January 17, 2020
One of the very first things that most students learn when studying Chinese is how to greet people, and invariably, students are taught they should say 你好 (nĭhǎo). As the number of Chinese speakers traveling to other countries for work, study or travel increases, this once obscure Chinese greeting has become more and more well known, to the point that many people around the world who have never studied Chinese in a formal setting are aware that “nĭhǎo” means “hello” or “hi”.
However, if you have ever traveled to China or observed Chinese speakers interacting with each other, you may have noticed that “nĭhǎo” is not as common of a greeting as your beginning Chinese textbook may have led you to believe. In fact, “nĭhǎo” is only one of many different greetings used by Chinese speakers, and in most cases, it is not even the most common!
Read on to discover some of the many different ways to say to “hi” in Chinese.
你好 | Nĭhǎo | Hello!
你好, or “nĭhǎo” in pīnyīn, is the greeting most commonly taught in beginning Chinese textbooks. Composed of the characters for you (你) and good (好), it literally means “you good.” As a beginning Chinese learner, you can’t really go wrong if you say this to someone, so don’t worry if it is the only greeting that you master at first.
That being said, however, if you spend time paying attention to how the Chinese people around you greet each other, you will find that you don’t hear them saying “你好” to each other very frequently. This is because 你好 is a somewhat formal greeting that can sound a bit stiff to native speakers. In fact, it is not normally used among friends and the most common situation in which native Chinese speakers are likely to use this word is when they first meet someone new. If two people who are more or less the same age and see each other as equals are introduced to each other, they might say, “你好，你好” while shaking each other’s hands. If they already know each other, however, they’d be more likely to use one of the more informal greetings discussed below.
你好 is also occasionally used as a written greeting from a superior to a subordinate, but keep in mind that it does sound somewhat formal compared to many of the other more common greetings introduced below.
您好 | Nínhǎo | Hello (polite)
Many beginning students of Chinese will have learned that the formal way to say hello to a superior, a much older person or a person one respects is 您好 (nínhǎo). If you are new to Chinese, you can remember the fact that 您好 is used to show respect by noticing that the only difference between 你 and 您 is that the 您 in 您好 has 心 (xīn), the Chinese character for heart, underneath it, which can be thought of as indicating that the 您好 greeting is more heartfelt or sincere.
The best time to use this greeting is when you are meeting a person who is substantially older than you, a teacher, a superior, an important person or someone to whom you otherwise want to show respect for the first time. It can also be used in written form as a greeting in more formal correspondence.
大家好 | Dàjiāhǎo | Hello everybody!
If you are looking for a way to greet a group of people, you have found it in “大家好” (dàjiāhǎo). 大家 means “everybody” or “everyone” in Chinese, so this greeting literally means “everyone good” but it can be more accurately translated as “hello everybody.” This is a great greeting with which to address a group.
If you continue reading, you will soon notice that many Chinese greetings can be created by adding 好 after other characters that represent either the person or people you want to address (as is the case with 大家好) or by adding 好 after characters that represent a time of day, as in 下午好 (xiàwǔhǎo, or “Good afternoon”), discussed below.
老师好 | Lǎoshīhǎo | Hello, teacher!
If you are studying Chinese, you can consider greeting your teacher by saying 老师好 (lǎoshīhǎo), which literally means “teacher good,” but which actually means “Hello, teacher.”
This greeting follows a similar pattern as 你好 (nĭhǎo) and 大家好 (dàjiāhǎo) above in that it is constructed by first writing the characters for the person you wish to address, in this case, your teacher, or 老师, and then adding 好. Unlike the situation in the United States, where teachers are addressed just like everyone else using a combination of their titles and last names, in China it is common to call teachers 老师 and to greet people who work as teachers with 老师好 even if they are not your teacher. Because of the continuing influence of the Confucian tradition on modern Chinese society, teachers are held in high esteem, and people sometimes even refer to people they respect who don’t actually work as teachers as 老师 to show how much they admire them!
下午好 | Xiàwǔhǎo | Good afternoon!
Another common pattern used to create greetings is to include the time of day when you are meeting the person you wish to greet, followed by 好. For example, if you are greeting someone in the afternoon, which is 下午 in Mandarin, then you can say 下午好 (xiàwǔhǎo).
晚上好 | Wǎnshànghǎo | Good evening!
In keeping with the pattern introduced above of how to say hi in Chinese, if you happen to meet someone at night, you can create a greeting by starting with the Chinese word for night, which is 晚上, and adding 好 at the end. Thus, your greeting becomes 晚上好 (wǎnshànghǎo).
Be careful: The literal translation for this phrase is “night good,” and English speakers may be tempted to reverse the order and assume that this is actually a way to say “good night.” However, this interpretation is incorrect. In English, “good night” is not a greeting, but rather a way to say goodbye to someone. In Chinese, by contrast, 晚上好 (wǎnshànghǎo) means “good evening” and is a greeting, not a way to bid someone good night. If you want to say good night to someone in Chinese, you should say 晚安 (wǎn’ān).
早 | Zǎo | Mornin’
If you wish to greet someone in the morning, you can follow the pattern introduced above and write the word for morning, which is 早上, followed by 好, which produces the common greeting 早上好 (zǎoshànghǎo). However, it is also possible to simply say 早 (zǎo), which also means good morning.
Note that while it is possible to simply say 早 in the morning, it is not acceptable to follow this pattern by simply saying “下” for 下午好 (xiàwǔhǎo) or “晚” for 晚上好 (wǎnshànghǎo). Only 早上好 can be shorted in this way.
While 早 and 早上好 are both more or less the same, 早 is slightly less formal. You can think of 早 (zǎo) as being similar to the more relaxed English greeting “mornin’,” while 早上好 is simply “good morning.”
早 can be used among friends or people you are familiar with, while 早上好 (zǎoshanghǎo) is better to use with older people, superiors, or people you’ve just met.
喂 | Wéi | Hello (used when answering the phone)
喂, or “wéi” in pīnyīn, is a greeting that is exclusively used for answering the phone in China. In English speaking countries, the greetings used over the phone are usually the same as those used in everyday life, and it is common for people to simply say “hello” when they pick up the phone. In China, however, it would sound a bit strange to answer the phone by simply saying 你好 (nĭhǎo) and most people will answer the phone by saying 喂 (wéi). Usually, they put extra emphasis on this character’s rising tone, pronouncing it like a single-word question.
If you want to be more polite or you suspect that there is an important caller on the other end of the line, you can also add 你好 (nĭhǎo), but it sounds more natural to say 喂，你好 (wéi, nĭhǎo) than to simply say 你好 by itself.
Note that many dictionaries will present two different entries for 喂, one with a rising tone (wéi) and one with a falling tone (wèi). When pronounced with a falling tone, 喂 can sometimes serve as an interjection used to get other people’s attention. However, it most commonly occurs as a way to answer the phone, and in that context, it should be pronounced with a rising tone.
9. Nĭ chī le ma?
你吃了吗? | Nĭ chī le ma? | Have you eaten?
Beginning students of Chinese are sometimes taught that in addition to 你好 (nĭhǎo), another common greeting in China is “你吃了吗?” (nĭ chī le ma?) which means “Have you eaten?” In everyday use, it is often shortened to “吃了吗?” (chī le ma?)
This greeting is less commonly used than you might think, however. Today, it is somewhat outdated, and it is more common to hear it from older people, especially those living in the countryside or in smaller towns. Young people are very unlikely to greet each other this way, and saying this to anyone except members of the older generations sounds a bit strange in modern China.
This greeting can be confusing, since it sounds like a question that actually requires an answer, much like the common American English greeting “How’s it going?” However, 你吃了吗 is not meant as an actual question that requires a detailed answer. Contrary to what many might think, it is also not meant as an invitation to a meal. It is simply a polite thing to say. Thus, even if you have not actually eaten anything, it’s usually easier to reply “吃了，你呢?” (chī le, nĭ ne?) Which means, “I’ve eaten, and you?” If you answer that you haven’t eaten anything yet, you will put the person who greeted you in an awkward situation because they will feel compelled to invite you to eat, an invitation which they will then expect you to politely turn down.
Keep in mind that this greeting is not normally used upon the first meeting, and will usually only be asked by people with whom you are already somewhat familiar.
嗨 | Hāi | Hi!
嗨, or “hāi” in pīnyīn, is an informal greeting used by young people in urban areas to greet friends and other people around their age. It is actually a loanword from English and is simply the Chinese way of saying and writing the English greeting “hi.” You will often hear young people greeting other young people this way in person, and it is common to see the written form of 嗨 as a greeting on popular social media platforms like WeChat.
嘿 | Hēi | Hey!
Like 嗨 above, 嘿, or “hēi” in pīnyīn, is a loanword taken from English. It is modeled off of the sound and meaning of the informal English greeting “hey.” Like 嗨 (hāi), 嘿 (hēi) is often used among young people in urban areas to informally greet friends or other people of a similar age. It can also be used in written form on social media.
哈罗 | Hāluó | Hello!
Like 嗨 (hāi) and 嘿 (hēi) above, 哈罗, or “hāluó” in pīnyīn, is a loanword from English. Note that the characters for 哈罗 are sometimes also written as 哈啰. It is modeled off of the English greeting “hello,” and sounds quite similar. It is also an informal, somewhat playful greeting used by young urbanites both in person and occasionally online to address their peers.
Watch this short video to learn how to pronounce several of these greetings and discover some others not mentioned above. If you are interested in learning to write the Chinese characters for these and other Chinese greetings, consider using Skritter to practice your character writing skills.
In addition to knowing what words to use when meeting people, it’s also important to gain familiarity with the rules of etiquette that should be followed when greeting people in China. Brush up on the above vocabulary and pay attention to the basic Chinese rules of politeness and you will be greeting people in China like a pro before you know it!
Chinese Vocabulary: How to Say Hi in Chinese
|喂||wéi||hello (when answering the phone)|
|你吃了吗||nĭ chī le ma||have you eaten? (used as greeting)|
|嗨||hāi||hi (loanword from English)|
|嘿||hēi||hey (loanword from English)|
|哈罗||hāluó||hello (loadword from English)|
|问好||wènhǎo||send one's regards to|
|打招呼||dǎ zhāohu||to greet / to notify|