20 Chinese Words and Phrases to Say to Loved Ones
If you’re learning Chinese to communicate with others, and if you’re learning with loved ones like I recommended in my post about forming a language-learning habit, then you’ll want to know what to say to show people you care.
nǐ chī fàn le ma?
Have you eaten yet?
Literal meaning aside, this question is both a greeting and an indication of familiarity. The asker doesn’t actually want to hear about your meal, but they are showing that they care about the other person’s well-being and health. In English, we like to say “What’s up?” or “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” These greetings don’t necessitate a thorough response to the question--a simple “Good, how are you?” or “Nothing much, what about you?” will usually suffice. Similarly, one might respond to “你吃饭了吗” [nǐ chī fàn le ma?] with a basic “吃了，你呢？” [chī le, nǐ ne?] “I’ve eaten, how about you?” The conversation can then continue from there. Of course, if the person asking is your spouse coming home after a long day of work, maybe they really do want to know about dinner.
（你）吃了吗？[(nǐ) chī le ma?]
（你）吃饭了没？[(nǐ) chī fàn le méi?]
宝贝 [bǎo bèi] “baby, darling, sweetheart, dear” is one of my favorite terms of endearment. It might be said from a parent to a child, between lovers, or even amongst friends; some uses are sarcastic, just as the English “darling” said with sickly sweet intonation might come off as patronizing. Apart from this ironic usage, the casual practice of calling 宝贝 is a clear indicator of love and affection.
A similar alternative is 宝宝 [bǎo bao] “baby, darling.” Both 宝贝 [bǎo bèi] and 宝宝 [bǎo bǎo] are based on the word 宝 [bǎo], meaning “jewel, treasure.” Something important to you might be described as 宝贵 [bǎo guì] “valuable, precious,” while a 宝石 [bǎo shí] is a “precious stone, gem.” 宝 is such an important word in Chinese that the upper 宀 portion is called 宝盖头 [bǎo gài tóu], literally “the cap of 宝,” and like other Chinese radicals, it imparts meaning to the words it appears in: 宀 means something like “house, shelter.” Meanwhile, the portion under the radical is 玉 [yǜ] “jade.” Like many Chinese words, the essence of 宝 is derived from and reflected in every stroke.
3. 小—, XX
If names are the backbones of identity, then Chinese people wear many identities with ease. Familial terms are frequently used in exhortation; that is, a mother might directly call, “女儿” [nǚ ér] “daughter” or “儿子” [ér zi] “son,” and siblings might address one another as “弟弟” [dì dì] “little brother,” “妹妹” [mèi mei] “little sister,” and so on. On top of all that, people might go by different names within different spheres: your parents might call you one name, your siblings another, your high school friends by a third, your university friends by a fourth, and your professional acquaintances simply by your surname plus some title, like 张老师 [zhāng lǎo shī] “Teacher Zhang” or 杨总 [yáng zǒng] “Chief Yang.”
When referring to friends or younger family members, Chinese speakers make extensive use of diminutives. One sort of diminutive involves tacking the word 小 [xiǎo] to the front of a name; for example, a user in this thread describes a niece with nickname 小鱼 [xiǎo yǘ] “little fish,” possibly deriving from her surname 余 [yǘ], which is homophonous with 鱼 [yǘ]. I have a friend that is sometimes known as 小梅 [xiǎo méi] “little plum” because 梅 [méi] “plum” is part of her name.
Another popular way to form a diminutive nickname for someone is to repeat a word twice, XX, in an operation that linguists call reduplication. (See this Language Log post for more on diminutives and reduplicatives in Chinese.) There is a cutesy connotation attached to this sort of name, and they usually refer to children more than anyone else; however, it’s not uncommon for people to carry reduplicative names into adulthood. 小梅 [xiǎo méi] is also called 美美 [měi mei] due to the similarity in pronunciation between 梅 [méi] and 美 [měi] “beautiful, good.” Another friend’s full name does not include any syllable with pronunciation [hào], but he still goes by 浩浩 [hào hao] because that’s the name he grew up with.
My nephew, for instance, has many names. He is 小王子 [xiǎo wáng zi] “little prince” and 小柿子 [xiǎo shì zi] “little persimmon.” He is also 弟弟 [dì di] “little brother,” since he’s the youngest boy in the family, but also 哥哥 [gē ge] “big brother” when his little sister is around. He’s 康康 [kāng kang], 康 [kāng] “healthy, abundant” being part of his name, and also 恩康 [ēn kāng], 恩 [ēn] meaning “grace, kindness.” He also has his English name Jackson and nicknames Jack-jack and Jackie. My sister sometimes calls him 儿子 [ér zi] “son,” and I sometimes call him 我的外甥 [wǒ de wài shēng] “my nephew.”
Continuing theme of nicknames, here we have a few prefixed words that would normally be used with peers or friendly superiors. Note that the reduplicated XX may also be said to a peers if that is their commonly used name, as with 美美 [měi mei] and 浩浩 [hào hao].
啊— [a—] may be combined with someone’s surname or a part of their name to make a general-use nickname. 老— and 大— may be combined with a surname or term, as in 老姐 [lǎo jiě] “big sis” and 大哥 [dà gē] “big bro,” to refer to an older, familiar friend. Be wary of regional differences that might distort your intended meaning. In places where 老 [lǎo] is not used to indicate affection and familiarity, its meaning of “old” might be taken at face value.
zhào gù hǎo zì jǐ
Take care of yourself.
照顾 [zhào gù] “to take care, look after, attend to” is the way you would talk about a parent caring for their child. I have ended many calls with Chinese relatives and friends using this phrase; the English equivalent has roughly the same connotation. A pithier alternative is 保重 [bǎo zhòng] “take care of yourself,” or 多保重 [duō bǎo zhòng] “really take care of yourself.”
Say you want to express to someone that they have your support. You could do this directly:
wǒ zhī chí nǐ
I support you, I stand by you.
Both parts of the word 支持 [zhī chí] add to its meaning; one of the many meanings of 支 [zhī] is “to support, sustain,” and 持 [chí] means “to grasp, support, maintain.” 持 [chí] imparts a sense of endurance, as in the phrase 坚持 [jiān chí] “to persevere, persist.”
You can also drop the final object pronoun to support a proposition; that is, “我支持” [wǒ zhī chí] “I support (it/that).”
Another way to show your support for a loved one to tell them how great they are.
nǐ hǎo bàng
Similarly, you might say 你很棒 [nǐ hěn bàng] “you’re (very) amazing”—the 很 [hěn] “very” doesn’t translate well into English. If you want to describe a recent accomplishment or performance of theirs, you could describe it as as 精彩 [jīng cái] “marvellous, brilliant.” If you want to be more hip about it, you might say 牛逼 [niú bī] “awesome,” shorten it to simply 牛 [niú], or pick any of its written variations: 牛掰 [niú bāi]、流弊 [liú bì]、牛b、NB. No matter what adjective you choose, the fact of the matter is that giving praise in any language is an undeniable display of love and support.
The key word here is 重要 [zhòng yào] “important, significant, major.” An important visiting official might be a 重要人物 [zhòng yào rén wù] “important person, VIP.” Your mother might remind you not to forget an important doctor’s appointment: “别忘了，很重要！” [bié wàng le, hě zhòng yào!] “Don’t forget, it’s important!”
nǐ duì wǒ lái shuō hěn zhòng yào
You are very important to me.
wǒ qíng yuàn wèi nǐ fù dān
I am willing to bear your burdens.
The word 情愿 [qíng yuàn] “would rather, willingness” is one of several words that may be used to express willingness in Chinese. The most basic and general-use option is 愿意 [yuàn yì] “to wish, wang, be willing to,” sometimes shortened to 愿 [yuàn] when followed by a verb. It appears in this lyric from 《童话》[tóng huà] “Fairytale,” a famous early 2000s pop ballad:
wǒ yuàn biàn chéng tóng huà lǐ nì ài de nà ge tiān shǐ
I’m willing to become that fairytale angel you love.
情愿 [qíng yuàn] is most often used to indicated a preference, hence the meaning “would rather,” but it also lends an extra degree of willingness. It may be combined with the word 甘心 [gān xīn] “to be willing to, resign oneself to” to make 甘心情愿 [gān xīn qíng yuàn] or 甘愿 [gān yuàn] “willingly and gladly.”
As you can see, none of this would be possible without the contribution of 愿 [yuàn] “to hope, wish, desire, be ready, be willing.”
耐心 [nài xīn] “to be patient, patience” combines the characters 耐 [nài] “endure, bear, patient” and 心 [xīn] “heart, mind” to counsel restraint. You might tell a loved one, 耐心点 [nài xīn diǎn] “be a little more patient,” when they’re waiting for news. You might also need to remind yourself to 忍耐 [rěn nài] “endure, exercise patience” when dealing with a particularly peevish relative. As they say, love is patient.
Learners might recognize 谢 [xiè] from the common 谢谢 [xiè xie] “thank you.”
gǎn xiè yǒu nǐ
(I’m) grateful to have you (in my life).
Too often, we forget to express 谢意 [xiè yì] “gratitude” to the people closest to us; the related word 感恩 [gǎn ēn] means “to feel grateful.”
Wǒ mén yīng gāi xué huì gǎn ēn
We should learn to practice gratitude.
Every day—not just Thanksgiving, or 感恩节 [gǎn ēn jié]—should be about showing love and support through gratitude.
Here’s a brief look at connecting cultures. This line is a popular (and likely unofficial) translation of a Russian poem, «…Я бы хотела жить с Вами…» by Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century. The first lines of this poem were translated as follows:
wǒ xiǎng hé nǐ yī qǐ shēng huó
I want to live with you
zài mǒu gè xiǎo zhèn,
In a small town,
gòng xiǎng wú jìn de huáng hūn
Sharing neverending dusks
hé mián mián bù jué de zhōng shēng
And endless sounds of bells.
Contrast this with a translation of the original Russian:
…Я бы хотела жить с Вами
I’d like to live with you
В маленьком городе,
In a small town,
Где вечные сумерки
Where there are eternal dusks
И вечные колокола.
And eternal (sounds of) bells.
The word 共 [gòng] “together, all” gives 共享 [gòng xiǎng] a feeling of unity, while 享 [xiǎng] “to enjoy, benefit” conveys the meaning of such words as 分享 [fēn xiǎng] “to share (something good with someone)” and 享受 [xiǎng shòu] “to enjoy, live it up.” The translator took creative liberty with the third line and included the word 共享 [gòng xiǎng] “to enjoy together” perhaps because, like many, he appreciated the joy of sharing an experience with someone important to you.
The word 想念 [xiǎng niàn]—a combination of 想 [xiǎng] “to think, consider” and 念 [niàn] “idea, remembrance”—expresses yearning, a longing to see someone again.
wǒ hěn xiǎng niàn nǐ
I miss you terribly.
For those of the distant past, you might use the more nostalgic 怀念 [huái niàn] “to reminisce, cherish the memory of.”
wǒ huái niàn guò qù de shēng huó
I miss my past life.
I’m sure this is a sentiment that everyone in isolation can understand.
nǐ jiāng yǒng yuǎn huó zài wǒ xīn lǐ
You’ll always live in my heart.
It’s a bit melodramatic, but so are all other declarations of 永恒的爱 [yǒng héng de ài] “eternal love.” If you want to be more sweetly nostalgic about it, you might sing like Wang Leehom:
wǒ yì rán ài nǐ
I love you as before.
Or take a page from Li Jian’s songbook:
nǐ zhī bu zhī dào wǒ shǐ zhōng ài nǐ
Don’t you know I’ll love you till the end?
Whether it’s 美好 [měi hǎo] “beautiful, fine,” often used to denote happy times or experiences, or 美梦 [měi mèng] ”fond dream; pipe dream,” it’s hard to write about memory without including the concept of 美 [měi] “beautiful, good.”
xiǎng qǐ měi hǎo de huí yì …
thinking of beautiful memories ...
When times are tough, it can be helpful to remember a perfect day spent with loved ones, and remind yourself that another such 完美的一天 [wán měi de yi tiān] will come again.
This is the kind of sentence reserved for loved ones who you don’t just love, but also genuinely like as people.
nǐ shì wǒ xǐ huān de rén
You are my favorite person.
珍 [zhēn] “precious, valuable” is used in such words as 珍宝 [zhēn bǎo] “treasure”—recall 宝 [bǎo] from #2—and 珍贵 [zhēn guì] “precious.” 我珍惜你 [wǒ zhēn xī nǐ] “I cherish you” is probably the cheesiest thing on this list, and you might never see it anywhere outside of a romantic montage, but the meaning behind it is genuine
This is similar to #13, but more direct and therefore, in my opinion, more touching.
wǒ xiǎng nǐ
I miss you.
—or more literally, “I’m thinking of you.”
A classic that even non-Chinese learners know, second only to 你好 [nǐ hǎo] “hello.”
wǒ ài nǐ
I love you.
Short and sweet usually does the trick.
This line is part of the 《诗经》 [shì jīng], a collection of ancient Chinese sayings that read like poetry and form a crucial building block of Chinese culture and history. The specific section of the 诗经—in English, the Book of Songs—that this line comes from is the 击鼓 [jī gǔ] piece of the 邶风 [bèi fēng] set of the 国风 [guó fēng] “Air” part, or 《国风·邶风·击鼓》.
Here is my attempt at a translation of this ancient language:
sǐ shēng qì kuò, yǘ zǐ chéng shuō. zhí zǐ zhī shǒu, yú zǐ xié laǒ
In death and life, near and far, with you I make a pact. I grasp your hand; with you I’ll grow old.
A hallmark of ancient Chinese is its succinct beauty, each character full of layered meaning, each four-word component reflected in its corresponding half. The more Chinese you learn, the more you’ll be able to express beautiful sentiments like these.
Start learning how to express your love in Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic today. ReDefiners World Languages offers virtual and in-person courses for all ages. Sign up at www.redefinerswl.org/online or visit our website to find more information.