The Power of Hao 好

Over appetizers of hummus and baba ghanoush in Riyadh, I asked two Chinese colleagues, “What’s the most frequently used word in Mandarin?” They were uncertain but ventured a couple of guesses. “No,” I disagreed, “but I know what it is.”

I’ve never looked at a Mandarin word corpus, nor have I ever researched the question at all. I’ve never even done a Google search. Nonetheless, I brashly affirm: The most frequently used word in Mandarin is:


If you mention the Mandarin language to an average Joe in the United States or Brazil, they’re likely to spew out, good-naturedly, the sum of their Mandarin mastery: “Ni hao!”

That’s as much as I knew when I began the Mandarin Experiment. But early on, as I watched movies and children’s shows, I quickly picked up that “ni” means “you” and “hao” means “good”. Therefore, I concluded, the greeting “Ni hao” developed similarly to the French, “Ça va?” or the Portuguese, “Tudo bem?”, rhetorical questions that are often used as greetings.

In movies, TV shows, and cartoons, I picked out one sound more than any other, and began to understand its real meaning. Its sounds like the word “how” in English, but, unintentionally, I eventually discovered the common spelling using the Roman alphabet: HAO.

Hao is more versatile than perhaps any word in the languages I know—English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

Hao means “good”, “great”, “fine,” “nice,” and “okay”, but can also be used with great flexibility to indicate agreement, appreciation, and admiration.

Hao can be used alongside many other words to express a variety of positive concepts. Below are a few uses that I have spontaneously deciphered from movies and TV shows.

I will write out the terms phonetically, not in pinyin, which I don’t study. I will also venture the pronunciation of each term, but I will do so from memory, and since I don’t take classes or have any feedback from actual Mandarin speakers, it’s probably all wrong. So have fun listening to my Mandarin, and if you are a Chinese speaker or student, you can tell me whether my crazy Mandarin Experiment is producing half-decent results. However, if you really want to learn proper pronunciation, pinyin, or Mandarin vocabulary, you’ll have to research it on your own.

Hao good, great, fine, nice, beautiful, wonderful; agreement, consent, appreciation, admiration
Ni hao basic greeting; hello
Ni hao ma How are you?
Hun hao Great
Tai hao Really great
Hao pung(a) Super duper
Hao ba hao okay? (in the middle of an explanation)
Hao cher delicious (good to eat)
Hao kan pretty (good to see)
Hao ting nice-sounding (good to hear)
Hao pung yo good friend


Additionally, hao can be used as an answer to a wide variety of commands and questions. It’s so versatile that I think you could practically get by in China as a laconic and agreeable person, just by answering hao to anything that anybody says. Here are a few examples.

  • Somebody gives you a command (“Do this!”). You answer:
  • Hao


  • Somebody gives you an explanation and you indicate that you have understood or agree by saying:
  • Hao


  • Somebody asks you to do something. You agree:
  • Hao


  • Someone asks you permission. You consent:
  • Hao


  • Somebody shows you something beautiful or admirable. You express your appreciation:
  • Hao


  • There is a tense situation and you need to calm someone down.
  • Hao, hao, hao, hao, hao


The possibilities with HAO are endless!

And that is the Power of HAO.


The Liquidator and the Boast

My flight back to Brazil today on Ethiopian Airlines was even more prolific in Mandarin viewing than the flight out, with a record four Chinese movies watched, plus one in the Addis Ababa airport!

I will comment on the movie I downloaded and watched in the airport—Red Sorghum, a Chinese classic—in a future post.

Previously, while still in my hotel room in Riyadh, I had thought to do something for the first time—google what movies are showing on the airline’s international flights and check them out in advance. The listing proved up-to-date and accurate, and, surprisingly, completely different from the selection that had been showing just nine days prior.

The only movie that received generally positive reviews was Till the End of the World, a drama about survival and love between a man and a woman whose plane crashes in Antarctica. It was watchable—if for no other reason than the scenery and my predilection for survival stories, especially involving extreme cold. I would not recommend it for most people, but I’d say it’s worth it if you like the genre and are, like me, specifically seeking Mandarin-language content.

I also watched Namiya, which was entertaining enough, though overall a mediocre film, and The Wayang Kids, which was truly an amateurish production.

The film that positively surprised me with its entertainment value, however, was The Liquidator. It has a low 5.4 average rating on IMDb, and if it were a Hollywood movie and I had gone all the way to a movie theater to view it, I’d probably be quite disappointed. However, on a 12-hour flight and with a strong desire to listen to Mandarin, I found that The Liquidator hit the spot. It’s a crime drama about a vigilante justice serial killer and a criminal psychologist police detective determined to stop him. Everything about the movie was decent: the acting, the storyline, and even the human and societal dilemmas. Throw in some suspense and violence, and the two hours flew by.

That strong desire to learn Mandarin was reinforced yesterday and the day before with several interactions with two Chinese colleagues who attended the same meeting in Riyadh. Over meals of hummus, baba ganoush, and other Middle Eastern delicacies, I couldn’t help mentioning my Mandarin viewing and venturing occasional words that fit the situations. I was happy that they complimented my pronunciation and understood everything I said, though I often didn’t understand what they said back.

I boasted to that, should I continue in the international relations department, I will receive their delegation at the INTOSAI Congress in 2022 in conversational Mandarin. I mentioned this goal in my previous post, but having said it to the head of international relations at the Chinese National Audit Office, and in the presence of other international colleagues, undoubtedly ups the ante.

Though I didn’t watch any Mandarin during the intense week of work and meetings, I hope that my two Mandarin-filled flights, the fun I had with my Chinese colleagues, and the boast about 2022 will provide me with the motivation and momentum to truly reengage in my Mandarin experiment.

13 months later on Ethiopian Airlines


A year and a month have gone by since my last post. The interpreter I mentioned did in fact get an internship in my office, which he’s already completed.

So, contrary to my intentions at the time, it was another fitful restart of my Mandarin Experiment. My viewing has been better than nothing in the past year, but it’s nothing to brag about. In 13 months, I’ve watched a total of 46 hours, or an average of seven minutes per day—a far cry from the 40 daily minutes I watched for some time back in 2014 and 2015.

I finished the soap opera My Ruby, My Blood and watched about 25 episodes of another soap opera, Mr. Right. I haven’t really liked either of them, and the only reason I do watch them is because my girlfriend keeps me company, which makes it worthwhile. I started noticing, however, that her main motivation seems to be as sleeping aid. She says, “Let’s watch Chinese!” I set it up and we watch about 5 minutes, after which she announces that she can’t deal with how sleepy she is, and the viewing is over… So I may have to switch back to movies and Qiao Hu.

Yesterday, however, was one of my best Chinese viewing days ever. I had a 12-hour flight from Sao Paulo to Addis Ababa on my way to Kuwait. Ethiopian Airlines had a good movie selection, including about 10 Chinese movies. I watched Youth, Have a Nice Day, and Old Beast. About a week before that, at home, I had watched Nightingale and Coming Home.

I had high expectations for Coming Home, since it is from my favorite director Zhang Yimou and stars the beautiful Gong Li, now middle aged. It didn’t disappoint, but it wasn’t one of their better films, either. Have a Nice Day, a 2017 animated dark comedy, was quite entertaining and different from anything I’d seen previously.

The movie I most enjoyed and would recommend, however—also from 2017—is Youth. It’s a coming-of-age story about a group of teenagers in a military art troupe in the 1970s. It gives rich insights into recent Chinese history and Chinese culture, and weaves moments of heroism and beauty into the ordinariness of human pettiness and egotism. While most of the film takes place in a short period in the 1970s, the latter segments follow the characters into adulthood and middle age, and I found the way it tied up the human dramas at the end quite satisfying.

I just looked up the director, Feng Xiaogang, and discovered he’s commercially a very successful director in China, mostly of comedies. I looked up his filmography and I have previously seen one of his other movies—Aftershock—which, like Youth, is a foray outside of his usual comedic genre, and instead a historically-based drama. I remember liking Aftershock quite a lot.

I won’t make any predictions now about the continuity of my recent viewing, but I will mention a bold statement I have made to a few people in recent months. At Brazil’s Federal Court of Accounts (TCU), where I currently head the international relations department, we will host a large international congress (INCOSAI) in the second semester of 2022. I have stated that if I happen to still be in that position, I will welcome and converse with the Chinese delegation in passable Mandarin! I think I may be able to do this if I not only complete my 1,000 hours of this Mandarin experiment by then, but also do another 1,000 hours of Part 2 of the Mandarin project, whose approach I won’t reveal quite yet. To do so, however, I will have to increase my 7 minutes per day to a full 60 minutes, a steep task considering I am also trying to learn computer programming, in addition to my demanding day job, my business, my farm, my Law degree, my travels, raising my daughter …