Mandarin Chinese has no true equivalents for the English words “yes” and “no”. This is somewhat confusing at first. When you grow up relying on the words “yes” and “no” it seems impossible to communicate without them. But that’s the fun of learning new languages – discovering totally different ways of putting thoughts into words.
So! How does it work? Mandarin is a concept-based language. Instead of each word having a single, precise definition, most words convey a concept which, when combined correctly with other words, give a very specific meaning. This means that when you are first learning Mandarin it seems impossible to be direct, clear and specific (things we westerners tend to value). Once you master Mandarin, however, even simple sentences can be layered with specific implications.
Instead of the simple words “yes” and “no”, there is a concept of agreement/disagreement. “Yes” and “no” are used to answer questions. In Mandarin, one agrees by repeating the verb, or disagrees by negating the verb. So, if I am asked “Do you like Chinese food?” I answer by saying “Like”. If I am asked “Do you eat onion?” I answer by saying “Not eat”.
Then things get complicated.
There are many different ways to negate a verb (say “no”) in Chinese. I was inspired to write this post after reading a post on Chinese Hacks about these 5 ways to say no, but I’ve counted 8 different negating words, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more I don’t know. And that doesn’t count words with specific meanings like “prohibit” or “forbid”. There are two main negating words, the two “no” words beginning students of Mandarin are taught. You can get your meaning across with just these two. You won’t sound like a scholar but thankfully most Chinese are quite gracious about foreigners’ limited grasp of the language.
So! The two main negating words are 不 bù, usually translated “no”, and 没 méi, usually translated “not”. 不 bù is a strong negator, the concept of “no,” implying “never”; occasionally 不 bù can be used on its own, without a verb. 没 méi has a slightly different implication, something like “not currently”, and cannot be used on its own – it must be connected to a verb. It is often paired with 有 yǒu, meaning “have”, especially if there isn’t a good verb to attach it to in the question asked.
The best example I know to explain the difference is the question “Are you married?” – a question I have answered literally hundreds of times in Mandarin! The correct answer, for me, is to say I am “méi married.” To say I am “bù married” would mean not only that I am not married, but carry the implication that I have no intention of ever getting married, even that I do not believe in marriage. In a culture where marriage is expected (and before my current age!) this is a very provocative thing to say. And really, it just sounds wrong – it’s the wrong choice of negation. When discussing this with a Chinese friend years ago, she told me that I could only say “bù married” if I could guarantee there was absolutely 0% chance I would ever marry, and that declaring such a thing sounds arrogant and childish – because who can be so certain of their future? For years I leaned on this explanation to help me choose the right negating word – until finally the implied meanings settled in my understanding deeply enough that I now use the correct one automatically most of the time.
There are many examples of ways to contrast these two words, but here’s a real life application from my own life. I have food intolerances, so I often have to pass on a dish because I can’t eat it. If during a meal my host offers me something I haven’t tried yet, asking if I want to eat some, my English answer would be simply “yes” or “no”, with further explanation required if I wanted to be more specific about my reason. In Mandarin I have two ways to answer. If I say “méi eat”, it means I have not had some yet – and imply that I would like some now. If I say “bù eat”, it means I never eat this food – which I sometimes say, as I can be that strong in my negation when talking about a food I have an allergy to. A lot is communicated through the choice of negation before any explanation is offered.
So, although at first glance it seems like a more complicated system (“why can’t they just say yes and no?!”) once you understand it, the different ways to negate allow for a wide range of subtle responses. Other negating words allow one to sound more formal, more official, or more demanding. For example, “no smoking” signs usually say “smoking prohibited” – but there are multiple ways to phrase it.
The sign on the left says “no smoking” using the simple (but strong) 不 bù. The sign in the middle says “禁止 jìn zhǐ smoking” – a more formal word meaning smoking is prohibited (the most common phrase used). The sign on the right says “please 勿 wù spit” – also formal but a more polite request. (These signs would never use 没 méi – it wouldn’t make sense. The implied meaning would be “there hasn’t been any smoking”.) We make the same distinctions in English, with respective translations of no smoking, smoking prohibited, and please don’t spit. Mandarin may not use a simplistic yes/no system like English does, but that doesn’t make it any less effective or logical a language.