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How to Sound Sincere when Apologizing in Chinese


In 2001, I was an undergraduate student learning the basics of Chinese and looking forward to spending my junior year in China. 

You may remember that in the spring of that year, American and Chinese military aircrafts collided in the South China Sea, in what became known as the “Hainan Island Incident.” 

For a few days, relations between China and the U.S. got a little tense. I panicked, worrying that it might escalate and put my plans to go to China in jeopardy!

Eventually, after days of diplomats grasping for the right words, the U.S. issued a letter that was accepted by the Chinese.

It included the use of the word “sorry,” and things finally cooled down, much to my relief.

That letter actually brought about several wins for all involved. The U.S. got its plane and crew back, and could say that it was merely expressing regret over the fact that the incident happened at all, without actually taking blame for it. 

On the other side, China was able to interpret the “sorry” as an actual apology, claiming the U.S. conceded that it was in the wrong all along. Both sides managed to save face.

But more importantly, back in my little Chinese-learning world, I also got a couple of big “wins” from that letter. 

First, my upcoming year in China was no longer in jeopardy. Hurray! 

And second, my Chinese teacher used the international incident as a “teachable moment” to point out that the word “sorry” in English is actually pretty ambiguous, and could be translated into Chinese in a number of different ways. 

What I learned turned out to be very useful when I was a student in China, because I often needed to express an apology or regret for one thing or another.

Save this handy infographic to remember how to say 'I'm sorry' in Chinese, the right way in the right situation.  Then read below for a more detailed breakdown of each expression:

(Tip: If you want to make sure you pronounce the pinyin for these apologies correctly, use Yoyo Chinese's video-based pinyin chart. It has audio demonstrations of all Mandarin sounds and video explanations for some of the more difficult sounds: link).

1. If you want to express regret or pity, use "yí hàn (遗憾)"

This is the idea that the U.S. claims it meant by the two uses of “sorry” in that infamous letter.

In everyday life, “yí hàn” is especially useful when you have to turn down an invitation, say you’re sorry for missing some event, or deliver some bad news. For example:

I’m sorry/regret I can’t attend the dinner on Friday.
Hěn yí hàn wǒ bù néng cān jiā xīng qī wǔ de wǎn cān.
很遗憾 我不能参加星期五的晚餐。  

I didn’t make it on time to watch your performance. Really sorry/Such a shame!
Méi lái de jí kàn nǐ de biǎo yǎn, zhēn yí hàn!

I’m very sorry to tell you that you failed the test.
Hěn yí hàn de gào sù nǐ, nǐ kǎo shì bù jí gé.
很遗憾地告诉你, 你考试不及格。  

2. If you want to say sorry for something that is a little embarrassing or creates a socially awkward situation, use "bù hǎo yì si (不好意思)"

This is a phrase that you can use a lot in everyday life for small situations when you might say a quick “oops, sorry about that” in English. 

For example:

Sorry for showing up late.
Bù hǎo yì si lái wǎn le.
不好意思 来晚了。  

Sorry for interrupting you.
Bù hǎo yì si dǎ duàn nǐ le.
不好意思 打断你了。  

Sorry for disturbing you.
Bù hǎo yì si dǎ rǎo nǐ le.
不好意思 打扰你了。  

Sorry for making you wait so long.
Bù hǎo yì si ràng nǐ jǐu děng le.
不好意思 让你久等了。  

Sorry I dialed the wrong number.
Bù hǎo yì si dǎ cùo le.
不好意思 打错了。  

3. If you want to apologize and take the blame for something big or small, use "duì bu qǐ (对不起)" or "bào qiàn (抱歉)"

This is how the Chinese side wanted to interpret the word “sorry” used in that letter issued by the U.S. Both “duì bu qǐ” and “bào qiàn” mean “Sorry (it’s my fault),” although “bào qiàn” is more formal. 

You can use either one for apologizing for screw-ups both big and small. For example: 

I’m so sorry this is all my fault.
Dùi bu qǐ, dōu guài wǒ

Sorry, please forgive me.
Hěn bào qiàn, qǐng yuán liàng wǒ.

I said the wrong thing, I’m sorry.
Wǒ shuō cùo le, duì bu qǐ

So there you have the most common ways to say “sorry” in everyday life. 

But actually, the word that the Chinese side in the Hainan Island Incident kept using was "dào qiàn (道歉)", which is the verb that means “to apologize” (and admit you were in the wrong.) They wanted the American side to “dào qiàn” and take responsibility for the crash.

As I understand it, in the end, the official Chinese version of the letter that the U.S issued actually translated the word “sorry” as "wǎn xī (惋惜)", which is a lot like “yí hàn” in meaning and usage, and doesn’t necessarily imply responsibility for what happened.  

Meanwhile, the media in China did their own version of the letter, using yet another translation for the word “sorry,” "shēn biǎo qiàn yì (深表歉意)", which is a very formal phrase used mostly in written Chinese that means something like “express my deepest apologies.”

The original meaning may have been intentionally lost in translation in this case. 

I suppose that’s part of the art of international diplomacy. But in everyday life in China, in order to avoid confusion, it’s best to know your various types of “sorry.” 

So try to keep the three categories mentioned above separate in your mind. That way, if you do have to apologize, you can say it like you mean it!