When you learn Mandarin, they might tell you how to say “Good Morning” in Chinese. But if you actually go out and say that to someone on the street, you'll get funny looks. Why? Because no one ever says that.
It's as if you were about to leave and said “I bid thee farewell.” No one would dispute that this is VERY proper English. But it sounds so awkward because it's rarely used in everyday conversation.
So what do they say? Keep reading and in a moment I'll reveal the more common Chinese expressions which are used instead of what the phrasebooks tell you to say. It's tricky when you learn Mandarin without being immersed in the Chinese culture.
Here's a taste of some cultural nuances that will help you:
You might be asking - why learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese?
Mandarin is China's official common language. Everyone in Chinese school, from Beijing to Hong Kong, learns Mandarin.
In addition, there are many local languages. Most Chinese people speak the local language to their neighbors, friends and schoolmates.
Cantonese is one of these local languages. People from Hong Kong, Guangdong and areas nearby can speak Cantonese.
For example, if you have a Chinese girlfriend from Hong Kong or Guangdong province, and all of her family speaks Cantonese, then maybe you don't need to learn Mandarin. Cantonese would be a better choice.
If your Chinese girlfriend is from any other region in China, and odds are that she is, you should learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese.
Many phrasebooks contain these common English greetings - which are translated quite accurately. But culturally, these are very uncommon and unusual ways to greet someone. Although there is value in knowing these phrases if you want to learn Mandarin, I wouldn't use them with Chinese people in conversation.
“How are you?” Many travel guides or pocket language books will tell you that “Ni hao ma?” means “How are you?” in Chinese. And they are right. That's a literal translation of the phrase.
The only time a Chinese person asked me “How are you?” was when I exploded into a coughing fit...
What they don't tell you is that no one ever says “How are you?” as a greeting. No one! In fact, some Chinese people are annoyed by the phrase and even take offense (although they wouldn't ever show it).
Why on earth would someone take offense to being asked “How are you?”
In Chinese, a more accurate translation of “Ni hao ma?” is “Are you ok?”
In over 5 years, only one Chinese person asked me “Ni hao ma?”. It was after I exploded in a coughing fit when I swallowed a mouthful of water down the wrong pipe.
“Ni hao ma?” implies that there is something wrong with the person. It's closer in cultural meaning to “Do you need to see a doctor?” than “How's it going?”
So if you use “Ni hao ma?” as a greeting, some Chinese people feel slightly confused, annoyed or bothered.
Even saying “How are you?” might cause this feeling in Chinese people who can understand English but have never been outside of China. You might ask “How is your day?” or “How's it going?” instead.
In a moment, I'll show you an even more appropriate way to greet someone without implying there is something wrong with them. But first, one more greeting...
All the phrasebooks will tell you that “Good Morning” is “Zao Shang Hao” in Chinese.
I've heard that expression used twice. Both times it was by a visitor to China who was learning a few basic phrases.
I used to say it all the time too, and slowly it dawned on me that no one ever says “Zao Shang Hao” in return. And then I started to really listen to what people say in everyday conversation...
Here are a couple of Mandarin phrases that are commonly used in China - but quite different from what a lot of Chinese language courses teach. Say these phrases and you'll fit in like a native, people will more easily relate to you and you'll have more fun interacting with your Chinese friends.
This is normally how you would greet someone in China. Maybe not someone who you are meeting for the first time, but this is a very common greeting - similar to “How's it going?”, “Hey” or “What's up?” in my country.
You might be thinking - wait a minute, isn't this an invitation to go for lunch? Do I actually have to eat with everyone I greet?
When I first worked at a large Chinese company, I did not take the time to learn Mandarin.
One of the managers kept asking me in English: “Have you eaten yet?” each and EVERY time I saw her.
I always thought she was asking me to go to lunch with her. It struck me as an odd thing to ask someone, especially if she didn't want to go for lunch together...
...which most of the time she clearly did NOT.
In my country, whenever someone says “Have you eaten yet?” - that really means “Do you want to go for lunch together?” And you could say “yes” if you don't want to go, and say “no” if you do want to join the person for lunch.
In China, no one will ever think you are inviting them to lunch if you ask this question...especially if you ask it in Mandarin Chinese. Even if they do somehow get that impression, they wouldn't hold you to it. I know it might seem strange to you, but trust me on this.
So why do people use this as a greeting? Because it's a very polite way to show the other person that you care about them. This demonstrates your consideration. You indicate that the other person's needs are important to you, and this is a great way to show respect.
Best of all, you show consideration without implying there is something wrong with the other person.
How do you say it in Chinese?
In Mandarin it's pronounced: Knee Ch-uh (as in Chuck) Fan L-uh (as in luck) M-uh? (as in muck)
In the Sichuan province (local dialect): Knee Ch-uh (as in Chuck) Fan May Day?
Again, this is not a dinner invitation. It's a simple greeting and there is no consequence whether you answer “yes” or “no” if you are asked this.
By the way, here are some typical responses you might hear to the question.
When someone asks you if you've eaten yet, feel free to say any of the above responses. And feel no obligation to join the person for a meal.
Also, keep in mind that many new visitors to China will ask “Have you eaten yet?” (in English or Chinese) as a way of inviting a Chinese person to join them for lunch. Of course the person will respond with indifference! They think it is a simple greeting...not a lunch invite!
So, don't take offense - instead rephrase the question: “Would you like to join me for lunch?”
“Zow!” (rhyming with Wow) means “early” in Mandarin Chinese. And it's also the first sound in the Chinese expression for “Good Morning”.
In the places I've lived in China, the phrase “Zow An!” is often used as a way of saying “Good Morning”.
Each morning at the office, everyone greets each other with a simple “Zow An!”
The best part about this is that it's great for people just starting to learn Mandarin Chinese. What a simple, easy way to greet someone in the morning.
And it gets better! The way to respond to this greeting is to say “Zow An!” in return. How much easier can it get?
So be kind to yourself as you learn Mandarin Chinese - take the easy way out...
...just say “Zow!”.
Just starting to learn Chinese? Check out these 9 secrets to learning quickly - a must read before you enroll in any Chinese language class...»
Or teach yourself how to speak Chinese...»