How do you say “I love you” in Mandarin?
Well, that would just be as simple as saying 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ), right?
Unfortunately, the reality is that the translation isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.
But that should really come as no surprise to Chinese language learners.
It’s not that 我爱你 is outright wrong, as it does really mean “I love you.” In fact, it’s pretty common among those learning Chinese, as well as native Mandarin speakers who have grown up in or are surrounded by international communities.
But the fact is that it’s a direct translation, and any bilingual person or language student knows that direct translations often don’t carry the same weight or meaning as the original phrase.
In China, you’d mostly use expressions other than “I love you” to show your love and affection.
Let’s dive in deeper and look at some different ways to express the sentiment of “I love you” in Chinese!
“I Love You” in Mandarin + Why You Might Not Want to Say It (Necessarily)
Wait! But Can I Still Say 我爱你?
To reiterate, there’s nothing technically incorrect about 我爱你. It’s more that the phrase itself is a strange phenomenon that isn’t very common in traditional Chinese culture.
While you may be entirely accustomed to telling your friends, partners and family members that you love them, Chinese families are not very vocal or direct when it comes to their affection for their loved ones.
So naturally, saying 我爱你 to someone from China might come across as strange, and that person might react in a way that’s less than ideal for the person delivering what was intended to be a wonderful message.
But surely, Chinese parents tell their kids that they love them, right? Yes, they do, but they tend to do so with their actions rather than words.
By now, you’ve probably already seen the Pixar short “Bao,” and if you haven’t, check it out!
Chinese people and some other Asian people rejoiced as they found that the animated feature perfectly reflected the kind of relationships they had with their own parents. As Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi explained in Xinhua, “Traditionally, Chinese parents don’t say ‘I love you’ to their kids. They say it with food or by fussing over them.”
Just as “I love you” isn’t typically thrown around a lot (or ever) in Chinese families, romance isn’t really embedded in Chinese culture the way it is in many other cultures. While English-speaking cultures often make a big deal out of who says “I love you” first, Chinese couples generally don’t really care. In a comparative analysis of luxury brand ads of the West versus China, a stark contrast in perceptions of romance were unveiled as it was shown that the Chinese ads focused on commitment, reassurance and security, whereas the American and European ads highlighted passionate and erotic love.
Of course, none of this means Western cultures don’t value commitment and security like the Chinese do, or that the Chinese don’t value love. There’s just more value placed on companionship in Chinese culture, and less of an association between love and passion.
All of this makes it pretty clear that cultural context is extremely important in learning Chinese. That’s why you can gain so much by learning with FluentU.
4 Ways Mandarin Speakers Really Say “I Love You”
Now if you really want to do as the Chinese do, here’s how you would show your Chinese significant other that you love them.
1. More with the gifts, less with the words.
The Chinese are all about showing your love as opposed to confessing your love, and this is often done with gifts and financial provision. While this may seem superficial to those from other cultures, wealth is seen as indicative as stability for a future, which falls in line with the ideals the Chinese have about love.
While Westerners may more often believe that personal sacrifices like time, energy and effort are strong indications of love, China’s history of extreme poverty shaped the social norms of correlating affection with money.
2. Celebrate all the Chinese romantic holidays.
If you thought Valentine’s Day was excessive, wait until you hear about all the romantic holidays in China!
The Chinese might not outright say “I love you” to their loved ones, but they sure do have lots of calendar days celebrating their love for one another.
Although it was only celebrated once, January 4th in 2013 was known as “Love You Forever” day. The reason why it was such a big deal was because the date 2013/1/4 in Chinese is 二零一三一四 (èr líng yī sān yī sì), which sounds similar to the phrase “love you for life,” or 爱你一生一世 (ài nǐ yī shēng yī shì). This holiday was literally a once-in-a-lifetime event, with thousands of couples rushing to get hitched on the historic date.
Then there are those days of love that the Chinese celebrate year after year.
In addition to international Valentine’s Day, China has their own V-Day known as Double Seventh Festival or 七夕节 (qī xī jié), a traditional festival celebrating the legend about a forbidden love between a weaver girl and someone with a name meaning “cowherd.” It’s on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. While many of the festival traditions have disappeared over the years, the day still bears significance to the Chinese, who celebrate by showering their partners with flowers, chocolates and other gifts.
Another holiday you might have heard of is the Chinese Internet Valentine’s Day, created by netizens a few years back. The dates 5/20 and 5/21 in Mandarin, 五二零 (wǔ èr líng) and 五二一 (wǔ èr yī) respectively, are homophones of 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ). Women often expect gifts or red packets on May 20th, so be prepared!
3. Replace “I love you” with these expressions.
Those three little words might not have the same effect in Chinese as they do in English, but thankfully, there are a few other phrases you can use to express the same romantic feelings.
Here are some things you can say to get your flirt on in Chinese:
我喜欢你 (wǒ xǐ huān nǐ) — I like you
我好想你 (wǒ hǎo xiǎng nǐ) — I miss you so much
我为你疯狂 (wǒ wèi nǐ fēng kuáng) — I am crazy about you
我暗恋你 (wǒ àn liàn nǐ) — I have a crush on you
我希望和你交往 (wǒ xī wàng hé nǐ jiāo wǎng) — I would like for us to (go on a) date
我想跟你在一起 (wǒ xiǎng gēn nǐ zài yī qǐ) — I want to be with you
我想吻你 (wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ) — I want to kiss you
我只属于你 (wǒ zhǐ shǔ yú nǐ) — I only belong to you
4. Use internet slang.
By now, you might have heard about Chinese internet slang through friends. Maybe you’ve come across it yourself on Weibo. Online chat has evolved to create “shorthand” alternatives for expressions of love, and many Chinese people are more likely to use such slang. For example, 爱老虎油 (ài lǎo hǔ yóu) sounds a lot like the English “I love you,” and it’s a lighthearted way of sharing your feelings.
Other phrases that you can use via text or online is number slang. As you’ve probably figured out by now, the Chinese are very big on creating slang by using similar sounds between numbers and other words. Remember 5/20 and 2013/1/4?
Anyhow, here are some subtle ways of saying how you really feel using numbers:
1314 / 一三一四 (yī sān yī sì) → 一生一世 (yī shēng yī shì) — forever
520 / 五二零 (wǔ èr líng) → 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — forever
5201314 / 五二零一三一四 (wǔ èr líng yī sān yī sì) → 我爱你一生一世 (wǒ ài nǐ yī shēng yī shì) — I’ll love you forever (can be shortened to 2013 for 爱你一生)
521 / 五二一 (wǔ èr yī) → 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — I love you
770 / 七七零 (qī qī líng) → 亲亲你 (qīn qīn nǐ) — kiss you
880 / 八八零 (bā bā líng) → 抱抱你 (bào bào nǐ) — hug you
Love is a tricky business, isn’t it?
If you’re adamant about saying “I love you” in Chinese in the literal way, by all means, go for it.
Just be prepared for the possibility of strange looks, a bit of laughter and maybe some comments about you being crazy or drunk.
And One More Thing...
If you want to continue learning Chinese with interactive and authentic Chinese content, then you'll love FluentU.
FluentU naturally eases you into learning Chinese language. Native Chinese content comes within reach, and you'll learn Chinese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos.
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
FluentU's Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a 100% personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.