For the first in our series No Nonsense Newbie Tips, let’s tackle the particularly thorny issue of 知道 (zhīdào) versus 认识 (rènshi). Both approximately hover around the English “to know”, but there are very important differences between the two.
There are certain circumstances where usage might be interchangeable, but more often than not you’ll want to be careful which you use. If you are truly looking to impress your Chinese friends or teacher with your progress, nail this distinction!
Let’s take a look at each word separately, with a brief English explanation and a few simple examples. We’ll finish with 3 important takeaways.
1. 知道- zhīdào
Definition: To know, to be aware of
If you are looking for a default way to say “I know…”, 知道 is usually your best bet. Its range of use and flexibility is broader than 认识. You can use it for facts, objects, or people you aren’t personally acquainted with, but are aware of or have a general understanding about.
Nǐ zěn me zhīdào?
How do you know?
Tā zhīdào zěn me yàng shuō sān zhǒng yǔyán
He knows how to speak 3 languages
Nǐ zhīdào bǐ sài de jié guǒ?
Do you know the result of the match?
Wǒ bù zhīdào lǎo shī de yì si
I don’t know what the teacher means.
Tā de mù biāo shì ràng rén zhīdào
His goal is to let people know
2. 认识- rènshi
Definition: To know, understand, be familiar with, to meet (a person)
Using 认识 indicates a degree of familiarity with an object, person, or idea. It implies a level of understanding that goes beyond 知道, and connotes a level of personal familiarity.
Hěn gāo xìng rènshi nǐ!
So happy to meet you!
Wǒ men shì zài dàxué rènshi de
We met in college
Wǒ rènshi zhè ge hàn zì
I know this Chinese character
Tā rènshi dào zhè shì yī jiàn huài shì
He realized this is a bad thing
Nǐ děi rènshi dào nǐ de cuò wù
You must recognize your mistakes
1) 知道 is probably your “go-to” when expressing “to know”. Somebody tells you not to be late for your appointment? “我知道!”. Somebody asks you to explain the Higgs boson particle? “我不知道!”.
2) “Do you know Tom Cruise?” Sure, I’ve heard of Tom Cruise, I’ve seen many of his movies, I casually follow his religious and relationship exploits online, but I have never personally met him. Thus, I 知道 Tom Cruise 是谁, but don’t 认识 him.
Similarly, to say “我知道上海” Means “I’ve heard of Shanghai”, where “我认识上海” means “I”m familiar with Shanghai”. You should probably choose the friend who 认识 Shanghai to show you around.
This is a great example where the Chinese is more precise than the English!
3) If you “realize or recognize something”, probably use 认识. If you went through the process of not knowing something, to becoming privy to it, indicate your level of personal involvement by using 认识.
What other newbie tips would you find helpful?