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Chinese Language Guide and Phrase Book
Chinese – You Can Learn It
Learning the Chinese language is not nearly as difficult as people say it is. Seriously, 1.3 billion Chinese people speak it perfectly, they can’t all be language geniuses can they?
The hard part is the reading and writing. Speaking Chinese is not only not all that difficult, it can also be fun, and will make you masses of Chinese friends, and earn you much exaggerated praise, wherever you go.
People are usually put off by the fact that Chinese is a tonal language. Don’t be. There are three things to remember about tones.
First of all, you use tones in every sentence of English you ever speak. If you didn’t you’d sound like a robot. You know tones already.
Second of all, some people claim that they ‘are tone deaf’ or not musical, and therefore won’t be able to handle a tonal language. What about those 1.3billion Chinese people, are none of them tone deaf? It doesn’t matter.
Thirdly, thousands of foreigners, (including some very distinguished professors of Chinese), have been getting by for years without actually learning any tones at all, so don’t worry about it.
The other thing people worry about with the Chinese language is Chinese characters – there are so many of them and they look so strange that it’s rather daunting. It’s true that there are thousands of different characters to learn – but they’re not just random squiggles, there’s a logic to them that makes them much easier to learn and remember.
Almost all characters are made up of other characters, and by knowing those component characters, you can often have a guess at the meaning and/or pronunciation of new characters.
Also, although we don’t have any concrete evidence to prove it, it seems that once you start learning characters, your brain somehow learns ways to learn them quicker – which means that after you’ve learnt the first few hundred or so, the others start to come much more naturally.
Another great thing about Chinese is, the way of saying things is rarely fancy and convoluted. The language is very straightforward and direct – a bit like Chinese people.
Local dialects and Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà – 普通话)
Chinese people speak thousands of mutually unintelligible dialects. In some areas (in the South East), you can cross a hill or a river from one village to the next, and the inhabitants will not be able to understand each other. The differences between the spoken languages of the South and the North are greater than those between Italian and Spanish.
So how do such disparate tongues come to be grouped as a single language? The answer is in the written language. Although its use varies from place to place, the way Chinese is written is similar throughout the country.
Mandarin, which literally means ‘the common language’ is the lingua franca of China. It is the language two people from different places use when they meet. Mandarin is used in schools and in the workplace, anyone who has been to school can speak it. It is the language of newsreaders, television adverts, business, and all official government functions. For your first trip to China, there is no point learning another Chinese language unless you plan to travel to remote border regions like Xinjiang and Tibet. Once you’ve learnt to recognise some characters, you’ll spot signs in government buildings which read ‘Please speak Mandarin’ (Qĭng jiăng Pǔtōnghuà – 请讲普通话)- part of the government’s drive to standardise China’s languages.
Historically, there were ‘local’ versions of Mandarin, and you still here people referring to ‘Shanghai Mandarin’ or ‘Guangdong Mandarin’, the accented Mandarin spoken by people in those regions.
The Mandarin of today is based on the local language of Beijing (Bĕijīnghuà – 北京话).
There are about 50,000 Chinese characters in existence only 2-3,000 are required to read a newspaper and two (男 nán – male and 女 nǚ – female) to avoid embarrassing faux pas in China.
Chinese characters represent meaning. They also have a pronunciation assigned to them, but this can vary with the Chinese dialects, whereas the meaning doesn’t. This means that in theory Chinese characters could be used to represent any language in the world.
Early Chinese characters were simply pictures of the things they represented. Over the time the pictures became more stylised, examples of this type of character are 人 rén (person) and 龜 guī (tortoise). The latter is a traditional character not used in mainland China, but common in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The majority of today’s characters consists of two components – one pointing to the pronunciation, the other vaguely suggesting the meaning, for example the character 妈. The right hand part, 马, is pronounced mă on its own, and suggests the pronunciation of the whole character, which is pronounced mā. The left hand part is also a character in it’s own right, 女 and it means female, hinting at the meaning of the new character, which means mother.
The inherent difficulty of memorising thousands of characters led the CCP to begin simplifying them in 1954. This helped increase literacy rates, but traditionalists argue the characters lost some of their meaning and beauty. Simplified Chinese characters certainly don’t look as foreign and mysterious as the traditional characters.
Compare the traditional character for tortoise: 龜 with the simplified version 龟. Simplified Chinese characters were never adopted in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and you can still sometimes see traditional characters in mainland China where they are considered rather sophisticated.
A word in the Chinese language can either be made up of one character or by combining two or more:
东 = East 西 = West 东西 = Thing
Most combinations make a little more sense though, e.g.
火 = Fire 车 = Vehicle 火车 = Train
Pinyin and Pronunciation
Pinyin (Pīnyīn – 拼音) is the Romanised system of representing Chinese pronunciation. There are a handful of new sounds to learn, but other than that it’s really very straightforward. Unlike in English, there is only one way to pronounce each word in pinyin.
Before the advent of pinyin the Wade-Giles system of Romanisation was used, and you still see it used sometimes in names and academia. Neither system is perfect, but pinyin now dominates the scene.
Words in pinyin are made up of ‘initials’ and ‘finals’, so for example, the word for hot, ‘rè’ is made up of the initial ‘r’ and the final ‘e’.
Although Chinese is a tonal language, there are actually only a small number of ‘pronunciations’ in the language, in other words, there are less new sounds to learn than with other languages.
Among the initials (ie, the starts of words), there are a few which are pronounced very differently from English:
Q – like the ‘ch’ in cheese Qing, qiao
C – like the ‘ts’ in rats Ci, cao
R – like the ‘s’ in leisure Ren, ri
X – like ‘sy’ Xing, xiao
Z – like the ‘ds’ in roads Zi, zong
Zh – like ‘j’ in jam, but with the tongue curled back slightly Zhong, zha
Vowels are pronounced as detailed below:
A like the a in rather in American English
Ai like the i in high
Ao like the o in cow
E like the e in errr…
Ei like the a in hay
I like the ee in Lee, or like the oo in took after c, ch, r, s, sh, z or zh
Ian like ‘Yen’
Ie like ‘Yeah’
O like the o in for
Ou like ‘Oh’
U like the u in flute
Ui like ‘way’
Uo runs u and o together, u-o, sounds like wo
Yu Pucker your lips as if to whistle and say ‘Yee’, sounds like Y and the German ‘ü’
Ü like the German ‘ü’
Most Chinese words end with a vowel sound. There are only two ‘vowel endings’ in standard Mandarin, they are ‘n’ and ‘ng’. They are the same as in English, eg ban and bang, but slightly more nasal.
A lot of people, (particularly Beijingers), add an ‘er’ sound to the end of certain words, for example ‘wán’ becomes ‘wánr’, and the ‘er’ is represented by the character ‘儿’.
Very Basic Chinese Grammar
Chinese grammar is remarkably simple for the beginner. Verbs do not conjugate, (ie it’s just ‘go’ whoever’s doing it – I go, you go, he go etc), there are no genders, no ‘the’ or ‘a’, and no tenses as such. On top of that, Chinese people almost never say ‘please’, so you don’t need to worry about that, and there’s rarely any need to distinguish between the ‘polite’ and ‘impolite’ ways of saying things.
In Chinese, you say the subject first, then the verb, then the object, the same as English. So for example,
I = Wǒ,我
Love = Ài 爱
Rice = Mĭfàn 米饭
Add it all together to make Wǒ ài mĭfàn 我爱米饭– I love rice
To make a sentence negative, you just add no/not, bù 不 in front of the verb
e.g. Wǒ bù ài mĭfàn 我不爱米饭– I don’t love rice
To make the statement into a question, you just add ‘ma 吗’ at the end.
e.g. Wǒ ài mĭfàn ma 我爱米饭吗– Do I love rice?
Learn one more word – you ‘Nĭ 你’ and if you already know how to say to your Chinese friend:
Nĭ bú ài wǒ ma? 你不爱我吗?
Don’t you love me?!
Measure Words – Don’t panic
The Chinese language employs measure words when talking about a number of something. A bit like when people refer to ‘100 head of cattle’, or ‘two bunches of flowers’, apart from that it is used in all situations, for example, in Chinese one would say ‘two heads of cow’ and ‘three flat-things of ticket’. Different measure words are used according to the shape or use of the thing. Things held with the hand often use ‘bă – 把’, and long thin things often used ‘tiáo – 条’which literally means stick.
Fortunately, as with most things in Chinese, there is an easy way out for beginners. The measure word ‘gè – 个’ can be used to refer to virtually anything, and though it’s not strictly correct Chinese, it will get your meaning across. So one (of something) is yī gè, two is liăng gè, three is sān gè.
English Pinyin Chinese Characters
Hello Nĭhăo 你好
How much/many (money)? Duō shăo (qián)? 多少(钱)
Thanks Xièxie 谢谢
Sorry Duìbùqĭ 对不起
I don’t understand Wǒ bù dǒng 我不懂
Go away Zǒukāi 走开
I don’t want it Wǒ bú yào 我不要
Help! Jiùmìng! 救命!
Police Jĭngchá 警察
Thief Xiăo tōu 小偷
Rapist Qiángjiānfàn 强奸犯
I’m ill Wǒ shēng bìng le 我生病了
I’m injured Wǒ shòu shāng le 我受伤了
Hospital Yīyuàn 医院
I don’t understand Wǒ tīngbùdǒng 我听不懂
I understand Wǒ tīndedǒng 我听得懂
Do you understand Dǒng ma? 懂吗?
Speak slowly Màn yìdiăn 慢一点
Do you speak English? Nĭ huì Yīngwén ma? 你会英文吗
Does anyone speak English? Yǒuméiyǒu huì Yīngwén de? 有没有会英文的?
Chinese Zhōngwén 中文
Please write it down Kĕyĭ bă tā xiĕxià lái ma? 可以把它写下来吗?
Toilets, Bathrooms etc
Toilet Cèsuǒ 厕所
Male/female Nán/Nǚ 男/女
Toilet paper Wèishēngzhĭ 卫生纸
Bathroom Xĭshǒujiān 洗手间
Shower (to shower) Yùshì (xĭzăo) 浴室 (洗澡)
Soap Féizào 肥皂
Shampoo Xiāngbō 香波
Sanitary towel Wèishēngjīn 卫生巾
Tampon Wèishēngmiántiáo 卫生棉条
Sunscreen Fángshàiyóu 防晒油
Aspirin Āsīpīlín 阿司匹林
Antibiotics Kàngjūnsù 抗菌素
Laxative Xièyào 泻药
Anti diarrhoea medicine Zhĭxièyào 止泻药
Condom Ānquán tào 安全套 (lit ‘safety sheath’)
I Wǒ 我
You Nĭ 你
He/She/It Tā 他/她/它
We Wǒmen 我们
You (pl) Nĭmen 你们
They Tāmen 他们
Greetings and Civilities
Hello Nĭhăo 你好
Have you eaten? Nĭ chīfànle ma? 你吃饭了吗? (Very Chinese greeting)
Goodbye Zàijiàn 再见
Thanks Xièxie 谢谢
Sorry Duìbùqĭ 对不起
You’re welcome Búyòngxiè 不用谢
You’re welcome Búkèqi 不客气
Numbers, Measure Words and Counting
Although we show you the Chinese character for the numbers here, in China the Arabic numerals we use in the West are far more widely used.
0 Líng 零
1 Yī 一
2 Èr/liăng 二/两
3 Sān 三
4 Sì 四
5 Wǔ 五
6 Liù 六
7 Qī 七
8 Bā 八
9 Jiǔ 九
10 Shí 十
11 Shíyī 十一
12 Shíèr 十二
13 Shísān… and so on 十三
20 Èrshí 二十
21 Èrshíyī 二十一
22 Èrshíèr 二是二
30 Sānshí 三十
31 Sānshíyī 三十一
32 Sānshíèr 三十二
40 Sìshí 四十
50 Wǔshí 五十
60 Liùshí 六十
70 Qīshí 七十
80 Bāshí 八十
90 Jiǔshí 九十
100 Yībăi 一百
101 Yībăilíngyī 一百零一
101 Yībăilíngèr 一百零二
110 Yībăiyīshí 一百一十
111 Yībăiyīshíyī 一百一十一
120 Yībăièrshí 一百二十
200 Èrbăi 二百
300 Sānbăi 三百
1000 Yīqiān 一千
10000 Yīwàn 一万
Two, when counting, or when part of a compound number (eg 22) is èr (二), but when referring to two of something, you say liăng (两).
Shopping and Money
How much is this/that? Zhè/Nà ge duōshăo qián? 这/那个多少钱
Too expensive! Tài guìle 太贵了
Can you make it cheaper? Kĕyi piányì yì diăn ma? 可以便宜一点吗
How about … Yuan ... yuán xíng ma? ... 元行吗？
What’s that? Nà shì shénme? 那是什么？
Are there larger sizes? Yǒu méiyǒu dà hào? 有没有大号？
Bank of China Zhōnguó Yínháng 中国银行
ATM Zìdòng qǔkuănjī 自动取款机
RMB Rénmínbì 人民币
US Dollars Mĕiyuán 美元
Euros Oūyuán 欧元
UK Pounds Yīngbàng 英镑
Exchange money Huàn qián 换钱
If you can’t make it any cheaper, I just won’t buy it! Bù néng gèng piányì wǒ jiù búyàole! 不能更便宜我就不要了!
Directions, Distances, Orientation and Asking and Finding Your Way
Beijingers usually know which direction is North, and the city is laid out in a grid pattern, so they may well tell you the way in terms of compass direction.
Where is … ... zài năr? ...在哪儿
What’s the best way to … ... zuì hăo zĕnme qù 最好怎么去
Is it far? Yuăn ma? 远吗？
How far? Duō yuăn? 多远？
100 metres Yībăimĭ 一百米
1km Yīgōnglĭ 一公里
Which way is North? Năge fāngxiàng shì bĕi? 哪个方向是北
Walk (North) Wăng (bĕi) zǒu 往(北)走
South Nán 南
East Dōng 东
West Xī 西
Turn left/right Wăng zuǒ/yòu zhuăn 往左/右转
Go straight Yìzhízǒu 一直走
Map Dìtú 地图
No.3 3 hào 3号
Street Jiē 街
Road Lù 路
Apart from for aeroplanes, you don’t generally get return tickets in China.
Vehicle (bus, train or taxi) Chē 车
Luggage Xínglĭ 行李
I want to go to … Wǒ xiăng qù 我想去...
What time does it leave/arrive? Jĭdiăn kāi/dào 几点开/到
How long does it take? Huā duōcháng shíjiān? 花多长时间
I want to get off (at…) Wǒ xiăng (zài…)xià chē 我想(在...)下车
Single/Return Ticket Dānchéng/ fănwăng piào 单程/返往票
Get a taxi (slang) Dădī 打的
(Get) undergrond/subway (Zuò) dìtiĕ (坐)地铁
When is the next bus/train Xià yìbān chē jĭdiăn kāi? 下一班车几点开
When is the first/last bus/train? Tóu/mò bān chē jĭdiăn kāi? 头/末班车几点开
Train (station) Huǒchē (zhàn) 火车(站)
Hard seat Yìngzuò 硬座
Hard sleeper Yìngwò 硬卧
Soft seat Ruănzuò 软座
Soft sleeper Ruănwò 软卧
Which (number) platform? Jĭhào zhàntái? 几号站台?
Bus (stop) Qìchē (zhàn) 汽车(站)
Long distance bus station Chángtú qìchē zhàn 长途汽车站
Taxi Chūzūqìchē 出租汽车
Use the meter Dăbiăo 打表
Aeroplane Fēijī 飞机
Boarding pass Dēngjì kă 登记卡
Airport Fēijīchăng 飞机场
Boat Chuán 船
Dock/Ferry port Mătóu 码头
Rickshaw Sănlúnchē 三轮车
Bicycle Zìxíngchē 自行车
How much per day/hour? Yìtiān/yígè xiăoshí duōshaǒ qián? 一天/一个小时多少钱?
Hotel Bīnguăn/jiǔdiàn 宾馆/酒店
Hostel/Cheap Hotel Lǚguăn 旅馆
Are there vacancies? Yǒu méiyǒu kōng fángjiān? 有没有空房间
Yes, there are/No Yǒu / Méiyǒu 有/没有
Dormitory Duōrénfáng 多人房
Single room Dānrénfáng 单人房
Twin room Shuāngrénfáng 双人房
Add an extra bed Jiā chuángwèi 加床位 (You will probably be given a camp bed)
Economy room (shared toilet) Pǔtōngfáng 普通房
Standard room Biāozhǔn fángjiān 标准房
Deluxe suite Háohuá tàofáng 豪华套房
Can I see the room? Wǒ néng kànkan fángjiān ma? 我能看看房间吗?
I want to change room Wǒ xiăng huàn fángjiān 我想换房间
Are there messages for me? Yǒu méiyǒu liúhuà 有没有留话
Is there a hotel namecard? Yǒu méiyǒu lǚguăn de míngpiàn 有没有旅馆的名片 (good for finding your way home)
Can I have these clothes washed please? Kĕyĭ bă zhè xiē yīfu xĭ gānjìng ma? 可以把这些衣服洗干净吗?
Is there internet access here/in the room? Zhèli/fángjiānlĭ néng shàng wăng ma? 这里/房间里 能上网吗?
What (‘s the) time? Jĭdiăn (le) 几点了
1.05 1 diăn 5 fēn 1点5 分
2.30 2 diăn bàn 2点半
2.15 2diăn yíkè 2点一刻
Chinese people rarely refer to times in terms of something to the hour, but..
Ten to 3 Chà yíkè 3 diăn 差10分钟3点
AM/PM Zăoshang/Xiàwǔ 早上/下午
Now Xiànzài 现在
In a moment Yíhuìr 一会儿
Yesterday Zuótiān 昨天
Today Jīntiān 今天
Tomorrow Míngtiān 明天
Day after tomorrow Hòutiān 后天
Post Office Yóujú 邮局
(To send a) letter (Jì) xìn 寄信
Parcel Yóubāo 邮包
Stamp Yóupiào 邮票
Envelope Xìnfēng 信封
Wrap/package Bāoqĭlái 包起来
Registered mail Guàhào 挂号
Airmail Hángkōng xìn 航空信
Surfacemail Píngyóu 平邮
Postcard Míngxìnpiàn 明信片
Post restante Cúnjú hòulĭng 存局后领
Telephone Diànhuà 电话
Telephone card Dianhuàkă 电话卡
International call Guójì diànhuà 国际电话
Public telephone Gōngyòngdiànhuà 公用电话
Collect (reverse charges) call Duìfāng fù qián diànhuà 对方付钱电话
Computer Diànnăo 电脑
Email Diànziyóujian/Email 电子邮件/Email
Internet Yīntèwăng 因特网
Surf the web Shàngwăng 上网
Internet café Wăng bā 网吧
Fax Chuánzhēn 传真
Visas, Embassies etc
Visa Qiānzhèng 签证
Extend a visa Yáncháng qiānzhèng 延长签证
ID Shēnfènzhèng 身份证
Passport Hùzhào 护照
Public Security Bureau Gōngānjú 公安局
Embassy Dàshĭguăn 大使馆
Correct Duì 对
No, not Bù 不
May I ask your name? Nín guìxìng? 您贵姓
My name is… Wǒ jiào 我叫...
Are you married? Nĭ jiéhūnle ma? 你结婚了吗
Yes (have) Yǒu 有
No (do not have) Méiyǒu 没有
Do you have… Nĭ yǒu méiyǒu 你有没有
I have one… Wǒ yǒu yī gè 我有一个
Boyfriend Nánpéngyou 男朋友
Girlfriend Nǚpéngyou 女朋友
Children Háizi 孩子
Brothers Xiōngdì 兄弟
Sisters Jiĕmèi 姐妹
How old are you? Nĭ duō dà le 你多大了
I am … years old Wǒ ... suì le 我 ... 岁了
Where are you from Nĭ cóng năr lái 你从哪儿来?
I am from … Wǒ cóng … lái 我从 ... 来
UK Yīngguó 英国
USA Mĕiguó 美国
Canada Jīanádà 加拿大
Australia Àodàlìyà 澳大利亚
New Zealand Xīnxīlán 新西兰
Chinese Language Links
MDBG Chinese dictionary is one of the best of the many online Chinese dictionaries.
What to see and do around Beijing
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.