Ask a question

How do you ask a question in Chinese?

I just learned that Chinese is a tonal language, but that made me wonder, how do you ask a question if you can't raise your voice at the end? What are the different ways to let someone know you are trying to ask a question?


All the other answers are constructive and informative. I focused on your question on the part; "how do you ask a question if you can't raise your voice at the end?" 

Intonation is very important and the key into learning chinese language or other chinese dialects. Practice the four basic tonal intonation often, you will be surprise that it is not that hard!

Good luck!! :)

7 Answers by Expert Tutors

Tutors, sign in to answer this question.
Garnet H. | Calculus, Physics, Stat, Linear Algebra, GRE, GMAT, SAT... TutoringCalculus, Physics, Stat, Linear Algebra,...
4.9 4.9 (898 lesson ratings) (898)

depends on the type of question. if it's a yes/no question (in other words it requires only a yes or no for an answer), then you use the word -ma (this is toneless) at the end.

there are other type of questions, (like when, who, what, how)....these questions have their chinese counterparts

what - shenme

how - zenme

when - shenme shihou (what time)

who - shui (second tone)


these words are easily recognizable as question words, and there are tones on the first part of each word (everything but the -me part)


Lianghua L. | Loving Chinese Teacher with business background and an ardent travelerLoving Chinese Teacher with business bac...
4.5 4.5 (2 lesson ratings) (2)

As a native Chinese speaker, I can easily understand if you are asking a question by the following ways, even you don't raise your voice at then end. If you put a question particle like "ma" or "ne" at the end of a sence, I know you need me answer "yes" or "no". For an example, Ni chi fan le ma? (Did you have a meal?) If you put question word like "zen me" (how), "shen me" (what), "shei" (who) etc in the sentence, I know you want a specific answer from me. I hope this helps.

Joseph L. | Just a Chinese speaking, Illustrating, Animating, Swim InstructorJust a Chinese speaking, Illustrating, A...
4.0 4.0 (1 lesson ratings) (1)

Another way to ask a question is to create a variable: "Is or Isn't" (shi bu shi), "Have or Have Not" (you mei you), etc.

Rachel K. | Passionate Mandarin Chinese and East Asian Studies tutor Passionate Mandarin Chinese and East Asi...

The general rule is that there are specific grammar structures and words that mark a sentence as a question in Chinese. The presence of a 'question word' such as shenme, zenme, shei/shui, ji, na/nei, etc., a 'question particle' such as ma or ne, or 'question grammar' such as Verb-bu-Verb or you mei you are the main ways to mark the sentence as a question.

Advanced and native speakers also use inflection on top of tones, but this can be tricky for a beginning student to reproduce. It's most productive to focus on question grammar at the beginning.

Jolene C. | Teaching Chinese / MandarinTeaching Chinese / Mandarin

You can also ask:

Qing wen (ni xing ming) ? -- May I ask (your name)?

Qing wen (xian zai shi ji dian)? -- May I ask ( what time is it now)?


Monroe M. | Career, Business, Marketing, & Life Coach. As seen on CNBC, CNN, etc.Career, Business, Marketing, & Life Coac...
5.0 5.0 (61 lesson ratings) (61)


First: Wyzant does not appear to support the use of Chinese characters, so I apologize that I can only reply using 'pinyin'.

Yes, Chinese is a tonal language, but it's very easy to know if a question is being asked.

There are FOUR ways in Chinese to do this:

1) The first is to use the character 'ma' at the end of the sentence. When the word 'ma' is placed at the end of a STATEMENT, it automatically makes it a question. For example, "Ni shi mei guo ren ma?" = Are you American?

2)The second is to use verb duplication and the word 'not': 'bu' or 'mei' (depending on the situation). Here, you basically say "You are or are not American?" = "Ni shi bu shi mei guo ren?" or "You have or have not money?" = "Ni you mei you qian?"

3)The third is to use a question word, just like in English, i.e. "What time" in Chinese is: Shenme shihou? When you hear a question word structure, you automatically will know that the person is asking a question.

4) Contrary to popular belief, you can also just raise the tone at the end of the sentence, just like in English. Chinese is not just a tonal language; it is also a contextual language. For this reason, it is easier for a Chinese native to understand what you are saying when your sentence is longer. Why? The longer the sentence, the less important the tones are because they will know what tones you WANTED to say simply based on the context. For example, if you say the word 'ma' with the wrong tone, no one will know you are referring to a horse. But if you are pointing at a horse and say, 'ma!', even if the tone is wrong, they will know you are trying to say 'horse', and not 'mother', not 'question', and not 'to scold'. In the same vein, if you ask someone a question, and raise the tone at the end of the last word, everyone usually knows what tone you intended to originally say, and will know it is a question. This technique is used by Chinese natives too, particularly as English becomes more and more popular in the world.

Hope this helps!


The best answer to this question!  
- Angela Li, Chinese editor/writer/tutor, Mandarin Voice-over
Qi Z. |

That is really depends on the Scenes and situation. Usually, if you want to ask a General question,in the last of the sentence add a character ma? ( ??)?XX ?? Also, some question you can say, shi bu shi? qu bu qu? hao bu hao. Repeat the character. ?X?? ??? ???? ????