How to ask, "What are you doing?" in Chinese (the present tense) - 20 Questions to Basic Fluency #6

Last time we took a look at how to say, "How many people are in your family?" in Chinese.  If you missed that discussion, take some time to
 go back and answer the question in the reply. 

(see all "20 Questions to Basic Fluency.")

Today we are looking at the present tense in Chinese and asking, “What are you doing?”  Unlike some other aspects of Chinese, using verb tenses is pretty simple.  Here is today’s question and answer:

Q: 你在做什么?    

Nǐ zài zuò shénme?    

What are you doing?

A: 我在看电视   

Wǒ zài
 kàn diàn shì.    

I am
 watching TV.


The word
在 (zài) in this context tells you that you are in the present continuous tense, or in simpler terms, it acts as the “-ing” that we put on the end of our verbs in English. So in our examples above,
 (zàizuò ) means “doing” and
kàn ) means “watching.”  Just replace the
看电视 (diàn shì)in the answer to tell about different actions that you are doing.  Here is a list of some common actions that work well in this pattern:


起床 - Qǐ chuáng – get up

做早饭 - Zuò zǎofàn – make breakfast

吃早饭 - Chī zǎofàn – eat breakfast

看报纸 - Kàn bàozhǐ – read the newspaper

喝咖啡 - Hē kāfēi – drink coffee

喝茶 - Hē chá – drink tea

洗碗 - Xǐ wǎn – wash dishes

上楼 - Shàng lóu – go upstairs

洗澡 - Xǐ zǎo – take a shower

刮脸 - Guā liǎn – shave (face)

化妆 - Huà zhuāng – put on make up

拢头发 - Lǒng tóufǎ  - comb hair

上厕所 - Shàng cèsuǒ – use(go to) the bathroom

刷牙 - Shuā yá – brush teeth

穿衣服 - Chuān yīfú – put on clothes

下楼 - Xià lóu – go downstairs

开车 - Kāichē – drive a car

坐公共汽车 - Zuò gōnggòng qìchē – on the bus

坐地铁 - Zuò dìtiě – on the subway

走路 - Zǒulù - walk

骑车 - Qí chē – ride a bike

路上- Lùshàng – on the road/on the way

上课 - Shàngkè – in class

上班 - Shàngbān – at work

玩 - Wán - play

吃午饭 - Chī wǔfàn – eat lunch

下课 - Xiàkè – get out of school

下班 - Xiàbān – get off of work

做作业 - Zuò zuo yè – do homework

整理 - Zhěnglǐ – straighten up

洗衣服 - Xǐ yīfú – wash clothes

睡午觉 - Shuì wǔjiào – take a nap

做晚饭 - Zuò wǎnfàn – make dinner

吃晚饭 - Chī wǎnfàn – eat dinner

上网 - Shàngwǎng – go on the internet

聊天 - Liáotiān - chat

取钱 - Qǔ qián – take out money

上街 - Shàng jiē – go shopping

买菜 - Mǎi cài – go grocery shopping

看书 - Kàn shū – read a book

休息 - Xiūxí - rest

睡觉 - Shuìjiào - sleep


Remember, when you add
在 (zài) in front of any of these actions, it means you are “doing” that action - for example, “sleep” will change to, “sleeping.”  And if you have nothing to do, you might say
没事做!(Méi shì zuò!) “There’s nothing to do!”

Check out
 Peggy Lee to hear how this question and answer sounds from a native speaker. 

Now it’s your turn.  Practice using this pattern by writing what you are doing in the reply. Feel free to write the pattern out with different actions as many times as you want just to practice it.  Remember, there is no substitute for repetition… there is no substitute for repetition… there is no substitute for…  got it?

If you are looking for even more actions to work with, check out a
 previous post on free time activities. After just a little practice you'll have no problem posting status updates in Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or whatever social networking you're into.

(photo credit
 Dima Bushkov)

Views: 10702


What do you think? If you would like to comment you can join free

Join Study More Chinese

Comment by Ethan Nelson on February 21, 2013 at 4:08am



Comment by sikora on April 11, 2012 at 11:39pm

Hey Simon,

First, I'm not sure why your students don't understand 你在做什么?  It is more formal than the 干  option, but I think that it is a pretty universal way to ask about what someone is doing.  That being said, there are quite a few people in the world who speak Chinese and regional variations of what is acceptable  always have to be taken into consideration.

About your question, I know what you mean about the present tense and future tense connotations of "what are you doing?" in English.  I think "你打算干什么?" is fine for the future.  You can also use time markers to get more specific about when you want to ask about, for example:


Nǐ míngtiān dǎsuàn gàn shénme?

What are you planning on doing tomorrow?


Nǐ bìyèle yǐhòu nǐ dǎsuàn gànshénme?

What do you plan on doing after you graduate?

If you have any more questions or if you have anything else to add I'd love to hear it. 

Comment by Simon Webb on April 5, 2012 at 12:57pm

Hey, thanks for the feedback.

Yeah I believe they are interchangeable. I was told 干 is less formal in this context, & that is why I should use it. A Chinese friend said that in English we are informal, & that it is the same with most Chinese.

I have no idea why my students don't understand  你在做什么? It must be my pronunciation.

I have a question.
In English when we say 'what are you doing?' it can mean what are you doing in this instance, & also what are you doing in the immediate future.  If you understand what I mean, do you have a way for expressing that in Chinese? Is '你打算干什么?' suitable?

Comment by sikora on March 27, 2012 at 10:02pm

Hey Simon,

Thanks for your comment.  As far as I know, 做 (zùo) and 干 (gàn) are interchangeable in this context.  I think that 干 (gàn) sounds a bit less formal.  I chose to use 做 (zùo) here because it is able to be used in more varied contexts than 干 (gàn) so it is higher frequency.  I think it is also correct to say, "你在干什么?“ so with the word 干 (gàn) both 吗(ma) and 什么(shénme) should be ok in this context.  However, I don't think it is correct to say, "你在做吗?”  I could be wrong on that, but I've never heard or seen that question.  Good luck with your students!

Comment by Simon Webb on March 27, 2012 at 8:35pm

My students don't understand me when I say this, but they are responsive when I say 'ni zai ga ma?'

Comment by Shu on January 4, 2012 at 11:03am


That is very good explanation, well done.

Certified Online Chinese Teacher

Recommended Live Chinese Class

Mandarin tutor on skype

mandarin tutor on skype

Popular School in China

Try I Love Learning Chinese

Sponsored Links

© 2020   Learn Chinese Online at Study More Chinese, created by Brandon. Contact us for links & advertising.

StudyMoreChinese on Facebook  |  Twitter  |  Google Plus  |  LinkedIN   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service