Unsolicited advice: Navigating China with minimal Mandarin skills

Eight tricks (because eight is a lucky number, right?) to navigate China with minimal Mandarin skills.

1. Be prepared

When you buy a travel guide, make sure that it includes the Chinese characters for all important places. Don’t count on the Chinese to know what the “Temple of Heaven” is, they might not know that this is the English name for one of their beautiful temples. Be ready to hold your guide book with the Chinese character for it under their nose until they point you the right way. Also make sure that your guide book contains a proper transcription (pinyin) for every important place. A proper transcription is one that indicates the tone with which to pronounce each syllable. For example, when we went horse riding in Sichuan, we did that in Lángmùsì, which is very roughly pronounced like “Lang?mew!se!”.

2. Let your smartphone speak for you

Before you go, install a translation app. Hostel owners do not always speak English. But if they don’t, they are used to read questions from your smartphone and to answer by showing you their smartphones. There are even apps out there which use your smartphone camera to translate from Chinese characters.

Feel like China put you on mute? Let your smartphone handle the communication for you.

Feel like China put you on mute? Let your smartphone handle the communication for you.

3. Choose restaurants with picture menus

Picture menus are very common in China and they’ll help you have an idea of what you are ordering. If you were willing to learn just one term about food, we recommend “without meat” – it will help you to avoid the worst stuff. If you cannot memorize the pronunciation, copy the characters on a paper and carry it with you. Believe me, even as a devoted meat eater, there will be a time when you’ll be very happy to have that piece of paper with you.

4. Be brave
Don’t back off just because the person you’ve asked for your train ticket (using your smartphone app) or directions to some place laughs about you or, even worse, tries to escape. This happened to us all the time. If we had not insisted, we would still be stuck in Shanghai, trying to buy something against those terribly itching mosquito bites. Remember, it’s not like they are any better speaking your language than you are speaking theirs.

Don't be discouraged by your limited language skills.

Don’t be discouraged by your limited language skills.

5. Always carry a paper and a pen

This is useful when you have managed to corner someone to ask them for directions. Even if you are not able to communicate verbally, they can still draw the way for you. We rarely get lost in other places, but we got lost in China all the time, and having a pen and paper with us was really helpful.

6. Don’t hesitate to use all the help of your hostel/hotel’s reception desk

They know already that foreigners cannot speak or write. Using their services to book train tickets or to write the name of your country in Chinese characters on all your postcards will save you a lot of time.

7. When traveling from one place to the other, memorize the character for your destination

This is not strictly necessary in Beijing or Shanghai but away from the east coast it is mandatory. You don’t have to be able to write it or remember it forever. But it is very useful to just be able to recognize the right bus or train and to know when you have to get off again.

8. Learn the pronunciation of your destination

This last bit of advice is a bit of a cheat since it is slightly advanced. If you can, try to learn how to pronounce words if they are written in pinyin. Each syllable can be pronounced in several different ways called tones. Everyone can pronounce these – they are what languages like English use to distinguish between a question, an exclamation, a doubt and a monotonous speech or humming. Knowing how to read pinyin was very useful for us – we basically went around China by simply shouting the names of the places we wanted to go to.

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This article was published on perelincolors.com

9 thoughts on “Unsolicited advice: Navigating China with minimal Mandarin skills

  1. guydreaminglife

    As someone who dreams of one day visiting China, this is both informative and funny. Adding to my bookmarks from now on.


    1. perelincolors

      I hope you’ll get to travel there one day! If you do go, I would recommend to also visit Hong Kong, we really liked it there. (And it’s much easier to get by with English there.) Thanks for leaving a comment!


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  3. caseyalexanderblog

    Oh, my word. That was hilarious. My sister lived in Beijing for several years, and she was forever sending us pictures of the signage (for instance, there was a “Caution” sign that showed a stick figure falling off a mountain with its head popped off). Definitely funny stuff. Thanks to Half as long, Twice as bright for the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. apricotowl

    Haha, how informative & witty! “Lángmùsì = Lang?mew!se!” is creative. I like the 8th tip & find it most fundamental. There are only 4 tones that apply to every pinyin syllable. For non-native speakers, it would be the quickest and easiest way to communicate basics verbally (kinda like Romaji?).

    How was learning pinyin? 🙂


    1. perelincolors

      Well, I went to a beginner’s course back home before we left to China and it was the funniest language course I ever did. We spent the whole time just making funny sounds and even funnier matching faces. I think we just couldn’t stop making a questioning face when the rising tone came up… Luckily, my boyfriend is much better in pronouncing the sounds without looking stupid!


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