Polite expressions (礼貌用语 lǐmào yòngyǔ) are often neglected by learners of Chinese. They are rarely covered in textbooks, and there is a general misconception that Chinese does not have many such expressions. While “manners” as we understand them in English-speaking countries are not typically observed in modern-day China, it would be incorrect to claim that the Chinese do not have expressions they can be used to convey courtesy and consideration when necessary. Indeed, you’ll find that the vast majority in this huge list are commonly used in every day conversation.
Types of polite expressions
Polite expressions in Chinese can be broken down into the following categories:
敬词 jìngcí, “honorifics”: These include expressions that convey respect to those being spoken to, such as 您好 nínhǎo (“hello” [polite]), 请 qǐng (“please”), 谢谢 xièxie (“thank you”), 稍等 shāoděng (“one moment”), etc.
客套话 kètàohuà, “polite formulas”: These include conventional greetings that show respect and concern for the other person, such as 慢走 mànzǒu (“take care”), 打扰 dǎrǎo (“[sorry to] bother [you]”), 辛苦 xīnkǔ (“you’ve worked so hard”), 恭喜 gōngxǐ (“congratulations”), etc.
普通词 pǔtōngcí, “ordinary words”: These include ordinary expressions that can be used to convey polite sentiments, such as随时 suíshí (“at any time”), 高兴 gāoxìng (“pleased”), 来 lái (“come”), 放心 fàngxīn (“rest assured”), etc.
短语 duǎnyǔ, “phrases”: These include everyday expressions that make up a full sentence, such as你吃了吗？nǐ chī le ma? (“have you eaten?”), 不用谢 bù yòng xiè (“you’re welcome”), 没关系 méiguānxi (“no problem”), 慢慢吃 mànmàn chī (“take your time eating”), etc.
Others: There are also some minor sub-categories such as 谦词 qiāncí (self-deprecatory expressions), 婉词 wǎncí (euphemisms) and 敬称 jìngchēng (terms of respect). These could all be blog entries of their own.
It should be noted that these labels are not set in stone. Sometimes it can be difficult to work out which term fits into which category, and how they differ from each other is not always very clear.
The polite expressions in this list I have come up with are more or less in order of everyday frequency, with the first 50 or so being the most common expressions. Expressions towards the end of the list are more common in highly formal or literary contexts.
One more thing: I have not included words for people in society like老师 lǎoshī (“teacher”), 同志 tóngzhì (“comrade”), 先生 xiānsheng (“mister”), 小姐 xiǎojiě (“miss”), 师傅 shīfu (“master”), 朋友 péngyou (“friend”), 哥哥 gēge (“older brother”), 阿姨 āyí (“aunty”), etc., though these are obviously common and important words in Chinese.