December 2, 2012 | Mandarin

I Can’t Say No in Chinese

Literally. There is no simple translation of that word!

Since I began studying Chinese a month ago, I have marveled at the complexity involved in refusing or denying something. Simple negatives do not work the way they work in English or, as far as I can remember right now, any other language I’ve studied.

Street Fair Yesterday, Manhattan's Chinatown

Street Fair Yesterday, Manhattan’s Chinatown

There is no simple equivalent for the word “no.” Instead, you combine a not-like word (translated often, but not always, as pu) with the verb that was either expressed or implied in the preceding question. 

The not word so far does not appear to be self-sufficient and able to stand on its own.

Let’s pretend English is Chinese for a moment, and I’ll give you some examples of the shortest route to refusing things in Chinese, based on what I have encountered so far in Pimsleur and my Beginner’s Chinese book by Yong Ho. As usual, these include my own amateurish transliterations (I haven’t yet studied up on pinyin):

“Would you like to go bike riding?” she asked.

“Would not like to,” he said. (Pu shiang in Chinese.)

“Do you want to see a movie?” she asked.

“Not want,” he said. (Pu yao.)

“Are you just plain lazy?” she asked.

“Not am,” he said. (Pu shi.)

There is no shorter way to say no, as far as I know!

Also, Pimsleur has been teaching me that if I want to say, “No, I am not,” I should say, Pu shi, wo pu shi. Which looks to me like, “Am not, I am not.” Meaning there is a lot of repetition.

Pimsleur sometimes tells you you can stop doing certain primitive things when you get whatever idea they are trying to get you to get and have moved on to more advanced lessons.

In the meantime, I don’t know whether people actually say Pu shi, wo pu shi in real life, but examples in my Beginner’s Chinese book suggest not necessarily. In one instance, “No, I am not” is translated as a simple pu shi (though the author uses pinyin for the transliteration).

By the way, you can’t say yes in Chinese, either—not the way English speakers are used to. Strip all the pu’s from my above “no” answers and you will have the yeses: the simple verb form standing alone: shiang, yao, shi. (Not being able to say “no” made a bigger impression on me, though, because it involves more syllables and repetition.)

Yesterday I went to a street fair in Manhattan’s Chinatown. For a cold, clammy day there were quite a few people out!

Peking Duck House

Peking Duck House

Hungry People Waiting, Peking Duck House

Hungry People Waiting, Peking Duck House

Singing in Front of Chase Bank

Singing in Front of Chase Bank

Mottzar Kitchen

Mottzar Kitchen

Comments (7)

Charles • Posted on Mon, December 17, 2012 - 7:12 pm EST

I’m sure Pimsleur will tell you to stop say “bu shi, wo bu shi.”  It sounds as if they are trying to reinforce the idea that “bu shi” can be not only “wo bu shi” but “ni bu shi” and “ta bu shi” as well as “women, nimen and tamen bu shi.”

While there is no “yes” I find it rather economical that Chinese requires you to repeat the verb if the answer is affirmative.

I addressed “no” in a comment on an earlier post. I hope it will be helpful to you.

Diane • Posted on Tue, February 26, 2013 - 7:40 am EST

You’re starting Irish soon, aren’t you?  I don’t speak Irish, but I have learned/still learn Welsh. You’ll find the Celtic languages also have no simple words for yes & no.  Many people seem bothered about this, but it’s all perfectly logical, even if it does make you tongue-tied for a bit, while you develop your verb instincts.

Here’s a typical conversation in Welsh:

- Are you going to the party?
- I’m not (= No). Would they like me to go?
- They wouldn’t (= No).  Was Sion at the party last week? 
- He was (= Yes). 


I’m also looking forward to hearing what you think of the system of mutations (= changes to the beginning of various words in various grammatical situations) that characterize the Celtic languages. I don’t know if there are other language groups with anything similar.

Hwyl! (= see ya later/have fun!)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, February 26, 2013 - 8:12 am EST

Diane, I love the Welsh conversation—thank you for that. How funny that this similarity exists between Celtic languages and Chinese. I am indeed going to try Irish soon, though I have decided to delay the start by a month (until April 1), because I wanted to add one more month to Chinese. Hard to leave that one behind!

Diane • Posted on Tue, February 26, 2013 - 1:16 pm EST

Well, if you ever get excited to try Welsh—fantastic language!—I can highly recommend the free Pimsleur-ish all-audio course at (first course of about 18 hours is free, second two courses of comparable length available at low subscription fee).  They’re great fun, and there’s an excellent web forum (where I’m a moderator (unpaid)).

In fact, that’s a question: I’ve just started doing their fledgling Spanish course, but there’s not yet a discussion forum for it. I’ve been disappointed in looking online for audio-based Spanish courses that there doesn’t seem to be one with a rich forum. Rocket languages has a forum, but it looks pretty thin. Any thoughts?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, February 26, 2013 - 3:00 pm EST

Thank you for the Welsh tip!

Regarding forums: those I know nothing about. It is only in working on this language-resources directory I am hoping to launch here in March that I even became aware of the existence of some of the forums out there. Have you considered posting the question on or or some place like that? Sorry I can’t be more helpful in that regard!

Mel • Posted on Wed, August 14, 2013 - 11:41 am EST

Are you learning a dialect other than Taiwanese Standard Mandarin, or is it just that you’re using Wade-Giles instead of Pinyin?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, August 14, 2013 - 12:39 pm EST

Hi, Mel. I wasn’t using Wade-Giles; I was just using whatever came into my head as matching the sounds I was hearing. In other words, I was winging it! I buckled down in January, learned pinyin, and relied on that from then on. Sorry if my transliterations are confusing!

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