Most Chinese learners first come across zěnme in the question “怎么样?” [zěnme yàng]. “你好吗?” [nǐ hǎo ma] is the basic way to say “how are you?” – it literally means “you’re good, right?” It’s more of a polite greeting than an actual question about how a person is doing. English is like that, too – often when we say “how are you?” we don’t expect (nor are we asking for) a thoughtful response. 怎么 let’s you go deeper.
你怎么样” [nǐ zěnme yàng] also means “how are you?” but invites an actual answer. Replace the pronoun in front and 怎么样 can be used in a variety of situations with a variety of (related) meanings along the lines of “how is it?”. How’s your health, how’s your mother, how’s your mother’s health? How’s the weather? How’s the price, how’s the quality? 怎么样，怎么样，怎么样。
Replace the pronoun with a verb and you get a whole new set of 怎么样 questions. 吃得怎么样? [chī de zěnme yàng] literally means “how was the eating?” – the actual translation being more like “did you like it?” Using 怎么样 one can ask simple “how” questions with a deeper implied question about the person’s opinion. 弹得怎么样 – how did he play (did he play well)?
怎么 can also be used in giving a moderately negative opinion of something. “不好” [bù hǎo] means bad, or “no good”. 怎么 can be added to give some subtlety. So, “that movie 不怎么好,” means “that book isn’t very good” – less strong that saying it’s bù hǎo. Saying bù hǎo implies you don’t like anything about it (see my previous post about saying “no” in Chinese for more on that). Adding 怎么 implies that you don’t like certain aspects of something.
怎么 can also create a third way to ask “how are you?” If a person is obviously troubled, the best way to ask “how are you” is 怎么了 [zěnme le]. If you see a person crying, this is the question you’d most likely ask. A more informal translation of 怎么了 might be “what’s wrong?” Again, replace the pronoun and one can use it to ask what’s wrong with, well, anything. 电脑怎么了 – what’s wrong with the computer? 她怎么了 – what’s wrong with her? It can be a genuine and caring inquiry or, as in English, it can be made rude – “what’s wrong with her?”
Now, if you want to ask how to do something, just put 怎么 before the verb. 怎么做 – how is it done? 怎么说 – how is it said? Put an emphasised pronoun in front and create a snarky remark, like “你怎么知道” [nǐ zěnme zhī dào] – which comes across like “how would you know?”
One of the ways I most commonly use 怎么 is to say 怎么办 [zěnme bàn]. 办 [bàn] is a verb that basically means to get something done. 怎么办 means something like “what are we going to do about it/how do we fix this” or “what do I do now” depending on the context. This can be a VERY helpful phrase in China, where when you go looking for help with something, the service person or repair person will tell you what’s wrong – but not what to do about it. Asking 怎么办 prompts them to give you the information you need to move forward – rather than stating what you (often) already know.
So, that’s a brief look at a great word. I love how something so simple on the surface can contain great subtleties. It’s probably my favourite thing about Mandarin. I love uncovering all the complicated layers, learning to communicate implied messages simply and fluently – like a Chinese – without having to spell everything out – like a westerner.