Even though in Chinese cities the names of the streets are written in both Mandarin language and English and Google map covers pretty much everywhere, when you travel to China you might need to ask for directions. If your interlocutor doesn’t speak English, you might find useful some of the Chinese words and basic Mandarin phrases I will give you in this article to get by anywhere in China.
One of the most important topics and one of the first to be studied in every language course is the one that enables new learners to ask for directions (and understand the answer).
At the beginning of my Mandarin course in Shanghai, I was very excited to learn how to ask for directions, as this is one of the best reasons to start talking to people. The only problem, I couldn’t manage to understand their answer. This is why here I will write both questions and possible answers with the most common words used in this case. Mandarin pronunciation can be very tricky, especially due to the many ethnic groups living in Shanghai, each of them bearer of a particular accent and way of speaking, but if you know roughly what word they might be saying, you have ore chance to get where you want!
Asking for directions in Mandarin Chinese
The first thing you can say using Chinese words when approaching someone and to capture their attention is “Qing wen!” (请问!), which corresponds to the English “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”
There are many ways to ask for direction using Chinese words, whether you will need to know where the place you want to go to is, or how to get there.
As an example, you might want to go to Hengshan Road, very popular street downtown Shanghai with a wide selection of great foreign restaurants, and ask about the way: “Qing wen, qù Hengshan lu zenme zou?” (请问, 去衡山路怎么走?).
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Other places of interest in Shanghai where you might need to go (and related Chinese words and phrases to get there) are:
– People’s Square, or Ren Min Guang Chang, where you can visit Shanghai Museum: “Qing wen, qù Ren Min Guang Chang zenme zou?” (请问, 去人民广场怎么走?)
– Nanjing Road East, or Nanjing Dong Lu, the Mecca of shopping malls: “Qing wen, qù Nanjing Dong Lu zenme zou?” (请问, 去南京东路怎么走?)
– the French Concession, or Shanghai Fa Zujie, a former foreign concession in Shanghai from 1849 to 1946: “Qing wen, qù Shanghai Fa Zujie zenme zou?” (请问, 去上海法租界怎么走?)
– Xintiandi, trendy area with two pedestrian blocks that host many foreign brands of restaurants and cafés, maybe a little awkward since it has very little to do with traditional Chinese style, but by all means very popular among foreigners: “Qing wen, qù Xintiandi zenme zou?” (请问, 去新天地怎么走?)
– Yu Yuan garden, or Yu Yuan, in the Old City, reproducing the traditional Chinese gardening style, with abundance of stones and water: “Qing wen, qù Yu Yuan zenme zou?” (请问, 去豫园怎么走?)
– “Where is the closest metro station?”: “Zui jin de ditie zhan zai nali?” (最近的地铁站在哪里?)
On another note, if you are in a restaurant or café or museum and you need the toilet, you will ask for the “wèi sheng jian” (卫生间): Qing wen, wèi sheng jian zai nali? (请问,卫生间在哪里? or “zai nar” 在哪儿 if you are in Beijing or in the North in general).
The main answers locals can give you in Chinese language are:
– Go straight: “Yizhi zou” (一 直走)
– Turn left: “zuo guai” (左拐) or “da guai” (大拐) if you are in Shanghai. “Da” means “big”, and they use it because since they drive on the right side, the left turn is usually wider.
– Turn right: “you guai” (右拐) or “xiao guai” (小拐), small turn.
– Take a taxi: “Da che” (打车)
– In front: “Qian mian” (前面)
– Crossroad: “Lu kou” (路口)
An example using Chinese words and phrases: Go straight, in front of the crossroad turn left: “Yizhi zou, qianmian de lu kou zuo guai” (一 直走, 前面的路口左拐).
If you take a taxi, the driver will ask you where you want to go (Qu nali? 去哪里?) – and your reply will start with: I want to go… “Wo yao qu…” (我要去…) plus any destination. Once at the place, either the driver will ask you where to stop: “Ting zai nali?” (停在哪里?) and you might answer “here” “Zheli” (这里), or you will tell the driver to stop in the first place: “Ting yi ting” (停一停). Then, you ask for the price “Duo shao qian?” (多少钱?), and if you want the receipt: “Gei wo fapiao” (给我发票).
Of course, there are countless situations where you need to ask for directions and use Chinese words. It’s impossible to list them all but I tried to reproduce the ones where I used the most basic Chinese phrases. If you feel there are other important expressions I have overlooked, please leave them in a comment and I will either reply through the comment form or update the post.
Useful tools to master your Chinese
These are some of the tools I used when I was living in China and studying Chinese in Shanghai.
- Study Mandarin. Better arriving with a bit of grasp of Chinese to avoid awkward moments and also to make things much easier and locals more prone to help you. Mandarin Blueprint promises to teach you how to read and understand basic Mandarin in 2 months, how to read (graded) books and stories in under 6 months and to have complete conversations in under a year. Pretty ambitious but possible. They offer a 30-day trial so it’s worth trying. Check it out now!
- Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary. Very complete and useful once you learn to read and to look up in the dictionary itself!
- Easy Chinese Glossary. If you are traveling to China and need a bit of quick help to get by in Mandarin Chinese, you will find a small vocabulary very helpful and easy to carry around. This is a guide divided into tables that show Chinese characters, the pinyin (transliteration of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet) and the English translation.
- Mandarin Chinese Flash Cards. If you are on a business trip or are planning to stay in China a little longer, improve your Mandarin Chinese with these easy-to-use Flash Cards to learn the most frequently used Chinese characters quickly and easily.
20 thoughts on “Essential Chinese words and basic expressions to use when asking for directions”
C’est vachement interessant! J’en tiendrai compte la prochaine fois en Cine!
Oui, commence à étudier maintenant :P
Brava Angela, sto prendendo nota!!!
This is great!!! Far more helpful then all my Mandarin textbooks!!! Keep these posts coming!!! I’m gonna practice these this week. :)
Thanks! I have other topics scheduled, but if you have any idea that you don’t see here, let me know and I’ll write a post on that :)
very useful, indeed. Can’t wait to get to China but the language intimidates me to no end (and I”m chinese by ethnicity, you’d think I have the genes for it).
Of course Chinese is intimidating, is one of the hardest languages EVER! Don’t be put off though, when you manage to have a 5-minute conversation with locals after one year of full time course, it’s very rewarding! :P
Another great lesson. So true about understanding the responses when you ask a question. That’s hardest for me. Thanks for the Mandarin lessons – hope I get to use it someday.
Come to China Cathy, it’s very exciting :) And so you can tell me if my tips make sense :P
We’d love to go to China for a number of reasons, but also to sample all the food! I work with a number of Chinese immigrants to the US, and learning the various words or phrases for me is easier than seeing the English written from and trying to say it. If I can hear someone say it a few times for me, I can normally mimic it – remembering is a whole other issue.
It’s difficult to remember the words because they have a very particular pronunciation. And also because to a foreigner they sound all the same! There are four tones in Mandarin, if you get a tone wrong you might be saying a different word, and of course it’s very easy to forget which is the tone for the word you want to say…
I have to admit, I don’t even dare to pronounced those words now! I’m Chinese descent that can’t speak Chinese. I learned how to write simple stuff though. I have some Japanese background, it helps.
Ah! If you are Chinese descent I believe for you it will be easier, especially if your parents speak Mandarin, take advantage and practice with them!
Helpful expressions! As a vegan, I’d love to learn how to say “Do you serve food without meat, fish and diary?” or “vegan food”.
Any idea how to say this?
Hi Erica, have a look at the first part of this series, where I wrote about ordering food in restaurants. I also wrote tips for vegetarians, as in China is not very easy being one… Let me know if it’s not complete, here is the link: https://www.chasingtheunexpected.com/2011/05/visiting-china-must-know-expressions-in-mandarin-part-1-at-the-restaurant/