When you want to ask someone out on a date, what’s one of the first things you need to discuss?
The time of your meet-up, of course!
This is one reason why telling time is considered to be a basic conversation skill for Chinese learners.
Knowing how to indicate time helps you arrange all social occasions from first dates to business meetings.
With the essential skill of time-telling, you’ll be better able to manage your schedule and coordinate with others.
So, let’s get started on learning how to tell time in Chinese.
Beyond the Basics: How to Tell Time in Mandarin Chinese Like a Native
How to Name Hours in Chinese
We’ll begin by learning how to tell hours in Chinese. To tell the hour, simply say:
number of the hour + 点 (diǎn – o’clock)
But first, to do that, we need to remember the numbers in Chinese.
If you already know your Chinese numbers, that’s great. Here we’ll revisit them as a review, especially since there’s a special “two” we use in telling time, which is different from the “two” we use in counting.
Step 1: Have a Quick Review of Chinese Numbers 1-12
To review, here are the digits 1 through 10 in Chinese. Do you know them? Count with me:
一 (yī) one
两 (liǎng) two
*Note that when referring to time and currency, we use a different word for two than the one for counting, which is 二 (èr) two.
三 (sān) three
四 (sì) four
五 (wǔ) five
六 (lìu) six
七 (qī) seven
八 (bā) eight
九 (jǐu) nine
十 (shí) ten
Numbers 11 and 12 follow a certain pattern. To say 11, we essentially say “10+1,” and 12 is basically “10+2.” Therefore:
十一 (shí yī) eleven
十二 (shí èr) twelve
Step 2: Learn to Use the Number +点 Formula
Now that we’ve covered digits 1 through 12, we can easily tell hours in Chinese. For example:
- 两点 (liǎng diǎn) two o’clock
- 七点 (qī diǎn) seven o’clock
- 十一点 (shí yī diǎn) eleven o’clock
- 十二点 (shí èr diǎn) twelve o’clock
Let’s move on to telling minutes.
How to Name Minutes in Chinese
To tell minutes in Chinese, use the formula:
number + 分 (fēn – minutes).
To ensure that you’ll always know how to talk about minutes, let’s review the digits up to 60.
Step 1: Have a Quick Review of Chinese Numbers 11-60
Teen digits in Chinese are “10+x,” with x being the number added to 10. For example:
- 十三 (shí sān) thirteen
- 十四 (shí sì) fourteen
- 十五 (shí wǔ) fifteen
- 十九 (shí jǐu) nineteen
The twenties follow a pattern like the teens:
- 二十 (èr shí) twenty or “two tens”
- 二十一 (èr shí yī) twenty-one or “two tens plus one”
- 二十二 (èr shí è) twenty-two or “two tens plus two”
The thirties, forties and fifties follow same pattern:
- 三十 (sān shí) thirty
- 三十三 (sān shí sān) thirty-three
- 四十 (sì shí) forty
- 四十四 (sì shí sì) forty-four
- 五十 (wǔ shí) fifty
- 五十六 (wǔ shí lìu) fifty-six
Step 2: Learn to Use the Number + 分 Formula
Based on what we’ve learned above, here are some examples of how to tell minutes:
- 十三分 (shí sān fēn) thirteen minutes
- 十四分 (shí sì fēn) forteen minutes
- 三十三 (sān shí sān fēn) thirty-three minutes
- 五十 (wǔ shí fēn) fifty minutes
Note that, whereas in English it’s fine to omit the word “minutes” (for 8:10, we just say “eight ten”), in Chinese it sounds more natural to always include 分 and say “minutes.”
So, it’s correct to say, “八点十分” (bā diǎn shí fēn), literally “eight o’clock ten minutes.”
How to Tell Half and Quarter Hours
To say “half past,” we use 半 (bàn) which means “half.” For example:
五点半 (wǔ diǎn bàn) half past five, 5:30.
To indicate quarters, we say 一刻 (yī kè) which means “quarter hour.” For example:
三点一刻 (sān diǎn yī kè) quarter past three, 3:15.
Just to note, in Chinese, there’s no “ten to” or “ten past.” Similarly, in Chinese, there’s also no “quarter to.” There’s only “quarter after.” Interesting, I know—that’s just the way it is!
Below, we’ll combine everything we’ve learned so far and show you examples of how to indicate half and quarter hours.
How to Tell Any Time in Chinese
We’re now familiar with the number system and how to tell hours and minutes. Let’s put it all together and go through some examples of telling time.
十一点二十分 (shí yī diǎn è shí fēn) eleven twenty
四点十分 (sì diǎn shí fēn) four ten
九点十五分 (jǐu diǎn shí wǔ fēn) nine fifteen
九点一刻 (jǐu diǎn yī kè) quarter after nine
一点三十分 (yī diǎn sān shí fēn) one thirty
一点半 (yī diǎn bàn) half past one
You can now feel proud of yourself for knowing how to tell time in Chinese! But you might have one remaining question, “How do you differentiate between a.m. and p.m.?”
Morning or Afternoon?
To indicate a.m. and p.m. in Chinese we say “in the morning,” “in the afternoon” or “in the evening.” There’s no direct translation of a.m. and p.m.. Most of the time, a.m. and p.m. is understood in context.
We’ll teach you some vocabulary for indicating time of day:
- 早上 (zǎo shàng) morning
- 下午(xià wǔ) afternoon
- 晚上 (wǎn shàng) evening
- 中午 (zhōng wǔ) noon
- 半夜 (bàn yè) midnight / middle of the night
Here are some examples of the above vocabulary being used to tell time:
- 5:00 a.m.
早上五点 (zǎo shàng wǔ diǎn) five in the morning
- 3:00 p.m.
下午三点 (xià wǔ sān diǎn) three in the afternoon
- 7:10 p.m.
晚上七点十分 (wǎn shàng qī diǎn shí fēn) seven ten in the evening
- 12 p.m.
中午十二点 (zhōng wǔ shí èr diǎn) twelve noon
- 2:30 a.m.
半夜两点半 (bàn yè liǎng diǎn bàn) two thirty in the middle of the night
Key Times of the Day
You’re pretty much all set when it comes to telling time now, but we want to give you some bonus content. Here’s useful vocabulary related to key times during the day:
- 用餐时间 (yòng cān shí jiān) meal time
- 午休时间 (wǔ xīu shí jiān) lunch time
- 晚饭时间 (wǎn fàn shí jiān) dinner time
- 休息时间 (xīu xī shí jiān) break time
- 就寢时间 (jìu qǐn shí jiān) bedtime
Let’s use this vocabulary in sentences, so you can see how to employ them in real life:
- 用餐的时间到了, 请先洗手。(yòng cān de shí jiān dào le, qǐng xiān xǐ shǒu.)
It’s time to eat, please wash your hands.
- 午休时, 办公室里没有人。(wǔ xīu shí, bàn gōng shì lǐ méi yǒu rén.)
There’s no one in the office during lunch time.
- 晚餐的时间到了，但是爸爸还没回家。(wǎn cān de shí jiān dào le, dàn shì bà bà hái méi húi jiā.)
It’s dinner time, but dad is not home yet.
- 我们公司三点休息。(wǒ mén gōng sī sān diǎn xīu xī.)
Our office takes a break at three.
- 就寢时间到了，小朋友请安静。(jìu qǐn shí jiān dào le, xiǎo péng yǒu qǐng ān jìng.)
It’s bedtime now, so kids, please be quiet.
Sometimes you don’t need to say what time it is, you only want to tell someone to be more timely. For situations where you want to communicate the need to rush, we’ll give you the common phrases to get your message through:
- 快点吧 (kuài diǎn ba) Hurry up
- 我迟到了 (wǒ chí dào le) I’m late
- 请早点到 (qǐng zǎo diǎn dào) Be early
- 请准时到 (qǐng zhǔn shí dào) Be on time
Let’s look at example sentences to illustrate the above vocabulary:
- 快点吧！我要上课了。(kuài diǎn ba! wǒ yào shàng kè le.)
Hurry up! I need to go to class.
- 我要迟到了， 请你快点。(wǒ yào chí dào le, qǐng nǐ kuài diǎn.)
I’m going to be late, please hurry.
- 明天的会议很重要，请早点到。(míng tiān de hùi yì hěn zhòng yào, qǐng zǎo diǎn dào.)
Tomorrow’s meeting is very important, please be early.
- 火车一般准时开车，旅客请准时到。(hǔo chē yī bān zhǔn shí kāi chē, lǚ kè qǐng zhǔn shí dào.)
The train runs on schedule; passengers please be on time.
Telling time is one of many basic skills you can acquire in building your Chinese language foundation.
With numbers and time under your belt, you’re well on your way to conquering many other conversational basics.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.