January 22, 2021
If you’re a beginning Mandarin student, chances are you’re eager to learn some of the most basic Chinese words and phrases. After “hello” and “my name is,” learning to say “no” in Chinese is likely near the top of your list. Read this article to discover 10 ways to refuse someone with style.
Table of Contents
- No Direct Translation
- 10 Ways to Say “No” in Chinese
- Just Say No!
- Essential Vocabulary for Saying No in Chinese
No Direct Translation
Saying “no” is an essential conversational skill. That’s especially true in China, where you’re likely to receive all sorts of offers (both well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning) to buy and do all sorts of things:
Want to teach English at the shady underground English training school down the street? (No.) Want to visit a nice Chinese teahouse on Nanjing Road? (No.) Want to buy this LV bag? I promise it’s authentic! (No.)
So how do you say “no” in Chinese? Unfortunately, there’s no direct Chinese translation for the simple English “no.” In general, the Chinese words or phrases needed to express negation vary depending on the situation.
Although this might sound intimidating, it’s helpful to remember that the ways we say “no” in English are also somewhat dependent on context. For example, we have various different words or phrases, like “no way,” “impossible” and even “nothing doing” which can be used in place of “no” when we want to refuse to do something.
Knowing more than just one or two ways to say “no” is a great way to help make your Chinese sound more authentic. Check out the following list of 10 ways to say “no” in Chinese for some ideas.
10 Ways to Say “No” in Chinese
1. 不是 (bùshì) and 不是的 (bùshìde)
One of the most common ways to say “yes” in Chinese is 是 (shì, to be). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that negating 是 (shì) by adding 不 (bù, not; no) is one way to say “no” in Chinese.
When you say 不是 (bùshì), you are literally saying “to not be.”
Usually, 不是 (bùshì) is used when disagreeing with or disputing the truth of something someone else has said. If someone asks you a question with the intention of confirming a fact, you can respond with 不是 (bùshì) to indicate that what they’ve said isn’t true.
A: 你是美国人吗？ Are you American?
Nǐ shì Měiguórén ma?
B: 不是。 No, I’m not.
不是的 (bùshìde) is another phrase that can be used to say “no” in Chinese. It sounds a bit more informal than 不是 (bùshì), but the two are used in almost the same way and are more or less interchangeable.
A: 这个礼物是给宝宝的吗？ Is this gift for the baby?
Zhège lǐwù shì gěi bǎobǎo de ma?
B: 不是的。 No, it isn’t.
Note that the characters 不 (bù) and 是 (shì) by themselves are both pronounced using a 4th (falling) tone. However, when the tone of the character that follows 不 (bù) is also a fourth tone, then 不 will experience a tone change which will cause it to temporarily adopt the second (rising) tone. Therefore, even though the pinyin for 不是 is written bùshì, the phrase should actually be pronounced “búshì.”
2. 不 (bù)
If you search for the Chinese equivalent of the English word “no” in a popular Chinese dictionary like Pleco, chances are that the first entry you see will be 不 (bù). Although native speakers will understand that you mean “no” if you respond to every question with a simple 不 (bù), doing so will not make you sound very authentic.
It’s possible to respond to some questions using only 不 (bù), but native speakers don’t do so very often. Using only 不 (bù) to respond sounds quite abrupt and even angry. People are most likely to respond with a simple 不 (bù) when they are very unhappy with the person they’re speaking to and would prefer not to talk to them at all.
For example, imagine that person A in the following dialogue is a mother trying to make up with her teenage daughter (person B) with whom she’s just been fighting. The mother tries to make a nice suggestion that they go for a walk together but the daughter is still angry and responds abruptly, indicating that she isn’t ready to make up with her mom:
A: 要不要出去走一走? Would you like to go for a walk?
Yào bù yào chūqù zǒu yī zǒu?
B: 不！ No!
3. 不对 (bùduì)
In Chinese, 对 (duì) means “right” or “correct.” Adding 不 (bù) in front of 对 (duì) allows you to say that something is “not right” or “incorrect.” In general, you can use 不对 (bùduì) when you don’t agree with someone’s opinion or with a statement that they have made.
A: 我觉得中国的古镇都很漂亮。 I think all ancient Chinese cities are beautiful.
Wǒ juédé Zhōngguó de gǔzhèn dōu hěn piàoliang.
B: 不对，现在有一些很商业化。 No, some of them are really touristy.
Bùduì, yǒu yīxiē hěn shāngyèhuà.
Note that since 对 (duì) is pronounced with a falling tone, the pronunciation of 不 (bù) changes to a rising tone when placed in front of 对 (duì). Thus, even though the official pinyin is still written as bùduì, you should pronounce it as “búduì.”
4. 不行 (bùxíng)
行 (xíng) means “OK” or “all right” in Chinese. As with 不是 (bùshì) and 不对 (bùduì) above, adding 不 (bù) in front of 行 (xíng) turns it into a negative.
不行 (bùxíng) can be roughly translated as “not OK” or “not all right.”
A: 你的车子借我一下？ Can you lend me your car?
Nǐ de chēzi jiè wǒ yīxià?
B: 不行。 No.
Unlike 对 (duì) and 不 (bù), which are pronounced with falling tones, 行 (xíng) is pronounced with a rising tone. Therefore, the pronunciation of 不 (bù) does not change when the two are paired together.
5. 不可以 (bù kěyǐ)
不可以 (bù kěyǐ) is another phrase that can be used to say “no” in Chinese. It consists of 可以 (kěyǐ), which can be translated as “can” or “may,” and the negative character 不 (bù).
Taken together, the phrase 不可以 (bù kěyǐ) can be literally translated as “not can” or “not may.” It’s used in essentially the same way as the English “may not” or “can’t” when responding negatively to a request or question.
A: 这里可以拍照吗？ Can I take photos here?
Zhèlǐ kěyǐ pāizhào ma?
B: 不可以。 No, you can’t.
6. 不可能 (bù kěnéng)
Want a stronger negative answer? Look no further than 不可能 (bù kěnéng). This phrase consists of the negative character 不 (bù), followed by 可能 (kěnéng), which in Chinese means “maybe” or “possibly.” Add them together, and you get 不可能 (bù kěnéng), which means “not possible,” “impossible” or “no way.”
Use 不可能 (bù kěnéng) when you want to let someone know that whatever they have said is completely out of the question or completely impossible.
A: 听说你要结婚了。 I heard you’re going to get married.
Tīng shuō nǐ yào jiéhūn le.
B: 不可能，我都没有男朋友。 No, that’s impossible, I don’t even have a boyfriend.
Bù kěnéng, wǒ dōu méiyǒu nánpéngyǒu.
Note that the meaning of 不可能 (bù kěnéng) can change depending on the context in which it is used. When used to respond negatively to a request, 不可能 (bù kěnéng) sounds quite harsh and severe.
Responding to a request with 不可能 (bù kěnéng) indicates that you are not only refusing the request, but are also unhappy that the request was made and consider the request inappropriate.
A: 你可以把信用卡借给我吗？ Can you lend me your credit card?
Nǐ kěyǐ bǎ xìnyòngkǎ jiè gěi wǒ ma?
B: 不可能。 No way.
7. 不用 (bùyòng)
If you are looking for a polite way to say “no” to someone’s offer, 不用 (bùyòng) is the phrase for you. Although 不用 (bùyòng) also contains 不 (bù), its meaning is hard to guess using its component parts.
用 (yòng) in Chinese means “to use,” so 不用 (bùyòng) could be translated literally as “not use” or “no use.” However, this literal translation doesn’t shed much light on its actual meaning, which is “no thanks.” In general, 不用 (bùyòng) is used to indicate polite refusal.
A: 你需要帮忙吗？ Do you need help?
Nǐ xūyào bāngmáng ma?
B: 不用。 No, thanks.
In most cases where 不用 (bùyòng) is used, it can also be repeated, as in 不用，不用 (bùyòng, bùyòng). Repeating the phrase twice makes your response sound milder and more indirect than it would if you only used a single 不用 (bùyòng).
A: 我送你回去吧。 Let me take you home.
Wǒ sòng nǐ huíqù ba.
B: 不用，不用。 No, thanks.
Note that since 用 (yòng) is pronounced with a falling tone, the phrase 不用 (bùyòng) is actually pronounced “búyòng.”
8. 没有 (méiyǒu)
Unlike all of the other ways to say “no” in Chinese that we’ve discussed so far, 没有 (méiyǒu) does not contain the character 不 (bù). Don’t let this fact fool you, though. 没有 (méiyǒu) is actually one of the most commonly used ways to say “no” in Mandarin.
If we break 没有 (méiyǒu) into its component parts, we get 没 (méi), which means “not” and (yǒu), which is a verb meaning “to have.” Thus, the literal translation of 没有 (méiyǒu) is “not have.” Unsurprisingly, one of the ways 没有 (méiyǒu) is used is to tell someone that you don’t have something.
A: 你有笔记本电脑吗？ Do you have a laptop?
Nǐ yǒu bǐjìběn diànnǎo ma?
B: 没有。 No (I don’t).
In addition to being used to talk about what you don’t have, you can also use 没有 (méiyǒu) to talk about things that haven’t happened yet or that you haven’t done yet.
A: 你吃过臭豆腐吗？ Have you ever eaten stinky tofu?
Nǐ chīguò chòudòufu ma?
B: 没有。 No (I haven’t).
9. 不好意思 (bù hǎoyìsi) and 抱歉 (bàoqiàn)
If you want to refuse someone’s request in a polite way, consider using 不好意思 (bù hǎoyìsi) or 抱歉 (bàoqiàn). Both of these phrases mean “sorry.”
To use these phrases correctly, be sure to pair them with the reason why you can’t do whatever was requested.
A: 今天要去逛街吗？ Want to go window-shopping today?
Jīntiān yào qù guàngjiē ma?
B: 不好意思，我今天没时间。 No, sorry, I don’t have time today.
Bù hǎoyìsi, wǒ jīntiān méi shíjiān.
抱歉 (bàoqiàn) sounds somewhat more direct and formal than 不好意思 (bù hǎoyìsi) and is more likely to be used in more formal contexts like at work.
A: 我们明天可以约个时间讨论吗？ Can we set up a time to discuss this tomorrow?
Wǒmen míngtiān kěyǐ yuē gè shíjiān tǎolùn ma?
B: 抱歉，我明天不在办公室。 No, I’m sorry, I won’t be at the office tomorrow.
Bàoqiàn, wǒ míngtiān bùzài bàngōngshì.
10. “No” in other situations
Perhaps the most common way to say “no” in Chinese is to simply use 不 (bù) to negate the most important verb or adjective in the question that you’ve been asked.
Note that using this method usually requires you to have some existing basic Chinese vocabulary so that you can identify the key words in the question and respond appropriately.
Check out the examples below to see how this method works with some common Chinese verbs and adjectives that you’re likely to encounter:
A: 你会用筷子吗？ Can you use chopsticks?
Nǐ huì yòng kuàizi ma?
B: 不会。 No, I can’t.
A: 你要吃鸡爪吗？ Do you want to eat some chicken feet?
Nǐ yào chī jīzhuǎ ma?
B: 不要。 No, I don’t (want to).
A: 你喜欢这件衣服吗？ Do you like this piece of clothing?
Nǐ xǐhuān zhè jiàn yīfú ma?
B: 不喜欢。 No, I don’t (like it).
Just Say No!
Learning to say “no” is an important skill that every beginning Chinese student needs to master.
Since refusing someone’s suggestion or request can easily cause offense, it’s especially important that you master the nuanced differences between each of the different ways to say “no” in Chinese that we’ve presented here. Doing so will help you avoid unintentionally hurting anyone’s feelings.
One of the best ways to really get a feel for which words work best in which contexts is full immersion in a Chinese speaking environment.
However, if it isn’t possible for you to travel to China now, consider creating your own online language immersion environment by watching TV shows in Chinese. Finding native Chinese speakers to communicate with online is also a great way to hone your understanding of how language use varies according to context.
If you’ve had enough when it comes to learning how to refuse requests, why not check out our article on how to say “yes” in Chinese?
Essential Vocabulary for Saying No in Chinese
|不是||bùshì (pronounced "búshì")||no/incorrect|
|不是的||bùshìde (pronounced "búshìde")||no/incorrect|
|不||bù||no (abrupt, can be impolite)|
|不对||bùduì (pronounced "búduì")||no/incorrect|
|不行||bùxíng||no (can be impolite)|
|不可以||bù kěyǐ||no, [you] can't/may not|
|不可能||bù kěnéng||impossible/no way (can be impolite)|
|不用||bùyòng (pronounced "búyòng")||no, thanks (polite)|
|不好意思||bù hǎoyìsi + explanation||sorry (polite)|
|抱歉||bàoqiàn + explanation||sorry (polite)|
|不会||bùhuì (pronounced "búhuì")||No, [I] can't|
|不要||bù yào (pronounced "búyào")||No, [I] don't want to/don't want it|
|不喜欢||bù xǐhuān||No, [I] don't like it|