Unpacking Identity: Understanding ‘To Be’ in Chinese

How do we say “to be” in Chinese? Without this most basic verb, we cannot really communicate: it is usually the very first verb we get to know when learning a new language. As it usually happens, there are many ways to express presence in Chinese, because it is an old language, very rich in vocabulary. However, as you will see below, it is not very complicated. There are many hard things to learn in Chinese, but luckily grammar is not one of them.

  1. 是: to be something/someone (connecting two nouns): 

The direct Chinese equivalent of the English “to be” is 是 [shì]. The use of 是 is very simple and works just like in English, but without the conjugation (like am/are/is). The word order is subject + verb + object (S + V + O). For instance:

我是中国人 [Wǒ shì zhōngguó rén] – I am Chinese. 

我是美国人 [Wǒ shì měiguó rén] – I am American. 

Easy, right? The negative tense is also easy: in order to say “be not” (am not, are not etc.), you just need to add 不 [bù] before 是. 

我不是中国人。[Wǒ shì zhōngguó rén] – I am not Chinese. 

我不是美国人。[Wǒ shì měiguó rén] – I am not American. 

Notice something (we made it bold)? Because 是 is a word of the same tone as 不 (the falling fourth tone). Therefore, to make the pronunciation easier, 不 changes its tone to the second, rising tone, when followed by another fourth tone character. It is a very important rule to remember. 

When asking questions with the verb 是, the English inversion rule does not apply. It is enough to add the question particle 吗 [ma] at the end of the sentence. 

你是中国人吗?[nǐ shì zhōngguó rén ma] – Are you Chinese?

你不是中国人吗?[nǐ bú shì zhōngguó rén ma] – Aren’t you Chinese?

There is also another way to ask questions with 是. In Chinese, it is possible to duplicate a verb and put 不 in between to ask a yes/no question. Remember that such a structure does not require 吗 at the end:

你是不是美国人?[nǐ shì bú shì měiguó rén] – Aren’t you American?

In the beginning, such a way of asking a question may sound weird to an English speaker, but it is a perfectly natural way of asking in Chinese. 

2. 有: indicating a presence (there is/there are): 

As you can see, 是 is not the only word used to express “to be” in Chinese. English does make it simple and uses just one word for everything, but Chinese likes variety. Still, it is not very complicated; just remember that the correct term for there is/there are sentences is 有 [yǒu], the very same word which basic meaning is “to have”. 

我家乡有一座城堡。[wǒ jiāxiāng yǒu yīzuò chéngbǎo] – There is a castle in my hometown. 

It is logical, isn’t it? If you think about it, it literally means “My hometown has a castle”. 

Some other examples:

课堂里有三个学生。[kètángli yǒu sānge xuéshēng] – There are three students in the classroom. 

我家里有两个房间。[wǒjiāli yǒu liǎngge fángjiān] – My house has two rooms. 

Asking questions with 有 looks almost exactly the same as with 是. However, instead of 不, we use 没 [méi], which is a standard word we always use with 有 to say “not have”. 

你房间有电脑吗?[nǐ fángjiān yǒu diànnǎo ma] – Is there a computer in your room?

你家乡有没有海边?[nǐ jiāxiāng yǒu méi yǒu hǎibiān] – Is there a seaside in your hometown? 

3. 在: to indicate location (preposition + location)

The third very important word you need to know is 在 [zài], which is itself a preposition and a Chinese equivalent of “in, on, at”. Unlike in English, we usually do not use the verb “be” when talking about location. It is enough to say 在 instead of 是在. The word order is as follows: subject + 在+ location. 

我在家里。[wǒ zài jiāli] – I am at home. 

我朋友現在在中国。[wǒ péngyǒu xiànzài zài zhōngguó] – My friend is now in China. 

Just like before, asking questions with 在 is easy and follows the same pattern as 是 and 有. We use 不 again, so remember to change the tone!

你在家里吗?[nǐ zài jiāli ma] – Are you at home? 

你在不在家里?[nǐ zài zài jiāli] – Are you at home? 

4. Important things to remember: describing 

Chinese uses the word “to be” far less than English does; in fact, it tends to avoid it when it can. This happens with describing things in Chinese: 是 is usually not necessary with adjectives. Instead, Chinese people often (but not always) put 很 [hěn] in front of it, which literally means “very”. However, in this context 很 does not mean “very”: think of it more as a replacement for 是. It looks complicated, but the general rule is that Chinese language does not like sentences that are too short.

我很开心。[wǒ hěn kāixīn] – I am happy. 

我很生气。[wǒ hěn shēngqì] – I am angry. 

Both sentences above have an even number of characters (four). If there were only three (我生气) it would sound too short. 

In negative sentences, since there is 不 inside, 很 is not necessary anymore, unless you actually want to emphasize “very”. Again, it looks complicated, but it really isn’t:

我不开心。[wǒ bù kāixīn] – I am not happy.

我很不开心。[wǒ hěn bù kāixīn] – I am very unhappy.

How about asking simple questions? Luckily, the Chinese grammar keeps it easy here:

你很开心吗?[nǐ hěn kāixīn ma] – Are you happy?

For verb + 不+ verb structure, 很 also becomes obsolete:

你要问你女朋友生不生气 [nǐyào wèn nǐ nǚpéngyǒu shēng bù shēng qì] – Ask your girlfriend if she is mad. 

你开不开心?[nǐ kāi bù kāixīn] – Are you happy?

*When talking about age, don’t use 是, neither. Just straightly say the number. 

我二十岁[wǒ èr shí suì] – I am twenty years old. 

你二十岁吗?[nǐ èr shí suì ma] – Are you twenty years old?

Verb + 不 + verb structure does not apply here, as it would be too long and sound strange.

Want to know more about Chinese? Maayot has just what you need. We offer a wide range of articles about different grammar and vocabulary topics in Chinese. Check out more of them articles below: