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Chinese Tenses: A New Way to View Past, Present, and Future

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We all want to deliver the most accurate information when having a conversation, right? While building up a solid vocabulary base and learning proper syntax are important in this regard, there’s another key step: learning how to indicate the correct tense. 

If you’re a native English speaker (or a speaker of any other alphabet-based language), you’re probably used to changing the form of a verb to express tense. 

However, Chinese is a unique language that does not depend on verb conjugation. You heard that right: There is no verb conjugation in Chinese! Instead, one indicates different tenses in Chinese by adding different time adverbs based on the context. This method can be quite ambiguous and it requires a strong sense of understanding in a conversation. 

Of course, there are also advantages to learning Chinese tenses and once you get used to how it works, it will begin to flow very naturally. You’ll soon realize it can be quite convenient compared to memorizing several different verb conjugations.

In this article, we’ll let you in on all the tricks you’ll need to learn Chinese tenses. You’ll be integrating them into your daily conversations before you know it!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Chinese Table of Contents
  1. Present
  2. Present Continuous
  3. Past
  4. Future
  5. Past / Future Continuous
  6. Past / Present Perfect
  7. Conclusion

1. Present

Signs with Now, Tomorrow, and Yesterday on Them

Time is always flying between now, the past, and the future.

The Chinese present tense is one of the simplest tenses to learn. All you need to do is add a time adverb to the sentence in order to indicate an habitual action.

A- Time Phrases

  • 总是/老 (zǒng shì / lǎo)  – “Always”
  • 经常 (jīng cháng) – “Often”
  • 现在 (xiàn zài) – “Now” 
  • 每次 (měi cì) – “Every time”
  • 天天/每天 (tiān tiān /měi tiān) – “Every day”
  • 一般情况下 (yī bān qíng kuàng xià) – “In general”
  • 有时 (yǒu shí) – “Sometimes”

B- Example Sentences

In Chinese: 父母不在家的时候,总是由姐姐照顾我。
Pinyin: Fù mǔ bú zài jiā de shí hòu, zǒng shì yóu jiě jie zhào gù wǒ.
In English: “When my parents are not home, it is always my older sister who takes care of me.”
Phrase used: 总是 (zǒng shì)

In Chinese: 他通常一个人去看电影。
Pinyin: Tā tōng  cháng yī gè rén qù kàn diàn yǐng. 
In English: “He often goes to the movie theater by himself.”
Phrase used: 通常 (tōng cháng)

2. Present Continuous

The present continuous tense in Chinese is one of the more complicated Chinese tenses to learn. This is because we must introduce Chinese auxiliary verbs that have no literal English translation. 

For example, we can use 在 (zài), 正 (zhèng), 正在 (zhèng zài), and 着 (zhe) to express the present continuous tense. They all mean something along the lines of “be doing” in English, indicating that the action is currently in progress. However, they are used differently and are not interchangeable with each other. Here are a couple of examples:

Structure #1: Subject + 在 / 正 / 正在 + Verb + Object
Structure #2: Subject + Verb + 着

A- Time Phrases

  • 正在/正/在… (zhèng zài /zhèng/ zài) – “Be doing”
  • 着… (zhe) – “Be doing”
  • 此时此刻 / 此刻 (cǐ shí cǐ kè / cǐ kè) – “At this moment”
  • 目前 (mù qián) – “Currently”
  • 现在 (xiàn zài) – “Right now”

B- Example Sentences

In Chinese: 我正在忙着写作业呢,不能陪你出去。
Pinyin: Wǒ zhèng zài máng zhe xiě zuò yè ne, bù néng péi nǐ chū qù. 
In English: “I am busy doing my homework and cannot go out with you right now.”
Phrases used: 正在 (zhèng zài), 着 (zhe)

In Chinese: 妈妈正在做一顿大餐,而我则在一旁帮她打下手。
Pinyin: Mā ma zhèng zài zuò yī dùn dà cān, ér wǒ zé zài yī páng bāng tā dǎ xià shǒu.
In English: “My mom is preparing a feast right now, and I am helping her by her side.”
Phrase used: 正在 (zhèng zài)

3. Past 

Again, we’re going to introduce some new “friends” for the past tense in Chinese. The particle 了 (le) is a suffix that can indicate things that happened in the past and those that will happen in the immediate future, so be careful and try to get a good understanding of both functions.

Another verb suffix is 过 (guò), which is used often for the past tense in Chinese. It’s usually (though not always) paired with 已经 (yǐjīng), meaning “already” in English. Check below for details on how to use them. 

Structure #1: Subject + Verb + Object + 了
Structure #2: Subject + 已经 + Verb + 过 + Object + 了

A- Time Phrases

  • 了 (le) – Indicating that something happened in the past
  • 过 (guò) – Indicating that something happened in the past
  • 已经 (yǐ jīng) – “Already”
  • 曾经 (céng jīng) – “Once”
  • 以前 (yǐ qián) – “Before”
  • 昨天 (zuó tiān) – “Yesterday” 
  • 去年 (qù nián) – “Last year”
  • 上周 (shàng zhōu) – “Last week” 

B- Example Sentences

In Chinese: 他昨天和朋友出去喝酒了。
Pinyin: Tā zuó tiān hé péng yǒu chū qù hē jiǔ le. 
In English: “He went drinking with his friends yesterday.”
Phrases used: 昨天 (zuó tiān), 了 (le)

In Chinese: 我曾经去过这家餐厅吃饭。
Pinyin: Wǒ céng jīng qù guò zhè jiā cān tīng chī fàn. 
In English: “I went to eat at this restaurant in the past.”
Phrases used: 曾经 (céng jīng), 过 (guò)

4. Future

A Road with Forward Arrows Drawn on It

Do you look forward to the future?

Clear time phrases such as “tomorrow” and “next year” are great indicators for the future tense in Chinese, but you may still need some special Chinese verbs and particles to complete the sentence and make it smoother. For instance, as mentioned above, the particle 了 (le) can be used not only for the past tense, but also for the future tense.

A- Time Phrases

  • 将 (jiāng) – “Will”
  • 打算/计划 (dǎ suàn /jì huà) – “Plan to…”
  • 会/要 (huì /yào) – “Intend to…”
  • 即将 / 马上 / 快 (jí jiāng / mǎ shàng / kuài) – “Soon”
  • 明天 (míng tiān) – “Tomorrow”
  • 下周 (xià zhōu) – “Next week”
  • 明年 (míng nián) – “Next year”

B- Example Sentences

In Chinese: 我打算明年去英国旅游。
Pinyin: Wǒ dǎ suàn míng nián qù Yīng guó lǚ yóu.
In English: “I plan to go to England for a trip next year.”
Phrases used: 打算 (dǎ suàn), 明年 (míng nián)

In Chinese: 妈妈的生日快到了,我计划给她办一场生日派对。
Pinyin: Mā ma de shēng rì kuài dào le, wǒ jì huá gěi tā bàn yī chǎng shēng rì pài duì. 
In English: “My mom’s birthday is coming up; I plan to throw her a birthday party.”
Phrases used: 快 (kuài), 计划 (jì huá)

5. Past / Future Continuous

For the past/future continuous tense in Chinese, simply combine the time phrases provided above with a proper past or future time indicator. The magic here is all in the coordination, nothing complex.

A- Time Phrases

Continuous 

  • 正在 / 正 / 在… (zhèng zài / zhèng / zài) – “Be doing”
  • 着… (zhe) – “Be doing”
  • 此时此刻 / 此刻 (cǐ shí cǐ kè / cǐ kè) – “At this moment”
  • 目前 (mù qián) – “Currently”
  • 现在 (xiàn zài) – “Right now”

Example Past Indicators

  • 昨天 (zuó tiān) – “Yesterday” 
  • 去年 (qù nián) – “Last year”
  • 上周 (shàng zhōu) – “Last week”

Example Future Indicators

  • 明天 (míng tiān) – “Tomorrow”
  • 下周 (xià zhōu) – “Next week”
  • 明年 (míng nián) – “Next year”

B- Example Sentences

Past Continuous

In Chinese: 昨天你给我打电话的时候,我正在刷牙呢。
Pinyin: Zuó tiān nǐ gěi wǒ dǎ diàn huà de shí hòu, wǒ zhèng zài shuā yá ne. 
In English: “I was brushing my teeth yesterday when you called me.”
Phrases used: 昨天 (zuó tiān), 正在 (zhèng zài)

Future Continuous 

In Chinese: 明天你休息的时候,我可能正在和客户谈工作。
Pinyin: Míng tiān nǐ xiū xi de shí hòu, wǒ kě néng zhèng zài hé kè hù tán gōng zuò. 
In English: “I will probably be discussing business with my client when you take a break tomorrow.”
Phrases used: 明天 (míng tiān), 正在 (zhèng zài)

6. Past / Present Perfect

A Woman Looking Up from Her Homework and Thinking

Are you struggling with the Chinese tenses right now?

Congratulations! Now you’ve made it to the advanced tenses in Chinese. 

However, don’t become too perplexed by these so-called advanced tenses. There’s really not much to it! You just need to use the time phrases provided below and combine them with some time adverbs according to the tense. 

For example, for the past perfect tense, you should use one of the time phrases provided below and combine it with something like 上周 (shàng zhōu), meaning “last week.”

Additionally, most of these time phrases can also stand alone without the help of any other time indicators. It all depends on the context.

A- Time Phrases

  • 已经 (yǐ jīng) –  “Already”
  • 自从 (zì cóng) – “Since”
  • ……完 (wán) – “Finish”
  • 到……为止 (dào…wéi zhǐ) – “Until” 

B- Example Sentences

Past Perfect

In Chinese: 截止到上周五,我才完成了该完成的工作的一半。
Pinyin: Jié zhǐ dào shàng zhōu wǔ, wǒ cái wán chéng le gāi wán chéng de gōng zuò de yī bàn.
In English: “I had only finished half of the assigned work by last Friday.”
Phrases used: 截止到… (jié zhǐ dào), 上周五 (shàng zhōu wǔ)

Present Perfect

In Chinese: 我们已经是认识十年的好朋友了。
Pinyin: Wǒ men yǐ jīng shì rèn shi shí nián de hǎo péng yǒu le. 
In English: “We have already known each other and been good friends for ten years.”
Phrase used: 已经 (yǐ jīng)

7. Conclusion

A Man Studying in a Library

The language-learning journey is never easy, but at least we’re all in this together.

It may take a while to digest what you’ve learned today about Chinese-language tenses, but it shouldn’t take too long! Remember, Chinese is not only an ambiguous language but also a flexible one. Just follow the rules and then make sense of it; you’ll soon be amazed at your progress!

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