Telling Time in Chinese – The Complete Guide for Beginners
Time plays a fundamental role in our everyday life. Whether you want to schedule meetings, make travel plans, meet up with your friends, or simply want to share your story, knowing how to tell the time in Chinese can make a world of difference.
The Chinese time system is easy and straightforward – once you have known your way around numbers, you just need to learn a few more vocabulary words to be able to tell the time in Chinese. But meanwhile, there are some crucial differences between how time is expressed in Chinese and other languages that you need to take note of.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll give you a complete insight into how time expressions work in Mandarin Chinese. You’ll learn how to say the time in both formal and informal styles, how to ask basic time-related questions, and use the time to talk about your past, present, and future life like a true native!
Okay, time to learn the time in Chinese!
How to Tell the Time in Mandarin Chinese – An Overview
Time in Chinese is 时间 (shíjiān). Before we get started on learning how to tell the time in Mandarin, let’s look at a couple of things you need to be aware of when learning this aspect of the Chinese language.
Chinese Time Vocabulary: The Words You Need to Know
China predominantly uses a 12-hour time system. This means words like “morning”, “afternoon” or “evening” are frequently used with the time itself in daily time expressions. To tell the time in Chinese, you have to not only be able to pronounce the hours and minutes correctly but also know the basics of Chinese time vocabulary.
So, here’s the list of key Chinese time vocabulary words to give you a foundation. They come along with pronunciations and English translations.
|分||fēn||minute (on the clock)|
Some of these words have other meanings in Chinese (like how 点 diǎn also means “dot” and “to order”). So, remember these are only their definitions as they relate to time.
Chinese Numbers for Telling the Time
You’ll also need to know the Chinese numbers before trying to tell numerical time.
If you are not familiar with the Chinese number system yet, you might want to check out our full tutorial on how to read numbers in Chinese first to help you get started. To put it simply, Chinese numbers are all about compounding and adding the basic numbers 1 to 10 – from 11 to 19, it’s 10 plus the other number (e.g. 12 is “ten – two”), and from 20 onwards, you count the tens first and then do the adding (e.g. 25 is “two ten – five”).
Here is a quick reminder of useful numbers to help you to tell the time in Chinese.
The number “2” has two translations in Chinese: 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng). Basically, you can use them interchangeably when expressing the hours (e.g, 2:04), but when it comes to expressing the minutes (e.g, 4:02), only 二 (èr) can be used. You will see many examples of these in the next section, so don’t stress if you don’t get it yet!
Formula for Telling the Time in Chinese
When you say the time in English, you start with “it’s”. For instance, “It’s ten past nine”.
However, when you say the time in Chinese, you’ll follow a different formula:
- 现在是 + time
Xiànzài shì + time
Literally, “Now is … (time)”
When someone asks you the time in Chinese, you’ll reply with 现在是 (Xiànzài shì) – “Now is”, followed by the time. (And when you ask the time in Chinese, instead of asking “what time is it”, you ask “what time is now” – we’ll come back to this later).
The verb “is” – 是 (shì) in 现在是 (Xiànzài shì) is totally optional and often omitted in spoken Chinese. It’s fine to start with just 现在 (Xiànzài) followed directly by the time (learn more about topic-comment structure). In many of our examples, you’ll find 是 (shì) in parentheses.
All right, with that said, you are now officially ready to tell the time in Chinese!
Saying What Time It Is in Chinese
Let’s start by breaking down how to tell the numerical time on the Chinese clock.
On the Hour
To say a time on the hour in Chinese (like two o’clock or six o’clock), say the number corresponding to the hour first, then add the word 点 (diǎn) – “o’clock” to it.
- Format: number of the hour + 点 (diǎn)
You see, it’s exactly the same structure as English, which is really simple and easy to remember.
In most contexts, it is acceptable to simply say the time when you are asked “what time is it” in Chinese, but if you want to give a complete answer, you can start by saying 现在是 (Xiànzài shì) or 现在 (Xiànzài) before the time. Here’s how that would look in practice:
- 现在(是)一点 – It’s one o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì ) yī diǎn
- 现在(是)两点 – It’s two o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) liǎng diǎn
- 现在(是)三点 – It’s three o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) sān diǎn
- 现在(是)四点 – It’s four o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) sì diǎn
- 现在(是)五点 – It’s five o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) wǔ diǎn
- 现在(是)六点 – It’s six o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) liù diǎn
- 现在(是)七点 – It’s seven o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) qī diǎn
- 现在(是)八点 – It’s eight o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn
- 现在(是)九点 – It’s nine o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) jiǔ diǎn
- 现在(是)十点 – It’s ten o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) shí diǎn
- 现在(是)十一点 – It’s eleven o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) shí yī diǎn
- 现在(是)十二点 – It’s twelve o’clock.
Xiànzài (shì) shí èr diǎn
Note that unlike in English where we often leave out the word “o’clock” (for instance, we can say “it’s almost five” or “it’s six already), in Chinese, the word 点 (diǎn) is always needed after the number of the hour. (Sometimes people use 点钟 diǎnzhōng – the longer form of 点 diǎn – after the number to sound more casual, but you’re fine using just 点 diǎn)
Compare the two expressions below.
shí èr diǎn diǎn (zhōng)
numeral “12” (having nothing to do with time)
Also, for saying “two o’clock”, although the official grammar rule is that you’re supposed to read the “two” on the hour as 两 (liǎng), not 二 (èr), many Chinese people speak it otherwise (I, for one, say 二点 èr diǎn most of the time).
If you don’t want to get this muddled up, stick with the officially favored version – 两点 (liǎng diǎn) – it’s slightly more common in colloquial Chinese. Just know that you will often hear the other version from native speakers, and you’ll be fine saying 二点 (èr diǎn) in real life. (For more information on when to use 二 èr and 两 liǎng, see our article on er vs liang)
Half Hours (Half past…)
Now, the time is not always on the hour. Chinese time allows you to round up to the half hour and quarter hour like you’re used to in English (when it’s 28 minutes past, you can say it’s half past as you normally would). So how do you say “half past… ”, “quarter past…” and “quarter to” in Chinese?
Well, the Chinese versions are actually simpler than English. Let’s start with half hours.
To say half past the hour in Chinese, use the word 半 (bàn) – meaning “half” – after the time on the hour.
- Format: number of the hour + 点 (diǎn) + 半 (bàn)
- 现在(是)三点半 – It’s half past three.
Xiànzài (shì) sān diǎn bàn
- 现在(是)六点半 – It’s half past six.
Xiànzài (shì) liù diǎn bàn
- 现在(是)十一点半 – It’s half past eleven.
Xiànzài (shì) shí yī diǎn bàn
You see, instead of “half past three”, “half past six”, “half past eleven”, in Chinese, they are expressed as “three o’clock half”, “six o’clock half”, “eleven o’clock half”, respectively. Note that the word 点 (diǎn) must always be said after the number of the hour.
You can also express the half hour in “digital format” like you would do in English, for instance, “eleven-thirty” rather than “half past eleven”. You’ll learn how to indicate the minutes in Chinese in the next section, don’t worry.
Quarter Hours (Quarter past/to…)
Expressing the quarter hours in Chinese is a lot like expressing the half hours – you say the “on the hour” phrase first, and then swap out the word “half” with “a quarter” or “three quarters”.
Let’s take a look.
To say a quarter past the hour in Chinese, use the phrase 一刻 (yí kè) – meaning “a quarter” – after the time on the hour.
- Format: number of the hour + 点 (diǎn) + 一刻 (yí kè)
- 现在(是)两点一刻 – It’s a quarter past two.
Xiànzài (shì) liǎng diǎn yí kè
- 现在(是)四点一刻 – It’s a quarter past four.
Xiànzài (shì) sì diǎn yí kè
- 现在(是)七点一刻 – It’s a quarter past seven.
Xiànzài (shì) qī diǎn yí kè
“Quarter to” is expressed slightly differently in Chinese. Although we can add a phrase similar to its English counterpart – 差一刻 (chà yí kè) – meaning “short of a quarter” after the hour to come to express “a quarter to that hour”, for instance
sān diǎn chà yí kè
a quarter to three
Literally, “three o’clock short of a quarter”
… this is, however, not the most natural way to express “quarter to” in Chinese.
A much more common way of saying a quarter to the hour in Chinese is to say “three quarters past the hour”. That is, you use the phrase 三刻 (yí kè) – “three quarters” – after the time on the hour you’re currently in.
- Format: number of the current hour + 点 (diǎn) + 三刻 (sān kè)
Here are some examples.
- 现在(是)两点三刻 – It’s a quarter to three. (two o’clock three quarters)
Xiànzài (shì) liǎng diǎn sān kè
- 现在(是)四点三刻 – It’s a quarter to five. (four o’clock three quarters)
Xiànzài (shì) sì diǎn sān kè
- 现在(是)七点三刻 – It’s a quarter to eight. (seven o’clock three quarters)
Xiànzài (shì) qī diǎn sān kè
Chinese people prefer to say “three quarters past the current hour” rather than “a quarter to the upcoming hour”.
The reason? It sounds more concise. (Compare “两点三刻 liǎng diǎn sān kè” and “三点差一刻 sān diǎn chà yí kè”) Why would you use more words to convey the same information when you can cut it short?
Remember as well that quarter hours come after the word 点 (diǎn), just like hours and half hours.
The Exact Time (Hour + Minutes)
Wanna be a little more specific? Here’s how Chinese time works when you need to tell the precise time, down to the minute.
The structure of hour + minutes in Chinese is quite simple – you say the time on the hour first, then say the number corresponding to the minute.
- Format: number of the hour + 点 (diǎn) + number of the minute
As always, you can start by saying 现在是 (Xiànzài shì) or 现在 (Xiànzài) before the time. For example, if you want to say that its 5:21, you’ll say:
Xiànzài (shì) wǔ diǎn èr shí yī
Literally, “Now (is) five o’clock twenty-one”
Thus, the same as in English, there are two ways that you can use to indicate half hours and quarter hours in Chinese.
If it’s 8:15, you can say
- 现在(是)八点一刻 – It’s a quarter past eight. (eight o’clock a quarter)
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn yí kè
- 现在(是)八点十五 – It’s eight fifteen. (eight o’clock fifteen)
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn shí wǔ
If it’s 8:30, you can say
- 现在(是)八点半 – It’s half past eight. (eight o’clock half)
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn bàn
- 现在(是)八点三十 – It’s eight thirty. (eight o’clock thirty)
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn sān shí
If it’s 8:45, you can say
- 现在(是)八点三刻 – It’s a quarter to nine. (eight o’clock three quarters)
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn sān kè
- 现在(是)八点四十五 – It’s eight forty-five. (eight o’clock forty-five)
Xiànzài (shì) bā diǎn sì shí wǔ
Pretty easy, isn’t it?
There’s just one thing you need to note: the minutes on the clock are expressed slightly differently when they are less than 10.
Let me elaborate.
Minutes Greater Than 10
When the minutes are greater than 10 or precisely 10 on the clock, you just need to read out the number representing the minute like you usually do. For example,
shí diǎn wǔ shí
Minutes Less Than 10
When the minutes are under 10 on the clock, you need to read out the “zero” – 零 (líng) before the number corresponding to the minute.
For example, 10:05
You’ll read it as 十点零五 (shí diǎn líng wǔ) – literally “ten o’clock zero five”. People will not understand you if you drop the 零 (líng) here.
The zero in Chinese can be used to link two number units, similar to the way we use “and” in English. For example, instead of saying “one year and three days”, Chinese people say 一年零三天 (yì nián líng sān tiān), literally “one year zero three days”. (Read more about zero in Chinese).
You can also put the word 分 (fēn) – meaning “minute” after any “hour + minutes” structure. This is totally optional and typically used in formal contexts (such as news reports).
So, if it’s 10:50, you can either say
- 现在(是)十点五十 (more common in spoken Chinese)
Xiànzài (shì) shí diǎn wǔ shí
Xiànzài (shì) shí diǎn wǔ shí fēn
And if it’s 10:05, you can say
- 现在(是)十点零五 (more common in spoken Chinese)
Xiànzài (shì) shí diǎn líng wǔ
Xiànzài (shì) shí diǎn líng wǔ fēn
Saying the Time of the Day in Chinese: Morning, Afternoon, or Evening?
China, like the United States, uses the 12-hour clock. So you can use 五点 (“five o’clock”) to refer to the time of morning and afternoon. To clarify whether it’s five in the morning or five in the afternoon, you’ll need to use some extra time words.
In Chinese, there is no a.m. or p.m. Instead, you add either 早上 (zǎoshang) – “early morning”, 上午 (shàngwǔ) – “late morning”, 中午 (zhōngwǔ) – “midday”, 下午 (xiàwǔ) – “afternoon”, or 晚上 (wǎnshang) – “evening/night”, before the time on the 12-hour clock to distinguish the time of the day.
Let’s take a look at what time range each of these words represents and how to combine them with the concrete time in Chinese.
早上 (zǎoshang): (Early) Morning
早上 (zǎoshang) refers to the sun-rising hours. It’s roughly the time from dawn to around 9:00 a.m. (There are no exact boundaries between these time concepts)
- 7:00 a.m.
zǎoshang qī diǎn bàn
Literally, “(early) morning seven o’clock half”
上午 (shàngwǔ): (Late) Morning
上午 (shàngwǔ) literally means “above noon” (think of the day as a timetable). It can be from 9:00 a.m. to around 11:00 a.m.
- 10:25 a.m.
Shàngwǔ shí diǎn èr shí wǔ
Literally: “(late) morning ten o’clock twenty-five”
中午 (zhōngwǔ): Midday
中午 (zhōngwǔ) is translated as midday, but it’s pretty much the same thing as noon in Chinese, since the noon is in the middle of the day. 中午 (zhōngwǔ) can be anytime between 11:00 a.m and 1:00 p.m – again, roughly.
- 12:01 p.m.
Zhōngwǔ shí èr diǎn líng yī
Literally, “midday twelve o’clock zero one”
下午 (xiàwǔ): Afternoon
下午 (xiàwǔ) means “under noon” in Chinese. It’s typically from 1:00 p.m. to around 5:30 to 6:00 p.m when the sun starts to go down.
- 4:58 p.m.
Xiàwǔ sì diǎn wǔ shí bā
Literally, “afternoon four o’clock fifty-eight”
晚上 (wǎnshang): Evening/Night
The character 晚 (wǎn) is formed by 日 (rì) – “sun”, and 免 (miǎn) – “free of”, so 晚上 (wǎnshang) refers to the hours without the sun or sunlight (sunset to dawn).
Speaking by definition, 晚上 (wǎnshang) can be evening and night at the same time, though some people would use 晚上 (wǎnshang) to talk about the time between 6ish to around 11:00 p.m., and other words such as 深夜 (shēnyè) – “late night”, 半夜 (bànyè) – “midnight” and 凌晨 (língchén) – “before dawn” for other time of the night to be more precise.
- 8:45 p.m.
Wǎnshang bā diǎn sān kè
Literally, “evening eight o’clock three quarters”
Take note that unlike English where you put time words like a.m., p.m., in the morning, in the afternoon, etc at the end of the time, when you tell the time in Chinese and want to be precise, you use the time words before the time on the 12-hour clock (not after!) following the “broad to specific” rule.
Here’s the format.
- Time Words + Time on the Clock
So in Chinese, instead of saying five o’clock in the morning, you say morning five o’clock.
- √ 早上五点 (zǎoshang wǔ diǎn)
- × 五点早上 (wǔ diǎn zǎoshang)
China, of roughly similar size to the United States, has only one time zone: Beijing Standard Time. This means words like 上午 (shàngwǔ) or 下午 (xiàwǔ) are versatile depending on which region of China people live. For instance, when it’s noon in the capital, the sun merely starts to rise 3,000 miles further west, in Kashgar, Xinjiang. So don’t be surprised when you hear locals there say 早上十二点 (zǎoshang shí èr diǎn)- “early morning twelve o’clock” as opposed to 中午十二点 (zhōngwǔ shí èr diǎn) – midday twelve o’clock”.
You can also use the time words independently when the exact time is not very important and you just want to talk about the general time of the day.
Here are some examples,
Zǎoshang hěn lěng.
It’s very cold in the (early) morning.
Literally: “(Early) morning very cold.”
Shàngwǔ wǒ yǒu yí gè huì.
I have a meeting in the (late) morning.
Literally, “(Late) morning I have a meeting.”
Zhōngwǔ nǐ chī shénme?
What do you eat for midday (lunch)?
Literally, “Midday you eat what?”
Xiàwǔ wǒ zài jiā.
I am at home in the afternoon.
Literally, “Afternoon I am at home.”
Wǎnshang wǒ shuì bā xiǎoshí.
I sleep eight hours at night.
Literally, “Night I sleep eight hours.”
Not sure how word order works in a Chinese sentence? Read our basic Chinese grammar guide for beginners.
Telling the Time on 24-hour Clock
Though the norm in daily Chinese is to use the 12-hour clock, you may still find the 24-hour clock used for news reports, documents, timetables, television or film listings, or hours that a shop is open.
In Chinese, you pronounce this the same way as the 12-hour clock system.
shí wǔ diǎn
Literally: “fifteen o’clock”
shí bā diǎn sì shí èr
Literally: “eighteen o’clock forty-two”
Keep in mind this isn’t the military time you may have learned in English. You don’t say “fifteen-hundred hours” in Chinese. It’s still the number 1-24 followed by 点 (diǎn).
How to Ask the Time in Chinese
Now that you know how to say the time, let’s learn how to properly ask the time in Chinese as well. This will come in handy when your phone is out of juice!
There are two common ways you can ask for the time in Chinese.
1. 现在几点？ (Xiànzài jǐ diǎn?)
This is the standard expression you can use if you want to know what time it is on the clock.
The word 几 (jǐ) is the question word for numbers. So this question literally means “Now (is) what number o’clock?”. Ask this question and people will respond with one of the expressions we’ve learned in the previous sections, like
Xiànzài sì diǎn bàn.
It’s half past four.
Literally, “Now (is) four o’clock half.”
Or simply just the time,
Sì diǎn bàn.
Half past four.
Literally, “Four o’clock half.”
2. 现在几点钟？ (Xiànzài jǐ diǎnzhōng?)
Another way to ask what time it is in Chinese is to use the longer form of the previous question – 现在几点钟？ (Xiànzài jǐ diǎnzhōng?)
Contrary to what you might think, the full form of 点 (diǎn) – 点钟 (diǎnzhōng) actually makes the question more casual, not formal. Feel free to use it in general conversation with your friends.
Now, if you stop a random person on the street to ask them what time it is, you could add the phrase – 请问 (qǐng wèn), meaning “may I ask…” at the beginning of your question to sound polite.
- 请问, 现在几点(钟)？
Qǐng wèn, xiànzài jǐ diǎnzhōng?
Excuse me, what time is it?
Literally, “May I ask, now (is) what number o’clock?”
Important: Even though the phrase 什么时候 (shénme shíhou) means “what time”, you never use it to ask what the time is in Chinese – 什么时候 (shénme shíhou) works more like the question word “when” in English.
Saying & Asking at What Time Things Happen
All right, now that you have a bunch of time-telling expressions at your disposal, you’re ready to employ them to talk about your daily routines and plans.
Describing Daily Routines
To describe what you do during the day and at what time, simply mention the time before your action.
Wǒ zǎoshang qī diǎn qǐchuáng.
I get up at 7:00 a.m.
Literally, “I morning seven o’clock get up.”
Wǒ zhōngwǔ shí èr diǎn bàn chī wǔfàn.
I have lunch at 12:30 pm.
Literally, “I midday twelve o’clock half eat lunch.”
Wǒ xiàwǔ wǔ diǎn sān kè xià bān.
I get off from work at 5:45 p.m.
Literally, “I afternoon five o’clock three quarters get off work.”
Wǒ wǎnshang shí yī diǎn shuìjiào.
I go to bed at 11:00 p.m.
Literally, “I evening eleven o’clock sleep.”
Before we move on, there are two things you need to be aware of when you include time in a sentence.
1. Unlike in English, the position of time phrase is rather fixed in a Chinese sentence – it must be placed before the verb. Therefore, you can’t say “get up in the morning” or “get up at seven o’clock” in Chinese, instead, you say “(in the) morning get up”, “(at) seven o’clock get up”. Read more about basic Chinese word order.
2. Phrases like “in the morning”, “at seven o’clock”, etc can’t be translated verbatim in Chinese. Though you could be tempted to add 在 (zài) – the word for “in” or “at” – before the time word, don’t do it. The only correct way to talk about something happening at a specific time in Chinese is by saying the time on its own.
Making Plans for the Future
If you’re having a conversation with friends and making plans for the future, like meeting for coffee the next day, you can use the phrase 好吗? (hǎo ma?) at the end to suggest it. For instance,
Wǒmen míngtiān xiàwǔ yī diǎn jiàn, hǎo ma?
Shall we meet at 1:00 p.m. tomorrow?
Literally, “We tomorrow afternoon one o’clock meet, okay?”
Wǒmen shàngwǔ shí yī diǎn kāishǐ, hǎo ma?
Shall we begin at 11:00 a.m.?
Literally, “We (late) morning eleven o’clock begin, okay?”
Wǒmen liǎng diǎn yī kè chūfā, hǎo ma?
Shall we leave at a quarter past two?
Literally, “We two o’clock a quarter depart, okay?”
Wǒmen wǎnshàng bā diǎn bàn dào, hǎo ma?
Is it okay for us to arrive at 8:30 p.m.?
Literally, “We evening eight o’clock half arrive, okay?”
People can then respond with whether that’s okay (好 hǎo) or not (不好 bù hǎo), or if they’d like to propose a different time.
Asking When Something Will Happen
If you don’t have a time in mind, or simply want to know what time you’re going to meet or when things will happen, use the phrase 几点 (jǐ diǎn) – “what number clock” to ask for that information.
You don’t need to change word order – simply replace the concrete time in a conceivable answer with the question word 几点 (jǐ diǎn).
Nǐ jǐ diǎn qǐchuáng?
What time do you get up?
Literally, “You what number o’clock get up?”
Nǐ jǐ diǎn xià bān?
What time do you get off from work?
Literally, “You what number o’clock get off work?”
Wǒmen míngtiān jǐ diǎn jiàn?
When shall we meet tomorrow?
Literally, “We tomorrow what number o’clock meet?”
Wǒmen jǐ diǎn chūfā?
When shall we leave?
Literally, “We what number o’clock depart?”
There you go!
Other Useful Time Expressions in Chinese
Wow, that’s a lot of information, isn’t it?
I would say the above should have given you a solid foundation to express the right time, make plans with people and understand some of China’s time-related nuances.
But if you’re in the mood for more, here’s an additional list of useful words and phrases you can use when telling time in Chinese.
|…整||… zhěng||(…o’clock) sharp|
|后天||hòutiān||the day after tomorrow|
|前天||qiántiān||the day before yesterday|
|明天早上||míngtiān zǎoshang||tomorrow morning|
|昨天下午||zuótiān xiàwǔ||yesterday afternoon|
|白天||báitiān||during the day|
|…的时候||… de shíhou||when… (statement)|
Exercise on Telling the Time in Chinese
Think you’ve got it? Test yourself on telling the time in Chinese with these translation exercises.
- 8:05 a.m.
- 2:15 p.m.
- 4:45 p.m.
- What time is it?
- It’s 12:00 p.m. (noon)
- It’s 12:00 a.m. (midnight)
- What time shall we meet?
- We’ll meet at 7:30 tomorrow morning.
- The meeting starts at 3:20 p.m.
zǎoshang bā diǎn líng wǔ (fēn)
- 下午二点一刻; 下午两点一刻
xiàwǔ èr diǎn yí kè or xiàwǔ liǎng diǎn yí kè (more colloquial)
xiàwǔ sì diǎn sān kè
shí bā diǎn wǔ shí bā
Xiànzài jǐ diǎn (zhōng)?
Xiànzài (shì) zhōngwǔ shí èr diǎn.
Xiànzài (shì) wǎnshang shí èr diǎn.
Wǒmen jǐ diǎn jiàn?
Wǒmen míngtiān zǎoshang qī diǎn bàn jiàn.
Huìyì xiàwǔ sān diǎn èr shí kāishǐ.
FAQ about Chinese Time
Before I wrap things up, let’s go through a few common questions I receive about expressing time in Chinese.
There are three words for “time” in Chinese: 时间 (shíjiān), 时候 (shíhòu), and 次 (cì), each with a different meaning and is used quite differently.
时间 (shíjiān) refers to a duration of time as in “I need more time”, 时候 (shíhòu) refers to a point in time as in “this time next year”, and 次 (cì) refers to an instance of time as in “I did it one time (once)”. Watch this video if you’re confused.
Although China uses a 12-hour clock, there are no equivalent words for AM and PM exactly in Chinese. You’ll use additional time words to distinguish the time of the day. They include:
- 早上 (zǎoshang): early morning
- 上午 (shàngwǔ): late morning
- 中午 (zhōngwǔ): midday
- 下午 (xiàwǔ): afternoon
- 晚上 (wǎnshang): evening/night
- 深夜 (shēnyè): late night
- 半夜 (bànyè): midnight
- 凌晨 (língchén): before dawn
早上 (zǎoshang) and 上午 (shàngwǔ) can be translated as “early morning” and “late morning”, but there are no fixed hours for these time expressions.
A rule of thumb is to use 早上 (zǎoshang) to talk about sun-rising hours from dawn to around 9:00 a.m, and 上午 (shàngwǔ) from 9ish to 11:00 a.m. although this changes with the seasons as well as the region you live in, for instance, sunrise is around 10:00 am in the westernmost city of China in the winter, so even 12:30 p.m. can be referred to as 早上 (zǎoshang) in that area.
Although China spans five time zones geographically, it has just one official time zone – Beijing Standard Time (UTC+08:00 – eight hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time). So when it’s 10:00 A.M. in Beijing, it’s 10:00 A.M. in Shanghai (on the east shore), and 10:00 A.M too in Kashgar, Xinjiang (3,000 miles west).
Although many textbooks prefer to use 两点 (liǎng diǎn) because it better matches the “grammar rule”, both 二点 (èr diǎn) and 两点 (liǎng diǎn) are widely used to express “two o’clock” in Chinese. 两点 (liǎng diǎn) is more common in colloquial Chinese while you’ll hear 二点 (èr diǎn) more often in formal contexts. You’ll be fine to use them interchangeably in daily life. Read more about 二 (èr) vs 两 (liǎng).
For the notation of time, you can choose between numerals only, Chinese characters, or a mixture of numerals and characters. For example,
“Hour”, “minute” and “second” in Chinese are 小时 (xiǎoshí), 分钟 (fēnzhōng) – and 秒 (miǎo), respectively. Note these words can serve as their own measure words (they count time), so no extra measure word is needed when saying them with numbers.
- 一小时 (yì xiǎoshí) – one hour
- 一分钟 (yì fēn zhōng) – one minute
- 一秒 (yì miǎo) – one second
Also, don’t get 分钟 (fēnzhōng) mixed up with 分 (fēn) which is the minute on the clock rather than in duration.
- 十分钟 (shí fēnzhōng)
ten minutes (talking about duration)
- 八点十分 (bā diǎn shí fēn)
Literally, “eight o’clock ten minutes” (talking about the minute on the clock)
There are two main ways of asking “are you free” or “do you have time?” in Chinese:
- 你有空吗？(Nǐ yǒu kòng ma?)
– Literally, “You have free time?”
- 你有时间吗？(Nǐ yǒu shíjiān ma?)
– Literally, “You have time?”
The first expression is more common in spoken Chinese.
To answer the question when you get asked, simply say 有 (yǒu) for yes, or 没有 (méiyǒu) for no.
I hope by now you’ve got a good grasp of Chinese time, how to tell it, how to ask and answer some basic questions around it.
Nevertheless, here’s a quick recap of what we covered in this guide:
To tell the time in Chinese, use the formula 现在是 (Xiànzài shì) + time. Time is expressed by saying the number of the hour first, followed by 点 (diǎn), and then the number of the minute. For any minute under 10, read out the “zero” – 零 (líng) before the number. An optional 分 (fēn) can be put at the end, but it’s often omitted in spoken Chinese.
To say “half past”, and “quarter past” the hour, add the words 半 (bàn) and 一刻 (yí kè) to “on the hour” phrases. “Quarter to” is rarely said in Chinese, instead, use 三刻 (yí kè) – “three quarters” – after the time on the current hour.
Talking about time in Chinese involves more than the numbers on the clock. To be precise about the time of the day, add a time word before saying the time on the clock. The most common time words are 早上 (zǎoshang) – “early morning”, 上午 (shàngwǔ) – “late morning”, 中午 (zhōngwǔ) – “midday”, 下午 (xiàwǔ) – “afternoon”, and 晚上 (wǎnshang) – “evening/night”.
To ask what time it is in Chinese, ask “现在几点？(Xiànzài jǐ diǎn?)” or “现在几点钟？(Xiànzài jǐ diǎnzhōng?)”. To say at what time things happen, say the time phrase before the verb. Prepositions like “in”, “at”, “on” are not needed in Chinese when including time in a sentence.
Now, we also recommend combining what you learn in this guide with our other free resources:
And One More Thing
It can be tricky to learn Chinese through independent study if you don’t actively live in China or Taiwan. If you really wanted to learn Chinese, we’d highly recommend you follow a structured Chinese course online, rather than reading odd bits and pieces here and there, trying to put them together on your own (you’ll start optimistic, but soon it’ll all get overwhelming and leave you feeling frustrated).
We’ve taken the time to try out dozens of Chinese courses online, some are fabulous while others are a complete waste of time. Read our unbiased reviews here and discover our top recommendations!