How to ask, "What do you want to do?" in Chinese - 20 Questions to Basic Fluency #10

Last time we took a look at how to say, "Where is the bathroom"  in Chinese.  If you missed that discussion, take some time to 
go back and check it out.

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

Today we are talking about making plans and asking "What do you want to do?"  This is an easy one for English speakers to wrap their heads around, so let's check it out.

Nǐ xiǎng zùo shénme?
What do you want to do?
Wǒ xiǎng chīfàn.
I want to eat.

Making plans to do something in Chinese is pretty simple.  The nice thing about the structure of this question is that it opens up the door to some other high frequency questions.  We’ll check those out later but right now let’s take a look at the question.  The Chinese and the English match up nicely here except for the placement of the question word “what.”  The English question puts “what” at the beginning of the sentence but the Chinese question places
什么(shénme) at the end of the sentence.  The Chinese is actually a bit less complicated because it leaves out the “do” that English uses in this question: “What
doyou want to do?”  As always, there is no verb changing, or conjugation, in any way.  So word for word we end up  with a literal translation of, "You want do what?"  Pretty straight forward, so let’s move on to the answer.


As you can see, the answer is beautifully simple and matches up with the English meaning and word order exactly.  The only tricky part of this is that
吃饭(chīfàn)means "eat" but it is two characters.  The character吃(chī) means "eat" and
means rice.  But in this context their combined meaning is simply "eat" or to have a meal.
So the literal translation is, "I want eat." But there are some variations of the question and answer that you should know.  Let’s move on to them below.


More Info

There are some other ways to ask, “What do you want to do?” in Chinese.  Specifically, 想(xiǎng) and 做(zùo) can be replaced with other words.  First, the verb 要(yào) can replace 想(xiǎng).  What’s the difference?  In this context they both mean “want” but 想(xiǎng) softens the question or request.  It would be more like saying “I would like” instead of “I want.” 

In Chinese culture it is always better to be a bit too polite instead of being slightly rude or informal, so as a beginner it is better to use 想(xiǎng).  That being said, you will definitely hear 要(yào) replacing 想(xiǎng) in this context and it will be completely appropriate and not rude at all.  Just be aware of the difference and use 想(xiǎng) when in doubt.  Next, the verb 做(zùo) can be replaced by 干(gàn).  Here there is no real difference.  Either one gives you the same meaning in this context so feel free to use them interchangeably here. 


It should also be noted in this section that 想 (xiǎng) CANNOT be used to say you want something.  You can only use 想(xiǎng) to ask and say you want to DO something. In other words, when you use 想 (xiǎng) to mean “want” it has to be followed by a VERB. 

How do you say you want SOMETHING?  You use 要 (yào)!  But in Chinese, you will be likely to find yourself in a situation where using 想 (xiǎng) + VERB  will be very natural and you won’t have to use 要 (yào) + THING and chance sounding rude.  Let’s look at why this is so.


Below are some of common questions you might be asked using this pattern.  Check out the answers and see if you can spot how the Chinese answer differs from the English


你想做什么?                                       我想吃饭。

Nǐ xiǎng zùo shénme?                          Wǒ xiǎng chīfàn.

What do you want to do?                    I want to eat.


你想买什么?                                        我想买书。

Nǐ xiǎng mǎi shénme?                          Wǒ xiǎng mǎi shū.

What do you want to buy?                   I want (to buy) a book.


你想喝什么?                                        我想喝水。

Nǐ xiǎng hē shénme?                            Wǒ xiǎng hē shuǐ.

What do you want to drink?                I want (to drink) water.


你想吃什么?                                       我想吃炒饭。

Nǐ xiǎng chī shénme?                           Wǒ xiǎng chī chǎo fàn.

What do you want to eat?                   I want (to eat) fried rice.


Did you see it?  If someone asks you in English, “What do you want to eat?” you are like to reply, “I want fried rice.”  Saying, “I want to EAT fried rice” would sound pretty emphatic, like you haven’t eaten in days and must eat fried rice now!

I can't think of a situation in English where I might be inclined to say, "I want to drink water " but in Chinese repeating the verb that was asked in the question doesn’t sound strange at all.  And for that reason, as a beginner you are still better off using 想(xiǎng) instead of 要(yào). 


Below is another common question that uses the same pattern with a different question word.


你想去哪里?                                        我想去公园。

Nǐ xiǎng qù nǎlǐ?                                    Wǒ xiǎng qù gōngyuán.

Where do you want to go?                    I want to go to the park.


So let's get back to the original question and answer.  If are making plans and someone asks you:

Nǐ xiǎng zùo shénme?
What do you want to do?

You can easily tailor your answer by replacing
 吃饭 (chīfàn)with any activity that you want to do.  Check it out:

Wǒ xiǎng
I want to

For a list of activities to fill in, go to Question #4, 
"What do you like to do in your free time?"

Maybe you would like to tell the person where you would like to go instead of what you would like to do.  If that's the case then this is the answer for you:

我想去公园Wǒ xiǎng qù gōngyuánI want to go to
 the park.
For a list of places to go, check out Question #9,
 "Where is the bathroom?"
Feel free to use the reply to give some feedback, ask questions or practice.

(photo credit

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Comment by Shu on May 21, 2012 at 6:12pm

Hi Seraph,

Your comments are very straight to the point. Always good job well done!

Comment by Seraph Ching on May 21, 2012 at 4:49pm

要 is more determined or commanding than 想.

Actually you can use them together, like 你想要做什么,你想要吃什么,你想要去哪里,我想要吃饭,我想要去公园,etc.  Same meaning.

Comment by Iris on March 27, 2012 at 1:06am

The original meaning of 想 is think.  So 想 has the meaning of  "be going to do sth" or "plan to do sth".

要 has the meaning of "will do sth", just simply tell something to do in the future.

Comment by Orachat on March 26, 2012 at 10:16am
I think 想 has the meaning of -would like, and 要 for -want.
A lesson from my Chinese class ;-)

Comment by sikora on March 24, 2012 at 10:14pm

Thomas, my quick answer to this is yes, you can. Here is the long answer.  The 要 here is actually used more for emphasis than for meaning.  In other words, if you didn't use 要 in the sentences above you would still have the future tense.  But I think as a beginner it is helpful to know that 要 can help form the future.  I also think it can be a little unsettling for a beginner when verbs in Chinese don't change or get modified when the tense changes.  So although you won't always hear it this way, I think it is safe for English speakers to associate VERB + 了 as past tense and 要 (or 会) + VERB with the future.  In the sentences above 要 wouldn't be viewed as rude or as a command.  It just simply says what the person wants to do in the future.  Here, if you replace 要 with 想 the meaning is basically the same, but you've softened it a bit.  Here 想 would translate as "would like to."  Although verb tense in Chinese is simple, it also tends to be a lot more contextualized than it is in English, so it winds up being a pretty slippery thing to get a grasp when you take words and sentences out of a larger context.  I hope this gives some insight and please feel free to ask more questions.      

Top Member
Comment by Thomas Doherty on March 23, 2012 at 9:33pm

Back in "In Chinese -20 #8" we had these sentences using the verb 要(yào) for the English words "will" or "want"  :


Q:  你明天做什么?

      Nǐ míngtiān yào zuò shénme?

      What do you want to do tomorrow?


A: 我明天去博物馆。

     Wǒ míngtiān yào qù bówùguǎn.

     I want to go to the museum tomorrow.

 Can the verb 想(xiǎng)  replace 要(yào) in these sentences also or is there a reason not to do this ?


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