Probably the first thing you will learn in Mandarin classes Singapore is how to say “no” in Chinese. Believe it or not, actually there’s no direct way to say “no”, or for that matter “yes”, in Mandarin. There are 5 or more ways to say “no” in Chinese. Each one of them has a slightly different meaning and each is used in different situations and places. In Chinese, the context of a conversation decides, more than anything else, how you should say “no” in Chinese.
The common structure to convey a negative meaning in Mandarin is a negation marker + verb.
Let’s understand it further with the following example. If you have to refuse in English to a yes-no question such as “Do you want coffee?”, you will reply either “No” or “No, I don’t”. On the other hand, in Mandarin, you will say something like “我不要喝“.
Here is a brief overview of 3 common negations in Mandarin.
Pinyin: bù 不（不）
English: not; no
This is the most common “no” word in Chinese. This word is something that people learning Chinese in Singapore learn on the first day of their class. This negation is rarely, if ever, used alone. It is nearly always used as a negative prefix.
Here is an English statement in whose Chinese translation this word will feature: That pen is not mine
Pinyin: méi 沒（没）
English: not; have not
This is also a common word for negation. You are likely to learn it in the first few classes. You can’t get far in China if you don’t learn this word. After all, if you don’t know it, how will you be able to deny things?
Here’s an English statement in whose Chinese translation this word will feature: I haven’t got any sugar.
Pinyin: fēi 非（非）
English: to negate; not; wrong
Among all other negations in Chinese, 非 is the most formal one. You will find it in text related to the law. It is common to see this negation feature in legal warnings or legal notices. Here’s a statement in whose English translation, this word will feature: Stealing is illegal.
Apart from learning the words that convey negation, you should learn to say ‘no’ the way Chinese do. Unlike in the Western society, where one can easily say ‘no’ directly without any risk of embarrassing or insulting the other person, in the Chinese society vague and indirect remarks are commonly used to convey ‘no’.
One of the most common ways of saying ‘no’ in this part of the world is to start your refusal by expressing your profound embarrassment at the situation. The other popular method is by being vague and roundabout. This basically means not giving a direct answer. Popular terms which Chinese use for this purpose is ‘perhaps’, ‘I’m not sure’, and “maybe”. Making excuses and passing the blame to someone else is also a common method used by Chinese to say no and protect the relationship with the listener.