Learning Chinese: Greetings in Daily Life (打招呼 (da3 zhao1hu0)

2011 May 16
by Alena

Greetings is a very important subject in almost any language study because it is among the most used expressions in a language, and they often allow us to start and end a conversation. Chinese, like all languages, has its own set of unique greetings which may be seemingly strange to learners of the language (this is particularly true if the two cultures are vastly different).  Let me introduce you to the most commonly-used Mandarin greetings, along with the corresponding pinyin pronunciations.

The best and simplest way to say hello to somebody in Chinese is “你好!” (ni2hao3). This can be used any time of the day, for greeting any person, be it young, old, man, woman, friend, colleague or stranger. “您好!” (nin2hao3) is the same “hello” greeting as above, except that “您” (nin2), like in many European languages, is the polite form of “you”, used when addressing elders, or teachers. In the early morning, you can say “早上好!” (zao3shang4 hao3). In the evening the best way to greet someone will be “晚上好!” (wan3shang4 hao3). “Good afternoon” can be translated as “下午好!” (xia2 wu3 hao3) but it is seldomly used. I spent a lot of time in China but I do not recollect even once when someone actually said it to me. It happens because Chinese people rarely refer to the time in terms of hours.

Almost all Chinese language courses teach you that the most common way of asking “How are you?” is the expression “ 你好吗?” (ni2 hao3 ma0). That’s what I thought too. Later I found out that Chinese people hardly ever use this phrase. Instead during my first trip to China with my brand-new Chinese friends, they kept on torturing me asking “你去哪里?” (ni3 qu4 na3li0), which literally means “Where are you going?”) and “你在干吗?” (ni3 zai2 gan4ma0) – “What are you doing?” First I could not help but wonder why they asked me this, they were absolutely aware where I had been going and where I was going to. Why ask?

Once even a funnier story happened to me. One of my Chinese acquaintances called me in the morning and asked: “ 你吃饭了吗?” (ni3 chi1fan4 le0ma0) which is translated as “Have you eaten yet?”. I replied that I had not and since I was hungry invited him to the nearest coffee shop. Imagine my surprise when he politely refused saying that he had already eaten breakfast. At that point I thought he had been making fun of me.

Shortly afterwards one of my professors gave me a very lucid explanation. All those phrases that caused a misunderstanding between me and Chinese people are simply different ways of greeting a friend. As you guessed, they all mean the same – How are you? – and do not require a detailed answer.  “ 你吃饭了吗?” seems the most weird one but Chinese people just love asking it. It shows the fact of how much they appreciate such thing as a meal and everything that is related to it. In general food is an important topic in China and is always a welcome topic of conversation.

But this is not all. Greetings in Chinese vary a lot. Very often you can also hear ”好久不见!” (hao2jiu3 bu2jian3) – “Long time no see!”, “最近怎么样!“ (zui4jin4 zen3me0yang4) – “How have you been”,  ”身体好吗?” (shen1ti3 hao3ma0) – “How do you feel?”,  “工作忙不忙?” (gong1zuo4 mang2bu4mang2 – “How’s work?”, “家里怎么样?“ (jia1li0 zen3me0yang4) – “How’s your family doing?”, ”学习忙吗?“ (xue2xi2 mang1ma0) – “How’s your study?” Such direct questions about your family status, health and work can easily bewilder many foreigners. Sometimes Chinese people can even inquire how much you make which is absolutely inappropriate in western cultures. Don’t be confused! They do not have any intention to pry into your affairs. According to Chinese culture this is how they promote their friendship. Maybe I will disappoint you but most of the times they do not even want to know where you are going and how your new job treats you (if it is, of course, not your dearest friends). They are just being polite. That’s exactly why the answers are expected to be short and simple:  “很好,谢谢!”  (hen2hao3, xie4xie4) – “Very good, thanks”; “还不错!” (hai2 bu2cuo4) – “Good”,  “马马虎虎”(ma3ma0 hu3hu0) – “So-so”,” 还行” (hai2 xing2) – “Not bad”,” 一般” (yi4ban1) – “As usual”,  “还可以”  (hai2 ke3yi0) – “Not bad”. If you are asked “ 你吃饭了吗?” (ni3 chi1fan4 le0ma0), simply say “ 吃了, 谢谢” (chi1le0, xie4xie4).

In the end, let me give you a piece of advice. Learn everything you are taught! Don’t worry: the more you practice in Chinese, the sooner you will be able to distinguish where to use different phrases. Good luck!

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