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Does Chinese Language Have Past Tense?

Feb.22, 2020

Does this bother you when you learn Chinese?


We have lots of questions from our students asking about the "past tense" in Chinese.


You already know the Chinese language doesn't have conjugations, it indeed doesn't mimic the English or other European languages' methods and change the present tense "have" into the past tense "had". So how do Chinese people express things in the past?


You might know that we have a famous particle "了(le)". Actually, I need to clarify here that "了(le)" is not a past tense marker in Chinese, "了" just means "the occurrence of an action". We also can use "了 (le)" for the future. For example:

明天下午我已经离开上海了。
Míngtiān xiàwǔ wǒ yǐjīng líkāi Shànghǎi le。
I will have left Shanghai by tomorrow afternoon.

So, why has "了" always been misunderstood as a past tense marker in Chinese?


1. V + 了(le)

Of course, a lot of things that have occurred was in the past, so you hear lots of "V+了 (le)" in the expressions about the past. For instance:

刚才我喝了一瓶啤酒。
Gāngcái wǒ hē le yì píng píjiǔ。
I drank a bottle of beer just now.

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我们昨天学习了第二课。

wǒmen zuótiān xuéxí le dì èr kè。

We learnt Lesson2 yesterday.


Now that "了" isn't an almighty tool for the Past Tense in Chinese, what else can we use for expressing the past?


We actually often apply the two other structures. You need to pay special attention to these two structures as English speakers don't differentiate these expressions in their own language. 

2. 是 (shì)……的 (de)

You might have noticed that Chinese people say "的(de)" a lot when they talk, many times it is the "的(de)" from this structure above.

People use "了" to tell others that something happened. However, when they continue to talk about the details of this past thing such as when it happened, where it happened, how it happened, who did it, they will switch to "是 (shì)……的 (de)". E.g.:


我是在学校认识中国朋友的。

Wǒ shì zài xuéxiào rènshi Zhōngguó péngyou de。

I got to know my Chinese friend in school.


我是去年认识中国朋友的。

Wǒ shì qù nián rènshi zhōngguó péngyou de。

I got to know my Chinese friend last year.


我是坐地铁来学校的。

Wǒ shì zuò dìtiě lái xuéxiào de。

I came to school by metro.


今天的菜是妈妈做的。

Jīntiān de cài shì māma zuò de。

Mom made today's meal.


In spoken Chinese, people often omit "是", only leaving "的" at the end of the sentence. That's why you can hear a lot of "的" when people talk about the past. E.g.:


我坐地铁来的。

Wǒ zuò dìtiě lái de。

I came by metro.


Yes! They are talking about the details!


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3. V + 过(guò)

Compared with the previous two, V+过 (guò) emphasizes the experience from the past and influence on the current topic. For example:


我以前在上海工作过,所以我看得懂中文。

Wǒ yǐqián zài Shànghǎi gōngzuò guo, suǒyǐ wǒ kàn de dǒng Zhōngwén。
I've worked in Shanghai before, so I can read Mandarin.

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我吃过饺子,我很喜欢。

Wǒ chī guò jiǎozi, wǒ hěn xǐhuān。

I've eaten dumplings, and I really like them.


That's all for today! Did you get it? Hoover up this grammar knowledge with us and I'm sure you will talk about your "the past" more accurately! Feel free to leave any question below in the comment.

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