When Does “No” Mean “Yes”?

Word of the Week: bù yào

Learning Mandarin is sometimes made more difficult when the words people say and what they actually mean are the exact opposite. If you give a gift to a Chinese person, particularly one you’re not too familiar with, don’t be surprised to hear the words bù yào, 不要.

bù yào is literally “not want” but can also mean “not do” depending on the context. When receiving a gift it is often considered polite to pretend you don’t want it. Obviously this doesn’t apply to things like birthday presents, but if you have a Chinese guest and offer to make them a cup of tea, or if you offer to do something for a Chinese friend or colleague, you’ll often hear the words bù yào.

It’s not uncommon to hear “not want” emphatically repeated over and over again: bù yào bù yào bù yào… In this situation you need to read between the lines. Does your guest genuinely not want a cup of tea or are they just following Chinese rules of politeness?

Generally speaking, in China you don’t ask someone if they would like something. You don’t ask your guest if they would like a cup of tea, you just make a cup of tea and give it to them. If you ask yào bù yào hē chá? (would you like a cup of tea?) this would put your guest on the spot and make them feel uncomfortable, so they politely refuse with bù yào – even if they actually want a cup of tea.

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This phenomenon can be seen with Chinese men pulling out cigarettes and forcing them into the hands of other Chinese men without asking. Similarly, when dining with Chinese friends it is considered polite to put food into your friends’ bowls without even asking if they want it. This is particularly true for men dining with women. For a man to put food into his own bowl before putting food into the bowl of the woman next to him would be considered ungentlemanly. The exception is when the lady in question has a boyfriend or husband, in which case serving food to them might be seen as too intimate.

One last use of the word bù yào simply doesn’t translate into English. After an adjective you can add de bù yào bù yào de which has the effect of making the adjective stronger.

shuài de bù yào bù yào de literally means “handsome to the extent of not want not want” but this just means “really handsome”. hǎo chī de bù yào bù yào de means “tastes really good” and pàng de bù yào bù yào de means “(he is) really fat”. It’s a particularly informal and over the top way of speaking. It also sounds mildly amusing, so it is more likely to be used in joking situations.

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