Top 10 Chinese Characters for Travelers in China to Know

For a shockingly non-hanzi-focused blog, this post may seem a bit out of “character.” I was inspired to write this as I was wandering around China recently (within the last year) and actually found myself saying, “Wow! It sure helps to be able to recognize a few characters while traveling.” I’m not talking about those characters snoring on the train seat next to you (ba-doom TSSSS!), I’m taking about the signs on buildings, streets, and road maps.

If you get out of the big cities that have English translations (not everywhere even there), you might be glad you can recognize these.

Other words could be on this list (like “entrance” 入口 rù kǒu, “exit” 出口 chū kǒu, “hospital” (医院 yī yuàn, etc.) but context usually helps you figure those out (i.e. people are coming out of a door, so that’s probably the exit, and that big red cross on the building probably means it’s a hospital). Regardless of whether you can pronounce these characters (or even speak Chinese), anyone traveling to/in China can benefit from being able to recognize these characters (and yes, I know, there are more than ten on the list).

As usual, I’m projecting myself onto my imagined reader. I wrote this list assuming you’re a traveler like me:

  • Minimalist = I take 0-1 bag (and it’s always something I can bēi ).
  • Ridiculously low standards = I don’t need to eat in fancy-schmancy restaurants and 0-star hotels are OK as long as nothing crawls on me while I’m sleeping (or as long as I don’t wake up).

Now that I’ve thoroughly removed myself from everyone’s “potential travel buddy” list, on to the list of words!

(Leaving for China tomorrow? Download a printable copy of this list to carry around with you and just “point and click” to ask for help.)

[Download not found] (requires Adobe Reader, which is available here).

1. 网吧 wǎng ba = internet cafe [net bar]

At the very least, you want to be able to go online and find what you need (including the other 9 words on this list). If you just want to memorize the first character ( = net) that should be enough. It’s unlikely that you’ll go looking for a internet cafe and accidentally end up at a tennis court (网球场 wǎngqiú chǎng).

2. nán = male

3. nǚ = female

Useful for going into the correct restroom.

4. 公厕 gōng cè = public toilet

That second character is a little bit complicated, I know. Just look for the first one and a squarish thing second. These two characters are usually outside. There are other ways to say restroom as well that you may see inside (for example, inside a restaurant):

  • 洗手间 xǐ shǒu jiān = restroom [wash hands room]
  • 卫生间 wèi shēng jiān = restroom [sanitation room]

But I want you to be prepared for the worst. I’m not sure if anyone will really thank me for adding this to the list. After going inside you might wish that you’d been happily illiterate and just gone in the bushes.

5. 住宿 zhù sù = lodging

If you want a nice hotel, look for a desk with four world clocks on the wall behind it. But, if you’ve got standards as low as mine, these little characters are your all-access pass to cheap lodging. This is the kind of hotel or hostel young Chinese people stay at when traveling on a budget. I do, however, feel a need to put a little

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The author of this post cannot vouch for the safety or cleanliness of the lodging acquired by using these characters. The red font color used in this disclaimer legally releases the author from any responsibility and should be taken to mean, “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!”

6. 兰州 Lán zhōu = a place good noodles come from

If you’re hungry and you don’t know what to eat, look for the “three lines with bunny ears” and all your gastrointestinal strife will be over. Most every good-sized town in China has one of these eateries and I’ve never had a bad meal at one yet (and they’re cheap too!). Things to order include:

But usually they have big picture posters that you can just point and grunt at. Since the first character (兰)is so rare outside of Lanzhou itself you can pretty much just watch for that one.

7. xǐ = wash

If you pack as light as I do, and you’re out traveling for more than a few days, you might want to do a little laundry (saves buying new clothes everywhere). You need to find a laundry place (usually not a self-service laundromat) and this little guy will be in the sign somewhere. It may be something like:

or even

  • 干洗店 gān xǐ diàn = dry cleaning shop

But if you go to a dry cleaner’s, you’d better as if they can do “shuǐ xǐ” 水洗 (water washing). Or, if you don’t want to hassle with actually speaking Chinese, just hold up a sock and see if they nod or scowl.

8. 汽车站 qì chē zhàn = bus stop [vapor vehicle stop]

9. 火车站 huǒ chē zhàn = train station [fire vehicle stop]

10. ()机场 (fēi) jī chǎng = airport [(fly) machine field]

When coming in or out of a city, you’re probably going to be passing through one of these three places. If you open up a map, or watch for street signs, it’ll help to know what these look like.

Have a great trip! zhù nǐ yí lù shùnfēng 祝你一路顺风 (bon voyage)!

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Got your own list of travel characters or China travel tips? Leave a link in the comments.

Additional sites for travelers to China:

Any other useful China travel links? Let me know.

13 Replies to “Top 10 Chinese Characters for Travelers in China to Know”

  1. I’ve found shang (up) zhong (middle)and xia (down) useful when traveling by train, at least of you go hard sleeper. Then you know which bunk is yours. And they’re pretty easy ones.

    I’ve lived in China for 4 years and still didn’t know the ones for lodging (oh the shame) but male and female were the very first characters I ever learned to read, before my first trip over in ’99. I also made sure to learn the characters for the numbers 1-10, which is nice to know, but most signs nowadays use the same numbers we use anyway.

  2. your blog is very useful, I lived in China for one year and I am definitely aware of the importance to know Chinese characters. By the way, I’d be very glad to have your link on our blog home page.

  3. You shouldn’t rely on colours (in this case, red) for disclaimers. It works for me, but might not work for people with colour blindness.

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