drop the given name and prefix the family name with Lǎo (‘old’) if the friend is older, and Xiǎo (‘little’), if younger.

A Few Structural Notes

Basic Chinese sentences are like English ones: subject, verb, object. ‘I want’ + noun, or ‘I want’ + verb (to go, do, buy, etc) + noun will get you a long way. Note, though, that if you are specific as to quantity, instead of the noun you must use number + measure word + noun. See How Chinese Works for an introduction to measure words and a few other important points. Where you are likely to be specific about quantity (‘I want to buy three tickets’ as opposed to ‘I want to see temples’) and the multi-purpose measure word ge won’t do, the correct measure word is given below.

Some basic conversational items are dealt with first, followed by a practical travel vocabulary, and then a list of verbs to try out. More detailed vocabularies and phrases for hotels, restaurants, and shopping can be found in those sections (links to follow).

Basic Courtesies

I 我
You (singular) 你
You (singular, formal) 您 Nín
He 他
She 她
It (rarely used) 它
For we, they, etc. add mén 们 e.g. Wǒmén, nǐmén, tāmén
Hello 你好 Nǐ hǎo
How are you? 你好吗 Nǐ hǎo ma?
Goodbye 再见 Zài jiàn
Excuse me, I’m sorry 对不起 Duìbuqǐ
Please… 请 Qǐng
Excuse me, I want to ask you a question 请问 Qǐng wèn
Thank you 谢谢你 Xièxie nǐ
Sorry to bother you 麻烦你了 Máfan nǐ le

You may hear…

Bú xiè or bú yòng xiè 不谢/不用谢 Don’t mention it

Basic Questions and Requests

Begin with Qǐng wèn if appropriate. See above.

Where is X? X 在那里? X zài nǎlǐ? (X is where? Commonly in Běijīng dialect pronounced zài nǎr)
Where is the station? 火车站在那里? Huǒchēzhàn zài nǎlǐ?
Where’s the nearest X? 最近的 X 在那里? Zuìjìn de X zài nǎlǐ?
Who is X? X 是谁? X shì shéi (X is who?)
Who are you? 你是谁? Nǐ shì shéi?
What is X? X是什么? X shì shénme? (X is what?)
What is this/that? 这/那是什么? Zhè/nà shì shénme? (This/that is what?)
Why? 为什么? Wèishénme?
Why is there no bus today? 为什么今天没有车? Wèishénme jīntiān méiyǒu chē? (Why today not have bus?)
When? 什么时候? Shénme shíhou?
When does the bus leave? 车什么时候开? Chē shénme shíhou kāi? (Bus what time start?)
What time is it? 现在几点? Xiànzài jǐ diǎn le? (Now how many hours?)
How much is X? (price) X 多少钱? X duōshǎo qián?
How much and how many?(quantity), expecting a small answer/large answer 几个/多少个? Jǐ ge/duōshǎo ge?
May I?/Is this OK? 行不行? Xíng bu xíng?
Please help me 请帮我 Qǐng bāng wǒ
I want… 我想要… Wǒ xiǎngyào…
I’d like… 我喜欢… Wǒ xǐhuān…
Please give me… 请给我… Qǐng gěi wǒ…

Basic Answers (Yours and Theirs)

To say yes or no in Chinese, identify the main verb in the question, and repeat it to agree, or negate it (put in front unless it’s yǒu, to have, in which case use méi). The closest statements to yes are:

Correct 对 duì
Good (OK, let’s do that) 好 hǎo

There are more approximations of no:

Not correct 不对 Bú duì
Is not 不是 Bú shì
Not have 没有 Méi yǒu
Not acceptable, forbidden 不行 Bù xíng
Bad (I can’t go along with that) 不好 Bù hǎo

Other general answers:

I’m sorry, I don’t understand 对不起, 我听不懂 Duìbuqǐ, wǒ tīng bù dǒng
I don’t know 我不知道 Wǒ bù zhīdào
I’m not sure/not clear 我不明白 Wǒ bù míngbai

General Curiosity

There is a small set of questions which very many Chinese will ask you, given the chance. Some are dealt with below.

What nationality are you? 你是哪国人? Nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?

The answer is Wǒ shì 我是 (I am) or Wǒmen shì 我们是 (We are) + country + rén 人 (person).

Wǒ shì Yīngguó rén 我是英国人 (I am Britain person)

Australia 澳大利亚 Àodàlìyǎ
Belgium 比利时 Bǐlìshí
Canada 加拿大 Jiānádà
Denmark 丹麦 Dānmài
France 法国 Fǎguó
Germany 德国 Déguó
Holland 荷兰 Hélán
New Zealand 新西兰 Xīnxīlán
Norway 挪威 Nuówēi
Sweden 瑞典 Ruìdiǎn
USA 美国 Měiguó

Copying the characters for destination countries on to your mail may help to speed it up.

What is your name? (very polite) 您贵姓? Nín guì xìng?
My family name is X, and my first name is Y 我姓 X,名字叫 Y Wǒ xìng X, míngzi jiào Y
How old are you? 你今年多大岁数了? Nǐ jīnnián duōdà suìshu le?
I’m X years old 我 X 岁了 Wǒ X suì le

Practical Needs and Administration

The basics are here, but see food/menu, communications, and travel vocabulary pages for more.

Where’s the lavatory/toilet? 厕所在哪里? Cèsuǒ zài nǎlǐ?
signs: men’s toilet 男 nán (man/men); women’s toilet 女 (woman/women)
travel agent 旅行社 lǚxíngshè
guide 导游 dǎoyóu
Bank of China 中国银行 Zhōngguó Yínháng
post office 邮局 yóujú
poste restante 存局候领 cún jú hòu lǐng
facsimile (fax) 传真 chuánzhēn
Internet bar 网吧 wàngba
email 电子邮件 diànzǐ yóujiàn
Xīnhuá Book Shop 新华书店 Xīnhuá Shüdiàn
Foreign Languages Book Shop 外文书店 Wàiwén Shūdiàn
city map 城市地图 chéngshì dìtú
English books 英文书 Yīngwén shū
police (Public Security Bureau) 公安局 gōng’ān jú
Foreign Affairs Office 外办 Wàibàn
visa extension 延伸签证 yánshēn qiānzhèng

Numbers

Note that (‘one’) changes its tone according to what follows it, and is only pronounced when said by itself or at the end of a word (shíyyī, eleven). Otherwise it’s fourth (falling) tone, but second (rising) tone before other fourth tones.

The numbers on banknotes, and sometimes on receipts, tickets, and even on entrance fee signs are written in a fuller form to reduce fraud, and are given in brackets after the everyday forms below.

In speech be careful to differentiate between (four) and shí (ten).

zero 零 líng (but O common)
one 一 (壹)
two 二 (貳) èr
three 三 (叁) sān
four 四 (肆)
five 五 (伍)
six 六 (陆) liù
seven 七 (柒)
eight 八 (捌)
nine 九 (玖) jiǔ
ten 十 (什) shí
eleven 十一 shí yī
twelve 十二 shí èr
thirteen shí 十三 shí sān
twenty 二十 èr shí
thirty 三十 sān shí
thirty-one 三十一 sān shí yī
thirty-two sän 三十二 shí èr
one hundred 一百 yì bǎi
two hundred 二百 èr bǎi
three hundred 三百 sān bǎi
one thousand 一千 yì qiān
ten thousand 一万 yí wàn
47,986 四万七千九百八十六 sì wàn qī qiān jiǔ bǎi bā shí liù (four ten-thousands, seven thousands, nine hundreds, eight tens, six)
one million 一百万 yì bǎi wàn (a hundred ten-thousands)
3.75 三点七五 sān diǎn qī wǔ (three point seven five)
no.3 三号 (not for buses, trains, etc.— see Getting Around and Directions, below) sān hào

To make cardinals into ordinals, use 第 + number + measure word:
the third one 第三个 dìsān ge

Money

money 钱 qián
yuán (written) 元 yuán; (spoken form) 块 kuài

Kuài is a measure word (see How Chinese Works, for an explanation). Yí kuài means a piece of, and the full expression is yí kuài qián. Before measure words èr 二 (two) becomes liǎng 两 (but this is the only number that changes). So ¥2 is 两块钱 liǎng kuài qián.

jiǎo (one-tenth of a yuán) written form 角 jiǎo; spoken form 毛 máo
fēn (100th of a yuán) 分 fēn

Mandarin assumes any figure given after the units quoted is for the next size unit down, unless otherwise specified.

¥2.40 两块四 liǎng kuài sì

No need to say liǎng kuài sì máo qián. But note:

¥2.04 两块零四分 liǎng kuài líng sì fēn (two kuài zero four fēn)
¥20.04 二十块零四分 èrshí kuài líng sì fēn

In reality nothing costs fēn any more. But the same principle applies to other measures, too. Similarly in daily speech what’s in the brackets is optional, assuming prices are clearly being discussed:

¥0.24 两毛四(分钱) liǎng máo sì (fēn qián)
¥240 两百四(十块钱) liǎng bǎi sì (shí kuài qián)
¥2,400 两千四(百块钱) liǎng qiān sì (bǎi kuài qián)

But again, drop more than one size of unit and you must make it clear:

¥2,040 liǎng qiān líng sìshí (kuài qián)

I want to change money 我要还钱 Wǒ yào huàn qián
a traveller’s cheque 一张旅行支票 yì zhāng lǚxíng zhīpiào
a credit card 一张信用卡 yì zhāng xìnyòngkǎ
to give change (also ‘to look for’) 找钱 zhǎo qián
small change 零钱 língqián (zero money)

Time

one o’clock 一点钟 yī diǎn zhōng

If it’s clear that time is under discussion then the zhōng (hour of the day) may be omitted

five o’clock in the morning 早上五点 zǎoshang wû diǎn
ten o’clock in the morning 上午十点 shàngwǔ shí diǎn
four o’clock in the afternoon 下午四点 xiàwǔ sì diǎn
eight o’clock at night 晚上八点 wǎnshang bā diǎn

Fēn are small units of many different kinds of quantities. When talking about money they’re cents; in this case minutes.

9.23pm 晚上九点二十三 (分钟) wǎnshang jiǔ diǎn èrshí sān (fēn zhōng)
a quarter past eleven 十一点一刻 shíyī diǎn yí kè
early morning (before work) 早上 zǎoshang
morning 上午 shàngwǔ
noon 中午 zhōngwǔ
afternoon 下午 xiàwǔ
evening 晚上 wǎnshang
night 夜
day 白天 báitiān
three hours 三个小时 sān ge xiǎoshí

Days of the week are numbered, Monday being the first. Only Sunday is different.

Monday 星期一 Xīngqī yī
Wednesday 星期三 Xīngqī sān
Sunday 星期天 Xīngqī tiān
yesterday 昨天 zuótiān
the day before yesterday 前天 qiántiān
today 今天 jīntiān
tomorrow 明天 míngtiān
the day after tomorrow 后天 huòtiān
three days 三天 sān tiān (no measure word needed)

Months are also numbered, beginning with January

January 一月 Yí yuè
February 二月 Èr yuè
March 三月 Sān yuè
December 十二月 Shí’èr yuè

23rd August 八月二十一号 bā yuè èrshí yī hào
17th May 五月十七号 wǔ yuè shíqī hào

last month 上个月 shàng ge yuè
this month 这个月 zhè ge yuè
next month 下个月 xià ge yuè

spring 春天 chūntiān
summer 夏天 xiàtiān
autumn 秋天 qiūtiān
winter 冬天 dōngtiān

2018 二零一八年 èr líng yào bā nián
1957 一九五七年 yào jiǔ wǔ qī nián

last year 去年 qùnián
this year 今年 jīnnián
next year 明年 míngnián

Getting Around and Directions

East 东 Dōng
South 南 Nán
West 西
North 北 Běi

to/on the left 到/在左边 dào/zài zuǒbian
to/on the right 到/在友边 dào/zài yòubian
go straight on 一直走 yìzhí zǒu

alley, lane 胡同 hútòng
alley, lane 巷 xiàng
street, road 街 jiē
road, street 路
avenue, larger street 大街 dàjiē

The above are used in street names. A road in general is:

a road 一条路 yì tiáo lú
crossroads 十字路口 shízì lù kǒu
end of the road, corner 路口 lù kǒu

aeroplane 飞机 fēijī
train 火车 huǒchē
metro 地铁 dìtiě
public bus 公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē

branch line, alternative route 支线 zhī xiàn
direct line, limited stop 专线 zhuān xiàn
See Reading Bus Routes for full details of characters indicating different kinds of bus route.

minibus 面包车 miànbāochē
trolleybus 电车 diànchē
taxi 出租车 chūzūchē
bicycle 自行车 zìxíngchē
boat 船 chuán
airport 飞机场 fēijīchǎng

ticket office 售票处 shòupiàochù
air ticket office 民航售票处 mínháng shòupiàochù

railway station 火车站 huǒchēzhàn
long distance bus station 长途汽车站 chángtú qìchēzhàn

bus stop/station 汽车站 qìchēzhàn

I want to get off/get out 下车 Xià chē!

See Travel Vocabulary for a more comprehensive list of useful words.

Destinations

cave, grotto 石窟 shíkū
museum 博物馆 bówùguǎn
palace 宫 gōng
temple 寺
temple 庙 miào
pagoda 塔
mosque 清真寺 qīngzhēnsì
tomb 墓
tomb 陵 líng
public park 公园 gōngyuán
village 庄 zhuāng
village 村 cūn
town, wall 城 chéng

What time does it open? 机电开门? Jǐ diǎn kāi mén?
What time does it close? 机电关门? Jǐ diǎn guān mén?
How much is a ticket? 一张票多少钱? Yì zhāng piào duōshǎo qián?
I’ll buy two (of them) 我买两张 Wǒ mǎi liǎng zhāng

Descriptions

big 大 dà
small 小 xiâo
old 久 jiù
new 新 xïn
excellent 非常好 fëicháng hâo
beautiful 美丽 mêilì

Town and Country

town 镇 zhèn
city, market 市 shì
county 县 xiàn
prefecture 州 zhōu
district, region, area 区
province 省 shěng
autonomous region 自治区 zìzhìqū

mountain 山 shān
desert 沙漠 shāmò
forest 林 lín
river 河, 江 , jiāng
stream 溪
lake 湖
sea 海 hǎi

Some Verbs

to speak 说 shuō
to think 想 xiǎng
to eat 吃 chī
to sleep 睡觉 shuìjiào
to drink 喝
to know 知道 zhīdào
to understand 懂 dǒng
to look/see/read 看 kàn
to like/love 爱 ài
to work 工作 gōngzuò
to want 要 yào
to go 去
to come, to bring 来 lái

For travel, hotel, restaurant and menu, and shopping vocabularies see these sections:

(In development.)

See also:

Main Index of A Better Guide to Běijīng.