It's a good idea to know how to say thank you in Chinese, because you will be saying it often. When you travel in China, you are likely to be on the receiving end of a lot of kindness. Even strangers you meet will see you as a guest in their homeland and want to treat you especially well.
So we'll guide you how to say this phrase, and then I'll fill you in on some very important cultural background about when not to use this Mandarin thank you. You're not going to want to miss out on that.
Now let's plunge right into how to say thank you in Chinese. The spelling, using pinyin is like this:
You can listen to it here....
Listen closely to the sound of that 'x' in 'xiè'. You might be tempted to make it with the English 'sh' sound, but really, that's not quite right. Imitate until you find yourself somewhere between an 's' and an 'sh' (if there is such a thing as being in between two sounds).
If you're thrown by the pinyin system, you could think of it as 'shyeh shyeh'. But again, it's not totally right to use the English 'sh', though you would probably be understood. It just wouldn't sound pretty to Chinese ears (or eventually to your own ears once you're more practiced).
Now about the tones (how your voice falls, rises, or holds even, for each syllable - very important for speaking Chinese) . The first 'xiè' is a falling tone. It starts high and drops. The second 'xie' is a neutral tone. The neutral tone should be said lightly and not really have any noticeable tone about it.
Here is an mp3 of Audrey repeating the thank you in Chinese. She goes from super slow to normal speed, which should make it absolutely clear. Say it aloud after she says it each time.xiè_xie_repeated.mp3
Do you notice how the second 'xie' is much lighter? The first one has the tone dropping down and the second tone is not distinct. Listen above and practice again.
If you are given a compliment by a Chinese (and you will likely be given many), it is of course very natural to want to say thank you in Chinese in return. But in this situation, you actually should not say thanks. Very strange, isn't it? Let me explain.
Chinese value modesty very highly. It comes from Confucian philosophy from long ago, and like many things in the culture from long ago, it has stuck around. So when someone gives you a compliment - for example, they tell you "Oh, you look so young for your age", the best thing to do is to deny it with a "no no no". It doesn't really matter if you are 35 and in fact look 21 (lucky dog) or if you're 35 and look, well, 35.
For whatever reason, in the Chinese mind, to accept a compliment somehow also means that you are agreeing that it's true. And that's how by saying thank you in Chinese to a compliment, you have just crossed the modesty line and ventured somewhere into arrogance territory.
So remember: After a compliment, do some head shaking, hand waving, plus the "no, no, no". In Chinese, that's a 'bù, bù, bù'. Of course, you can adjust the number of 'bù's according to your inspiration.
Listen to Audrey deflect a compliment with a Chinese no no no...modest_denial.mp3
One last word about this habit of denying the compliment. I'm a little worried that you may be saying to yourself "Well, that's the Chinese way, but I'm not Chinese. I'll say thank you and they'll just have to learn to deal with my Western ways."
You may want to think again.
The Chinese are often in the habit of throwing around compliments very loosely. The example I gave about saying someone looks young for their age is a great example. Often conversation turns to age, for whatever reason. And when people give the actual number, I have never once in my experience heard that revelation followed by anything other than enthusiastic gestures of astonishment that the person could possibly look so young and have had so many birthdays.
My point is, a lot of these compliments are just routine small talk. I wouldn't call it flattery, because generally it's not so devious. It's just making conversation, or ice-breaking. So if someone sends you a compliment that they don't really mean in their heart of hearts, (though nothing ill was meant by it) after you offer a thank you in Chinese, they may be confounded by the fact that you seemed to accept such an exaggeration instead of playing the normal role of denying it.
But it's up to you how to handle it. Of course there are other options besides the 'bù bù bù', where you will come off fine. But I offer that common response here for the sake of keeping it simple.
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