Past events in Mandarin Chinese grammar (there's no past tense!)

Talking about past events in Chinese is actually quite straightforward, because Chinese does not have tenses. That is, you don’t need to change the verb to indicate when something happened like you do in English.

Instead, Chinese tends to rely on context to indicate that something happened in the past. You can simply indicate that the event happened in the past with a time word like “yesterday” or “two hours ago”. Sometimes you don’t need to indicate past at all.

Past events with time words

This is often the easiest and most straightforward way to talk about past events. By including a time word that sets the event in time, you make it clear when it happened. Sometimes you don’t even need to change the sentence in any other way.

Below is a list of common time words for past events, but there are of course endless time words in Chinese. This list should get you started.

昨天 (zuótiān): yesterday

我昨天在食堂吃饭了。

Wǒ zuótiān zài shítáng chīfàn le.

Yesterday I ate in the canteen.

我昨天遇见了他。

Wǒ zuótiān yùjiàn le tā.

I bumped into him yesterday.

昨天发生了一件有趣的事。

Zuótiān fāshēngle yī jiàn yǒuqù de shì.

Something interesting happened yesterday.

前天 (qiántiān): the day before yesterday

他前天到北京的。

Tā qiántiān dào Běijīng de.

He arrived in Beijing the day before yesterday.

假如今天是星期五,前天就是星期三。

Jiǎrú jīntiān shì xīngqíwǔ, qiántiān jiùshì xīngqísān.

If today is Friday, the day before yesterday was Wednesday.

我前天收到了你的信。

Wǒ qiántiān shōudào le nǐ de xìn.

I received your letter the day before yesterday.

上个星期 (shàng ge xīngqī): last week

上个星期我感冒了。

Shàng gè xīngqī wǒ gǎnmàole.

I had a cold last week.

上个星期天天下雪。

Shàng gè xīngqī tiāntiān xiàxuě.

It snowed every day last week.

她上个星期没有上课。

Tā shàng gè xīngqī méiyǒu shàngkè.

She didn't go to class last week.

上个月 (shàng ge yuè): last month

现在是九月,那么上个月是八月。

Xiànzài shì jiǔyuè, nàme shàng gè yuè shì bāyuè.

It's September now, so last month was August.

我上个月在那里度假。

Wǒ shàng gè yuè zài nàlǐ dùjià.

I went on holiday there last month.

他上个月辞的职。

Tā shàng gè yuè cí de zhí.

He quit his job last month.

去年 (qùnián): last year

我们是去年认识的。

Wǒmen shì qùnián rènshi de.

We met last year.

我去年就戒烟了。

Wǒ qùnián jiù jièyānle.

I quit smoking last year.

我去年夏天去了中国旅游。

Wǒ qùnián xiàtiān qùle zhōngguó lǚyóu.

I went travelling in China last summer.

前年 (qiánnián): the year before last

他前年去世的。

Tā qiánnián qùshì de.

He passed away the year before last.

前年这里下大雪。

Qiánnián zhèlǐ xià dàxuě.

There was heavy snowfall here the year before last.

她前年退休的。

Tā qiánnián tuìxiū de.

She retired the year before last.

以前 (yǐqián): before

This is a general purpose word for talking about past events or situations. It’s a very easy way to express “used to” or “in the past”.

以前,他不喜欢吃辣的东西。

Yǐqián, tā bù xǐhuan chī là de dōngxi.

Before, he didn't like eating spicy things.

以前,我们没有手机。

Yǐqián, wǒmen méiyǒu shǒujī.

In the past, we didn't have mobile phones.

以前,他很害羞。

Yǐqián, tā hěn hàixiū.

He used to be very shy.

……前

(qián)

: … ago

By putting a specific amount of time in front of 前, you can express how long ago the past event happened or was happening.

十年前他来到了中国。

Shí nián qián tā lái dàole Zhōngguó.

He arrived in China ten years ago.

一个小时前我们去散了个步。

Yīgè xiǎoshí qián wǒmen qù sànle gè bù.

We went on a walk an hour ago.

三个月前她在上海。

Sān gè yuè qián tā zài Shànghǎi.

She was in Shanghai three months ago.

……的时候 (de shíhou): when …

You can place things in time with 的时候 - it goes after the event or action it’s linked to.

我小的时候不喜欢吃蔬菜。

Wǒ xiǎo de shíhou bù xǐhuan chī shūcài.

I didn't like eating vegetables when I was little.

他做饭的时候伤到了自己。

Tā zuò fàn de shíhou shāngdào le zìjǐ.

He injured himself whilst cooking.

我在美国的时候很想家。

Wǒ zài Měiguó de shíhou hěn xiǎng jiā.

I was very homesick when I was in America.

Negate past events with 没 (méi)

To negate past events in Chinese, i.e. to say that something didn’t happen, you can use 没 or 没有.

对不起,刚才没听见。

Duìbùqǐ, gāngcái méi tīngjiàn.

Sorry, I didn't hear you.

我没想到在这里会碰到你。

Wǒ méi xiǎngdào zài zhèlǐ huì pèng dào nǐ.

I didn't expect to bump into you here.

你没有犯错误。

Nǐ méiyǒu fàn cuòwù.

You didn't make a mistake.

Past events with 是……的 (shì…de)

A slightly trickier way to talk about past events in Chinese is with the 是……的 construction construction in Chinese grammar”). As this isn’t the main topic of this post we won’t go into too much detail, but the structure for this is:

[subject] 是 [detail] [action] 的

You can use this structure to emphasise certain details about an action, such as where or when it happened. 是……的 is usually used to talk about past events. Some examples:

我们是在伦敦认识的。

Wǒmen shì zài Lúndūn rènshi de.

We met in London. It was in London that we met.

我是跟我哥哥一起开车去青岛的。

Wǒ shì gēn wǒ gēgē yīqǐ kaichē qù Qīngdǎo de.

I drove to Qingdao with my brother. It was with my brother that I drove to Qingdao.

他们是去年搬的家。

Tāmen shì qùnián bān de jiā.

They moved house last year. It was last year that they moved house.

Each of the example sentences for 是……的 has been given a double translation to show how this structure draws attention to certain details of the action. Read more: 是……的 construction.

Chinese has aspect but not tense

Always remember that Chinese does not have a past tense. It doesn’t have any tenses at all. What it does have, though, is something called aspect.

Unlike tense, aspect isn’t about when an action happened but whether or not it is completed in the time-frame we’re talking about. Aspect can appear in the past, present or future.

This is the difference between “I will have done it” and “I will do it”. Both of those sentences are future tense, but in one of them the action is complete and in the other it isn’t complete.

了 (le) is not about the past!

One of the uses of the particle 了 in Chinese is to mark completed aspect. Many learners of Chinese confuse this for 了 being about past events or the past tense. It’s not!

了 will often appear in sentences about the past, but it can also appear with present or future actions. It’s an aspect marker (amongst other things), not a tense marker.

This is quite hard to grasp, but try not to over-think it in the early stages. The best advice is to simply listen to and read as much Chinese as you can (that is nearly always the best thing you can do for your Chinese).

More A2 articles

  1. Using 了 (le) and 过 (guò) in Chinese grammar A2
  2. Five uses of 要 (yào) in Chinese grammar A2
  3. 以前 (yǐqián) and 以后 (yǐhòu) in Chinese grammar: before and after, past and future A2

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