asking people what are you doing in chinese

How to Say “What Are You Doing?” in Chinese

In English, whether you’re asking your friend what’s up, making plans for another day, or expressing disbelief or anger, the question remains pretty much the same: What are you doing? It’s the speaker’s tone that changes.

Meanwhile, Chinese people use a bewildering array of different phrases to ask or answer the same question. So let’s learn a few different ways to say “What are you doing?” in Chinese and when (or when not) to use them.

6 ways to say “What are you doing?” in Chinese

Mandarin Chinese, alongside Japanese, Korean, and Arabic, is generally regarded as one of the most challenging foreign languages for native English speakers. However, the good news is that it’s one of the most simple ones in terms of grammar.

Provided you know your pronouns, you only need to learn a few auxiliary verbs and phrases, then swap out the pronoun to say, “What is she doing?” “What are they doing?” or even “What am I doing?” in Chinese.

Simple, right?

​1. 你正在做什么 – Nǐ zhèngzài zuò shénme

If you learn Chinese at a school or university, you’ll probably learn 你正在做什么 nǐ zhèngzài zuò shénme first. It is the most formal way to say “What are you doing?” in Chinese.

正在 zhèngzài is an auxiliary verb used to describe an action that is ongoing or in progress. You used 正在 zhèngzài to form the equivalent of the English present continuous tense in Chinese:

你正在做什么?

Nǐ zhèngzài zuò shénme?

What are you doing?

我正在听音乐。

Wǒ zhèngzài tīng yīnyuè.

I’m listening to music.

2. 你在做什么Nǐ zài zuò shénme

Many people in China will drop 正 zhèng when asking questions in the present continuous form. A common way to say “What are you doing?” in daily life is 你在做什么 nǐ zài zuò shénme.

The words 正在 zhèngzài and 在 zài are more or less interchangeable here, though 正在 places more emphasis on the fact that the action is in progress at this moment. It’s like asking, “What are you doing now?”.

在 zài carries two meanings, determining both location and time. In contrast, 正在 zhèngzài refers only to when an action is happening. You can use 在 zài when answering questions both about said location and what you are doing, as in the following examples:

你在哪里? 我们都在等你啊。

Nǐ zài nǎlǐ? Wǒmen dōu zài děng nǐ a.

Where are you? We are all waiting for you.

我还在办公室。 我在和公司总裁开会。

Wǒ hái zài bàngōngshì. Wǒ zài hé gōngsī zǒngcái kāihuì.

I’m still at the office. I’m meeting with the company president.

meeting with a boss

​3. 你在干什么 – Nǐ zài gàn shénme

​The verb gàn also means “to do” or “to work,” but it is more general than 做 zuò and carries many other meanings. Although seldom used in textbooks, in daily conversations, you will hear phrases like 你在干什么 nǐ zài gàn shénme at least as often as 你在做什么 nǐ zài zuò shénme.

小婉,你在干什么呢?

​Xiǎo Wǎn, nǐ zài gàn shénme ne?

Xiao Wan, what are you doing?

我在做作业。

Wǒ zài zuò zuòyè.

I’m doing homework.

The letter 干 gàn has a harsher tone than 做 zuò. Depending on the situation, 你在干什么 nǐ zài gàn shénme can sound more like questioning or interrogating rather than merely asking, as in the following sentence:

莉莉,你在干什么? 我们要迟到了。

Lìlì, nǐ zài gàn shénme? Wǒmen yào chídàole.

Lily, what are you doing? We’re going to be late.

​4. 你在干嘛呢 – Nǐ zài gànmá ne

You can use the colloquial expression 你在干嘛呢 nǐ zài gànmá ne to ask “What are you doing?” when talking to a close friend.

While it’s not wrong to say simply 你在干嘛 nǐ zài gànmá, it can sound a little rude. This is because 干嘛 gànmá has two meanings in Chinese. Using 干嘛 gànmá by itself is more akin to saying “Why on earth?” or “What do you think you are doing?” in English, as in the following examples:

你干嘛瞪着我

Nǐ gànmá dèngzhe wǒ?

Why are you staring at me?

她干嘛穿着毛衣? 外面超过三十度啊。

Tā gànmá chuānzhe máoyī? Wàimiàn chāoguò sānshí dù a.

Why is she wearing a sweater? It’s over thirty degrees outside!

Adding the 呢 particle at the end helps to soften the tone:

你在干嘛呢?

Nǐ zài gànmá ne?

What are you doing?

我在优酷上看视频。

Wǒ zài yōukù shàng kàn shìpín.

I’m watching a video on Youku.

little girl playing with phone

5. 干嘛呢你Gànmá ne nǐ

In casual conversation, it’s acceptable to drop the 在 zài and say simply 你干嘛呢 nǐ gànmá ne or 干嘛呢你 gànmá ne nǐ, to ask, “What are you doing?” Both are correct, but 干嘛呢你 gànmá ne nǐ sounds more natural.

This expression often carries a negative tone and may be used to express anger, as in the following example:

干嘛呢你? 又看我的手机!

Kàn wǒ shǒujī gànmá ne nǐ?

What are you doing looking at my phone? (or: “How dare you look at my phone!”)

Even when 干嘛 gànmá is used negatively, it’s best to follow the phrase with 呢 ne to soften the tone. Remember to use 干嘛 gànmá only in casual situations, or be prepared for an angry look–or worse.

​6. 你干啥呢 – Nǐ gàn shá ne

The Chinese character 啥 shá is used as a more colloquial form of 什么 shénme, meaning “what?”

你干啥呢 nǐ gàn shá ne is a casual way to ask “What are you doing?” in Chinese. Though you’re unlikely to find the phrase in a textbook, it’s used every day by people in China, as in the following example:

你们干啥呢?

Nǐmen gàn shá ne?

What are you guys doing?

我们在看电视。

Wǒmen zài kàn diànshì.

We’re watching TV.

two women watching a movie

How to say “Do you have any plans?” in Chinese

There are no grammatical markers of tense in Chinese; instead, Chinese relies on markers of aspect to communicate information about when an action takes place.

Since there is no conjugation of verbs in the Chinese language, you only need to add a word referring to the time to ask and answer questions like “What are you doing tomorrow?”, “Are you going to the party next week?” and “What are you doing today?”.

​1. 你有什么安排 – Nǐ yǒu shénme ānpái

The Chinese word 安排 ānpái means “schedule,” “plan,” or “arrangement.” The phrase 你有什么安排 nǐ yǒu shénme ānpái means “What’s your schedule?” or “What plans do you have?” For example:

明天你有什么安排?

Míngtiān nǐ yǒu shénme ānpái?

What are you doing tomorrow?

To answer, you can simply respond by saying what you are going to do (without using 在 zài or 正在 zhèngzài):

我明天去医院看望我奶奶。

Wǒ míngtiān qù yīyuàn kànwàng wǒ nǎinai.

I’m going to visit my grandma in the hospital tomorrow.

You can follow the question with the particle 吗 ma to turn the sentence into a yes/no question, meaning “Do you have any plans?”

Remember that 吗 ma is pronounced with a neutral tone, and both the character and the pinyin are different from 嘛 má.

你周三有什么安排吗?

Nǐ zhōusān yǒu shénme ānpái ma?

Do you have any plans for Wednesday?

嗯,我周三上班。

Èn, wǒ zhōusān shàngbān.

Yeah, I’m working on Wednesday.

In Chinese culture, it’s rude to refuse someone’s invitation directly. When you want to give a negative answer when a person invites you out, it’s best to give them a reason why you can’t join them and ask to postpone the invitation for another day.

If you worry you might upset your friend, practice some ways to ask to take a rain check and say “not this time” in Chinese.

two men chatting

​2. 你有什么打算 – Nǐ yǒu shénme dǎsuan

In Mandarin Chinese, you can use 打算 dǎsuan and 安排 ānpái almost interchangeably. However, 打算 dǎsuan is a little broader in usage, referring to “plans” in general rather than things already scheduled or arranged.

For example:

你今天晚上有什么打算?

Nǐ jīntiān wǎnshàng yǒu shénme dǎsuan?

What are your plans for tonight?

我想我会呆在家里看电影。

Wǒ xiǎng wǒ huì dāi zài jiālǐ kàn diànyǐng.

I guess I’ll stay at home and watch a movie.

Again, you can use 吗 ma to make the sentence a yes/no question:

你明年有什么打算吗?

Nǐ míngnián yǒu shénme dǎsuan ma?

Do you have plans for next year?

我要去旅行。

Shì a, wǒ yào qù lǚxíng.

Yes, I’m going to go traveling.

Although the pinyin for the Chinese character 算 is usually read as suàn with a fourth tone, it is generally pronounced with a neutral tone in the verb 打算 dǎsuan.

​3. 你打算做什么 – Nǐ dǎsuan zuò shénme

Since the word dǎsuan is both a noun and a verb, you can also say 你打算做什么nǐ dǎsuan zuò shénme to ask, “What do you plan to do?” or “What are you doing?” in Chinese.

For example,

下午你打算做什么?

Xiàwǔ nǐ dǎsuan zuò shénme?

What are you doing this afternoon?

我有橄榄球训练。

Wǒ yǒu gǎnlǎnqiú xùnliàn.

I have football practice.

Now that you’ve learned to say “What are you doing?” in Chinese, you can practice asking people questions about their plans. Whether texting your colleague or casually chatting with your Chinese friends, these phrases will help you show interest in their activities and strike a meaningful conversation.