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How to tell time using the clock in Mandarin Chinese?

By: Lina Shen Thu Jan 04 2024

Telling time in Mandarin is basically the same as telling time in English; if you know how to count, then you can learn to tell time. When reading 9:36, for example, you:

  • say the number before the colon (9)

  • use the word (diǎn, o’clock) to represent the colon

  • say the number after the colon (36).

Easy, right?
In this post, we will discuss how to tell or ask for the time, and also how to say whether it’s 9:36 in the morning or 9:36 at night. Let’s jump in!

Table of Contents

    How to tell time in Mandarin Chinese?

    To tell time in Mandarin, you need to know how to count and you need to add the Mandarin equivalent of “o’clock,” or the colon we see in written times in English, such as in “9:30.” In English, time on this clock...

    A clock with the hour arm pointing to 9 and the minutes arm pointing to 4.

    …is read like this: “Nine twenty-one.” If it’s written in numerals, it’s written like this: 9:21.

    All we have to do now is understand that the colon in “9:21” is read as  (diǎn) (literally: “dot,” also translated as “o’clock”). So the time indicated here is literally “nine dot twenty-one.” Try it!

    If you got 九点二十一 (jiǔ diǎn èr shí yī, nine twenty-one), then you’re right!

    So, what if someone asks you what time it is, and you look and see that it’s 9:21? Then you know what to do! But what if you look at the time and it’s NOT 9:21? Then you panic? No! You are confident and cool. You see this, and you know what to say:

    A clock with the hour arm pointing to 4 and the minute arm pointing at 17

    What do you say?
    If you said 四点十七 (sì diǎn shí qī, four-seventeen), very good!

    When to use the word 分 (fēn, “minute”)?

    When you hear the time spoken aloud, you’re likely to sometimes hear the word (fēn, minute) at the end of the time, such as in 四点十七分 (sì diǎn shí qī fēn, four-seventeen). This literally means “four dot seventeen minutes.”

    You can also say, 四点十七 (sì diǎn shí qī, four-seventeen) without . Both are equally okay; they mean the same thing.


    When the time is exactly 10 minutes after the hour, for example, 3:10, 7:10, and so on, (fēn, minute) cannot be omitted: 三点十分 (sān diǎn shí fēn, three ten) , 七点十分 (qī diǎn shí fēn, seven ten) .

    When the minute is under 10

    When the minute is under 10, (líng, zero) has to be added after (diân) .

    For example: 3:04 is 三点四 (分) (sān diǎn líng sì (fēn)) . This is something we see in English as well; we would say “three oh four.”

    How to ask for the time?

    Now, what if you are without a time-telling device and you wish to ask a friendly Chinese-speaking person for the time? You need to say this:


    (Qǐng wèn, xiànzài jǐ diǎn? )

    Excuse me, what time is it now?

    How to divide the hour: Half hours & quarter hours?

    Another thing Mandarin has in common with English is that hours are divided into half hours and quarter hours. For example, it is common, when asked for the time, to reply “half past nine” or “a quarter past three.” Even if the words “half” or “quarter” are not used, “nine thirty” or “three fifteen” are still very common ways to divide up the hour when asked about the time.
    Let’s see how to do that.

    Half hours

    Half past 6 is 六点半 (liù diǎn bàn), literally “six dot half.” The “half” of course means half an hour. 6:30 can also be expressed as 六点三十(分) (liù diǎn sān shí (fēn), six thirty (minutes)) but 六点半 (liù diǎn bàn) is more common.
    Look at these examples:


    liǎng diǎn bàn



    bā diǎn bàn



    shí yī diǎn bàn



    When number “2” is used in telling time, we say (liǎng) .

    Quarter hours

    Now, what if we wanted to divide the hour further, into a quarter? If you said, 百分之25 (bǎi fēn zhī èr shí wǔ) , then great! This does indeed mean a quarter, or more literally, twenty-five percent. But in Mandarin, as in English, we do NOT say “twenty-five percent past four o’clock.”

    So, what is a quarter of an hour in Mandarin?

    The word for “quarter” of an hour is () , and to say “a quarter,” you say 一刻 (yí kè).

    Look at these examples below and try to figure out which words we use to express a quarter past the hour and a quarter to the hour:


    qī diǎn guò yí kè

    7:15 (a quarter past 7)


    wǔ diǎn chà yí kè

    4:45 (a quarter to 5)


    sān diǎn guò yí kè

    3:15 (a quarter past 3)


    liù diǎn chà yí kè

    5:45 (a quarter to 6)




    to (literally “less”)

    Did you know?

    The Mandarin word (chà) can be translated as “until,” “under,” “less,” “short of,” and “to.” In the context of telling time, it is used exactly the way “to” is used in English:


    (bā diǎn chà yí kè )

    a quarter to eight

    So far, so good? If so, let’s add a small but completely manageable complication: in spoken Mandarin Chinese, the “past” of “a quarter past seven” (or any other time) is sometimes omitted:


    bā diǎn yí kè

    a quarter past 8


    liǎng diǎn yí kè

    a quarter past 2


    BUT when using (chà), as in 五点一刻 (wǔ diǎn chà yí kè, a quarter to 5), the (chà) must remain in the phrase and cannot be omitted.

    How to distinguish a.m. and p.m. in Mandarin?

    As you may know, a.m. and p.m. come from Latin (“ante meridiem” and “post meridiem,” respectively). What does Mandarin do to express these notions? Let’s take a look at the table below to see how the day is split up into parts.


    Note about the order of time expressions: The bigger time unit always precedes the smaller time unit! For example, when we say 3 o’clock in the afternoon, “afternoon” is the bigger time unit, and “3 o’clock” is the smaller time unit. It will be expressed as “afternoon 3 o’clock” in Mandarin Chinese: 下午三点 (xià wǔ sān diǎn) .



    líng chén


    (líng chén sān diǎn)

    3 o’clock at dawn (in the morning) / 3 am

    early morning

    zǎo shang


    (zǎo shang bā diǎn bàn)

    8:30 am(used for the period between 5am - 9am)


    shàng wǔ


    (shàng wǔ shí yī diǎn líng wǔ (fēn))

    11:05 in the morning


    zhōng wǔ


    (zhōng wǔ shí èr diǎn yí kè)

    12:15 at noon


    xià wǔ


    (xià wǔ liǎng diǎn sì shí wǔ (fēn))

    2:45 in the afternoon
    (used for the period between 1pm - 6pm)


    bàng wǎn


    (bàng wǎn liù diǎn shí fēn)

    6:10 pm


    wǎn shang


    (wǎn shang shí diǎn sān shí wǔ (fēn))

    10:35 at night
    (used for the period between 6pm - 10 pm but it can also be used to refer to any time after it’s dark)


    wǔ yè


    (wǔ yè shí èr diǎn)

    12 o’clock midnight

    No prepositions when telling time

    When expressing time on the clock in English, we use “at,” but no preposition is used here in Mandarin Chinese.

    Remember: The bigger time unit always precedes the smaller time unit!


    Wǒmen zǎo shang jiǔ diǎn jiàn.

    I will see you at nine o’clock in the morning.


    Wǒmen zhōng wǔ qù gōng yuán ba.

    Let’s go to the park at noon.


    Wǒ xià wǔ sì diǎn xià bān.

    I get off work at 4 pm.


    Remember the keys for expressing time in Chinese:

    • Know how to count.

    • Know that the colon used when expressing time (12:45) is (diǎn) in Chinese.

    • Remember that you can put (fēn) at the end of the time (for example, 三点四十二分), but in most cases you don’t have to. It is often omitted.

    • When it’s about half past the hour, use (bàn) or 三十(分) (sān shí (fēn)) .

    • Remember that (guò) is “past” and (chà) is “to,” and a quarter of an hour is ().

    • When you have lots of time units in a sentence (e.g., Half past six in the morning), put the time units in order from biggest to smallest in the sentence as 早上六点半 (zǎo shang liù diǎn bàn).

      Now, let’s go practice telling time like a native speaker!
      And if you are curious about how to express the date in Mandarin or the past, present, and future, be sure to check our posts!
      All done! 朋友们

    Downloadable Resources

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    How to tell time in Mandarin using the clock~Activities

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