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What's the best way to greet someone in China?

Contemporary Chinese 15th April 2017

Everybody who has even half opened a Chinese textbook should be familiar with“你好吗?Nǐ hǎo ma ?", but Chinese people rarely say it in real life. So what should you say? Find out in this article.

“你好!Nǐ hǎo!” is not a traditional Chinese greeting. It is now used mostly by the more educated people in cities. It would be rather monotonous if you always said “你好!Nǐ hǎo!” when greeting people. 

In actuality, the Chinese have many different ways of greeting people. The general principle is to use expressions that show concern for the people one encounter, according to the time of day and the specific situation. Sometimes the expression may be a greeting, but sometimes it seems more like a statement of obvious fact.

For example, suppose it is lunchtime and you run into a friend at the entrance to the library. You can say, “吃了吗?Chī le ma ?” (Have you eaten?) If you are walking into the dining hall just as your friend, who just finished eating, is leaving, you could say: “吃完了?Chī wán le ?” (Finished eating?)

When you notice that your friend is just about to go out, you might say:”去哪儿?Qù nǎr ?”(Where are you going?)If your friend is a student, it should be obvious that he is going to class, so you might simply say, ”去上课呀?Qù shàng kè ya ?” (Going to class?). When you come across a friend who is just coming out of a classroom, you might say: ”下课了?Xià kè le ?” (Finished your class?).

It may seem that questions like, “吃完了?Chī wán le ?Finished eating?” or “下课了? Xià kè le ?Finished your class?” are rather unnecessary,but they are actually greeting.

Answers to these questions can be quite varied, too.

For example:

——Where are you going?(去哪儿?Qù nǎr ?)

——Just going out. (出去一下。Chū qù yī xià 。)

Or just give a smile,a nod, or a vague gesture. You may, of course, give a detailed answer as to where you are going. It all depends on your relationship with the other person, the significance of where you are going, or whether you have time to stop or chat.

Another way of greeting someone is simply to directly address the person by name or title; this is also considered a form of greeting.

For example:

——Hey, Xiao Zhang! (嘿,小张!Hèi, xiǎo Zhāng!Hei, xiao Zhang!)

——Hi, Professor Wang! (哎,王教授! Ai, Wáng jiào shòu!Ai, Wang jiao shou!)

What are others saying?

Jan Johnson 23 April 2017

Is it ok to simply say 嘿 or 哎 ?
I think that would be a very natural greeting for westerners.

Chloe Yu 23 April 2017

Hi, Jan, you're right! It's also ok. Or give a smilea nod, or a vague gesture.

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