China is the world’s most populous nation, home to nearly 1.4 billion Chinese. In addition, almost 50 million ethnic Chinese people, equivalent to 3.7% of the world’s population live beyond China’s borders. Most of them speak at least one of the Chinese languages. Therefore, learning simple greetings in Chinese will certainly help you when you travel to China, or where ethnic Chinese communities reside in, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
There are several variations to the Chinese language, but the common national language used in mainland China is Standard Mandarin. On the other hand, Cantonese, a variant of the Chinese language, is the official language used in the country’s two special administrative regions: Hong Kong and Macau.
It may be true that the Chinese language is not an easy one for native English speakers to master, because of the different tones in the language resulting in entirely different meanings for the same word. Nevertheless, it is good to pick up some simple greetings that you can use when you are travelling in China and Hong Kong. Read on for a detailed guide on how you can connect with locals with these basic greetings!
1a. How to say "hello" in Mandarin
“Ni hao” (pronounced as “nee haow”) is the basic greeting in Mandarin, which can be literally translated as “you good” in English. The first word “ni” is pronounced with a tone that rises in pitch, while the second word “hao” is pronounced with a tone that dips followed by a rising pitch. When you meet with an elder or someone of higher social status, change your greeting to a formal one by replacing the first word with “nin” to show more respect. “Ni hao” can be safely used almost everywhere in China, since it is the common national language in the country.
In addition, you can also enhance your greeting by adding the question word “ma” to turn the standard greeting into a friendly “how are you?”. The word can be used in both informal and formal situations to turn the greeting into a question. Watch the video below to hear the correct pronunciation for hello in Mandarin.
1b. How to say hello in Cantonese
As mentioned earlier, Cantonese is the official language spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as southern parts of China such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Therefore, if you are heading to these regions, you may like to greet the locals with a “neih hou” (pronounced as “nay hoe”) instead. Both words are pronounced with rising tones.
One thing to note for the Cantonese version of hello is that, while it is grammatically correct to add the question word “ma” to the end of the phrase, it is rare to hear locals ask “neih hou ma?”.
2a. Time-sensitive greetings in Mandarin
Now that you have learnt the most basic and standard greeting “ni hao”, it would be great if you could impress and connect with the locals further by greeting them with a good morning, good afternoon or good evening in Mandarin.
The following are some of the possible variations of these time-sensitive greetings you may hear:
i. “Zao” - is a noun which means “morning”. It can be used on its own as a greeting to mean “good morning”. “Zao” is pronounced with a dip followed by a rising tone.
ii. “Zao an” - the second word “an” means “peace”, so combined together, “zao an” means “morning peace”. “An” is pronounced with a level tone.
iii. “Zao shang hao” - this is a more formal way to say “good morning”. “Zao shang” means “morning” and as you learnt in the earlier section, “hao” means good.
i. “Wu an” - “wu” refers to “afternoon” in Mandarin and as you learnt from above, the second word “an” means “peace”. Thus, “wu an” literally translates to “afternoon peace”. “Wu” is pronounced with a dip followed by a rising tone.
ii. “Xia wu hao” - this is a more formal way to say “good afternoon”. “Xia wu” means “afternoon” and combined with “hao”, it means “good afternoon”. “Xia” is pronounced with a dipping tone.
i. “Wan shang hao” - “Wan shang” means “evening” in Mandarin. Hence in the same manner as “zao shang hao”, “wan shang hao” translates to “good evening”. Just like “zao”, “wan” is also pronounced with a dip followed by a rising tone.
Watch the short video clip below to learn how to greet at appropriate times of the day with the above phrases.
2b. Time-sensitive greetings in Cantonese
When in Hong Kong, you can also try using these time-sensitive Cantonese greetings at appropriate times of the day.
i. Good morning: jóu sàhn - which is a noun translating to “morning” and used as a greeting by itself. The first word is pronounced with a rising pitch, while the second word is pronounced with a falling tone.
ii. Good afternoon: “ńgh ōn” - “ńgh” refers to “afternoon” in Cantonese and “ōn” means “peace”. Thus, “ńgh ōn” literally translates to “afternoon peace”. The first word is pronounced with a rising pitch and the second word is pronounced with a falling tone.
iii. Good evening: “máahn ōn” - “máahn” means “evening” in Cantonese and “ōn” translates to “peace” as you learnt earlier. The intonation of the two words is similar to how you pronounce “ńgh ōn”.
For the correct pronunciations on how to greet using the above phrases in Cantonese at different times of the day, watch the short video clip below.
Although it is easy for most people to understand your “thank you” in English anywhere in the world, it definitely does not hurt to learn how to express thanks in Mandarin when in China. Just like in English, there are a few variations through which you can express thanks, here’s how:
i. “Thanks” - “xie xie”. The first word “xie” is pronounced with a falling tone while the second “xie” has no tone.
ii. “Thank you” - “xie xie ni”. “Ni”, which means “you” is added at the end of this phrase.
iii. “Thank you very much” - “xie xie nin”. If you recall from the earlier section, “nin” is used when speaking to someone older or of a higher social status than you. Therefore, it is added at the end of this phrase to express thanks in a formal manner.
Do watch this video for a clearer picture of how you can say thank you in different ways in Mandarin:
Likewise, it would appear more sincere to the locals when you say thank you to them in Hong Kong in Cantonese. There are two variations of “thank you” in Cantonese, depending on the situation you are saying thanks for.
i. “M goi” (pronounced as “mm goi”) - this is used in situations when you are a customer receiving a service, or when you receive a service.
ii. “Do ze” (pronounced as “do jeh”) - when you receive a gift or money, “do ze” should be used instead.
You may also wish to add “saai” at the end of each phrase, which has a meaning of “entirely”, to express your utmost thanks to the other party. Click this video to learn how you can say thank you accurately in Cantonese:
4a. How to say "goodbye" in Mandarin
Having learnt how to say hello in Mandarin, it will most certainly help to break the ice and perhaps even strike up a friendly conversation to get to know the locals better. All good things have to come to an end, likewise for the engaging conversation or interaction with the locals when travelling in China. To end the session on a sweet note, I shall guide you how to say goodbye in Mandarin in this section as well.
“Zai jian” is the default goodbye in Mandarin, although its literal meaning is “again see”, which is closer to “see you again”. Nonetheless it’s hard to go wrong with this phrase, even if you don’t expect to see the other party again. The two words “zai jian” are both pronounced with a falling tone. Click on the video below to learn how to pronounce it correctly like a native.
To say goodbye to someone in Cantonese, you should say “joi gin”. Its meaning is similar to the Chinese version “see you again”, instead of a literal “good bye”. Both words are pronounced with a dip followed by rising pitch. Of course, you can also simply say “bāaibaai” informally, which sounds just like “byebye” in English. Click on this video clip to learn how to say goodbye in Cantonese accurately.
Break the ice with these simple greetings in the local language
With the above detailed guide of simple greetings you can use when you are in China and Hong Kong, breaking the ice with locals is no longer as difficult as you thought it was. Get out there and make some new friends by learning to speak the local language, be it Mandarin or Cantonese. Good luck and have fun!