There are many ways for a Chinese beginner to speak Chinese like a native. Even if you cannot speak Chinese fluently yet, greeting others politely and appropriately is a good way to demonstrate respect in your conversation with native Chinese speakers.
At first, as a language learner, your main goal should simply be to communicate, not to worry too much about how to sound like a local. But there are some things you can be aware of when speaking to sound more natural, and less like a “textbook” Mandarin student. This article lists a range of common greeting expressions you can use to start a conversation. Learning the various forms of Chinese greetings helps you adapt to what you say to your partner at any time of day.
1. The most famous Chinese greetings
To communicate like a native Chinese speaker, you should know more than just saying “Hello” in Mandarin. Sometimes you will need to say “Good morning”, at other times, “Good afternoon” or “Good evening” would be more appropriate. Sometimes you will need to sound more formal (for example: when you meet a coworker for the first time), while when you meet your friends, being too formal will sound out of place. Let’s take a look at the most common ways of Chinese greetings
- 你好 (nǐ hǎo) – Hello
This is probably the first phrase you will learn to speak in Chinese. Though it is the most common Chinese greeting, be careful, this expression is used to greet only one person at a time!
For example, if you come across a classmate, you can say “同学你好 tóngxué nǐ hǎo – Hello.”
It will not be a problem if you put the name or subject before or after the greeting expression in Chinese. You can also shorten the greetings by putting the name or subject before 好 hǎo – good. For example: “老师好 lǎoshī hǎo – Hello teacher!”
- 您好 (nín hǎo) – Hello
You use 您好 nín hǎo greet politely to your partner. The word 您 nín is used to address someone older than you or in a higher ranking, whether at work or in the family. It is also considered as a formal way to say “Hello” in Chinese.
For example: When you meet your friend’s grandfather, you should say “经理您好 jīnglǐ nín hǎo”. They will be glad if you greet them that way.
- 你好吗？ (nǐ hǎo ma) – How are you?
This phrase means “You good?” and is often taught to Chinese students as an essential Chinese phrase, but it is rarely used nowadays. In fact, the Chinese greeting “你好吗? nǐ hǎo ma?” are gradually replaced by “吃饭了吗? chī fàn le ma? – Have you eaten yet?” which we will introduce below.
- 吃饭了吗？ (chī fàn le ma?) – Have you eaten yet?
Asking if someone has eaten yet is a common way to ask “How are you?”. It can sound weird to Westerners, however, you will find it frequently between neighbors in a garden or during their evening walk after dinner. Showing concern for a friend or acquaintance is popular in Chinese culture. Eating is extremely important to Chinese people; therefore, inquiring whether someone has eaten or not gradually becomes a normal way to ask “How are you” in Chinese. When someone greets you “吃了吗? chī fàn le ma? Have you eaten?”, just say “吃了 chīle I’m fine”. It means “I have eaten”, and ask them back “你呢? nǐ ne? And you?”. They will be glad to be asked so.
- 早上好 (zǎo shang hǎo) – Good morning
If you greet someone in the morning, you can use the common greeting “早上好 zǎo shàng hǎo; good morning”. It is also possible to say “早 zǎo”. This phrase on its own is often understood as a shortened version of 早上好 zǎo shang hǎo, creating a more casual phrase, just like “morning” in English. You cannot go wrong with this word! Unless it is in the evening…
- 晚上好 (wǎn shàng hǎo) – Good evening
Following the morning Chinese greeting above, if you happen to meet someone after sunset, you can greet them with the Chinese word for night, which is 晚 wǎn, or 晚上 wǎn shàng, combining with the character “好 hǎo good.” Thus, your greeting becomes “晚上好 wǎn shàng hǎo – Good evening.”
Be careful: The literal translation for 晚上好 wǎn shàng hǎo is “night good,” and English speakers may be tempted to reserve the order and assume that this is the correct way to say “Good night.” But this interpretation is incorrect. “Good night” is not a greeting in English. It is a way to say goodbye to someone. If you want to say “Good night” to someone in Chinese, you should say “晚安 wǎn’ān”.
- 喂 (wèi) – Hey
This is the Chinese greeting to say hello on the phone. The expression “喂 wèi Hello” is only used in one situation: when you answer your phone. If you hear a Chinese person on the phone, you must have heard “喂” before. For instance, if someone calls you on the phone, you can start your answer with “喂 wèi Hello” to greet them and indicate that you have picked up the phone. This is a lovely and simple Chinese greeting that everyone can use. Age doesn’t matter here.
- 好久不见 (hǎo jiǔ bu jiàn) – Long time no see
This is a very positive phrase to greet someone you haven’t met for a long time. If you break down the characters, you can see it is a very literal translation.
- 最近你怎么样? (zuì jìn nǐ zěn me yàng) – How are things?
“最近 zuì jìn” means “recently” or “these days”, and “最近你怎么样 zuì jìn nǐ zěn me yàng how are things?” is an informal phrase, more like saying “What’s up?” to a friend or colleague.
- 去哪呢？ (qù nǎ ne?) – Where have you been?
This is a pleasant Chinese greeting when you come across an acquaintance or neighbor. It is not quite a question, just a greeting, which will be answered with a short response. Here are some common responses to this question:
好的! Hǎo de! – Good!
伟大的! Wěidà de! – Great!
不错! Bùcuò! – Not bad!
从来没有这么好过! Cónglái méiyǒu zhème hǎoguò! – Never been better!
其实有点疯狂! Qíshí yǒudiǎn fēngkuáng! – A little crazy, actually!
忙，忙. Máng, máng. – Busy, busy.
照常. Zhàocháng. – As usual.
2. How to greet like a native Chinese speaker
Be careful about word choice
It is important to distinguish between the words you can use and the words you should use based on a particular social situation. For example, in Chinese, though “厕所 cè suǒ” is an acceptable word for “bathroom”, a more refined word for “bathroom” is “洗手间 xǐ shǒu jiān”. Asking “厕所在哪里 Cè suǒ zài nǎ? – Where is the toilet?” can be a bit impolite, especially when attending a formal event. A more comfortable way is to ask “Where is the restroom?” or “Where is the bathroom?”. In this case, word choice matters, and some certain words quickly reveal the fact that you are not from around here.
Be vigilant about tones
Almost every Chinese character comes with a built-in tone, you can learn them individually. However, many tones are selectively dropped in real-life conversations when spoken as part of a natural dialog. Depending on the context, specific words are less emphasized during a conversation, challenging Chinese beginners.
The tones are a major challenge for Chinese speakers in all proficiency levels because there is no rule to determine which words to highlight when speaking Mandarin. Even native speakers still have to struggle to get their tones right all the time. Using the wrong tone can give the word a completely different meaning and lead to miscommunication.
Let’s take an example:
吗 ma (yes/no question mark). Be careful: 吗 is a question particle used to turn statements into Yes or No questions.
妈 mā (mom)
麻 má (fibre)
马 mǎ (horse)
骂 mà (curse)
Most learners find it difficult to spell the third tone. You better get the tone right so as not to call your mother a horse!
The best way to get better at this is to listen to native speakers and emulate how they speak. You cannot learn this by reading but by practicing. The more you hear, the better you grasp the language, and you will also start to improve your tones.
Place emphasis on the right words and syllables
Where does the emphasis fall in “Good morning”? In most cases, we say “Good MORN-ing!”. But sometimes, we say “GOOD morning?” with a slight inflection at the end, which turns out more playful and fun. But we never say “Good mor-NING!” because it just sounds wrong.
The same thing happens with Chinese greetings. Certain words are commonly emphasized, and some have less emphasis. Unfortunately, there is no fast rule to determine which words are the right ones to emphasize. The best solution is to watch Chinese movies and TV shows and practice with Chinese native speakers as many times as possible to create that immersive learning environment. By copying the way native speakers do, you will find where they emphasize and drop tones.
Adopt a relaxed, unhurried speaking style
Trying to speak with a relaxed, unhurried style may make people think that your reaction time is naturally slow. It pays to have people assume that you are the type of person who contemplates each utterance thoroughly before speaking. This action gives you time to think carefully about what you want to say, so that you can choose the right words. And anyway, Chinese is one of the slowest spoken languages in the world, so you might just blend right in!
You don’t have to be Chinese to be great at Chinese greetings. You can learn through watching movies, communicating with as many native speakers as possible, and lastly, practicing with Pandanese. By offering vocabulary flashcards and Spaced Repetition Learning Methods, Pandanese helps Chinese learners in Mandarin mnemonics in the funniest and easiest way. Give it a try with Chinese greetings! Once you memorize these expressions, you will be well prepared to greet others and open up to conversations, whether with friends or colleagues, in the morning, afternoon, or evening.
Read more about the Spaced Repetition Learning Method: Learn Chinese Characters Efficiently With The Spaced Repetition Learning System.
If you have any other ideas about Chinese greetings, or how to like a native Chinese speaker, don’t hesitate to share with us!