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Chinese Culture: How to say “how do you do?” in Chinese?

This is the first note about Chinese culture in this blog, and surprising as it may seem, it is related to food  :)

If you open a beginner’s Mandarin book, you may encounter in the first few pages the sentence “ni hao ma?”, which literally means “you well?”, translated as “how do you do?”.

Chinese people, however, rarely use such sentence (only foreigners do :)). A far more common way of capturing the meaning of “how do you do?” in Mandarin Chinese is the sentence “ni chi le ma?”, which literally means “you eaten?”, or in correct English, “Have you eaten?”.

No answer is required, no need to explain in detail what you had for lunch.  It really is a made-up phrase to greet people, and you may hear Chinese people using it in the most uncommon and surprising of circumstances.

If something can be learnt from this and other references to food & eating in daily Chinese language is how important a role food plays in Chinese culture. Even in a single province (or within a single ethnic group), the list of different traditional dishes is almost endless, and most of them have their own distinguishing name! In China, food culture touches virtually all aspects of social interaction, business and daily life. Food is a common topic of conversation and takes an important part of the day. It is one of those things that makes life worth living!

Unfortunately, the very nice “ni chi le ma?” is being gradually replaced by other forms of expression, and younger people in China are using it less and less. Is this a sign that Chinese society is changing?

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