You have been studying Chinese for a while and feel more and more confident when chatting with native speakers. One day, your Chinese friend tells you sadly, “My grandpa is very sick, and he is hospitalized.” At the first moment you hear the news, your brain starts to look for the appropriate words/sentences to express your sympathy.
If you were speaking English, you would say, “I am sorry to hear that.” However, can you directly translate this sentence into Chinese? 对不起听说这个？我很抱歉听说这个？Right, as you might imagine, we cannot do the direct English-to-Chinese translation in this case.
Now I am going to teach you how to properly express sympathy or condolences in Chinese.
Your colleague Lucy tells you that her dad is very sick and is hospitalized.
In Chinese, we do not usually say, “I am sorry to hear that” in this case. The more common way to show your care is to ask some detailed questions. For example:
Also, we like to offer our help by saying:
Even though you do not think Lucy will really need help, it is the thought that counts.
Your colleague, Xiao Wang, tells you that his dad passed away yesterday.
The first sentence that pops into your mind might be, “I am very sorry for your loss.” So you tell Xiao Wang, 我对你的失去很对不起. OK, Xiao Wang may still be able to understand what you are saying, however, this is not the authentic way Chinese people will express condolences. In this case, Chinese people usually say:
Before writing this article, I also asked many Chinese friends of mine, and they said that they might not say anything immediately. They would gently pat Xiao Wang’s shoulder or arm to show their sympathy and then express their condolence verbally. If Xiao Wang tells you the bad news via email or text message, your answers can be more formal. You could say:
节哀顺变 is the most commonly used Chinese idiom to express condolences. Literally, it means that you should restrain your sadness and adjust to the change. Also, you could say:
If you express condolences in writing, you could write more formally:
In addition, please be sure that you use 去世/过世 (pass away) instead of 死 (die) when expressing condolences. In colloquial Chinese, people could also use
to inform you of somebody’s death. In Chinese, there are many different words to describe death. For example, an emperor’s death is usually called 驾崩 / 千秋, and an eminent monk’s death is called 圆寂 / 坐化.
In conclusion, the way Chinese people express sympathy and condolences may differ from English, but in both cultures, I believe coming across as sincere is always more important than what you say.