Credit Reference: http://blog.tutorming.com/mandarin-chinese-learning-tips/why-do-chinese-people-ask-have-you-eaten

"吃了吗 (Chī le ma)?" (also "吃饭了吗 (chī fàn le ma)"

Many Westerners who study Chinese recognize "吃了吗?" as the textbook standard in Chinese greetings.

"吃了吗?" is still commonly used among the older generation in Northern China, especially in Beijing. Please note that you need to have a certain degree of familiarity to use "吃了吗?", as it is most often used between old friends and neighbors.

What literary device would we associate with the aforementioned Chinese old fashioned way of greeting?

  • would it be similar to literary device called an idiom? For example, in English, when people say that completing a task is a "piece of cake" then it means that the task was easy to complete. In the bible, "The apple of one’s eye. Meaning: “something very dear.” The psalmist asks for God’s protection against his enemies, saying, “Keep me as the apple of the eye” (Psalm 17:8)" Reference: gotquestions.org/idioms-in-the-Bible.html
    – crazyTech
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 21:13

5 Answers 5


Is a greeting a literary device in your opinion?

wotcha is a common greeting in England.

wotcha: is a contraction of the greeting 'what cheer?' (York Mysteries, c.1440), meaning 'How are you?'

moin is a contraction of 'mooie dag' = 'good day', and a common greeting in Low German.

"吃了吗?" is definitely not passé, I hear this all the time, from old and young.

Literary device: 礼貌的问候

  • I'd probably considered "Chī le ma?" as an idiom literary device. ( Like wishing actors/singers before they perform on stage to "break a leg")
    – crazyTech
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 22:23

The old idiom below tells a lot of what is deemed the most important thing in a (Chinese) person's life:

民以食為天 - The importance of eating is as large as the sky.

Also, there is an old teaching that says "食色性也" - Eat and sex is human natures.

Then, a popular piece of advice from the older women to the younger (in waiting or just getting married) is: "要想抓住男人的心, 先要學會抓住男人的胃" - If you want to capture your man's heart, you must first learn how to satisfy his appetite for food. :)


Considering its usage I would probably file it as an:



Literary devices are specific techniques that allow a writer to convey a deeper meaning that goes beyond what's on the page. Examples are literary techniques like allegory, irony, humor, metaphor, imagery, and so on.

With this definition in mind, perhaps OP is wondering whether "吃了吗?", as a peculiarly Chinese informal social greeting, conveys a "deeper meaning" that goes beyond the mundanely obvious, namely, a general social concern for the well being of others?

If so, then as others have said, being having had a meal is above all else the super-conscious concerns of the Chinese people in days long gone by. It is today a matter of cultural politeness and social habit.

So, to answer OP's question -- "What literary device would we associate with the aforementioned Chinese old fashioned way of greeting?"

Well, perhaps "humor" as young Chinese people would LOL if greeted like such.

Other literary devices like allegory, irony, metaphor, imagery, Mmmmmmm...., I don't know as I am not a writer of satire.

  • Till this day, I still don't know the proper reaction to reply the English greeting of "How are you doing?" Some people reply "Good" and stop the conversation, some just totally ignore this question and start their other topics like it's never asked and some actually reply with the same words. So maybe OP could simply treat "你吃飯了沒" as the same circumstance of "How are you doing."
    – pigtail
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 1:43
  • I was greeted by my elderly friends with "吃飽了沒" since childhood and now getting older I sometimes use this phrase to mimic the heartwarming feeling when interacting with people. Humor? A little bit. Maybe also nostalgia and intimacy. (But I personally would only say this when it's about the period for meal.)
    – pigtail
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 1:48
  • @pigtail - "How are you doing?" is too loaded a greeting, hence your "difficulty". You may have to lie and say "good" when in fact you are not that "good", because to take it literally and answer truthfully "I am not good / well" would immediately cause an unsolicited reaction. 你吃飯了沒 was in the days when 飯 was the default staple, (now it's Pizza), and the answer was usually in the positive because a negative answer would be the same as "I am not good / well" Just like the difference between 你好 & 你好吗?, the latter discomfortly implies that you may not be 好, hence the "unintended" query. Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 3:26

"吃了吗?" functions the same as 'how are you" (greeting). It doesn't directly inquire about the well being of the other but deducts an answer based on whether someone has eaten or not

In ancient times, having enough to eat was considered a good living for most people. We just keep using it today. If you are not familiar with someone, you wouldn't bother to ask if he's living well or not. In other words, you don't ask strangers this question as a greeting

As for what literary device we associate with it, I would say 邏輯引伸 (logical extension). When asking whether someone has eaten or not, we are actually inquiring about that person's well-being and readiness to engage or not.

If the answer is "have eaten", it suggests he is free to engage because the most important task of the day has been dealt with; If the answer is "haven't eaten", it suggests he is busy or he is not doing well, in either case, he is not ready to engage you. Typically, people answering "haven't eaten" would add "I am going to now (not ready to engage)" or "I am going to later (willing to engage for a short time). If you want a longer interaction, you should invite that person to have a meal with you

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