Chinese direction complements: Basic verbal directions with 来 (lái) and 去 (qù)

Direction complements are one of the big obstacles in Chinese grammar. They hit you very near the beginning of your studies, and rarely ‘click’ on the first viewing. They’re often one of the first grammar topics that really slows a learner down and makes them start paying attention to Chinese grammar.

We’re going to build up a complete guide to Chinese direction complements by covering it in smaller chunks. Then we’ll put together a big summary piece that pulls it all together. This is the first in the series: basic direction complements with 来 and 去.

Direction complements: coming closer or going away?

That question is the fundamental point in understanding direction complements: is the action coming closer to the speaker, or moving further away from them? Once you focus on that, these constructions tend to get a bit clearer.

If the action of the verb is getting closer to the speaker, 来 is used. The action is coming closer. If the action is moving away from the speaker, 去 is used. The action is going away. That’s the first part.

This fundamental coming / going movement gets combined with another direction. Imagine that the whole movement or action must have its direction described fully. The fundamental coming / going part of it, plus another direction.

If this seems confusing, fear not! As always, a good dose of example sentences should make it clearer. Let’s have a look at these combinations one by one.

Up and down: 上 (shàng) and 下 (xià)

As well as moving towards or a way from the speaker, an action can also go up and down, right? For those situations, the up and down directions are covered by 上 and 下. Notice how those characters actually look like arrows indicating the direction.

The structure for this is:

verb [上/下] [来/去]

So you can make any combination you like out of 上 or 下, then 来 or 去. There are four possible combinations there. Let’s have a look at an example:

请上来。

Qǐng shànglái.

Please come up.

This sounds like it is being said by someone who is upstairs to someone who is downstairs. The speaker wants the listener to make a movement up and towards them, so they use 上 and 来. Notice how English says “come up”, whereas Chinese switches the order: 上来 is literally “up come”.

What if the person downstairs doesn’t want to go up, and asks the first person to come down? They could say:

你下来。

Nǐ xiàlái.

You come down.

This action is still coming towards the speaker (the person downstairs), but now it’s down and towards them. So 下 and 来 are used.

It might be fun to make up a silly scenario to go through all four combinations in one story. Imagine that the boss of a company has ordered something important online, and the delivery person has arrived with it. The secretary is downstairs and phones the boss upstairs.

The boss wants the delivery person to come upstairs to her office. So she says to the secretary on the phone:

让他上来。

Ràng tā shànglái.

Make him come up.

This movement is up and towards the boss, so the boss uses 上来. Now the secretary passes this message on to the delivery person:

请上去。

Qǐng shàngqù.

Please go up.

This movement is up and away from the secretary, so he uses 上去.

The delivery person has a policy of being very clear about everything, so he says:

好,我上去。

Hǎo, wǒ shàngqù.

OK, I'll go up.

Again, this movement is up and away from the delivery person, so he uses 上去. The delivery person goes up and gives the important parcel to the boss. The boss then says.

谢谢。你可以下去了。

Xièxiè. Nǐ kěyǐ xiàqùle.

Thanks. You can go down now.

Again, the delivery person likes to be super-clear, so he says:

好,我下去。

Hǎo, wǒ xiàqù.

OK, I'll go down.

Unfortunately, the delivery person gets lost trying to find the stairs. Some time passes, and the secretary wonders what’s going on. He phones the boss and says:

他怎么还没下来呢?

Tā zěnme hái méi xiàlái ne?

How come he still hasn't come down?

Eventually they sort it out and everyone lives happily ever after.

In that somewhat repetitive story, we covered all four combinations of 上来, 上去, 下来 and 下去. Let’s have a look at some more examples:

从80楼可以看到整个城市,咱们上去看一下吧。

Cóng bāshí lóu kěyǐ kàn dào zhěnggè chéngshì, zánmen shàngqù kàn yīxià ba.

From the 80th floor you can see the whole city - let's go up and have a look.

这个房子的地下室太恐怖了,我不敢下去。

Zhège fángzi de dìxiàshì tài kǒngbùle, wǒ bù gǎn xiàqù.

The basement in this house is too scary, I don't dare go down.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at some more complex sentences involving 上来, 上去, 下来 and 下去.

In and out: 进 (jìn) and 出 (chū)

Besides 上 and 下, you can use a variety of other directions with 来 and 去 in direction complements. One pair is 进 and 出: inward movements and outward movements. Remember that direction complements are about movements relative to the speaker.

进 and 出 combine with 来 and 去 in the same way as 上 and 下 did above. For example:

请进来。

Qǐng jìnlái.

Please come in.

The speaker might be in a room or office and is inviting the listener to come in (note that this is usually shortened to just 请进). More examples:

我在换衣服,你别进来!

Wǒ zài huàn yīfú, nǐ bié jìnlái!

I'm getting changed, don't come in!

我今晚要出去。

Wǒ jīn wǎn yào chūqù.

I'm going to go out tonight.

小王,出来玩儿!

Xiǎo Wáng, chūlái wánr!

Xiao Wang, come out to play!

他把自己锁在房间里,不让人进去!

Tā bǎ zìjǐ suǒ zài fángjiān lǐ, bù ràng rén jìnqù!

He's locked himself in his room and won't let anyone in!

With direction complements involving 进 and 出, you’ve got to consider if the movement is going into or out of a location (进 or 出), and whether the speaker is inside or outside of that location.

Back: 回 (huí)

The next direction we’ll look at is 回. This is for movements that are going back or returning. You can combine 回 with 来 or 去 to talk about coming back or going back.

Have a look at some examples:

我忘了带伞,我要回去拿。

Wǒ wàngle dài sǎn, wǒ yào huíqù ná.

I've forgotten my umbrella - I'll go back and get it.

你什么时候从巴西回来?

Nǐ shénme shíhou cóng bāxī huílái?

When are you coming back from Brazil?

你几点回去?

Nǐ jǐ diǎn huíqù?

What time are you going back?

你不要回来!

Nǐ bùyào huílái!

Don't come back!

他星期二晚上回来。

Tā xīngqí'èr wǎnshàng huílái.

He's coming back on Tuesday evening.

Again, notice how the movement is always relative to the speaker, regardless of what other direction is included in the direction complement.

Across: 过 (guò)

By combining 来 or 去 with 过, you can talk about movements that come across or go across. This can also cover come over and go over in English.

Examples:

他看到了我,就过来跟我打招呼。

Tā kàn dàole wǒ, jiù guòlái gēn wǒ dǎzhāohū.

He saw me and came over to say hello.

邻居买了新的车,我要过去看一下。

Línjū mǎile xīn de jū, wǒ yào guòqù kàn yīxià.

The neighbours have bought a new car - I'm going to go over and have a look.

你要不要过来吃饭?

Nǐ yào bùyào guòlái chīfàn?

Do you want to come round to eat?

我看到了一个老人摔倒了,马上就过去帮忙。

Wǒ kàn dàole yīgè lǎorén shuāidǎo le, mǎshàng jiù guòqù bāngmáng.

I saw an old person fall down, and immediately went over to help.

Note that other than meaning “go over”, 过去 is also a word meaning “the past”. These meanings are related: the past is what has gone past or “gone across” a line separating past and future.

Rising: 起 (qǐ)

起 is a very versatile word in Chinese, and it’s a little bit trickier to understand in direction complements. In general it means “to rise”, and in direction complements it can only be combined with 来. Examples:

请站起来。

Qǐng zhàn qǐlái.

Please stand up.

已经下午一点了,你快点起来!

Yǐjīng xiàwǔ yīdiǎnle, nǐ kuài diǎn qǐlái!

It's already 1pm - get up now!

老师进来教室的时候,学生都要站起来。

Lǎoshī jìnlái jiàoshì de shíhou, xuéshēng dōu yào zhàn qǐlái.

When the teacher comes into the room, all the students should stand up.

That’s the basic meaning of 起来, but there are further meanings we’ll go into in a later article in this series.

Reaching and arriving: 到 (dào)

Direction complements with 到 work slightly differently to the rest. The structure is slightly different, because you put the destination in between 到 and 来 or 到 and 去:

… 到 [destination] 去

… 到 [destination] 来

These are used to talk about going to places or coming to places. Examples:

我很想到北京去。

Wǒ hěn xiǎngdào Běijīng qù.

I'd really like to go to Beijing.

我希望你可以到这里来。

Wǒ xīwàng nǐ kěyǐ dào zhèlǐ lái.

I hope you can come here.

That’s as advanced as we want to get with direction complements in this article though. More detailed coverage is on the way!

See also

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