It’s a simple question right? How do you say “yes” or “no” in Mandarin Chinese?
Unfortunately sometimes simple questions have complex answers, and in this case something as simple as “yes” and “no” has a relatively intricate answer — that’s what makes it so interesting!
In this article I attempt to explain that simply and intuitively.
Let’s start with “yes” and “no” in English for context
We’re fortunate in English to have two words that are quite absolute:
1) “Yes” is an unconditionally affirmative answer
2) “No” is an unconditionally negative answer
When I say “unconditionally” I am referring to its grammatical usage in English. Regardless of context, when you say “yes”, it is affirmative, and “no” is negative. I highlight this point because this is the major difference between English and Chinese in this aspect.
So… How about in Chinese?
1) In Chinese there is no single word that exactly matches the meaning of “yes” or “no”
2) In Chinese, words that we can translate to yes / no depend on the context / grammar of the question.
3) The major issue with common translations is they don’t fully match the meaning of yes / no in all contexts. (the translations are too generous)
Common “yes” / “no” translations and their issues
Frequently translated to 是 (Shì) in English- Chinese dictionaries. The problem is that although in some contexts 是 (Shì) can indeed be used as an affirmative answer, in many it cannot, further the real meaning of 是 (Shì) is “to be” / “it is” (at a fundamental level 是 (Shì) is actually a basic verb which means “is” / “am” / “are”)
I.E 是 (Shì) does not absolutely mean “yes”, similar with 是的 (Shì de)
Frequently translated to 不 (Bù), however 不 (Bù) actually means “not”, it does not mean “no”, but it can sometimes be used as an interjection to mean “no” (in some contexts) and thus it is translated in this manner. Similarly 不是(Bú Shì) as a common translation is incorrect, as it really means “is not”
I.E 不 (Bù) and 不是(Bú Shì) do not absolutely mean “no” in all contexts.
UM, so now what? How does one really say “yes” and “no” in Chinese?
The words for yes and no vary as per the context and grammar of the yes / no question. I think the best way to teach this principle would be though several well-explained examples:
1) 你会说中文吗? (Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma?) “Can you speak Chinese?”
In this sentence– 会 (huì) is the verb, which means “can” (as a physical ability) the “can” in “can you speak Chinese?”
To answer this affirmatively, you simply repeat the verb once, by saying “会” (huì) what that literally means is “can” or it may be thought of as being short for “I can”, this is approximately translated to YES because it is an affirmative answer in this context. Similarly if you wanted to answer in the negative, you’d say “不会” (Bú huì) — which literally means “cannot” — because this is a negative answer it could reasonably be translated to mean NO.
2) 你是中国人吗? (Nǐ shì zhōngguó rén ma?) “Are you Chinese?”
In this sentence “是” (shì) is the verb, which means “to be” (it is actually the “Are” in “Are you Chinese?)
So to answer this affirmatively, one would simply say “是” (shì), literally “am” (again this could be thought of as short for “I AM”), and this can be reasonably translated to YES because it is affirmative. Similar to the previous example, the negative answer would be “不是” (Bú Shì) literally “am not” which could reasonably be translated to NO as it is negative.
3) 你有没有吃饭？ (Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu chīfàn?) “Have you eaten? (food)”
In this sentence the verb is 有 (yǒu), which means “to have” (done something)
By now I assume you are getting the hang of it, the affirmative / positive answer is simply given by saying “有” (yǒu) and the negative answer is 没有 (Méiyǒu)
4) 你在吃饭吗 (Nǐ zài chīfàn ma) “Are you eating?”
在 (zài) is the verb, which means “are” in when referring to doing things (other verbs)
So the positive answer (YES) is simply “在” (zài) literally “am” when referring to doing things. The negative answer is “不在” (Bú zài) (NO)
Oh, but there is more!
These are just a few basic examples, but if I were to continue this article could get very long. Here are a few words that mean “Yes” and “No” respectively in different contexts:
- 能(néng) / 不能 (Bù néng) — able, not able (yes / no)
- 好 (Hǎo) / 不好 (Bù hǎo) — good, not good (yes / no)
- 可以 (Kěyǐ) / 不可以 (Bù kěyǐ) — may, may not (yes / no)
- 行 (Xíng) / 不行 (bù xíng) — OK, not OK (yes / no)
- 对 (Duì) / 不对 (bú duì) — right, not right / correct, not correct (yes / no)
And there are many many more.
Isn’t that interesting?
For me it’s fascinating to think that a language doesn’t have an absolute word for “yes” or “no”, something so extremely fundamental and basic. It’s evidence that languages just need an answer to every question, even if those answers are different from the way other languages have it implemented.
P.S, if you want to follow my Youtube channel where I teach Chinese, please go here: https://www.youtube.com/user/VLearnChinese
8 Replies to ““Yes” and “No” in Mandarin Chinese”
Fascinating stuff! I know next to no Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Punti, Gon… not any of them), but I want to learn. Especially Mandarin, since it seems to be the “government” or official Chinese.
I really appreciate your good work of translating chinese to english. It is really open and understandable. Thank You.
Thanks for the explanation. I’m learning putonghua via a variety of different methods (books, apps, language programs, youtube) and this was on of my questions, as some used “shi” and “bu” as absolute yes and no, and others used the verb repeat like you discussed.
Ask a native speaker of Mandarin to listen for a few seconds to your various sources to confirm they speak “standard” accent. I made the mistake many years ago of buying the only Mandarin CD set in a bookstore i California (Pimsler was the publisher) and after I got to China, some people asked me if I was from Beijing. I had unknowingly learned to speak with the Beijing accent, which might be compared to the oddity of learning English with a Brooklyn accent.
I’d like to add, if there was a “standard” Mandarin accent it WOULD be the Beijing accent, just about every subdivision in China speaks their own language/dialect (Taiwanese, Fujianese, etc) with Mandarin being the original dialect/language of the Beijing area which was later made the official government language, so being told that you have a Beijing accent when speaking Mandarin is not at all a bad thing
The most common reply to a yes-no question that I heard in my 12 years living in China was “dui” (对). Typically a reply of “Shi ma” or “Shi ba” expects a reply itself, such as “Dui.” This reply is often repeated 3 or even 7 times very quickly, similar to “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” To make a statement into a question, add 吗 (ma) at the end. A similar idea is in Canada (add “eh?”) and France (add “n’est-ce pas?”).
Yes/no; the Chinese practice reminds me of Latin somewhat, where the verb is used to imply ‘yes’, and ‘ne’ as in ‘nescio’ ( I don’t know) makes the answer negative.
I find it interesting that it reflects the mentality of the culture, where the action/verb is what is relevant to communicate. Basically they are always asking: “what have you done?” while the western culture seems to ask “what do you think?”