Navigating Languages: Understanding Directions in Chinese

Directions are an essential topic in any language. Today, let’s see how to properly talk about directions in Mandarin.

  1. Four main directions (方向 fāngxiàng):

北 běi – north

东 dōng – east

南 nán – south

西 xī – east

As you may know, Chinese loves two-syllable words and avoids single syllable words. This is why the above directions can receive different endings, like 部 bù or方 fāng, when we talk about places.

Directions in Chinese.

For instance:

我不住在中国,我住在日本的南方 (wǒ bù zhù zài zhōngguó, wǒ zhù zài rìběn nánfāng) – I don’t live in China; I live in southern Japan.

我的奶奶住在中国的西方 (wǒde nǎinǎi zhù zài zhōngguó de xīfāng) – My grandma lives in western China.

中国南部很热 (zhōngguó nánbù hěn rè) – The southern part of China is hot.

我没有去过中国西部 (wǒ méi qùguò zhōngguó xībù) – I haven’t been to the Western part of China.

The two-part directions, on the other hand, do not receive an ending and look as follows:

西北 xīběi – northeast

东北 dōngběi – northeast

东南 dōngnán – southeast

西南 xīnán – southwest

The sentence structure is same as the above, for instance:

我的奶奶住在中国的东北 (wǒde nǎinǎi zhù zài zhōngguó de dōngběi) – My grandma lives in North-East China.

2. 在 zài,有 yǒu,是 shì

The verbs 在, 有, 是 indicate the existence of something. If they occur as the main elements of a sentence then the sentence formation with these verbs is as follows:

reference point – 在 – location

location – 有(是) – reference point

There are two differences between using 有 and 是 when both indicate the existence of something. The sentence with 有 merely reports that someone or something exists. In contrast, the sentence with 是 not only tells where something or someone is but also gives additional information about someone or something.

Here is how we can use these words with directions:

他住在中国南部 (tā zhù zài zhōngguó nánfāng) – He lives in southern China.

中国东方有海边 (zhōngguó dōngfāng yǒu hǎibiān) – There is seaside in eastern China.

中国西方是我家 (zhōngguó xīfāng shì wǒ jiā) –  Western China is my home.

3. Asking for directions

Some of the most important vocabulary to prepare before going to a Mandarin-speaking country are phrases and words to ask for directions. Especially when traveling through China, you will need to be able to understand instructions.

Here is a crash course for understanding instructions in Chinese that includes a vocabulary list and sample practice dialogues:


转 (simplified form) / 轉 (traditional form) ► zhuǎn: turn. In Mainland China, you can often hear 拐 guǎi, but it is not used in Taiwan.

往 ►wáng: toward

Right / left / straight:

右 ►yòu: right

左 ►zuǒ: left

往右转 ►wáng yòu zhuǎn: turn right (also: 往右拐 guǎi)

往左转 ►wáng zuǒ zhuǎn: turn left (also: 往左拐 guǎi)

Since 右 and 左 are single syllable words, they too receive a supplementary word; however, here 边 biān is most often used.

一直 ►yī zhí: all straight.

一直走 ►yī zhí zǒu: keep going straight


到 ►dào: go to / reached.

快到了 ►kuài dào le: almost reached.

到了 ►dào le: have arrived.

Sample sentences:

医院(yīyuàn, hospital)在公园 (gōngyuán, park)的南部。一直走,然后左转,医院在你的右边 – The hospital is south of the park. Go straight, then turn left, the hospital will be on your right.

这个博物馆 (bówùguǎn, museum) 在市中心 (shì zhōngxīn, city centre) 的北部。 左转,然后一直走。This museum is in the northern part of the city centre.  Turn left, then go straight.

我现在在城市 (chéngshì, city) 的南部,我快到了市中心.  I am in the southern part of the city now; I will reach the city centre soon.


请问/請問 (trad.) , 你 知道… qǐngwèn, nǐ zhīdào… – Excuse me, do you know…?

在哪兒 zài nǎ’er (in Taiwan, 在哪裡 lǐ is more commonly used ) – where

Sample sentences:

请问, 你知道火车站 (huǒchē zhàn, train station) 在哪儿? – Excuse me, do you know where the train station is?

你在哪儿?- Where are you?

请问,医院在哪儿?- Excuse me, where is the hospital?

4. 走 zǒu or 去 qù?

You may have noticed that both these verbs, 走 (zǒu) and 去 (qù) are used as “go” when asking for directions. For instance, take a look at this dialogue:

请问,我怎么去医院?(qǐngwèn, wǒ zěnme qù yīyuàn) – Excuse me, how do I go to the hospital?

一直就到了 (yīzhí zǒu jiù dào le) – Go straight and you reach it.

As you can see, both these verbs are translated as “go” in English, but there is a difference in Chinese. What is it?

In short, 走 puts an emphasis on the action of walking itself, not on going somewhere. Therefore, its literal translation is “walk”. It is only used when we walk.

去, on the other hand, indicates going somewhere. This is why we use it when we talk about going to a specific place.

Since when we ask about direction we specify arriving at a certain place, we use 去 in a question. However, the responding person emphasizes the action of as walking in a certain direction, which is why 走 is more often used.

Interested in learning Mandarin, but not sure where to start? Maayot is here to help. Check out more of our articles below: