The Art of Apology: Six Ways to Say ‘Sorry’ in Mandarin Chinese

Apologizing plays a crucial role in all the cultures. In Chinese culture, apologies not only used to express regret and sympathy, but it also is a way to save face and keeps relationships intact. Therefore, apologize is important. Whether we’ve just accidently stepped on someone’s shoe, arrived late for a meeting or heard a bad news, we apologize more often than we could realize. As a result, to learn how to say sorry should be put on the top of the list for beginners when we learning a foreign language. Saying sorry in Chinese is not the same as in English. In fact, there are six major expressions in Chinese indicate to the meaning of sorry. In this post, we are going to take a detailed look at what these phrases are, when they should be used and what exactly they mean.

1. When should we say sorry in Chinese?

It is understandable that in different cultures, people do apologize under different situation. In other words, Chinese people do not always apologize for the same thing as people do in other countries. While some of the situations make sense, others can leave foreigners confused about what they apologized for.

Here are some situations where an apology is needed in China:

(1) When you’ve made a mistake (by accident or not).

(2) When you feel sorry for someone. If someone shared a bad news happened to them, such as they got sick or something unfortunate happened to them, just like in English, it’s polite to express your sympathy with an apology.

(3) When want to interrupt someone while they are speaking or you need to ask them a question or favor while they are working or on vacation, again like in English, it is common to apologize before and after.

(4) When you feel embarrassed about something. For example, if you meet someone that you have met before, but forgot their names, you would make an apology like saying “forgive me” in English. You would say “forgive me, could you remind me again of your name?”

2. Six ways to say sorry in Chinese

(1) 对不起(duì bù qǐ)

对不起 is used mostly in formal situations or for more serious mistakes. Thus, 对不起 should only be used in situations where you are truly feeling regretted and want to ask for forgiveness.

For examples:

我迟到了,真对不起。 (wǒ chí dào le, zhēn duì bù qǐ)

I am late, really sorry.

对不起,我把你的书弄丢了。(Duì bù qǐ, wǒ bǎ nǐ de shū nòng diū le)

Sorry, I’ve lost your book.

对不起,我帮不了你。(Duì bù qǐ, wǒ bāng bù liǎo nǐ.)

Sorry, I can`t help you.

(2) 不好意思(bù hǎo yì si)

不好意思 is used as a milder way to say “sorry” in Chinese. This phrase is used particularly in situations where you feel some sort of embarrassment or apologize for minor mistakes. Additionally, this phrase can also mean “excuse me”, especially when you are disturbing someone and trying to get their attention.

For example:

不好意思,请让一下。(Bù hǎo yìsi, qǐng ràng yīxià.)

Excuse me, would you mind stepping aside?

不好意思,打扰一下。 (Bù hǎo yìsi, dǎ rǎo yī xià)

Excuse me, sorry for the interruption.

不好意思,你刚才说什么? 我没有听清。(Bù hǎo yìsi, nǐ gāng cái shuō shén me ? wǒ méi yǒu tīng qīng)

Excuse me, what did you say? I didn’t catch you

不好意思,能提醒我一下你的名字吗?(bù hǎo yì sī ,néng tí xǐng wǒ yī xià nǐ de míng zì ma?)

Excuse me, could you remind me of your name?

 (3) 抱歉(bào qiàn)

The word of抱歉means “to apologize”. It is used more like an adjective to describe how you feel. This is the word you use when expressing how sorry you feel for someone. In addition, if we are apologizing to an authority figure and are asking for their forgiveness, we could use this word in a more formal situation.

For example

抱歉,我今天不能来了。(Bàoqiàn, wǒ jīn tiān bù néng lái le.)

Sorry, I cannot come today.

对于你妈妈生病的事情,我感到很抱歉。(duì yú nǐ mā mā shēng bìng de shì qíng, wǒ gǎn dào hěn bào qiàn.)

I am sorry to hear your mother is sick.

我很抱歉听到这个消息 。(wǒ hěn bào qiàn tīng dào zhè ge xiāo xi)

I am so sorry to hear this news.

(4) 我错了(wǒ cuò le)

When we use the word “我错了”, indicating that we admit to a mistake. The phrase means “it is my fault” or “it is my mistake”. In other words, use this phrase to take the blame for something went wrong.

For Example:

我错了,我忘记提醒你开会了。(wǒ cuò le , wǒ wàng jì tí xǐng nǐ kāi huì le)

It’s my fault, I forgot to remind to about the meeting.

我错了,我把客户的资料落在办公室了。(wǒ cuò le , wǒ bǎ kè hù de zī liào luò zài bàn gōng shì le )

It’s my fault, I left the client’s file in the office.

The phrase can also be used to admit being wrong in an argument.


妈妈,今天我错了(mā ma, jīn tiān wǒ cuò le)

Mom, I was wrong today/I made a mistake today.

亲爱的,今天我错了,我不该发脾气 (qīn ài de , jīn tiān wǒ cuò le , wǒ bù gāi fā pí qì)

Darling, I was wrong today, I shouldn’t lose my tempter.

(5) 请见谅(qǐng jiàn liàng)

“请见谅” is a more modest expression among all the apology words. Generally, it means that you feel that something is not done well enough and hope to get the understanding and forgiveness from other people. It does not really mean that you did something wrong.

For example:

我的中文说得不好,请见谅。(wǒ de zhōng wén shuō de bù hǎo , qǐng jiàn liàng)

My Chinese is not good, please forgive me.

今天招待不周,请见谅。(jīn tiān zhāo dài bù zhōu , qǐng jiàn liàng)

Please forgive me for the poor reception today.

 (6) 我不是故意的(wǒ bù shì gù yì de)

The phrase “我不是故意的”is used to tell people you have made a mistake or screwed up, but you didn’t do it on purpose. Of course, for many of the mistakes, we don’t make it on purpose; this expression is like an explanation that emphasis on the intention. It also be a supplement phrase after the formal apology.

For example:

你别哭了!我不是故意的。(nǐ bié kū le! wǒ bù shì gù yì de)

“Don’t cry! I didn’t mean it!”

我不是故意的。你的衣服没弄脏吧?(wǒ bù shì gù yì de. nǐ de yī fú méi nòng zāng ba)

“I didn’t do it on purpose. Is you cloth ok? “

你别生气啊!我不是故意的。(nǐ bié shēng qì a! wǒ bù shì gù yì de)

“Don’t be mad (at me)! I did not do it on purpose.

Now that you know when and how to say sorry in Chinese in an appropriate way, let’s take a look how we should respond when someone says sorry to us.

3. Phrases that can be used to respond when someone says sorry to us.

All these responses can be used as responses to any of the six apologies, and they don’t depend on formality.

(1) The most common response to an apology in Chinese is:

没关系 (méi guān xi) — “It’s Okay”

(2) Another common response to an apology is to tell someone not to worry about it.

别担心 (bié dān xīn) — “Don’t worry about It”

(3) Another way to comfort the person who makes an apology

没事 (méi shì) — “It’s nothing” or “it’s not a big deal.”

(4) This phrase is not used so often as a response, it shows a little bit of reluctant to accept the apology.

算了吧 (suàn le ba) — “Forget about it”


You now know how to say sorry in Chinese under different circumstances and respond to apologies. We hope you would not have to use them very often. But don’t be afraid to use them when it is necessary.