Being Polite in China

Word of the Week: jiè guò


Despite the stripped down and at times very direct nature of Chinese there are some ways to sound polite when speaking Mandarin. There is also a huge generation gap in China, which means the way young and old people speak (and the level of politeness they use) can vary quite a lot.

One common situation is when someone is in the way and you want them to move. In English you would normally say “excuse me”, but for the middle aged and above in China it is not unusual to say nothing and simply push past. However, it is uncommon for the younger generation to act this way, particularly those born mid-1980s or later, and there are several options for saying “excuse me”.

You can just say ràng kāi, which can be translated as “move out the way”, but this is a bit rude. If you’re in a hurry though and shout it as you’re running down the street it’s probably the most effective way to get a quick response.

In Mission Impossible 3 Tom Cruise shouts

In Mission Impossible 3 Tom Cruise shouts “rang kai” as he runs through the streets of Shanghai

In Chinese it is common to make a command or instruction more polite by adding yí xià after the verb. So saying ràng (give, let, move) and adding yí xià makes it much more polite, a bit like saying “move over a little bit…” you can also go extra polite by sandwiching the verb between qǐng (please) and yí xià (a little bit) so qǐng ràng yí xià is like saying “please mover over a little bit”.

You’ll often hear ràng yí xià from young people in China. Saying qǐng is a bit formal so it isn’t used as often, but if you want to ask a stranger a question such as directions then saying qǐng wèn yí xià (please can I ask a little bit) is perfectly acceptable.

However, by far the most polite option for asking some some to get out the way is jiè guò. jiè means to lend or borrow and guò means passage. To lend someone passage is therefore a super polite way of saying give them space to get past. You don’t need to add qǐng (though you can if you really want to sound extra polite) it’s fine to just say jiè guò yí xià (lend me passage a little bit).

Although I’ve translated it as “a little bit” yí xià doesn’t always refer to a period of time. It can mean a period of time, but it can also just be a polite way of giving an instruction without implying a short time.

If you’re being asked to wait its common to hear děng yí xià (wait a little bit)

If you’re an ESL teacher and you want a student to sit down you can say zuò yí xià (sit a little bit)