Survival Mandarin 101

Lifestyle, Culture | by Luis Landas
Posted: December 13th, 2012 | Updated: November 6th, 2014 | Comments

Here at Bamboo Compass we're always excited to see you all take the plunge and visit China. It's massive, beautiful, enigmatic and sometimes intimidating (in a good way, of course). But one thing you'll have to understand is that the language barrier, although exciting and challenging, can be actually quite troublesome.

Fact: Less than 1% of China's mainland population can speak English. Some of you will need to explain that you are vegetarian, or don't eat pork or that need to find a computer and use the Internet. So I've compiled some useful phrases for first-time China travelers to use once they reach good ol' China (Zhōngguó, 中国).  

So let's start with a quick introduction to the practical world of Survival Mandarin, including a little overview of pinyin and pronunciation.


Hanyu Pinyin

Hanyu Pinyin (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, 汉语拼音), or just pinyin for short, is the official system used for transcribing standard Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà, 普通话), a.k.a. "Mandarin Chinese," from characters into Roman letters. Basically, it spells out phonetically how to pronounce Chinese characters—some people see it as crucial to learning Mandarin, others see it as a crutch, but at the end of the day it's what allows the initiated (like myself) to actually start speaking Chinese!

While there are many regional Chinese dialects, Mandarin is spoken almost everywhere, making it the most useful. Throughout Mainland China, most characters are simplified Chinese characters (jiǎn tǐzì, 简体字), as opposed the older and more complicated traditional Chinese characters (fán tǐzì, 繁体字). Simplified characters were developed in the 1950s and 60s by the Mainland government and used in Singapore and Malaysia, while traditional characters have been around for some 1,500 years and are the standard in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau as well as many overseas Chinese communities.

In most cases, letters in pinyin are pronounced close to their English equivalent with some notable examples. Read on for examples in action or check out this interactive pinyin chart offered by


The key to speaking Chinese correctly is the accurate use of tones, changes in pitch that separate one word from another. Look at these two characters, and take note of the accents on their pinyin counterparts: if you mispronounce 'buy' (mǎi, 买), whoever you're speaking to might instead understand 'sell' (mài, 卖). The picture to the left demonstrates the changes in pitch for each tone from high (5) to low (1).

1st Tone: (ˉ) e.g. ā – A constant high pitch, like an upbeat "Hi!"

2nd Tone: (ˊ) e.g. á A mid-level pitch rising to a high pitch; similar to the pitch change in English making a question from a statement (e.g., "He ate dog." as compared to "He ate dog?")

3rd Tone: (ˇ) e.g. ǎ  A somewhat low pitch which gets lower, then rises to a somewhat high pitch; imagine an exaggerated "Really?" and tilt your head along with the pitch

4th Tone: (ˋ) e.g. à A high pitch dropping to a low pitch; like when you use your favorite expletive after you accidentally break something

5th Tone: (no tone mark) e.g.  a – A neutral tone; emphasis is placed on other syllables It's a good idea to pay attention to tones early (even exaggerating them initially), but expect it to take some practice for them to stick.  

Basic Chinese Greetings

So let's get started shall we? In my opinion, the first thing you need to know how to say, in order to that avoid the awkwardness that results from bursting the bubble of extended conversation, is:

My Chinese is terrible.
Wǒ de Hànyǔ shì hěn bù hǎo, duìbuqǐ.

The consonant 'Q' is pronounced like the 'ch' in 'China.'


Nǐ hǎo

When two third tones are said together, the first one becomes a second tone, making the above into 'Ní hǎo.'


How are you?
Nǐ hǎo ma? 


I'm doing great.
Wǒ hěn hǎo.


This is the easiest way to say it, and everyone will know what you mean, but the more colloquial way to ask "how are you" is to ask if they have eaten:

nǐ chī le ma? (你吃了吗?)


What is your name? 
Nǐ jiào shénme míngzi? 


My name is Luis.
Wǒ jiào Luis.
我叫 Luis。  


Zài jiàn!


Pleased to meet you! 
hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ! 

The consonant 'X' is pronounced is kind of like the 'sh' in 'she', but you'll just have to listen for the subtle difference.


China is very beautiful.
Zhōngguó hěn piàoliang 

The consonants 'zh' are pronounced like the 'j' in 'John.'


I don't understand.
Tīng bù dǒng


Getting Around

In this section I'll assume that you'll have handy a map, or photos and written directions/brochures of the places you need to go.


I want to go to _____
yào qù  _____.
我要去 _____.


Where is this? 
Zhège zài nǎr? 


How do I get there? 
Wǒ zěnme zǒu?




 train station 
huǒ chē zhàn


bus station
qìchē zhàn


běi nán dōng
north south east west


north station 
běi zhàn 

Keep in mind that many cities have multiple bus and train stations referred to by the cardinal directions.  If a station is both a train and bus station it may be referred to as above, just as "North Station."


chūzū qìchē 


Transactions and Numbers






I do (not) like this.
Wǒ (bù) xǐhuan zhège. 


líng èr  sān liù jiǔ shí
zero- one- two- three- four- five- six- seven- eight- nine- ten




sānshí èr 


A quantity of one
yī ge 

Chinese uses measure words when referring to quantity, similar to "a cup of water" or "two bowls of rice" in English. Although these words are used in all cases and differ according to what is being quantified, 个 is the basic measure word and can be used in most cases.


A quantity of two, a couple of something 
Liǎng ge 


When referring to quantity 2 rather than the number 2, 'liǎng' is used instead of 'èr.'


How much does this cost? 
Zhège duōshao qián? 


a hundred 
yī bǎi 


(Measure word for currency, like saying 'bucks') 


five hundred bucks (Chinese RMB, of course) 
wǔ bǎi kuài 


(Tenths of a yuan. Like a dime.) 


liǎng bǎi wǔ shí kuài wǔ máo 


Too expensive!  
Tài guì le! 


Very good! 
Hěn hǎo!


Not good! 
Bù hǎo! 


Thank you!
Xiè xie nǐ!


Check out more tips on bargaining in China.


Grabbing a Meal


I want this.
Wǒ yāo zhège. 


I want to drink this.
Wǒ yāo hé zhège.


I want to eat this.
Wǒ yāo chī zhège. 


I'm vegetarian. 
Wǒ chī sù shí. 


I don't eat meat/pork/fish/eggs. 
Wǒ bù chī ròu/zhūròu/yúròu/dàn. 
我不吃 /猪肉/鱼肉/蛋


Have more special dietary needs like food allergies or intolerance? Check out our guide to food allergies in China.


Finding Assistance


Please write that down in Chinese.
Qǐng nǐ xiě hànzì.


I want to make a phone call. 
Wǒ yào dǎ yīgè diànhuà. 


I want to surf the Internet. 
Wǒ yào shàng wǎng. 


I want to use a computer. 
Wǒ yào yòng diànnǎo. 


Please help me. 
Qǐng bāng wǒ. 


Are you alright?
Nǐ méishì ba? 


How was that? If you've got any questions or any suggestions for really useful phrases that travelers would need when going around China, please go ahead and put them in the comments! Also, don't forget to share this around with any friends who are headed this way, especially if they don't speak a word of Mandarin! Try and get creative and see if that inductive logic of yours can help to make new sentences out of the bits and pieces you've learned here.

For example, I'm sure you must have at least gleaned how to say 'you' and 'I/me,' haven't you?

What do you think 'Nǐ hěn piàoliang' (你很漂亮) means?

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