First Trip to China: Master Mandarin Chinese

Learning some key Mandarin phrases before your first trip to China can be a great help.If you are anything like me you are baffled by the Chinese language. How can anyone make heads or tails of those characters? Well, I have to say that I’ve been trying to make heads or tails of them for the past 6 years now and progress is VERY slow. Thank goodness for pinyin – the Romanization of Chinese characters!

However, if you are traveling to China it will behoove you to learn a few key phrases, some numbers and the like. After all, how can you find your way or bargain with a merchant if you can’t speak the language? So, following is a little history of how the language came to be along with a list of phrases/words.

If you are interested in learning more or having more phrases/words at your fingertips, I recommend the Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook. As they say, “With more than one billion speakers worldwide, Mandarin is the most widely spoken language on the planet. How can you miss the chance to communicate with one in seven people on Earth?”

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and is one of the official languages of Singapore and the United Nations. It is the most widely-spoken language in the world.

Learn some Mandarin before your first trip to China

The name “Mandarin” was first used by the Portuguese to refer to the magistrates of the Imperial Chinese Court and the language they spoke. Mandarin is the term used through much of the Western world, but the Chinese themselves refer to the language as Pǔ tōng huà, Guó yǔ or Huá yǔ. Pǔ tōng huà literally means “common language” and is the term used in Mainland China. Taiwan uses Guó yǔ (the national language) and Singapore and Malaysia refer to it as Huá yǔ (Chinese language).

As one of the Chinese languages, Mandarin uses Chinese characters for its writing system. Historically, Chinese characters date back more than two thousand years. The early forms of Chinese characters were pictographs. The writing system is very complex and is what makes learning Mandarin difficult (the tones don’t help either). There are thousands of characters and you must memorize at least 1500 in order to be considered ‘literate’ enough to read a newspaper.

In an attempt to improve literacy, the Chinese government began simplifying characters in the 1950’s. These simplified characters are used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, while Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters.

Students of Mandarin often use Romanization in place of Chinese characters.

Romanization uses the Western (Roman) alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken Mandarin. There are many systems of Romanization, but the most popular is Pinyin (

Pinyin provides comfort to anyone trying to learn Mandarin because it looks familiar. The individual sounds of Pinyin, however, are not always the same as English. For example, ‘c’ in Pinyin is pronounced like the ‘ts’ in ‘bits’. Ni(3) hao(3) means “hello” and is the sound of these two Chinese characters: 你好

Note that after the Pinyin there are numbers – they represent the tones. Mandarin is a tonal language and has 4 tones plus a neutral tone. The four Mandarin tones are used for clarifying the meaning of words (words may sound the same, but have different written characters like English homophones). The tones are indicated in Pinyin with either numbers or tone marks:

ma1 or mā (high level tone)
ma2 or má (rising tone)
ma3 or mǎ (falling rising tone)
ma4 or mà (falling tone)

That being said – for a short trip – don’t worry about using tones! You’ll only make matters worse and most native speakers will understand your use of common phrases.

Up for the challenge? Here are some key words and phrases.


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