During your studies, you must have come across 才 in the written language. It is used quite often, and can be frequently heard in spoken Chinese as well. So, do you find it confusing and want to know more about how it is used? If so, this article will help. Here, I will present the many meanings of this word, as well as detailed examples for each. Let’s have a look!
Meaning #1: Not unless, not until, then and only then, for no other reason
- Tā chī lè sān wǎn miàn cái bǎo. 他吃了三碗面（才）饱。He wasn’t full until he had eaten three bowls.
- Jīng tā jiěshi zhī hòu, wǒ cái míngbái zěnme huí shì. 经他解释之后，我（才）明白怎么回事。I didn’t understand what was going on until he explained it to me.
- Tā shuō xíng cái xíng. 他说行（才）行。It’s OK only if he says so.
- Zhǐ yǒu kào qúnzhòng, cái néng bǎ gōngzuò zuò hǎo. 只有靠群众，（才）能把工作做好。Only by relying on people can we do our work well.
- Zhèng yīnwéi wǒmén yǒu kùnnán, cái pài wǒmén qù. 正因为我们有困难，（才）派我们去。We were sent precisely because there were problems there.
Meaning #2: A moment ago, just
- Nǐ zěnme cái lái jiù yào zǒu. 你怎么（才）来就要走？ You’ve only just come. Why do you want to leave so soon?
- Tā cái húi dào jiālǐ tāngmǔ jiù lái zhǎo tā le. 他（才）回到家里汤姆就来找他 了。 He had just gotten home when Tom came looking for him.
Meaning #3: Only, 才 + number
- Xiànzài cái bādiǎn, hái zǎo zhe ne. 现在（才）八点, 还早着呢。It’s only 8 o’clock, so there’s still plenty of time.
- Cái wǔ kuài qián ma? zhēn piányi. （才）五块钱吗？真便宜。Only five dollars? That’s really cheap.
- Zhè háizi cái wǔsùi yǐjīng rèn dé bùshǎo zì le. 这孩子（才）五岁已经认得不少字了。The child is only five, and he already knows quite a few characters.
Meaning #4: Actually, really (used to emphasize the words before, finish with 呢)
- Zhè cái hǎo ne. 这（才）好呢! Now this is really good!
- Nǐ yǐwéi tā shǎ ma tā cái bù shǎ ne. 你以为他傻吗? 他（才）不傻呢! You think he is stupid? Not him!
- Wǒ cái lǎn dé guǎn ne! 我（才）懒得管呢! I can’t be bothered! I couldn’t care less.
- Nǐ cái shì sāhuǎng. 你（才）是撒谎! You are the one who’s lying.
- Tā yàoshì bù zhīdào cái guài ne. 他要是不知道（才）怪呢! I’d be really surprised if he didn’t know.
Meaning #5: Not until, time + 才
- Tā jiǔdiǎn cái lái tàiwǎnle. 他九点（才）来，太晚了。He didn’t come until 9 o’clock. That was too late.
- Dàfēng dào wǎnshàng cái zhǐzhù le. 大风到晚上（才）止住了。The winds didn’t stop until the evening.
- Tā zǒule liǎnggè zhōngtóu cái zǒudào. 他走了两个钟头（才）走到。It took him two hours to get there.
- Nǐ wèishénme zhè hur cái shuō ne? 你为什么这会儿（才）说呢？How come you didn’t say anything until now?
Meaning #6: Something that happened just before
- Jiémù cái kāishǐ. 节目（才）开始。The performance has just started.
- Zěnme cái lái jiù yào zǒu? 怎么（才）来就要走？Why leave so soon?
Meaning #7: Something that happened or finished recently
- Tā zuótiān cái líkāi niǔyuē. 他昨天（才）离开纽约。He only left New York yesterday.
Meaning #8: Used to indicate a small number, a small amount of time, poor ability, etc.
- Yījiǔsìjiǔ nián yǐqián zhōngguó gāngtiě niánchǎnliàng zuì gāo cái jiǔshí duō wàn dūn. 1949年以前中国钢铁年产量最高（才）90多万吨。Before 1949, China’s highest annual output of steel was only a little more than 900,000 tons.
- Dāngshí tā cái wǔsùi. 当时他（才）五岁。He was only five years old then.
Meaning #9: Because of something, to get something (use 只有...才；必须...才；因为...才；由于...)
- Fēi děng qǐzhòngjī lái cái néng zhuāng ma? 非等起重机来（才）能装吗？Must we wait until the crane arrives before we start loading?
- Zhǐ yǒu kěn nǔlì cái néng dédào hǎo chéngjì. 只有肯努力（才）能得到好成绩。Only when you study hard can you get good results.
Meaning #10: Used to emphasize something after (finish with 呢)
- Màizi zhǎngdé cái hǎo ne. 麦子长的（才）好呢！The wheat is coming along fine.
- Tā yàoshì bù zhīdào cái guài ne. 他要是不知道（才）怪呢！It would be really strange if he didn’t know.
- Wūzi lǐ bú rè wàimiàn cái rè ne. 屋子里不 热外面（才）热呢！It is not hot in the house, but it’s really hot outside.
dé cái jiān bèi 德（才）兼备: With ability and political integrity
- Tā zhēn shì gē dé cái jiān bèi de hǎo lǎoshī. 他真是个德（才）兼备的好老师。He is such an able teacher and has political integrity.
duō cái duō yì 多（才）多艺: Versatile
- Zhègè nǔhái duō cái duō yì. 这个女孩多（才）多艺。This girl is versatile.
réncái 人（才）: A great man
- Tā shì gè réncái. 他是个人（才）。He is a great man.
yǒucái 有（才）: Great
- Nǐ zhēn yǒu cái. 你真有（才）！You are great!
As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect,” and I am sure that if you put effort into practicing this, you can learn to use it well in Chinese! Good luck! And don’t give up because Chinese is a very interesting language.