Get What You Want in Chinese: How to Express Desires and Needs
How often do you claim that you need something when it’s merely something that you want?
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one.
People confuse their wants with their needs all the time. While humans really only need food, water, shelter and air to live, we tend to speak in hyperboles. We just love to exaggerate.
We’ll say, “I need a cup of coffee,” “We need to talk” or “I need space,” when the reality is that we just want those things and so much more.
If there’s something we can take away from this, it’s the fact that we talk about our desires more than we might realize. Therefore, it just makes sense to learn how you’d express your wants in the language that you’re studying.
Although it’s common practice for native and fluent English speakers to interchange “want” and “need” when communicating desires, there’s a clearer distinction in Chinese.
The thing is, learners sometimes trip up on the fact that certain situations call for specific terms, and that 要 (yào) meaning “to want” isn’t always the appropriate word of choice.
So before we get into making “I want” statements in Mandarin, let’s go over the reasons why you can’t always fall back on 要 when vocalizing your wants and needs.
Why You Can’t Always Use 要 (yào)
要 is one of the easy Chinese verbs you learn in the early stages. As you move onto basic Chinese grammar, you also learn that it can be used to answer yes or no questions about desires—saying 要 when you want something and 不要 (bù yào) when you don’t.
Expressing desire and disinterest isn’t as straightforward as stating 要 or 不要, but it’s also not as complicated as you might imagine it to be.
Varying degrees of wanting
In English, you can say things like, “I sort of want to go out dancing,” or “I’m dying for a soda.” It’s kind of similar in Mandarin, where you’d use 要 to be more direct and 想要 (xiǎng yào) to come off more politely.
So when you want a soda, you could say either one of the following statements:
我要可乐。(wǒ yào kělè.) — I want a cola.
我想要可乐。(wǒ xiǎng yào kělè.) — I’d like a cola.
Specific vocabulary for specific circumstances
Wants or desires can be divided into the material and abstract, and in Mandarin, there are specific sets of verbs for each. However, it’s not just the tangibility or intangibility of the desire that determines which verb is appropriate.
While 要 is applicable in several contexts, synonyms like 想要 and 想 (xiǎng) are more fitting in other instances.
For object desires, 要 or 想要 can be used, as you can see in the previous examples. Meanwhile, 想 is mostly used when discussing plans, as shown below.
你想吃火锅吗? (nǐ xiǎng chī huǒguō ma?) — Do you want to eat hotpot?
Immediate want vs. future desire
The Chinese verb for “want” is also contingent upon its urgency. Is it something that implies immediate action, or are you talking about your goals?
If you’re ordering food, shopping or availing some kind of service, 要 is most likely the right verb to use since you expect a quick return. Like when you’re at the spa, you could say 我要足部按摩 (wǒ yào zú bù ànmó) if you want a foot massage.
If you’re talking about future goals, 想 is the word to apply. To say, “I want to go to Sweden next year,” the translation would be 我想明年去瑞典 (wǒ xiǎng míngnián qù ruìdiǎn).
Get What You Want in Chinese
Tangible Desires: 要 (yào) vs. 想要 (xiǎng yào)
When it comes to physical or material desires, the two verbs you can choose between are 要 and 想要. Here’s how to distinguish between the two.
Use 要 to be direct or when you want something immediately
Every time you’re shopping, ordering food or simply stating an object desire in conversation, that’s when you’d use 要.
Here are a few examples:
他要一瓶啤酒。(tā yào yī píng píjiǔ.) — He wants a (bottle of) beer.
我要一杯拿铁。(wǒ yào yībēi ná tiě.) — I want a (cup of) latte.
她要蓝色的裙子。(tā yào lán sè de qúnzi.) — She wants the blue dress.
Although “I want” statements can seem rather demanding, it’s not actually considered rude in China.
To negate the above statements, add 不 (bù) meaning “no.” Thus, “I don’t want…” in Chinese would be 我不要… (wǒbù yào…).
Use 想要 to be more polite
If you want to be more polite when expressing your wants, you may use 想要. This is the equivalent of saying, “I’d like” rather than, “I want.”
他想要一瓶啤酒。(tā xiǎng yào yī píng píjiǔ.) — He’d like a (bottle of) beer.
我想要一杯拿铁。(wǒ xiǎng yào yībēi ná tiě.) — I’d like a (cup of) latte.
她想要蓝色的裙子。(tā xiǎng yào lán sè de qúnzi.) — She’d like the blue dress.
It’s perfectly acceptable to leave 想 out of the equation, but if it eases your mind to use the polite version, go for it, by all means.
Intangible Desires: 想 (xiǎng) vs. 要 (yào)
Now let’s move on to abstract wants or desired actions. For this category, you’d use either 想 or 要.
Use 想 to discuss future plans
Has the topic of hopes and dreams come up in conversation? Whether you’re talking about goals for the future or plans for the evening, 想 is the right word to use. In the context of desires, 想 can mean “I want” or “I’d like.”
我想去马尔代夫。(wǒ xiǎng qù mǎ’ěrdàifū.) — I want to go to the Maldives.
妈妈想吃四川菜。(māma xiǎng chī sìchuān cài.) — Mom would like to eat Sichuan food.
他想在新西兰工作。(tā xiǎng zài xīnxīlán gōngzuò.) — He wants to work in New Zealand.
These statements can also be negated with 不 (meaning “no”). So, “Mom doesn’t want to eat Sichuan food” in Chinese would be 妈妈不想吃四川菜 (māma bùxiǎng chī sìchuān cài).
Use 要 when you need immediate action
If you want something to happen right away, 要 offers a sense of immediacy.
我现在要买。(wǒ xiànzài yāomǎi.) — I want to buy it now.
You’d also use it when you’re speaking to a taxi driver.
我们要去火车站。(wǒmen yào qù huǒchē zhàn.) — We want to go to the train station.
Like 想, 要 can also be used to talk about plans in the immediate future, as indicated in the video below. In this case, it can be translated as “going to” rather than “want.”
This dialogue is a great way to see the use of 要 in real life. It begins with the question 你明天要干什么? (nǐ míngtiān yào gànshénme?), which translates to, “What are you going to do tomorrow?”
To answer her question, the second person replies with a 我要… (wǒ yào…) statement to indicate, “I am going to.”
Expressing Necessity in Chinese
Talking about your needs is much simpler than discussing your wants in Chinese since the words for “to need” aren’t as conditional as the verbs above.
Different ways of expressing a need
Whether you need a material object or require some kind of action, these are some of the verbs you can use to describe such sentiments.
需 (xū) — to need, to require
需要 (xūyào) — to demand, to need, to require
必须 (bì xū) — to have to, must
得 (děi) — to have to, to ought to, to need to, must
Here are a couple of sentences to give you an idea of how to use these verbs:
我需要喂猫。(wǒ xūyào wèi māo.) — I need to feed the cat.
你得去医院。(nǐ dé qù yīyuàn) — You have to go to the hospital.
If the matter is pressing, another word you can use is 急需 (jíxū), meaning “to urgently need.” So if you want to say, “I urgently need cash,” in Chinese it’d be, 我急需现金 (wǒ jíxū xiànjīn).
When there’s no necessity
Like with 要 and 想, the words for need can also be negated with 不.
In case you’d like to expand your vocab and learn all the various ways of saying, “I don’t need” in Chinese, check out this list:
不必 (bùbì) — no need, don’t have to
不消 (bùxiāo) — to not need; needless to say
不着 (bùzháo) — to not need; no need
不用 (bùyòng) — to not need; no need
甭 (béng) — a contraction of 不用
用不着 (yòng bùzháo) — to not need, to have no use for
没有必要 (méiyǒu bìyào) — there’s no need to (do something)
何必 (hébì) — why should; there’s no need
何须 (héxū) — why should; there’s no need
大可不必 (dà kě bùbì) — to not need; not necessary
While there are a lot of vocabulary terms to describe needs and wants, you only really need a few to get your point across. It’s just good to know the specificity of the terms. After all, it’s that deeper understanding of linguistic concepts that’ll improve your overall fluency in Mandarin.