Chinese Language for Travel in China

john  —  February 20, 2012

Ever wanted to travel in China but were worried about not being able to speak Chinese and the language problems you’d have? Don’t worry. You are not alone and the language barrier is really not the problem you think it is. Many people have a great time travelling all over China with out knowing the language and basic Chinese is not hard to pick up.

I am going to show you basic Chinese for travel that you can pick up in a few hours and will be very useful to you during your travels. Some simple Chinese words and phrases will make your travels easier, be very helpful and will open a few more doors for you. Even if you make a mess of your Chinese and get it all wrong, your effort will be deeply appreciated by so many of the locals you will meet.

Background of Chinese

The Chinese language has at least seven dialects that are spoken by different groups in different parts of the country. For example people in Guangzhou speak Cantonese and people in Shanghai speak Shanghainese. The main dialect that is the official language of China is Mandarin in English or Putonghua in Chinese.

Basically all native Chinese speak Mandarin so this is the dialect that will be most useful for you in your travels in China. Don’t try to use Mandarin in your local Chinatown when you return home after your travels because Cantonese is the main language for overseas Chinese.

The basics of Mandarin

Pinyin – This is a system of using the Roman alphabet to write Chinese words instead of the traditional pictographs or characters. The roman letters in Pinyin are used to represent the sounds of standard Mandarin. When you walk around Chinese cities you will see that the street signs have both Chinese characters and pinyin.

Tones – Chinese is a tonal language with four different tones where words with the same pronunciation but with different tones can have completely different meanings.

First tone uses the symbol “-“ and your voice has a high and level pitch
Second tone uses the symbol “/” and your voice rises in pitch like it does when you ask a question
Third tone uses the symbol “\/” and your voice dips and then rises
Fourth tone uses the symbol “\” and your voice starts high and drops in drops

The word “ma” is a great example of how different tones can affect the meaning of a word.

Tone –  Pinyin – English meaning – Chinese character
One – ma – mother – 妈
Two – ma – hemp – 麻
Three – ma – horse – 马
Four – ma – to swear – 骂

If you are just in China to travel for a month or so, don’t worry too much about the tones. As long as you are speaking simple Chinese slowly and carefully, you will be fine.

Pictographs/Characters – Chinese written language is based on syllables were each syllable in a word is represented by a character. For example the word hello in pinyin is ni hao which is two syllables and is written using two characters 你好.

In mainland China the characters where changed in 1954 to make them more simple and easy to learn, read and write. Chinese characters used outside mainland China in places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have not been simplified and are in their traditional form. When travelling in China itself, the only characters you need to deal with are the simplified characters.

The first step when you talk to some one in Chinese is to speak using the pinyin sound. If this does not work, write using pinyin. Chinese use pinyin to enter data on computers and on most mobile phones so writing pinyin will nearly always work. If pinyin does not work, carefully write the characters. As long as your characters are correctly drawn, this will work.

Essential Travel Chinese

These are the words and names that you will find most useful in your travels. I have written the meaning in English, the pinyin and simplified characters for each word/meaning.

China and Chinese Cities
Luckily the English name of most cities is the same as the Chinese name in pinyin

English pinyin characters

China zhong guo 中国
Beijing bei jing 北京
Shanghai shang hai 上海
Hong Kong xiang gang 香港
Hangzhou hang zhou 杭州
Xian xi an 西安
Suzhou su zhou 苏州
Guangzhou guang zhou 广州
Guilin gui lin 桂林
Chongqing chong qing 重庆
Kunming kun ming 昆明
Lijiang li jiang 丽江
Dali da li 大理

There are literally thousands of attractions in China so I have only listed the key ones in Beijing.

Forbidden City gu gong 故宫
Great Wall chang cheng 长城
Summer Palace yi he yuan 颐和园
Temple of Heaven tian tan 天坛
Tiananmen tian an men 天安门
Silk Market xiu shui jie 秀水街
Lama Temple yong he gong 雍和宫
Confucius Temple kong miao 孔庙
Beihai Park bei hai gong yuan 北海公园
Drum Tower gu lou 鼓楼
Bell Tower zhong lou 钟楼

Important Places & Transportation

Train Station huo che zhan 火车站
Train huo che 火车
Airport fei ji chang 飞机场
Bus terminal ke yun zhan 客运站
Toilet ce suo 厕所
Hotel jiu dian 酒店
Police station gong an ju 公安局
Subway station di tie zhan 地铁站
Subway di tie 地铁
Taxi chu zu che 出租车
Bus gong gong qi che 公共汽车
Hospital yi yuan 医院

Where is…. zai na li 在那里
To ask where a place is, say the “place name” + “zai nail”
For example, where is the toilet? Ce suo zai na li 厕所在那里

I need to go to….. wo yao qu 我要去
To say where you need to go, say “wo yao qu” + “your destination”
For example I need to go to the train station “wo yao qu huo che zhan 我要去火车站

Greetings & Introductions

Hello ni hao 你好
How are you? ni hao ma 你好吗
Good morning zao shang hao 早上好
Good evening wan shang hao 晚上好
Goodnight wan an 晚安
Goodbye zai jian 再见
I am John wo jiao John 我叫 John
What is your name? ni jiao shenme ming zi 你叫什么名字
Happy to meet you hen gao xing ren shi ni 很高兴认识你

Useful words & sayings

Do you speak English? ni hui shuo ying yu ma 你会说英语吗
Thank you xie xie 谢谢
You are welcome bu yao ke qi 不要客气
How much? Duo shao qian 多少钱
Too expensive tai gui 太贵
Stop ting 停
Sorry dui bu qi 对不起
Telephone dian hua 电话
Ticket piao 票
Train Ticket huo che piao 火车票
I don’t understand wo ting bu dong 我听不懂


0 ling 令
1 yi 一
2 er 二
3 san 三
4 si 四
5 wu 五
6 liu 六
7 qi 七
8 ba 八
9 jiu 九
10 shi 十

Hand signs for numbers

Chinese uses ten hand gestures to communicate numbers 1 to 10 which is great for shopping, bargaining and ordering drinks in noisy bars. You can see the gestures and the numbers they represent in the image below.

Days and dates

Week xing qi 星期
Monday xinq qi yi 星期一
Tuesday xing qi er 星期二
Wednesday xing qi san 星期三
Thursday xing qi si 星期四
Friday xing qi wu 星期五
Saturday xing qi liu 星期六
Sunday xing qi tian 星期天
Weekend zhou mo 周末

Month yue 月
January yi yue 一月
February er yue 二月
March san yue 三月
April si yue 四月
May wu yue 五月
June liu yue 六月
July qi yue 七月
August ba yue 八月
September jiu yue 九月
October shi yue 十月
November shi yi yue 十一月
December shi er yue 十二月

Travel Chinese Tip

Once you know all the details of your trip such as the hostel/hotel you’ll be staying at and the attractions you’ll be visit, print the pinyin and characters of all the words/names that you will need. If possible, has a collection of cards like flash cards where you have each attraction name and word you may need to use clearly printed in pinyin and in characters on individual cards. That way for example you need to go to the train station or toilet, you pull out that card, show it to a local and follow the directions you are given. You may still end up in the wrong place but you’ll get there much more efficiently and with less trouble.

(Blog posted by China Travel Go on August 29, 2011 by Brendon. You can see the original article by following this link to China Travel Go)