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5 Chinese HSK Words That Mean "To Know"

If you’ve been learning Chinese for some time, you’ve probably encountered a few words that can mean “to know” or “to understand”. The first one’s you’ll usually learn are 知道 (zhī dào) and 明白 (míng bai), followed by 了解 (liǎo jiě), 理解 (lǐ jiě) and 懂 (dǒng).

These words can be really tricky for students when learning Chinese, so we’ve created a video to teach you the differences between them!

Check out the post below for the summary points of the differences, with some links to our lessons that cover these words as well!

#1: 知道 (zhī dào) - to know

This refers to knowing some basic information, in a very general sense. It is a bit similar to “to know of” or “to know about” something.


我知道这个事。(wǒ zhī dào zhè ge shì) - I know about this matter.

我知道那个地方。(wǒ zhī dào nà ge dì fang) - I know of that place.

For more on 知道, and the differences between it and 认识 (another word that can mean “to know” as in “to know someone”, check out this lesson from our Beginner Conversational Course.

#2: 了解 (liǎo jiě) - to understand / to know sth

This means to know about something, particularly about the reasoning, process, or result of that thing. It emphasizes that you know someone or something quite well. 


我了解整个事情。(wǒ liǎo jiě zhěng gè shì qing) - I know about this whole matter.

我很了解他。(wǒ hěn liǎo jiě tā) - I know him well. 

For more on 了解 (liǎo jiě), check out this lesson from our Intermediate Conversational Course.

#3: 明白 (míng bai) - to understand / to know / to be clear on sth

This refers to knowing or finding out quite a bit about something and being sure about it. It can be used either as a verb or an adjective.


你明白我的意思吗?(nǐ míng bai wǒ de yì si ma) - Do you know what I mean?

这件事你想明白了吗?(zhè jiàn shì nǐ xiǎng míng bai le ma) - Are you clear on this matter?

Learn about 明白 (míng bai) and a practical way of using it when just starting to learn Chinese here.

#4: 理解 (lǐ jiě) - to understand / to comprehend

This means you understand something, particularly why it happened or what it means. It’s most often used when talking about someone’s behavior, methods, thoughts, or way of speaking.


我很理解他为什么会这么做,如果我是他,我也会这样的。(wǒ hěn lǐ jiě tā wèi shén me huì zhè me zuò, rú guǒ wǒ shì tā, wǒ yě huì zhè yàng de) - I understand why he did it that way. If I were him, I would do the same as well.

To learn more about the specific differences between 理解 (lǐ jiě) and 了解 (liǎo jiě), check out this lesson from our Upper Intermediate Conversational Course.

#5: 懂 (dǒng) - to understand / to know

This is a one-character word, meaning you completely understand something, or you have professional knowledge about something. 


你懂中文吗?(nǐ dǒng zhōng wén ma) - Do you understand Chinese?

哦,我懂了。(ò, wǒ dǒng le) - Oh, I get it now.

Situational Dialogue

Although all five of these words look similar on the surface, they’re actually quite different! 

To better demonstrate these differences, check out the below dialogue using all 5 of these words, to more clearly understand the meaning behind them:

(Zhāng Míng: Xiǎo Měi, qǐng bú yào hé wǒ fēn shǒu hǎo ma wǒ hái shì bù míng bai nǐ wèi shén me yào fēn shǒu)
Zhang Ming: Xiao Mei, please don’t break up with me, OK? I still don’t understand why you want to break up.

(Xiǎo Měi: Zhāng Míng, wǒ zhī dào nǐ hěn liǎo jiě wǒ, dàn nǐ què bù néng lǐ jiě wǒ, wǒ xū yào de shì yí ge dǒng wǒ de rén, wǒ yǐ jīng shuō de hěn míng bai le)
Xiao Mei: Zhang Ming, I know you know me, but you don’t get me, I need someone who understands me, I’ve already made myself clear.

(Zhāng Míng: zhēn bù míng bai, yě bù lǐ jiě nǐ wèi shén me yào zhè yàng, yě xǔ shì wǒ zhēn de bù dǒng nǐ, suàn le, wǒ zhī dào nǐ de yì si le)
Zhang Ming: I really don’t understand, I don’t get why you want to be like this either, maybe it really is that I don’t understand you. Forget it, I know what you mean.

Learn More

We hope you have a better understanding of these words and how to use them now!

If you're just getting started learning Chinese, be sure to check out our Beginner Conversational Course

Level 1 of the course (45 lesson videos with tons of study tools!) is totally free, which covers pinyin pronunciation and some must-know vocabulary and sentence structures to get you started conversing in Mandarin.

Get started on Lesson 1 here!

If you’ve been studying for some time, our Intermediate and Upper Intermediate courses might be more up your alley! 

The first few lessons of both courses are totally free, so be sure to check out the first lesson of Intermediate here and Upper Intermediate here:

Have a question? Need help getting started? Let us know in the comments below, or email us at!