Greetings in Chinese: Why Your Teachers Are Wrong

Hello In Chinese

Saying Hello! It Ain’t What You Think, Y’all

“你好 nǐhǎo!” said no one ever. Bit of an exaggeration, but you’ll hear people start conversations with ‘你吃饭了吗? nǐ chīfàn le ma? Have you eaten?’ much more frequently as a greeting in Chinese. Remember, you don’t have to go too far back into China’s history for that question to be more than just a customary greeting, but a legitimate question. Food was scarce, and if you cared about someone, dispensing with “hello” and getting right to “have you eaten?” makes sense.

From Starving to Busy, a ‘Greeting’ Evolution

Nowadays (如今 rújīn – ‘nowadays’), starvation is nearly eradicated in China, they’ve gone through an economic miracle, and the rat race is in full swing. People are almost always ‘busy’ (忙 máng), thus bringing rise to:

你最近忙吗?nǐ zuìjìn máng ma? – ‘You been busy lately?’

The structure of this sentence is simple: You (你) + Recently (最近) + Busy (忙) + Yes or No (吗)?

It’s still much like saying “hello,” but it also opens the door to catch up with your conversation partner. Some might argue that this greeting betrays a culture that puts too much emphasis on career, but it sure beats fears of starvation!

No One Says 你好吗 níhǎo ma? – ‘How Are You?’

The only times we’ve heard people say 你好吗 to us is when they think that, because we’re foreigners, we’ll not understand the more complicated:

你最近怎么样?zěnmeyàng – ‘how about’ – ‘How you been lately?’

It’s a sign of how entrenched traditional learning methods are that Chinese teachers will almost invariably teach 你好吗 in lesson one. They know no one says it, but it’s in the textbook, and textbooks are always right, right? RIGHT?! 

While it’s a bit more common to hear people say “你最近忙吗?” than it is to hear “你最近怎么样?,” the latter is a bit more open-ended a question. 怎么样 means “how about [whatever comes before it].” In this case, it’s “you recently” that comes before 怎么样, so it allows for an answer that isn’t necessarily focused on how ‘busy 忙’ they’ve been lately. 

Some other common greetings in Chinese to try out

Want to sound even more natural? Try these variations on for size:

最近干嘛呢?Zuìjìn gànmá ne? “What you up to lately?”

最近忙什么呢?Zuìjìn máng shénme ne? “What you busy with lately?”

一切都好吗?Yīqiè dōu hǎo ma? “Everything good?”

你怎么样?Nǐ zěnmeyàng? “How are you?

你还好吗? Nǐ hái hǎo ma? “You alright?” 

身体怎么样?工作怎么样?都好吗? shēntǐzěnmeyàng? Gōngzuòzěnmeyàng? Dōu hǎo ma? “How’s your health? How’s your work? All good?”

Run From Textbooks, Run Towards Method

Hello In Chinese Person running

It’s only through boring textbooks and entrenched educational pedagogy that something as simple as GREETING PEOPLE could be messed up. Alas, this is the traditional learning whose tentacles permeate nearly all Mandarin Chinese curriculums. 

Fortunately, The Mandarin Blueprint Method keeps you focused on what you can understand. It’s mission-critical to have as much comprehensible input as possible, so you must build bottom-up from the beginning.