Knowing how to read the clock and tell the time in Mandarin Chinese is essential.
Whether you’re planning a hangout, booking a doctor’s appointment, or scheduling your monthly manicure, you’ll need to talk about time. You also won’t want to miss an important interview or meeting because of a simple misunderstanding.
Being able to indicate the time is a basic conversational skill for any Mandarin learner.
So there’s no better time than now to begin learning about the Chinese time system.
Thankfully, it is pretty straightforward.😊
In this guide, we’ll explore the basic vocabulary and phrases you’ll need to tell (or ask) the time.
You’ll learn how to express time, schedule an appointment or meetup, and ask basic questions related to time.
Let’s get started.
How to talk about numbers in Chinese
To kick things off, let’s take a look at the basic numbering system used to express time in Mandarin Chinese.
If you’ve been digging through some Chinese resources, you’ve probably already covered this.
Even then, now’s a good time for some revision!
|Two||两||Liǎng (二 - Èr is not used in this case)|
Here are two important things you should take note of.
Firstly, be careful of the Chinese pinyin.
You may have noticed that 四 (sì), meaning “four,” sounds a little similar to 十 (shí), which means “ten.” It’s common for new learners to get these two mixed up when talking, and this can lead to confusion.
You may have also noticed that the number “two” can come in two different forms.
The first is 两 (liǎng) and the second is 二 (èr).
Èr is typically used when talking about numbers and maths, while liǎng is used to express a quantity or say “two of.”
When talking about time, we use liǎng.
But do note that there’s no such thing as 十两. The correct way to say twelve is 十二 (shí’èr).
Stating the hours in Mandarin Chinese
Now that you’ve learned the basic numbers in Chinese, we can move on to stating the hours.
Just keep this simple formula in mind:
- Number + 点 (diǎn)
Here are some examples:
You get the gist of it.
You may have also heard people say 一点钟 (yī diǎn zhōng), which also means “1 o’clock.”
In this case, the extra word here is 钟 (zhōng).
点钟 (diǎn zhōng) also means o’clock. But in conversations, the 钟 is left out to make things simpler and shorter.
Let’s now take a look at how you say talk about the minutes in Mandarin Chinese.
Stating the minutes in Mandarin Chinese
Talking about the minutes is a little more complicated, but hang in there. We’ll break it down little by little.
How to count past 10 in Mandarin Chinese
For numbers 11-19, you’ll use 十 (shí) in combination with the second digit of the number.
Since 一 (yī) means “one,” you’ll just combine it with 十 (shí), which means “ten” to get “eleven.”
Let’s continue down the number line:
Great! You’re getting the hang of things. Let’s move on to 20 and up.
20 in Mandarin is 二十 (èrshí). Just treat it as “two tens.”
As you move up the number line, here’s what you’ll get:
Moving on to 30 and up, you’ll get:
And so on.
Alright, time to put this into practice.
Talking about minutes in Mandarin Chinese
Minutes in Chinese is 分钟 (fēnzhōng) or 分(fen).
You’ll state the minutes after the hour, just as you would in English.
Here are some examples:
You could also just omit the 分钟 (fēnzhōng) or 分(fen) completely, especially in casual conversations.
One thing to take note of is this:
For minutes under ten, you will need to add a 零 (líng) after the 点 (diǎn).
Here are some examples:
Dropping the 零 will make it much harder to understand.
“Half past” in Mandarin Chinese
We use the word 半 (bàn), which means “half,” to say “half past” in Chinese.
The formula to use is as follows:
Hour + 点 (diǎn) + 半 (bàn)
Here are two examples:
Of course, you can always just say 十点三十分 (shí diǎn sān shí fēn), which means “ten thirty.”
This is essentially the same thing.
But most native speakers prefer 十点半 (shí diǎn bàn) because it’s shorter and more straightforward.
“Quarter past and quarter to” in Mandarin Chinese
In Mandarin, we use 刻 (kè) to express “quarter hour.”
For “quarter past,” keep this formula in mind:
- Hour + 点 (diǎn) + 一刻 (yī kè)
And yes, you can just say 十二点十五分 (shí’èr diǎn shíwǔ fēn), which means “twelve fifteen.”
This works just as well!
For “quarter to,” use this formula:
- Hour + 点 (diǎn) + 三刻 (sān kè)
By using 三刻 (sān kè), you’re conveying the meaning “three-quarters past.”
Here are some examples:
To simplify things, you can just say 十二点四十五分 (shí’èr diǎn sìshíwǔ fēn), which means “twelve forty-five.”
You may hear this used more commonly—just like in English, where people tend to use the digital time format instead of “quarter to” or “quarter past.”
Time-related terms in Mandarin Chinese
There is no specific term that means “a.m.” or “p.m.” in Chinese.
And in conversations, people typically use the 12-hour time system, not the 24-hour one.
So you may be wondering, “How do people then specify whether they’re referring to 5 p.m. or 5 a.m.?”
That’s a great question.
And the answer is in the use of time-related words, just like in English.
Here’s a table of them.
Other time-related terms to refer to a specific day have also been included.
In theory, 早上 is used to refer to the period earlier in the morning. 上午 is also used to refer to the time before 12 noon, later in the morning.
However, there isn’t a clear-cut difference between when you should use one or the other.
When using it to refer to “a.m.,” natives will often use the two interchangeably.
There’s usually no need to specify the “a.m.” or “p.m.” — if it’s obvious.
Here’s an example:
You won’t have to specifically say 早上九点 (zǎoshang jiǔ diǎn), because obviously, no one has breakfast at 9 p.m.😂
It’s still not wrong to add in 早上, though.
Here’s an example of how you can use time-related phrases to clarify the time of the day.
Do take note that the time-related word comes before the actual time on the 12-hour clock.
So you would say in Chinese “morning seven o’clock” instead of “seven o’clock in the morning.”
In essence, 早上七点 (zǎoshang qī diǎn) is correct, while 七点早上 (qī diǎn zǎoshang) is incorrect.
Useful phrases for talking about time in Chinese
Let’s see how we can put what we’ve learned into practice.
We’ll also take a look at some common time-related statements and questions you can use in various scenarios.
Asking for the time
You can use this phrase with your friends, family, and people you’re acquainted with.
A shorter version would be 几点了? (jǐ diǎnle?), which you can also use in casual conversations.
If you’d like to ask someone for the time in a formal setting, or if you’re talking to a stranger, then you can use the phrases below.
Here are some examples of how you can ask for the timing of a specific event.
Take note that 什么时候 (shénme shíhòu) more accurately translates to “when” rather than “what time.”
Stating the time
When speaking casually, you could usually just state the time as it is and say 三点钟 (sān diǎn zhōng).
This will still be well-understood.
Making an appointment
The tough part about making an appointment isn’t stating the time.
Instead, you will need to expand your vocabulary when making the opening statement, depending on who you’re booking the appointment with.
Here are some examples of phrases to use when booking appointments or making reservations at different locations.
When making an appointment, the other party on the line may ask you what time you’d be free, so listen out for questions that may go along the lines of these.
Just state the time you’d prefer (e.g., 三点).
Alternatively, they may state a time for you and ask if you are free then.
As an example:
Making plans with friends and family
Here are some phrases you may find helpful when planning meetups.
Telling the time in Mandarin is a basic skill you can pick up.
The main challenge is learning the numbering system in Mandarin.
Once you have that down, you can more or less state any time on the clock.
Of course, you will need to expand your vocabulary to talk about time in everyday real-life settings.
Something like making a reservation at a restaurant or planning a movie hang-out would require more than just plainly stating the time.
But feel free to take your time covering the basics and foundation first before moving on to more advanced vocabulary.
And as always, practice makes perfect!
Do you know any other useful ways to talk about time in Mandarin Chinese?
If so, let us know in the comments below!