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How to ask “wh-” and “how” questions in Mandarin Chinese?

By: Grace Zhang Thu Jan 04 2024
Mandarin chinese
Sentence Structure

In Mandarin Chinese, there are “wh-” question words for “what,” “where,” “which,” “who,” “when,” and “why” questions, such as 什么 (shénme, what), 哪里 (nǎlǐ) / 哪儿 (nǎr, where), 哪个 (nǎge, which), (shéi, who), (shéide, whose), 什么时候 (shénme shíhou,, when), and 为什么 (wèishénme, why). There are also “how” question words, such as 怎么 (zěnme, how), (, how many (<10)), and 多少 (duōshǎo, how many/how much), 多大 (duōdà, how big, how old…).

The above question words can be placed before a verb (which is an action word, e.g. “run”) or after it, depending on what you are asking about. For example,


(Shéi lái le?)

Who has come?


(Nǐ jiào shéi?)

Who are you calling?

In the first sentence, the question word (shéi, who) is before the verb (lái, come). In the second sentence, the same question word is after the verb. When you ask, “Who has come?”, “who” should be put before the verb, but when you ask, “Who are you calling?”, “who” should be put after the verb.

Sometimes, the question words may also be placed before a noun (a person or an item, e.g. “teacher”). In the following sentence, 谁的 (shéide, whose) is used before a noun (“book”):


(Zhè shì shéide shū?)

Whose book is this?

Are you curious to know where to place “wh-” and “how” question words in Mandarin and which they are? Let’s dive in for more!

Table of Contents

    Where to place “wh-” and “how” question words in Mandarin Chinese sentences?

    I bet you want to know the golden rule about where to place “wh-” and “how” question words in a sentence. Well, your wish is granted. There is indeed a golden rule: question words should be placed in the position you are asking about.



    (Tā shì lǎoshī.)

    He is the teacher.


    (Tā shì shéi?)

    Who is he?


    (Bādiǎn shàngkè.)

    Class is at 8 o’clock.

    (lit.) At 8 o’clock is class.


    (Shénme shíhou shàngkè?)

    When is the class?

    As the above examples show, “who” and “when” in the questions replace “teacher” and “8 o’clock” in the statements. The questions have the same word order as the statements. To make a “wh-” question, you simply replace the part of the statement where you're seeking information with a question word. For example, the statement is “He is the teacher” and if you want to ask about “the teacher,” you place “who” where the phrase “the teacher” is in the statement: “He is who?” This is the word order in the Mandarin question! This is not like English, where you need to change the word order to turn a statement into a question.

    What are the “wh-” question words in Mandarin Chinese?

    There are six common “wh-” question words in Mandarin Chinese.

    Question words
    什么 (shénme, what)


    (Shénme shì yīnyuè?)

    What is music?


    (Nǐ xǐhuan shénme yīnyuè?)

    What music do you like?

    哪里 (nǎlǐ, where) / 哪儿 (nǎr, where)


    (Nǎr néng mǎi dào zhè běn shū?)

    Where can I buy this book?


    (Nǐ jiā zài nǎlǐ?)

    Where is your home?

    哪个 (nǎge, which)


    (Nǎge shì nǐ de?)

    Which is yours?


    (Nǐ yào nǎge?)

    Which do you want?

    (shéi, who)


    (Shéi zài lóushàng?)

    Who is upstairs?


    (Lóushàng shì shéi de fángjiān?)

    Whose room is upstairs?

    什么时候 (shénme shíhou, when)


    (Fēijī shénme shíhou qǐfēi?)

    When does the plane take off?


    (Nǐ xǐhuan shénme yīnyuè?)

    What music do you like?

    为什么 (wèishénme, why)


    (Nǐ wèishénme xuéxí Zhōngwén?)

    Why are you studying Chinese?


    (Nǐ xǐhuan shénme yīnyuè?)

    What music do you like?

    How to use the “wh-” question words in Mandarin Chinese?

    When using “wh-” question words in Mandarin Chinese, remember that:

    • 哪里 (nǎlǐ, where) and 哪儿 (nǎr, where) are interchangeable. 哪里 (nǎlǐ) is used mostly in southern China and 哪儿 (nǎr) in northern China.

    • In Mandarin, time phrases such as “when,” can be used at the beginning or after the subject and before the verb.

    • To say “whose” in Mandarin, you use the word (shéi, who) and the particle that is used to express possession.


    The “wh-” and “how” questions are commonly used with the "是 … 的" (shì … de) structure for past events. The "是 … 的" (shì … de) structure emphasizes the text between the two words. For example,


    (Fēijī (shì) shénme shíhou qǐfēi de?)

    When did the plane take off?

    In this example the emphasis falls on 什么时候起飞 (when take off). Did you notice that in the "是 … 的" (shì … de) structure,  (shì) can be dropped?

    Here are some more examples with “wh-” questions. Remember that the word order is different in Mandarin from in English:


    (Nǐ hé shéi qù kàn diànyǐng le?)

    With whom did you see the movie?


    (Nǐ yào gěi shéi mǎi zhège?)

    For whom are you buying this?

    What are the “how” questions in Mandarin Chinese?

    The “how” questions in Mandarin Chinese follow the same pattern as the “wh-” questions. That is, questions have the same word order as statements. Check out the examples in the following table:

    Question word
    怎么 (zěnme, how)


    (Zhège zì zěnme xiě?)

    How do you write this word?

    (, how many (<10))


    (Lái le jǐ ge rén?)

    How many people are here?

    多少 (duōshǎo, how many/how much)


    (Nǐ zhèng duōshǎo qián?)

    How much do you earn?

    多大 (duōdà, how big, how old…)


    (Nǐ duōdà le?)

    How old are you?


    You may be wondering why you are learning these last two questions, since you may not use them. Sure, in your culture asking about other people’s salary and age may be something unusual. It is not necessarily odd in Chinese culture though, so it is good to know them!


    One of the common uses of is in the question 几点了? (Jǐ diǎn le?, What time is it?). is usually used for numbers less than 10, only works with countable nouns (e.g. books), and tends to come with measure words (e.g. two bottles of water). For example, if you talk about a child, you can ask 他几岁了? (Tā jǐ suìle, How old is he?). However, you would not ask this question when referring to an adult, because they are older than 10. Instead, you may ask 多大了? (Tā duōdà le?, How old is he?).

    To sum up

    In Mandarin, we add  (ma) at the end of a statement to form a yes/no question, and for “wh-” and “how” questions, we simply replace what we want to ask in a statement with a “wh-” word or “how.”  In other words, we don't change the word order to make a “wh” question in Mandarin. “Wh-” and “how” words in questions tend to be placed at the beginning of a sentence in English, for example, “How are you?” This is not the case in Chinese. All you need to do is replace what you want to ask with a “wh-” word or “how” word.

    Up for a challenge? We have created some exercises for you, and it is time to put your knowledge of how to ask “wh-” and “how” questions into practice!

    Downloadable Resources

    Elevate your language-learning journey to new heights with the following downloadable resources.

    How to ask wh- and how questions in Mandarin Chinese~Activities

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