Time and space in Mandarin Chinese

Betsy Lavolette

Director, Language Resource Center, Gettysburg College

Latest posts by Betsy Lavolette (see all)

Language learning and teaching are the focus of my career, and learning a new language is one of my greatest joys in life. So it should be no surprise that I loved every moment of our Chinese classes (not to mention the additional tutoring sessions that I arranged!).

One of the aspects of Mandarin that struck me as different from English or any other European languages I know is its metaphorical relationships between time and space. (I’m just going to avoid discussing Japanese here because it exhibits some of the characteristics I mention below, but not with the consistency that I’ve seen in my limited exposure to Chinese.) As one example, the same character/morpheme is used to indicate front and past (前 qián). Similarly, the same character/morpheme is used for behind and future (后 hòu). To clarify:

Space Time
前 qián = in front of 前天 qiántiān = the day before yesterday (= past)
后 hòu = behind 后天 hòutiān = the day after tomorrow (= future)

So, under this metaphorical system, the past is in front of you, and the future is behind you. This is logical if you think that you can clearly see the past but not the future–although I have no idea if any Chinese native speakers actually think this way. Of course, in English we also talk about the past as being “before” (= in front?) and the future as “after” (= behind?). Even so, from the perspective of a native English speaker, this metaphor is difficult to fully grasp.

What about other characters/morphemes that refer to both space and time? We’ve also got a character/morpheme that indicates both on top of and before/previous (上 shàng) and another that indicates both under and after/next (下 xià).

Space Time
上 shàng = on (top of) 上周 shàngzhōu = last week
上午 shàngwǔ = late morning (“before noon”)
下 xià = under 下周 xiàzhōu = next week
下午 xiàwǔ = afternoon

This logic is much easier for a native English speaker to follow. Instead of thinking of time as passing from in front of you to behind you, now we visualize time as moving from top to bottom, much as you would picture a calendar or timetable.

I am looking forward to learning much more about the metaphors inherent in the Chinese language as I sit in on Chinese 101 at Gettysburg College in the fall and work with the Chinese learners to start up the Chinese Reading Club.

One Reply to “Time and space in Mandarin Chinese”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *