Phrasebooks are all very well and they can certainly prove useful at times. But the vast majority of words will not serve you well on a fleeting visit to the Middle Kingdom.
So here is a crash course of useful words and phrases for someone travelling to China.
Don’t bother with the words for passport and phrases related to air travel. Customs and immigration will often speak a little English, and anyway most travellers should realise what is required of them, be it the removal of glasses, hats etc.
After exiting the airport, however, few will speak English and this is where you will need to use some basic Chinese.
Hopefully you’ll have the address of your hotel. But try to prepare a written version in Chinese characters and even a good map showing its location. Unlike London, and other cities in the West, few taxi drivers will have the ‘knowledge’, so just giving a road name will be of little use unless it's a big well-known street.
But first off, you’ll need to acquire a taxi. To determine if a waiting taxi is free, the phrase “Zǒu ma?” [走吗] will gain an immediate response. Literally it means “are you going?” and is used to determine availability.
The driver will likely respond with a Zǒu [going] or Bù zǒu [not going], but may also jump out to assist if he or she sees you with baggage thus dispensing with any verbal response.
Then comes the tricky bit of conveying your travel plans. Given you can pronounce the location where you want to go. Thus you might say “Wǒ yào qu …” [我要去...], meaning “I want to go to …”, followed by the name of the hotel or road. It is at this point you might resort to handing the driver the hotel card or other written details.
Note that many hotels will have a Chinese name. Saying the English name will often receive a blank look so you’ll need to say the Chinese name. So for example the Grand Hyatt, Beijing will need to be described as “Běijīng dōngfāng jūn yuè dà jiǔdiàn” [北京东方君悦大酒店].
Be aware too that many maps fail to write the pinyin equivalent for the words road, avenue etc. Thus you might see Chang’an Avenue instead of Chang’an Jie.
So here are a few useful translations; Avenue [Jiē 街 or Dàjiē, 大街], Road [Lù, 路], Hutong [Hútòng, 胡同]. Of course showing a business card to the taxi driver with the address in Chinese will help much more so don’t forget to ask for a “Míngpiàn” [名片] when dropping into a restaurant or hotel.
If you’ve managed to convey your destination correctly, upon arriving you might want to say “thank you” [Xièxiè, 谢谢] and ask how much you need to pay.
The easiest phrase is “Duōshǎo qián” [多少钱], lit. “How much money?” You may not be able to understand the reply but the driver will also point to the display on his meter. Want a receipt? Then just say “Fāpiào” [发票], or more politely “Qǐng gěi wǒ fāpiào” [发请给我票], lit. “please give me receipt”.
Often however the Chinese dispense with the word for please [Qǐng, 发], which might seem impolite but is common practice. While things aren’t tremendously expensive in China, should you find yourself haggling at a market, one useful phrase is “Tài guìle” [太贵了] or too expensive.
Requests & demands
“Gěi wǒ” is perhaps one of the most useful phrases to learn, plus enough nouns to complete your request. The other similarly used phrase might be “Nǐ yǒu … ma?” meaning “do you have … ?”
For example “Nǐ yǒu yānhuī gāng ma?” [你有烟灰缸吗] “Do you have an ashtray?”. The ma [吗] here is used to make something a question.
Thus one might say “Wǒ kěyǐ chōuyān ma?” [我可以抽烟吗], “Can I smoke?”, generally a silly question in China since people seem to smoke almost everywhere, though rules are tightening.
But you may want to take a picture of someone, and the first part of this phrase can be used again. “Wǒ kěyǐ zhàoxiàng ma?” [我可以照相吗], “Can I take a photo?” And of course its always nice to follow up with a Xièxiè or thank you.
So here are a few must have phrases: In day to day greetings you will need to say “Nǐ hǎo” [你好] - hello, and “Zàijiàn” [再见] - goodbye.
In any transaction “Duōshǎo qián?” [多少钱] - “How much money?”, will prove useful, and if wanting to keep an account of expenditure you might want to keep receipts. So might want to remember “Qǐng gěi wǒ fāpiào” [发请给我票] - “Please give me receipt”.
“Gěi wǒ …” [给我..] - “Give me … ” will help in so many situations. Whether you want a beer, a packet of cigarettes or a bowl of rice, this is a must have phrase.
Here are a few examples:
“Gěi wǒ píjiǔ” [给我啤酒] - “Give me a beer”
“Gěi wǒ yī píng píjiǔ” [给我一瓶啤酒] - “Give me a bottle of beer”
“Gěi wǒ yī píng bīng de píjiǔ” [给我一瓶冰的啤酒] - “Give me a cold bottle of beer”
Want another beer? Then you’ll need the word Zài [再] which means again or more. Thus, “Zàilái yī píng píjiǔ” [再来一瓶啤酒] - “Another bottle of beer”.
If a smoker, you’ll feel very much at home as more than 60% of Chinese men smoke. But you might need a few useful words such as Xiāngyān [香烟] the Chinese word for cigarettes, though it is often abbreviated to just Yān [烟].
Most Western cigarette brands are not readily available, but Marlboro are generally sold across much of the country. Whilst the English pronunciation is generally understood, the brand is transliterated to (HóngSè) Wànbǎolù [(红色) 万宝路] or (Red) Marlboro. Need a light? then you might need a Dǎhuǒjī [打火机] or lighter, which literally translates as “beat fire machine”!
Whether in a store, restaurant or hotel you will need to ask for things. “Nǐ yǒu ... ma?” [你有...吗] “Do you have … ?” and “Wǒ yào …” [我要...] - “I want …” are perhaps the most useful of phrases for such situations.
And as previously explained, you will need to ask taxi drivers to take you places. So may sure you remember “Wǒ yào qu …” [我要去...] “I want to go to …”
An example of its use might be, “Wǒ yào qu Běijīng dōngfāng jūn yuè dà jiǔdiàn” [我要去北京东方君悦大酒店] - “I want to go to the Beijing Grand Hyatt hotel”
As in any city you’ll likely be accosted by street vendors wanting to sell you things you’re not interested in. To rebuff such individuals just utter the words “Bù yào” [不要] - “Don’t want”. They may well be astonished a westerner knows such a phrase.
If meeting with Chinese friends they may well ask “Nǐ chīle ma?” [你吃了吗] - “Have you eaten?” Often this may just be small talk, just as we English talk about the weather. But anyone who’s lived in China for any considerable time will find that much of life revolves around the subject of food, cooking food and of course eating food. However that’s a subject for another time.