When you learn Mandarin, running straight into words that have no real English equivalent is a daily normality.
They’re frustrating, yet interesting.
…pain-inducing, yet necessary.
才(cái) is one word that takes pleasure in confusing eager language learners like yourself.
So how can you unwrap it and make it your own to the point where using it in daily conversation feels natural for you?
Below you’ll find four rounds of speed dates that correspond to a definition of 才(cái). Each round has examples to help you understand how to use 才(cái) once and for all.
Happy speed dating!
才 (cái) is defined as:
– Just now
Round 1: Until
To make it easier, it’s typically described as a time word that’s for lateness or something that’s happening later.
In English, we would express that by saying “until”.
Wǒ gōngzuò jiǔ diǎn cái dào.
I didn’t arrive at work until nine o’clock.
When you use 才, you always put a verb before it, like in the example above with 工作 coming before 才。
If you’re talking about something happening in the future, you’ll typically put會 (ㄏㄨㄟˋ /huì) before the verb, like in the example below.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄇㄣ˙ ㄇㄧㄥˊ ㄋㄧㄢˊ ㄘㄞˊ( ㄏㄨㄟˋ) ㄑㄩˋ ㄊㄞˊ ㄨㄢ ㄌㄩˇ ㄧㄡˊ。
wǒmen míngnián cái( huì) qù Táiwān lǚyóu。
We aren’t traveling to Taiwan until next year.
You can also use it when talking about a routine action or something that’s a part of your usual schedule, like in the example below.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄉㄡ ㄌㄧㄡˋ ㄉㄧㄢˇ ㄓ ㄏㄡˋ ㄘㄞˊ ㄉㄠˋ ㄐㄧㄚ。
wǒ dōu liù diǎn zhīhòu cái dàojiā。
I am usually not home until six o’clock.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄧㄠˋ ㄎㄢˋ ㄨㄢˊ ㄓㄜˋ ㄅㄣˇ ㄕㄨ ㄓ ㄏㄡˋ ㄘㄞˊ ㄋㄥˊ ㄐㄩㄝˊ ㄉㄧㄥˋ ㄨㄛˇ ㄒㄧˇ ㄅㄨˋ ㄒㄧˇ ㄏㄨㄢ ㄊㄚ。
wǒ yàokàn wán zhè běn shū zhīhòu cáinéng juédìng wǒ xǐ bù xǐhuan tā。
I cannot decide if I like this book or not until I finish reading it.
Or you can use it to talk about a situation or a circumstance that may be holding you back from going where you want or getting what you want.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄧㄠˋ ㄒㄧㄡ ㄨㄢˊ ㄒㄩㄝˊ ㄈㄣ ㄏㄡˋ ㄘㄞˊ ㄋㄥˊ ㄅㄧˋ ㄧㄝˋ。
wǒ yào xiū wán xuéfēn hòu cáinéng bìyè。
I won’t be able to graduate until I get the required amount of credits.
Round 2: Only
When it comes to using 才 for “only”, there’s a fair bit of overlap with Chinese and English.
In this example, it’s used to talk about a limited amount of dates, or if you want to think of it as a broader definition, a limited amount of experiences.
ㄋㄧˇ ㄒㄧㄤˇ ㄍㄣ ㄊㄚ ㄐㄧㄝˊ ㄏㄨㄣ ㄇㄚ˙？
nǐ xiǎng gēn tā jiéhūn ma？
Mom: Do you want to marry him?
ㄕㄜˊ ㄇㄜ˙！？ ㄨㄛˇ ㄇㄣ˙ ㄘㄞˊ ㄑㄩˋ ㄌㄜ˙ ㄌㄧㄤˇ ㄍㄜ˙ㄩㄝ ㄏㄨㄟˋ！
shénme！？ wǒmen cái qù le liǎng ge yuēhuì！
Xiao li: What?! We have only gone on two dates!
It can be used to talk about actual items…
ㄨㄟˋ ㄕㄜˊ ㄇㄜ˙ ㄋㄧˇ ㄇㄞˇ ㄌㄜ˙ ㄏㄣˇ ㄉㄨㄛ ㄉㄜ˙ ㄧ ㄈㄨˊ？
wèishénme nǐ mǎi le hěn duō de yīfú？
Why did you buy so many clothes?
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄇㄞˇ ㄙㄢ ㄍㄜ˙ ㄎㄨˋ ㄗ˙！
wǒ cái mǎi sān ge kùzi！
I only bought three pairs of pants!
ㄨㄛˇ ㄗㄨㄛˋ ㄧㄝˋ ㄘㄞˊ ㄒㄧㄝˇ ㄌㄜ˙ ㄧ ㄧㄝˋ。
wǒ zuòyè cái xiě le yī yè。
I only wrote one page for the assignment.
…or to talk about time.
ㄋㄧˇ ㄗㄜˇ ㄇㄜ˙ ㄇㄞˇ ㄈㄢˋ ㄇㄞˇ ㄓㄜˋ ㄇㄜ˙ ㄐㄧㄡˇ? ㄨㄛˇ ㄉㄨˋ ㄗ˙ ㄎㄨㄞˋ ㄜˋ ㄅㄧㄢˇ ㄌㄜ˙。
nǐ zěnme mǎi fàn mǎi zhème jiǔ? wǒ dùzi kuài è biǎn le。
Why did you take such a long time buying food? I am starving.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄔㄨ ㄑㄩˋ ㄧ ㄍㄜ˙ㄓㄨㄥ ㄊㄡˊ ㄦˊ ㄧˇ。
wǒ cái chūqù yī ge zhōngtóu éryǐ。
I was only gone for an hour.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄐㄧㄣ ㄊㄧㄢ ㄘㄞˊ ㄩㄣˋ ㄉㄨㄥˋ ㄅㄢˋ ㄒㄧㄠˇ ㄕˊ。
wǒ jīntiān cái yùndòng bànxiǎoshí。
I only worked out for half an hour today.
And it can be used to talk about specialness, like in the ultra-romantic (or creepy) example below.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄕˋ ㄋㄧˇ ㄧㄠˋ ㄉㄜ˙ ㄖㄣˊ。
wǒ cái shì nǐ yào de rén。
I am the only one you need.
Round 3: Just now
When it comes to using to mean “just now”, it’s used to talk about time when arriving or leaving somewhere and for new situations occurring.
The latter is shown in the example below.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ( ㄍㄤ) ㄕㄤˋ ㄎㄜˋ。
wǒ cái( gāng) shàngkè。
I just (now) got out of class.
ㄋㄧˇ ㄘㄞˊ( ㄍㄤ) ㄉㄠˋㄏㄨㄚ ㄌㄧㄢˊ ㄌㄞˊ？
nǐ cái( gāng) dào Huālián lái？
Did you just (now) arrive in Hualien?
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ( ㄍㄤ) ㄐㄧㄢˋ( ㄇㄧㄢˋ) ㄨㄛˇ ㄉㄜ˙ ㄑㄧㄢˊ ㄋㄢˊ ㄧㄡˇ！
wǒ cái( gāng) jiàn( miàn) wǒ de qián nányǒu！
I just (now) saw my ex boyfriend!
Cocktail party fact: If you say that you see or saw someone, native speakers usually omit 面 because there is an object (前男友) after the verb 見面.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄍㄤ ㄉㄠˋ ㄐㄧㄡˋ ㄒㄧㄚˋ ㄩˇ ㄌㄜ˙。
wǒ cái gāng dào jiù xiàyǔ le。
I just got here and it started raining.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄍㄤ ㄎㄢˋ ㄨㄢˊ” ㄘㄞˋ ㄋㄧㄠˇ ㄒㄧㄣ ㄧˊ ㄇㄧㄣˊ” ㄉㄜ˙ ㄉㄧˋ ㄧ ㄐㄧˊ。
wǒ cái gāng kàn wán” càiniǎo xīn yímín” de dìyī jí。
I just finished watching the first episode of “Fresh Off the Boat”.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄍㄤ ㄒㄧˇ ㄨㄢˊ ㄗㄠˇ
wǒ cái gāng xǐ wán zǎo
I just got out of the shower.
As you can see in the examples above, 才 is typically followed by 剛 .
Round 4: To make a stronger point
There are two ways to make a stronger point with 才
The first is using it to show just how much you are denying something or going against something.
For example, the sentence below is one where someone is denying something after being accused.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄇㄟˊ ㄧㄡˇ ㄗㄨㄛˋ ㄓㄜˋ ㄐㄧㄢˋ ㄕˋ
wǒ cái méiyǒu zuò zhè jiàn shì
I really didn’t do that.
This example shows how someone is feeling about a certain situation.
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄅㄨˋ ㄍㄢˇ( ㄋㄜ˙)
wǒ cáibù gǎn( ne)
I would never dare!
ㄨㄛˇ ㄘㄞˊ ㄅㄨˊ ㄕˋ ㄋㄚˋ ㄇㄜ˙ ㄕㄨㄛ( ㄋㄜ˙)
wǒ cái búshì nàme shuō( ne)
I did not say that once!
I did not say it like that!
The second way to use is to emphasize exactness, like in the examples below.
ㄓㄜˋ ㄘㄞˊ ㄕˋ ㄨㄛˇ ㄧㄠˋ ㄓㄠˇ ㄉㄜˊ ㄉㄨㄥ ㄒㄧ。
zhè cái shì wǒ yào zhǎo dé dōngxi。
This is exactly what I want.
ㄊㄚ ㄘㄞˊ ㄕˋ ㄒㄩㄥ ㄕㄡˇ。
tā cái shì xiōngshǒu。
He is the real murderer.
Other phrases you’ll find it in are:
just now, a moment ago
Justnow, a moment ago
Just now, then
For more information on how to use才 (cái), visit these sites:
Have questions? Leave them in the comments below!