Saying “excuse me” in China

Word  of the Week: qing wen

请问

The phrase qǐng wèn 请问 is very common in Chinese. In fact if you’re self-studying then you’ve probably already learnt it. Most textbooks introduce the phrase in the first or second lesson, however, you need to be sure you get the tones right, because if you accidently say qǐng wěn or qǐng wén then it would mean something quite different.

qǐng wèn is a very polite way to ask a question. If you’re wanting to stop someone on the street in Beijing and ask them directions it’s best to first say “qǐng wèn”, which would be roughly equivalent to “excuse me” in English. However, you can only use qǐng wèn when asking a question. In English you can say “excuse me” if you want someone to move out the way and let you off the bus, but in Chinese you cannot say qǐng wèn.

saying "qing wen" will be of no use when getting off a crowded bus in China

saying “qing wen” will be of no use when getting off a crowded bus in China

qǐng请 means “please” and wèn问 means “ask”,  and in Chinese “please ask” is short for “please may I ask you (a question)”. Unfortunately the word wěn means kiss, so if you get your tones wrong and say qǐng wěn then you will probably make a request along the lines of “please may I kiss you”, which is not what you’re going to want to say to a stranger in the street when you’re trying to ask for directions.

Similarly, wén  means “smell”, so if you approach that same stranger in the street and ask qǐng wén  you’re going to be making the far more bizarre request of asking if you can smell them.

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