You’re not the first person to learn Chinese, and you won’t be the last. But get the basics right and you’ll be off to a good start. All conversations in your new language will start somewhere, and more often than not, this will come in the form of a greeting. In this post, we cover some of the most important phrases you’ll need to start chatting in Chinese.

Making the best start

Starting a conversation in a second language is daunting. Building up the confidence to engage in small talk with a native speaker isn’t always easy, so make sure you’re prepared, as opening a conversation with the right message will help ease those nerves and make a good impression. Remember these key openers to get off to a flying start:

  • 你好 (nǐ hǎo) – Hello
  • 你好吗?(nǐ hǎo ma) – How are you
  • 早上好(zǎoshàng hǎo) – Good morning
  • 下午好 (xiàwǔ hǎo) – Good afternoon
  • 晚上好(wǎnshàng hǎo) – Good evening
  • 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo) – Hello everyone

Watch the following video to hear the pronunciation and a short explanation from our teacher Birdy.

Responding appropriately

The ever reliable ‘how are you’ and ‘are you OK’ are terrific if you can use them at the appropriate time. But what happens when you are on the receiving end of these questions? Have a look at some responses to common greeting questions below:

  • 我很好 (wǒ hěn hǎo) – I am good
  • 不错 (bú cuò) – I’m not bad
  • 很好, 谢谢, 你呢? (hěn hǎo, xièxiè, nǐ ne?) – fine thanks, and you?

Adapting to different situations

Once you’ve got to grips with these common greetings, you can show off your skills by remembering to adapt your greetings depending on the formality of the situation. Let’s take ‘good morning’ for example, there are three different ways to say this:

  • 早上好 (zǎoshàng hǎo) is the most formal phrase and is often heard in the workplace or between strangers.
  • 早安 (zǎo ān), which literally translates to ‘morning peace’, is a slightly less formal term and one you’re likely to hear less often.
  • 早 (zǎo) on its own means ‘morning’. It is commonly used in informal settings to say ‘good morning’.

Stick with what you know

We’re all used to our own range of common openers in our respective languages, which most learners are keen to translate when starting to learn Chinese. Key examples are ‘How are you?’ (你好吗? nǐ hǎo ma?) and ‘Are you OK?’ (你还好吗?nǐ hái hǎo ma?). Most conversations in western cultures start off this way, and it’s no different in China.

However, while these phrases are present in Chinese, you may have noticed that there are other phrases used in informal communications that are uncommon to many of us.

For example, when close friends get together, you may hear them ask each other:

  • 吃了吗? (chī le ma?) – Have you eaten?
  • 吃饱了吗? (chī bǎo le ma?) – Have you eaten enough?
  • 你去哪里? (nǐ qù nǎli?) – Where are you going?

All of these are a show of hospitality among friends, and an answer of ‘no’ (没有méiyǒu) may lead to an offer of food or offers for help. Most of the time, we see ‘OK’ (好hǎo) as enough of a response when greeted in this way. ‘Where do you go?’ is similar to ‘what are you up to?’, as we see commonly in western culture. A detailed response is not necessary for these questions.

greeting people in chinese

Feeling under the weather

However, you may not always be feeling too fresh. Whether it’s after a hot sleepless night, or too much Baijiu, sometimes we feel it’s necessary to reveal our misfortunes to close friends and colleagues, so everyone can share in our misery. Here are some phrases you might want to use next time you find yourself in such situations:

  • 我宿醉未醒 (wǒ sùzuìwèixǐng) – I drank too much
  • 我很累 (wǒ hěn lèi) – I am very tired
  • 太早了 (tài zǎo le) – It’s too early

Put it into practice

Now you have familiarised yourself with some openers, get yourself out there and test them in the real world. Granted, you may need some actual content during the rest of the conversation after you have grabbed their attention with a native-sounding opener. Not to worry, just stay up to date with our page for more useful language skills coming in the future.