Bù le 不了: So Simple, So Unknown to Foreigners

I’m not really sure why most of us laowai don’t know about this little phrase. It’s certainly not because it’s too complicated. Maybe it’s just so short we don’t realize we’ve heard it. I’ve never seen any books or dictionaries that explain it, so I’ll try:

Bù le 不了 = No thanks (I don’t want to do something)

It’s not really “no thanks,” because there’s no xiè in there, but it does mean “no” and I get the feeling it’s used in situations where we would say “no thanks.”

Apparently, it’s best used between friends or someone you can speak informally with rather than shop owners or your boss. Here are the two situations in which I’ve heard it used:

1. A friend on her balcony waving to a friend walking past:

A: Nǐ yào bú yào shàng lái hē chá? 你要不要上来喝茶?
Do you want to come up and have some tea?

B: Bù le. Wǒ huí qù le. 不了. 我回去了.
No thanks. I’m going home.

As I understand it, in this situation “bù le” 不了 is short for “bú yòng le” 不用了 meaning “that’s not necessary.” But that explanation doesn’t really help me because if I were inviting you for tea, I wouldn’t assume it was necessary. Again, that’s why I translate it as “no thanks.”

2. Two friends (A and B) chatting at a sidewalk cafe. A third friend (C) walks past.

A: Nǐ hǎo! Gēn wǒmen yìqǐ chīfàn ba. 你好!跟我们一起吃饭吧.
Hi! Eat with us.

C: Bù le. Wǒ yǐjīng chī le. 不了. 我已经吃了.
No thanks. I already ate.

Notice in both situations they are friends. Also notice that “bù le” 不了 is immediately followed by a jièkǒu 借口 of some sort.

Does anyone else have some insight into this little nugget? Please enlighten us.

Comments

  1. Interesting. So they were saying “bù le” and not “bú le”? That seems to make more sense if it’s short for “bú yòng le”.

  2. Daan

    Isn’t the bú in bú yòng le only 2nd tone because it is followed by a 4th? Remove the 4th tone that follows and bù should return to its standard 4th tone.

  3. I think situations listed below could possibly be explained by “No,thanks.”

    1.not necessary for the person being invited.Fellows could have seen each other the other day and both of them don’t think meet again so soon is necessary.”Bu Le”could be use in here.

    2.just find some topics to talk about.
    Perhaps the story could help you to understand it better.My classmates came to return my camera back to me and we had a long chat while my mother coming home from work.It was almost 6 p.m.,my mom invited her to stay for supper.The girl said “不用了bu yong le.And said her mother had finished cooking as supplimentary.
    Cultural background may be the story for this situation.Inviting people to stay for a meal is what Chinese always do.It’s not necessarily mean you must accept the invitation.

    Like what you said,”No thanks”followed by an excuse.Indeed,I think it could be used as a relatively polite way to refuse invitation or not to have everything on the table,esp.people’s intention.(Peihaps they’re not really inviting you for meals.)

  4. Dion is right. “Bu” is 4th tone unless it’s followed by another 4th tone. In this case, since “le” is the “neutral” tone “bu” stays as “bu4.”

  5. I’ve heard it sometimes during nearly 4 years in Taiwan. But if not used at the right time, it actually seems like it might be considered quite rude, is this phrase common in China?

  6. As a laowai I speak Chinese with my spouse every day, and sometimes w/ Chinese friends, but haven’t heard this one. My initial thought is that there’s an undertone of friendly banter or feigned assertiveness (i.e., strongly or stubbornly refusing to do something, suggested by the “le”)–since, between good friends, you can complain or tease. But #2 in Ana’s comment implies my guess probably isn’t true?

  7. Interesting post! I personally have never heard this phrase before, though. Albert, have you heard it in a specific region or more all across China?

    I somehow tend to link it to the that is commonly used in Chinese subtitles to translate “no”. Using that in real life however has been criticized by my Chinese friends.

    不了 appears to be a really useful and simple chunk, but that might just be a reason to be cautious of “Laowai overuse”.

    I’d love to read about more situations where 不了 would be appropriate.

  8. @China,

    I heard it the first time in Kunming spoken by a native of Guangxi (I think) and just recently in Guangzhou spoken by a native Cantonese speaker. So far, only heard it in the South, but I suspect it’s up North too. Can anyone confirm?

  9. I have lived in Taiwan for two years and I’ve heard this phrase in Taiwanese a million times. However, I have never ever heard anyone say it while they speak Mandarin! Could this be related to dialect in other places as well?

  10. It seems I was wrong. The expression I’ve heard so many times is something else I can’t write with Chinese characters, but it means more like “没有了”. It’s not the same expression anyway, sorry.

  11. I thought this was an abreviation of bú yào le

    bú yào = No, I don’t want it/too (a bit abrupt/rude/childish)
    bú yào le = same meaning but the tone is softened a bit by the le
    Bù le = a more informal version of above

    sorry not my PC so I can’t easily use characters.

  12. There’s an example of this phrase in the movie “To Live” (活着). I remember clearly because I had just started learning Chinese when I watched the movie, so I asked my teacher about it. I think it appears when someone offers Ge You’s character to come in for tea, and he declines.

  13. John,
    The votes are in. We’ve got one bona fide situation where it’s absolutely appropriate to use “bu le”: when someone invites you for tea and you decline!

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