Although obviously not required to travel in Asia, knowing how to say hello in Chinese the correct way allows you to properly greet more than 1.4 billion Mandarin Chinese speakers. That number does not even include Cantonese speakers who will also understand!
Locals who work with tourists had to learn a very different and difficult language in order to meet your needs: English. Greeting local people in their own language almost always gets a smile and a thumbs up for effort -- even if you mispronounce the tones.
Massive China has so many dialects that people from one region to the next have a hard time understanding each other. Thankfully, these common Chinese greetings will work nearly everywhere that you travel.
A Little About Mandarin Chinese
Although there are several variations, Mandarin is the closest thing to a common, unified dialect in China. You will encounter Mandarin while traveling in Beijing, and because it is the "speech of officials," knowing how to say hello in Mandarin is useful everywhere.
Mandarin is often referred to as "simplified Chinese" because it contains only four tones. Words tend to be shorter than ours, so one word can have several different meanings depending on the tone that you use.
- The best way to learn Mandarin Chinese.
How to Say Hello in Chinese
"Ni hao" (pronounced "nee haow") is the basic, default greeting in Chinese. Both words are pronounced with a falling-then-rising tone. The literal translation is "you good," or in other words, "how are you?"
You can enhance your greeting -- more so when speaking to friends rather than strangers -- by adding "ma" to the end of the hello to form "nee haow ma."
- Hear the correct pronunciation for ni hao.
Saying Hello to Elders and Superiors
Following the concept of saving face in Asia, elders and those of higher social status should always be shown additional respect. The proper way to say hello in Chinese to superiors is by using "neen haow" -- a more polite variation of the standard greeting.
Simple Responses in Chinese
Taking the greeting one step further is sure to get a smile during your interaction.
- Hao: good
- Hen Hao: very good
- Bu Hao: not good (bad)
- Xie Xie: thank you (pronounced similar to "zh-yeh zh-yeh") is optional and can be added to the end.
How to Say Hello in Cantonese
Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong and southern parts of China, has a slightly modified greeting. "Neih hou" (pronounced "nay hoe") replaces ni hao; both words have a rising tone.
A common response in Cantonese is "gei hou" which means "fine."
- See some basic Cantonese phrases.
Should I Bow When Saying Hello in Chinese?
The short answer is: no. Unlike in Japan where bowing is common, people tend to only bow in China during martial arts, as an apology, or to show deep respect at funerals. Many Chinese opt to shake hands, but don't expect the usual firm, Western handshake.