Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. There are no less than five ways to say “no” in Mandarin. Though naturally the meanings all vary slightly, as does the situations and places you might use or see each of them, but in the simpliest form they are all negations and also very versatile. Let’s have a look at them one by one and see how to use them.
Note: If you read the comments below you’ll find out that there are in fact a few more negations in Chinese so expect a further update to this post soon.
Without a doubt the most common of the ‘no’ words and the one you almost certainly learnt in your first week of Chinese, if not the first day. Very rarely seen on its own and usually used as a negative prefix like in the simple examples below:
wǒ bú yào qù
I don’t want to go
nà liàng chē bú shì wǒ de
That car’s not mine
nǐ shì bú shì yīngguórén?
Are you British?
Another very common word that is learnt in the very early stages of Chinese, it’s an essential word that you wouldn’t get far without. How else could you deny things?
wǒ méi yǒu qián
I haven’t got any money
nǐ yǒu méi yǒu qù guò zhōngguó?
Have you ever been to China?
Getting a bit more difficult now and little more 「書面」”written” Chinese, rather than the very much 「口語」”spoken” Chinese of 「不」 and 「沒」. 無 is extremely flexible and versatile, though. Here’s a couple of the more common uses that you are likely to see:
wǒ wúfǎ jìnxíng zhè xiàng jìhuà
There’s no way I can implement this plan
As mentioned above, 無法 is very 「書面」 and only used in formal speech, though still essential to learn. In the first example above you’d likely use 「沒辦法」（没办法 méi bàn fǎ）instead of 「無法」in a less formal situation.
bào qiàn! wǒ shì wú yì zuò de
Sorry! I did it by accident
A very useful phrase and easy to remember too – 意 means intention, and from the definition of 無 above we can see that it can mean ‘to lack’, so if you do something without, or lacking in, intention, then it must be by accident!
非 is a very formal negation and you’ll often see it used in situations regarding law or formal notices/warnings. Here’s a pretty obvious example to start off with:
shā rén shì fēifǎ de
Murder is illegal
In this example, 法 is short for 法律（fǎ lǜ）”law”. If something is the negation（非） of legality or law（法律） then it must be illegal （非法）. Note: “legal” is actually 合法（hé fǎ）.
fēi qǐng wù jìn
No Entry (without invitation)
HTC bìng fēi lìng yī(yí,yì) Nokia
HTC really isn’t another Nokia
This example was taken from a headline in Google news today. If you know anything about mobile phones the you’ll know Nokia was once the king of the market, but was unable to react fast enough after the debut of the iPhone. Anyway, here 並 is used to emphasise the negation 非, which gives is “really not”.
Lastly is 否, which is quite similar to 非 in its usage, but with quite different meanings.
nǐ bù néng fǒurèn zhōngguó de juéqǐ
You can’t deny the rise of China (is happening)
zǒngtǒng de xīn zhèngcè shìfǒu hélǐ
Is the president’s new policy reasonable or not?
是否 is an interesting example as it is basically like saying “true or false”. A very literally translation of the example above might be “Is it true or false that the president’s new policy is reasonable?”, though in all but a political debate you’d never word the sentence that way and instead more likely translate it using the “… or not?” construct.
měi tiān yīdìngyào shàngkè, fǒuzé bèi xuéxiào kāichú
You must go to school every day, otherwise you’ll be expelled.
否則 is pretty much a synonym for 不然（bù rán） which also means “otherwise”, though 不然 is more commonly used in speech.
Phew! Well that’s the 5 ways to say “no” in Chinese. If you have any questions about any of the examples above – or have your own better examples, then post ‘em below. Also, if you spot a mistake please let us know and we’ll get it corrected rigth away – no one’s perfect!