Yes and No
Many first-time visitors to China need some survival Mandarin to make their trip a little more smooth. Learning Yes and No in Chinese will usually be at the top of their list. Often they are told to use 对 (Duì) for “Yes” and 不 (Bù) for “No.”
Actually 对 means “correct” and 不 means “not.” There are plenty of scenarios where “correct” and “not” can answer a question in place of “yes” and “no.” However, there are also many scenarios where it sounds a bit awkward.
Q: “Do you want to climb the mountain with me this afternoon?”
Q: “Do you like spicy food?”
The other person could get your meaning, but it also might make them giggle.
So, how do you say “Yes” and “No” in Mandarin?
Surprisingly, there is no Chinese word that represents “yes” or “no.”
Firstly, responding with a meaning of “yes” or “no” is based on context. Above all, you’ll need to respond using the verb used by the asker.
Use the verb to say “yes.”
Use 不 + the verb to say “no.”
Q: 你喜欢苹果吗？(Nǐ xǐ huan píng guǒ ma? – Do you like apples?)
A: 喜欢。(Xǐ huan – Like)
Q: 你要这个吗？(Nǐ yào zhè ge ma？- Do you want this?)
A: 不要。(Bú yào – Not want)
So make sure to listen well! You need to remember the verb used by the person asking you the question.
[There is one exception to the “No = 不 + the verb” rule. If the verb is 有 (have)，then “No = 没 （not） + 有 (have).]
However, these examples have only covered the present tense.
Answering “yes” or “no” in the future tense is the same concept, but with the use of a future tense auxiliary verb.
In the following example, you can see how using the future tense auxiliary verb or the future tense auxiliary verb + the verb are both acceptable ways to respond.
Q: 你会去吗？(Nǐ huì qù ma? – You will go?)
A: 会 (huì – will) or 会去 (huì qù – will go) = YES
不会 (bú huì – not will) or 不会去 (bú huì qù – not will go) = NO
Any of these responses would be acceptable. To recap, to answer “yes” in the future tense, you can use:
- The future tense modifier
- The future tense modifier + the verb
To say no, you can use:
- “not” + the future tense modifier
- “not” + the future tense modifier + the verb
Is your brain hurting yet? Let’s move onto past tense!
Your Chinese may not be advanced enough to recognize a past-tense question yet. That’s okay. We won’t explain how to recognize the past tense in this article. But for reference, a question can be made past tense with characters like:
了– le – used after a verb to indicate it happened in the past (also has other uses we won’t explain here)
过 – guò – ever (also has other uses we won’t explain here)
You can learn more about the past tense in Chinese at DigMandarin.
If you’re a Mandarin beginner, you can just remember these two ways to answer a past-tense question:
Yes = the verb + 了 (le)
No = 没有 (méi yǒu)
All the ways to answer “yes” to a past-tense question, include:
- The verb + 了
- The verb + 过 （if they asked if you have “ever” done something）
All the ways to answer “no” to a past-tense question, include:
- 没有 + the verb
- 没 + the verb
- 没 + the verb + 了
- 没 + the verb + 过 （if they asked if you have “ever” done something）
Q: 你去了学校吗？(Nǐ qù le xué xiào ma? – You went to the school?)
A: 去了 (qù le – went) = YES
没有 (méi yǒu – didn’t) = NO
(For “No,” you can also use 没有去, 没去, 没去了. All of these have the same meaning)
Q: 你去过美国吗？(Nǐ qù guo měi guó ma? – Have you ever gone to the USA?)
A: 去过 (qù guò – have gone) = YES
B: 没有 (méi yǒu – haven’t) = NO
(For “No,” you can also use 没去过)
Why is it so complicated?
Seem complicated? It really isn’t. Just ask any Chinese learner who has advanced beyond this stage. It doesn’t take long to master it.
What makes Chinese seem complicated is when we try to take structures in our own language and apply them directly to Chinese, as we are doing here with “yes” and “no.”
For example, if someone asks you in Chinese, “Do you like bananas?” or “Have you eaten dumplings before?”, you may naturally think “no” and then rack your brain to think of the Chinese vocabulary word for “no.” This is an example of trying to take an English structure and apply it directly to Chinese.
Instead, you should think “respond negatively” and respond using a negative structure of the verb they used to ask you the question.
However, if you try to directly translate English word-for-word into Chinese, you’re going to sound a little funny.
This is why studying Chinese in China is almost a necessity for reaching an advanced level in Chinese. It’s important for you to be in an environment where you hear how the Chinese language is used. You’ll need to listen to Chinese friends conversing and hear how they talk and respond to each other’s questions. Many of the structures they use won’t translate well word-for-word into English, but in context, they’ll make absolute sense to you.