Wondering in Mandarin: How to Ask ‘What’ in Chinese

Chinese is now a widely used and highly developed language in the world. It is becoming more and more international. You can also find the invisible impacts of Chinese in many countries and fields. For instance, politics, diplomacy, economy, trade, education, culture, science and technology, and tourism.

Many learners all over the world have an interest in learning Chinese. But, is it true that some find it difficult? Yes. It is because there is a lot of grammar in Chinese, and it has significant differences from other languages. Yet, if you only aim to get around with day-to-day conversations, it isn’t that hard. 

You can begin with some simple phrases and vocabulary. Reading could also help you learn basic conversation, grammar, and sentence structures. Here, we are going to start with a simple word: “What.” 

What In Chinese 

“What” in Chinese is an advantageous vocabulary word. It enables you to ask and understand questions. However, there are different uses for “what” in a sentence.

The Chinese term for “what” is 什么 (shén me). It is one of the Chinese Interrogative Pronouns used when constructing a Chinese question. Another word for “what” in Chinese is 怎么 (zěn me). But in Chinese, we seldom use “what” as 怎么, since it is mainly referred to as “how.”

When there are mentions of the following words in a sentence :

  • Demonstrative Pronouns (this, that, these, those) 
  • Subject Pronouns (I, He, She, We, They) 

 Place them at the beginning of a phrase before “what” in Chinese – 什么(shén me).

Example :

What is this?

这是什么? (zhè shì shén me)
[Direct Translate] This is what?

Mandarin question structure is different from English. Interrogative Pronouns usually will be the first word of an English sentence. Whereas in the Chinese language, we are less likely to use them as the first word as in the example above.

“What” in Chinese as Interrogative Pronoun – 什么 ( shén me)

Here are some generally used simple questions with “What” in Chinese. It is without Demonstrative Pronouns or Personal Pronouns. Mostly, “What” in Chinese will become a Subject Interrogative Pronoun.

Example : 

  1. 什么事? ( shén me shì? )
    What is the matter?
  1. 发生了什么事情? ( fā shēng le shén me shì qing ? )
    What happened? / What is the matter?
  2. 现在是什么状况/情况? ( xiàn zài shì shén me zhuàng kuàng/qíng kuàng? )
    What is the situation now?
  1. 什么问题? 有什么问题? ( shén me wèn tí? yǒu, shé me wèn tí? )
    What is the problem?
  2. 出了什么问题? ( chū le shén me wèn tí ? )
    What is the problem that happened?
  3. 什么是对? 什么是错?( shén me shì duì ? shén me shì cuò? )
    What is correct? What is wrong?
  4. 什么是真? 什么是假? ( shén me shì zhēn? shén me shì jiǎ? )
    What is real? What is fake?
  5. 什么意思? ( shén me yì si? )
    What is the meaning? 
  6. 这是什么意思? 我不明白。( zhè shì shén me yì si ? wǒ bù míng bái. )
    What do you mean by this? I do not understand.

With Demonstrative Pronoun + “What” in Chinese 什么 ( shén me )

If you have a question with :

  • English Demonstrative Pronouns (this, that, these, those) 
  • No Personal Pronoun
  • Place the Chinese Demonstrative Pronouns (这, 那, 这些, 那些 | zhè, nà, zhè xiē, nà xiē) at the start of the sentence.

Example :

  1. 这是什么?那是什么?( zhè shì shén me? nà shì shén me? )
    What is this? What is that?
  2. 这些是什么? 那些是什么? ( zhè xiē shì shén me? nà xiē shì shén me? )
    What are these? What are those?
  3. 这个是什么?那个是什么? ( zhè ge shì shén me? nà gè shì shén me? )
    What is this one? What is that one?
  4. 这是什么地方? ( zhè shì shén me dì fāng? )
    What place is this?
  5. 这里有什么好玩的? ( zhè li yǒu shé me hǎo wán de? )
    What is interesting here? What fun things (to do) here?

With Subject Pronoun + “What” in Chinese 什么 ( shén me)

When a Chinese sentence contains :

  • Subject Pronoun (I, He, She, We)

Then move the Subject Pronoun to the beginning. “What” in Chinese – 什么 ( shén me ) will then become an Object Interrogative Pronoun.

*The last two examples below show the usage of 了 ( le ) after a Chinese Verb. It means past tense in English = The event is over.

Example :

  1. 你想吃什么? 你喜欢吃什么? ( nǐ xiǎng chī shén me? nǐ xǐ huān chī shén me? )
    What do you want to eat? What do you like to eat?
  2. 你想喝什么? 你喜欢喝什么? ( nǐ xiǎng hē shén me? nǐ xǐ huān hē shén me? )
    What do you want to drink? What do you like to drink?
  3. 你想买什么? 你想卖什么? ( nǐ xiǎng mǎi shén me? nǐ xiǎng mài shén me? )
    What do you want to buy? What do you want to sell?
  4. 我这么说,有什么不对? ( wǒ zhè me shuō, yǒu shé me bù duì? )
    What did I say wrong?
  5. 他用什么借口不来工作? ( tā yòng shén me jiè kǒu bù lái gōng zuò? )
    What excuse did he use for not coming to work?
  6. 你说什么? 老板说了什么? ( nǐ shuō shén me? lǎo bǎn shuō le shén me? )
    What are you saying (Present tense)? What did the boss say (Past tense)?
  7. 什么! 你做了什么? 你到底做了些什么? ( shén me? nǐ zuò le shén me? nǐ dào dǐ zuò le xiē shén me? ) (Interjection)
    What! What did you do? What are the things that you have done?

With Object Pronoun + “What” in Chinese 什么 Shénme

An Object Pronoun (him, her, us) is usually not at the start of the sentence. The Subject Interrogative Pronoun (什么 + Noun) will be placed first.


  1. 什么东西能使她快乐? ( shén me dōng xī néng shǐ tā kuài lè? )
    What are the things that make her happy?
  2. 什么情况之下能让他哭? ( shén me qíng kuàng zhī xià néng ràng tā kū? )
    What circumstances can make him cry?

With Both Subject & Object Pronouns + “What” in Chinese 什么 ( shén me)

We will have the Subject Pronouns and the Object Pronouns in the language of English. But we share the same Chinese words in Chinese – 我,你,他,她,我们,你们. Hence, it might be a little confusing when both groups of pronouns appear together. For more details, please have a search on Personal Pronouns (I vs, Me) to clarify the difference.

Example :

  1. 我不知道你刚才说什么?我听不清楚。请你在重复一遍。
    ( wǒ bù zhī dào nǐ gāng cái shuō shén me? Wǒ tīng bù qīng chǔ. Qǐng nǐ zài chóng fù yī biàn. )
    What are you talking about just now? I can’t hear clearly. Please repeat one more time.

Flexible Chinese Word Order Construction – “What” in Chinese

There are many new Chinese learners. They will always try to place the Subject Pronoun first when making sentences. But, the Chinese language is actually flexible. 

A stronger Chinese foundation and a deeper understanding could help you very much. You will find out that there will be no difficulty with the Chinese word order. Here are two sets of examples below.

Example 1 :

  1. 我要做什么,才能让她开心起来? 打通电话给她吗?
    ( wǒ yào zuò shén me, cái néng ràng tā kāi xīn qǐ lái? Dǎ tōng diàn huà gěi tā ma? )
    What to do to make her happy? Give a call to her?
  2. 想要让她开心,我能做什么? 去她家送花给她吗?
    ( xiǎng yào ràng tā kāi xīn, wǒ néng zuò shén me? Qù tā jiā sòng huā gěi tā ma? )
    To make her happy, what can I do? Go to her house to send flowers to her?

Example 2 :

  1. 他要用什么方法,才能工作? 申请工作准证吗?
    ( tā yào yòng shén me fāng fǎ, cái néng gōng zuò? Shēn qǐng gōng zuò zhǔn zhèng ma? )
    What method should he use to work? Apply for a work permit?
  2. 用什么方法,才能让他工作? 办签证吗?
    ( yòng shén me fāng fǎ, cái néng ràng tā gōng zuò? bàn qiān zhèng ma? )
    What method to use so he could work? Apply for a visa?

“What” Type / Kind / Sort – 什么样 ( shén me yàng) / 什么类型 ( shén me lèi xíng )

“What type/kind/sort of + Noun” is a question you ask someone about their preferences in a category. We use either 什么样 ( shén me yàng ) or 什么类型 ( shén me lèi xíng).


  1. 你喜欢看什么样的电影? ( nǐ xǐ huān kàn shén me yàng de diàn yǐng?)
    What kind of movie do you like to watch?
  2. 你喜欢什么样的家具? ( nǐ xǐ huān shén me yàng de jiā jù? )
    What sort of furniture do you like?
  3. 你喜欢什么类型的男生? ( nǐ xǐ huān shén me lèi xíng de nán shēng? )
    What type of men do you like?
  4. 你喜欢什么样的女生啊? ( nǐ xǐ huān shén me yàng de nǚ shēng à? )
    What type of women do you like?

“What” in Chinese – 怎么 ( zěn me )

Other than 什么 ( shén me), we also have 怎么 ( zěn me ) to express What in Chinese. 怎么 is not an accurate representation of “What” in Chinese. Instead, it has a more definite association with “How” in Chinese.

We have to depend on whether to use “How” or “What” when translating 怎么 ( zěn me ) from Chinese to English. You could depend on it as a term for expressing an English question.

Example :

  1. 怎么了? ( zěn me le? )
    What happened?
  2. 怎么办? ( zěn me bàn? )
    What to do? / How?
  3. 现在,我们要怎么做? ( xiàn zài, wǒ men yào zěn me zuò? )
    Now, how / Now, what are we going to do?
  4. 这是怎么回事? ( zhè shì zěn me huí shì? )
    What is this all about?
  5. 那又怎么样? ( nà yòu zěn me yàng? )
    So what?

Final Thoughts


Learning the Chinese word “what” is beneficial for all Chinese learners. You’ll find that it’s versatile to be used on many occasions. 什么? 你不相信吗?(What? don’t you believe it?) See, I just used it again to talk to you!

I hope this article shares useful content for you about the Chinese word “what.” In Maayot, we bring simple ways to enhance your Chinese learning journey. If you want to learn more, subscribe to us for more interesting Chinese stories! You should definitely view some articles below that is good for your Chinese learning:
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