How to ask, "What is this?" in Chinese - 20 Questions to Basic Fluency #15

Last time we took a look at how to say, 
"When is your birthday?"  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 almost too scared to open our mouths to ask, "What is this?"  There are few things more frightening than being in a foreign country and having to face food that doesn't resemble... well, food.  Here is the question and answer.

Zhè shì shénme?
What is this?
Zhè shì dòufu.
This is tofu.

Despite some of the complexities that Chinese can throw at you, it can also be beautifully simple.  This is one of those times.  The question is a mirror image of the English and the answer matches up exactly with English.  Let’s look at the question first.

The question is in the reverse order of the English sentence, but since there are only three words to deal with this isn’t much of an obstacle.  The first character is
这(zhè) and it means
“this.”  The character
是(shì) means
“is.”  Finally,
什么(shénme) means
“what.”  So the literal translation is,
“This is what?”  -  beautiful and simple.  Now let’s look at the answer.


The answer follows the same word order as the question.  (Notice that in English we switch the word order from question to answer.  We do this a lot and it makes learning English a bit complicated for foreigners.) All we need to do in the Chinese answer is replace the question word,
什么(shénme), with a thing and you’re done.

In our answer we have
豆腐(dòufu).  So the literal translation for the answer is,
“This is tofu.”  (We’re likely to complicate things even a little more in English by replacing “This…” in the question with the word “It…” in answer:  “It’s tofu.”)   


More Info

We’ve seen 什么(shénme) before and we’ve had some other words that we can also translate as “what.”  But 什么(shénme) is the stock translation for “what.”  You can say 什么?(shénme?) all by itself if you didn’t hear someone to mean, “What?”  Or, if you did hear the person, but you can’t quite believe what the person said, then you can also say 什么(shénme) to show your incredulity.  So as you can see, in this context 什么(shénme) works the same as the word “what” does in English.


Getting more specific


You might find yourself in a situation where saying, “what is this?” might sound a little too blunt.  Let’s say you are at someone’s home for dinner.  Dinner is served and you’d like to know the name of the dish.  In this situation, saying, “what is this?” can sound rather rude.  In other contexts, asking, “what is this?” can make you seem one chopstick shy of a pair.

Imagine you are in a tea house in Shanghai.  A cup of tea is placed in front you.  You want to ask what
kindof tea it is.  But if you ask, “what is this?” people are likely to smile at you sympathetically and say, “tea.”  Luckily, asking about kinds of things uses the pattern that we’ve reviewed above.  All you need to do is add the kind of thing you want to know about at the end of the question, 这是什么_____?(Zhè shì shénme_____?)  You are literally saying, "This is what_____?"  Take a look at the examples below.




Zhè shì shénme cài?

What kind of food is this?



Zhè shì shénme chá?

What kind of tea is this?



Zhè shì shénme ròu?

What kind of meat is this?



Zhè shì shénme shūcài?

What kind of vegetable is this?



Zhè shì shénme shuǐguǒ?

What kind of fruit is this?



Zhè shì shénme jiǔ?

What kind of alcohol is this?



Zhè shì shénme píjiǔ?

What kind of beer is this?



Zhè shì shénme dōngxi?

What kind of thing is this?


*Note: If you need to say “that” instead of “this” you just replace 这(zhè) with 那(nà).



Nà shì shénme?

What is that?



(photo credit
 Swiss James)

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Comment by Seraph Ching on May 14, 2012 at 5:05pm

Matt you are really good at teaching Chinese!

You are right, replacing 这是什么 with 这是什么菜 is more polite. But be careful, don't point at a dish and ask 这是什么东西, this is much ruder than just 这是什么.  :)

And, what does this mean "can make you seem one chopstick shy of a pair"?

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