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
前天 (qiántiān): the day before yesterday
上个星期 (shàng ge xīngqī): last week
上个月 (shàng ge yuè): last month
去年 (qùnián): last year
前年 (qiánnián): 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”.
……前： … 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.
……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.
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.
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:
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。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。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。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
- Using 了 (le) and 过 (guò) in Chinese grammar A2
- Five uses of 要 (yào) in Chinese grammar A2
- 以前 (yǐqián) and 以后 (yǐhòu) in Chinese grammar: before and after, past and future A2