Learning how to say no is a fundamental part of any language. Usually, only two or three letters are easy to memorize and pronounce.
But saying no in Chinese is different. Culturally, the concept of “face” plays a massive role in how and why Chinese people avoid direct refusals.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
When learning to speak Chinese, one of the first words you learn is Bu (), which means no in Chinese. However, if you want to sound authentic in China, it’s essential to understand that there are many more ways to say no than just Bu. This blog post explores 16 phrases that can be used to refuse requests in Chinese.
Unlike other cultures that value direct communication, Chinese people prefer to avoid giving straight yes or no answers. This is because doing so can cause them to lose face. Instead, they may try to deliver bad news more indirectly. For example, they might say something like “I’m not sure if I can” or “I don’t think it would be possible.”
In addition to being polite, these refusals are easier to understand. For this reason, they are often used in everyday conversations in Chinese. Moreover, they are a crucial tool for navigating relationships in China.
To master these different ways of saying no in Chinese, it’s best to practice them with a native speaker. This is possible through video-based language immersion apps like FluentU. These apps take authentic videos — like music videos, movie trailers, and news clips — and provide interactive subtitles to help you learn the target language. You can even try out these apps for free!
Don’t Take No for an Answer
If you’re a foreigner learning Chinese, your tutor or teacher may not teach you how to say no. Instead, they will probably teach you various ways to express yes or no, depending on the situation and question. Why is this?
Chinese culture is very indirect, and using the word “no” outright can be rude in certain situations. It is essential to convey your disapproval and refusals appropriately, especially when speaking with strangers or people who are higher up in the social hierarchy than you are.
When refusing something, a common phrase is Bu Xing, which means “not now.” This is usually followed by a brief explanation or excuse of why you can’t do something. This is a more polite way of declining an offer than simply saying no without a reason.
Another way to say no is Mei You (mei you), used when you want to be a little more direct but still want to avoid sounding rude. This is also an excellent way to decline an invitation when you don’t think you can make it, leaving the door open for another time.
Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh
Many language learners struggle with saying no in Chinese because there are many ways to say it. It can be helpful to remember that the word no is one of the first words that a beginner learns, but it is essential to understand how to use other structures in the language to convey your message more effectively.
For example, if someone asks you a question that can be answered with a yes or a no, you should respond with a different structure than they used. This can be interpreted as being rude, especially since the Chinese highly value direct communication. Instead, try responding with a negative structure of the verb they used to ask their question. For instance, if they asked if you liked bananas, you would reply with a no by saying Bu Xing Ba.
Similarly, if someone asks you to help them with something, you can refuse their request by saying, Bu Yong Liao. This is a casual way of saying no, but it still conveys that you are declining their offer.
In addition, you can also use the phrase Bu Ke Yi to express a no. This combines the positive phrase Ke Yi, which means “can” or “may,” and the negative phrase Bu. This is a great way to make your no sound more respectful and thoughtful.
Don’t Be Afraid to Avoid Eye Contact
Saying no in any language can be difficult, but it can be especially tricky in China. Because Chinese speakers want to avoid embarrassment and loss of face, they may evade directly agreeing with your opposing response, couch their reply with vague terms like “perhaps,” or change the subject altogether.
In addition, they often use a wide range of non-verbal communication to convey their meaning and intention, such as body language, facial expressions and gestures, silence, or avoiding eye contact in crowded situations to ensure privacy. As a result, it’s essential to understand the many different ways of saying no in Chinese.
If you’re learning Chinese, it’s a good idea to know how to say no to sound more authentic. It might be tempting to search for “no” in your Chinese dictionary and learn that word, but if you want to be understood by native speakers, it’s best to learn the other ways of saying no.
The more you practice these expressions, the easier they will become for you to use in everyday life. To better understand how they are used, try listening to Chinese TV shows or check out FluentU’s video-based Chinese immersion platform, where you can watch authentic videos and practice using these phrases with native speakers.