In an earlier post, Long Time No See, we looked at how the English and Chinese conceptions of time are very similar.

From the observer’s point of view:

  • The future 未来 (wèilái) is in front of us.
  • The past 过去 (guòqù) is behind us.

The observer might be moving toward the future, or time and events might be moving toward the observer. The key here is that there is movement relative to the observer, from in front to behind.

But also, we project a front and a back onto time, or blocks of time.

  • Earlier events are before 以前 (yǐqián) later events.
  • Later events are after 以后 (yǐhòu) earlier events.

It seems that this is irrespective of the position of the observer. Events are positioned with respect to other events.

Each of these ideas is true for both English speakers and Chinese speakers.

But there’s one more element to everyday discussion of time, and it appears, at first glance, that English and Chinese speakers approach it in quite different ways.

Ups and Downs

  • Last month 上个月 (shànggeyuè)
  • Next month 下个月 (xiàgeyuè)
  • Last week 上周 (shàngzhōu),上个星期 (shàngge xīngqī)
  • Next week 下周 (xiàzhōu),下个星期 (xiàge xīngqī)
  • The last one 上一个 (shàng yīge)
  • The next one 下一个 (xià yīge)
  • Last time 上次 (shàngcì)
  • Next time 下次 (xiàcì)

So we have:

  • 上 (shàng) last, previous, above
  • 下 (xià) next, following, below

Does this use of 上 (shàng) and 下 (xià) suggest another dimension for Chinese time?

First of all, we need to be clear exactly what it is we’re talking about here. This is about sequence 顺序 (shùnxù).



Chinese was traditionally written vertically. When writing, the last or previous character was quite literally ‘the character above‘. So we have:

  • The last character 上一个字 (shàng yīge zì)
  • The next character 下一个字 (xià yīge zì)
  • Context 上下文 (shàngxiàwén)

Even when writing horizontally we might refer to an earlier point in the text using expressions like:

  • 上述 (shàngshù), 上文 (shàngwén), 以上 (yǐshàng)
  • 下述 (xiàshù), 下文 (xiàwén), 以下 (yǐxià)

And in English we might use expressions such as:

  • above, preceding, aforementioned
  • below, following, undermentioned

This use of these expressions doesn’t depend on the item to which they refer being on the same page; it’s not literally above or below. ‘As stated above’ might easily be written at the top of a page and refer to something low down on the previous page. We still consider things nearer the beginning of the text to be above.

In writing, whether a book, a list, or an agenda, 上 (shàng) above is before, and 下 (xià) below is after. It’s not only Chinese speakers who orient themselves this way.

The River


The river was at the heart of the early advanced civilisations. It flows from a high place, the mountains, to a low place, the sea. That which is before 前 (qián) is above 上 (shàng) and that which is after 后 (hòu) is below 下 (xià).

When talking about parts of the river, we refer to:

  • The upper reaches 上流 (shàngliú), 上游 (shàngyóu)
  • The lower reaches 下流 (xiàliú), 下游 (xiàyóu)

Certain industries use the terminology upstream and downstream to refer to earlier and later operations. In the petroleum industry, for example, oil exploration is upstream; retail (filling stations) is downstream.

We might, at this point, note that in the Chinese word 顺序 (shùnxù), the first character is composed of the components 川, river,  and 页, a head or person; a person by a river. 顺 (shùn) means follow. The English word sequence comes from the Latin sequi or follow.

It seems that Chinese speakers and English speakers have quite a lot in common.

The Sun


If the flow of the river was important to early civilisations, then describing the apparent movement of the sun 日 (rì), or the day 日 (rì) itself, was fundamental.

In modern Chinese we use the expressions 上午 (shàngwǔ) ante meridiem and 下午 (xiàwǔ) post meridiem. 上 is earlier or before; 下 is later or after afternoon1.

Chinese dictionaries will offer you an alternate pair of expressions for morning and afternoon: 午前 (wǔqián) and 午后 (wǔhòu). Chinese speakers too can view the morning as before and the afternoon as after.

And as John Biesnecker explains in a post on the Chinese Pod blog 午 (wǔ) is the middle period of the day.

The sun is seen to go up to 上 (shàng), and then down from 下 (xià), midday 午 (wǔ) or 中午 (zhōngwǔ).

We have a natural sequence. Perhaps the natural sequence:

  • 上 (shàng) early or first
  • 中 (zhōng) mid- or second
  • 下 (xià) late or third2

The Bottom Line

Can we conclude that any of these explanations is the one true origin of the use of 上 (shàng) before or last and 下 (xià) after or next?

I don’t think so.

There may be other explanations. But, more likely, I think, a range of experiences contribute to our understanding of time. Perhaps Writing, the River, the Sun, and other familiar things together form the basis for our concept of sequence.

What strikes me most of all is that there’s nothing particularly strange about using above and below to talk about last and next. English speakers and Chinese speakers seem to view sequence in very similar ways. That which is before 前(qián)  is above 上 (shàng), and that which is after 后 (hòu) is below 下 (xià).

Yet many foreign learners of Chinese seem to find these uses of 上 (shàng) and 下 (xià) very difficult.

I hear Chinese speakers occasionally mix up next and last in English, but this seems to be no more than the product of the apparently arbitrary nature of the expressions, perhaps combined with the conflict between last as final and last as simply the final one of those which have gone before.

On the other hand, many English speakers seem to feel that the Chinese expressions 上次 (shàngcì) and 下次 (xiàcì) are simply back to front or, perhaps I should say, upside down. A quick survey of English speakers unfamiliar with Chinese suggests that above feels like next and below feels like last.

Why should this be?


1The English word forenoon is no longer in common use, having been replaced by morning.

2When there are two items in a sequence, say, a set of two books, 中 (zhōng) is omitted, leaving just 上册 (shàngcè) Book1, and 下册 (xiàcè) Book 2.

The above/below metaphor can be extended. If that which is above is before, then 头几天 (tóu jǐ tiān) is a few days ago. If that which is below is after, then 月底 (yuèdǐ) and 年底 (niándǐ) should be pretty clear.

The bottom of the year might not be a common expression for English speakers, but I think it would be quickly understood. Television programme makers can talk about the top (beginning) and bottom (end) of the programme.

The River picture was sketched very quickly for me by 孙倩. I had initially drawn something myself to show what I was trying to convey. I began with pointy, snow-capped mountains in the top left, and drew a long, meandering river across the page, reaching the sea in the bottom right corner. It was a pretty poor sketch, so I asked a couple of artistically-minded friends for help. Each of them drew mountains top centre with a river flowing down to a sea in the foreground. It strikes me as a particularly Chinese way of organising the scene.

Another point about the River metaphor: some care is needed here. For our sequence, we must imagine fixed points in the river, perhaps, large rocks in the middle of the flow. If we imagine boats, or whatever, floating down the river we get ourselves into all sorts of trouble. Try putting numbers onto the rocks and boats and you’ll see what I mean.

Time, space and place are very tricky concepts indeed. If you want a headache, try combining the main diagram from Long Time No See with the river picture. Please don’t blame me when the water starts flowing up hill.


19 responses to “Subsequently”

  1. jdmartinsen says:

    Re: the diagram — The images in the previous post are oriented left-to-right with the passage of time, an unspoken cultural assumption that might not mesh with the traditional Chinese right-to-left horizontal ordering. While it’s not an absolute thing, I know that I’ve seen far more “before” (right), “after” (left) image pairs in Chinese ad copy than I have in the US (zero, as far as I can recall).

  2. Neat! In Japanese text written vertically (they still do that a lot in Japan), “the aforementioned X” is written as “the right-mentioned X.” “As I will explain below” is “as I will explain left.” I don’t know if they used to do this in Chinese when it was still mostly written vertically.

  3. Carl says:

    Oops, forgot to change my handle back. (*_*);

  4. Katie says:

    Broken RSS feed? At least, looks like I’m not the only one who just had this post show up even though it’s dated the 19th.

    Anyway, nice explanation. I think the river explanation really helps me conceptualize this one.

    I too have wondered why I, as an English speaker, have such a hard time wrapping my mind around this one. I almost never use these words, even in conversation, before stopping and thinking “上 before 下” and being very careful to select the right one. But I don’t know why I have to do this. I can’t think of any ways where this is encoded in the opposite direction in English, so I don’t know why I should be confused by it. And yet, it feels very counter-intuitive to me.

    The first metaphors that come to mind when I try to think about time-related vertical directions are building and growing, though. And those are the opposite. We start at the bottom and move upwards as time passes. But I still can’t think of anywhere where this gets linguistically encoded in English. I guess this is a good anti-Sapir-Whorf example?

    From now on I’ll try to think of falling into the future instead of rising to meet it when I’m speaking Chinese …

  5. The bottom of the year might not be a common expression for English speakers

    We do have “bottom of the ninth”, etc, but that might be unfamiliar to those from across the pond. :)

  6. Katie says:

    “Bottom of the 9th”–yet another example of why I shouldn’t have a hard time with this one. It’s not just that we don’t encode future as top, but that we do encode future as bottom, at least marginally. Somebody please come up with a counter-example? Please?

  7. ze says:

    The challenge of 上 and 下 is a mystery to me. One scholar I know suggests the confusion is more a matter of mental storage than anything else–lexical items that are so tightly connected can easily cause us to misspeak in real time. This sounds plausible to me, especially since the two items are somewhat similar sounding, at least to my American ears (technically speaking, I suppose they have little in common–but in fast speech they can still sound quite similar). On the other hand, it at least seems the accidental switching only occurs regularly in the ‘next’ ‘last’ realm, not in the ‘top’ ‘bottom’ realm. It strikes me as I right this that just now I have switched the order in such as way to reveal part of the issue. 上下 are always in that order, whereas ‘next, last’(下,上) and ‘top, bottom’(上,下) feel right in English, but only the latter corresponds to the Chinese order.

  8. Zifre says:

    I’m a native English speaker. I’ve realized that I think about time differently depending on which language I’m speaking.

    When I think about time in English, I usually think of “up” as the future and “down” as the the past. “Now” continuously climbs up this ladder.

    In Chinese, this is opposite, and “now” continuously falls down to the future. I actually feel like I’m falling when I think about time in Chinese.

    The strangest thing is that this affects my perception of time distances. Falling is pretty effortless and fast, so 5 minutes into the future feels closer than 5 minutes in the past in Chinese. But in English, the future is always far away and unattainable…

  9. […] the meantime, there’s a nice post over at Sinoglot which finally gives me a mental space on which to hang the idea that […]

  10. Sima says:

    Apologies for the date mix-up. Not sure what happened. Now showing the correct date.

  11. Sima says:

    As far as I can tell, most Chinese speakers would work left-to-right for pretty much any sequence. Though, whether this was the case in the distant past or not, I wouldn’t like to say.

    Do you have any idea why you might sometimes see before-and-after pictures back-to-front? Assuming it’s not simply shoddy work, might there be a preference for seeing the outcome first?

    I’ve just had a long chat with my Japanese neighbour. He confirmed your “right-mentioned” but felt that “left” could not be used in the same way. He suggested that 前,右,上 could all refer to something earlier in a piece of writing, but only 后 and 下 could refer to something later. Could you, or anyone else, provide more information on this?

    As far as Chinese goes, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything other than fiction written vertically. I have no recollection of seeing ‘右述’ or anything similar. Can anyone add anything here?

    As a Brit who actually enjoys baseball (it’s nearly as good as cricket), I can’t believe I overlooked the “bottom of the ninth”. Apologies!

    Can you explain how you see this bearing on Sapir-Whorf? How do you see Zifre’s comment in this regard?

    Regarding vertical building and growing: up and down obviously have many connotations with regard to health, happiness, morality, amount, etc. Yet Chinese and English seem to be very similar in the use of these metaphors.

    In the case of learning, the idea of “上册 Book 1,下册 Book 2” textbooks seemed particularly uncomfortable. Yet Chinese speakers, just like English speakers, talk about “high” school and “higher” education. Then there’s the old chestnut 好好学习,天天向上!

    One more point on this from Lakoff and Johnson: they suggest that the reason we use the expression “coming up” for the future (What’s coming up next week?) is that objects appear to get bigger as they approach. I’m not entirely convinced by this, and don’t think it’s enough on its own, but I suspect it’s the kind of conflict or counter-example we might be looking for.

    I think both the points you mention compound the problem. I’m certainly prepared to entertain the idea that the convention of “up-down” rather than “down-up” is the cause of the problem for English speakers. I remain to be convinced that this is a strong enough force though.

    Can anyone offer a parallel? Is there some situation where Spanish speakers run into difficulty caused by the ordering of “black and white” in English, or such like?

    Fascinating insight. I don’t think I feel that way at all! Did you consciously construct this understanding to help you get over the up-down problem, or is this just reflecting on your feelings later on?

    My own experience was that there was a long period (I guess, more than two years) when I fought with next and last in Chinese. I would get them the wrong way round way more than 50% of the time. This was certainly compounded by my difficulties in hearing and producing the sounds ‘sh’ and ‘x’ correctly, but I recall finding the whole thing conceptually very difficult. It was a real struggle.

    And then, one day, I realised it wasn’t and, probably, hadn’t been for quite some time. That was, I guess, about three years into living and working in China and studying fairly seriously.

    I don’t know what it was that got me over the problem, other than simply time and exposure, but there were two things I think might have had a bearing.

    First, I decided that it was a mistake to think of 上 as up and 下 as down, and I decided to think of them as above and below respectively. Somehow, this seemed to ease the strain a little, but I just can’t remember why I felt this. I just have a sneaking suspicion that there is something important in the distinction in spatial relations between up and above.

    Second, I think I tried to actually break the links altogether. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I made an effort to think of ‘上 up, above’ as a separate word from ‘上 before’.

    Somehow, one day, it just wasn’t a problem any more, but I’d love to know why it was such a problem for me and for so many other people who learn Chinese as a foreign language, and whether it can tell us anything more about language and thought.

  12. Katie says:

    Re Sapir-Whorf: I think, although maybe I’m doing to much extrapolating here, that the claim Sapir-Whorf would make is that Chinese people would conceptualize the future in the same way that Zifre does when speaking Chinese. I guess what I was thinking when I made the comment is that, based on most of the English examples, we English speakers should do the same thing. And yet, you, me, Zifre, and others we know seem to have a strongly ingrained time conceptualization that goes the opposite direction.

    On the other hand, upcoming/coming up does go along with our instincts (thanks!) and none of the English time words are terribly central to the way we talk about time in English, so maybe Sapir and Whorf wouldn’t make any strong predictions about how we should think.

  13. jdmartinsen says:

    右 and 左 for relative positions are used in classical Chinese texts, and in modern, horizontally-printed editions they’re a little weird because of the complete disconnect with the spatial relationships they used to have. I remember coming across the lines 别为序次如左 and 右传之首章,释“明明德” early on in Zhu Xi’s annotated Da Xue and having no idea what they meant.

    re: the before/after thing — I wish I could offer up some examples, but I don’t have any TV commercials or print adverts saved. I’d agree that left-to-right is the normal sequential ordering, and I’d be curious if to know if it always was the case.

  14. Sima says:

    There’s a paper which suggests Chinese and English speakers seem to think similarly about time despite the apparent horizontal/vertical ordering problem, here.

    Just to throw a spanner in the works, if future events are “coming up”, does that mean they are below us? Might that begin to explain my “above vs up” distinction?

    I can’t help but feel that, if “upcoming/coming up” is significant, it should be visible, or applicable, in more situations, and there should be extensions of this. Does, “What’s going down?” connect to “What’s coming up?” in any way? And if so, what might it tell us?

  15. Sima says:

    great work with the 左右. Many thanks!
    At the risk of going off-topic, do you enjoy reading vertical texts? I’ve always found it, somehow, “smoother” reading vertically in Chinese.

  16. Carl says:

    Hmm, now that I look into it, I don’t see any examples of 左 for “as mentioned below” in texts on my computer, so maybe that’s just something I made up by extrapolation! Ah, the life of a non-native speaker. At least, Zhu Xi apparently agreed with me it would make sense. :-)

    @Sima, One of my favorite things about the English language is our use of meaningless directional auxiliaries to create minor nuance shifts for verbs. So, for example, both “slow down” and “slow up” (an American Southern regional expression?) mean “become slower”. You can “cut someone off” in traffic before “cutting in” between two cars in front of you. You can be “pissed off” about a problem and need to “calm down” about it. You “think up” a plan for how to “win over” a love interest. If you don’t “live up” to expectations, you’ll never “live down” the shame! So much fun with directions! And only in rare cases can you use the opposite direction to suggest the opposite meaning (*”calm up” ≠ becoming less calm).

  17. Sima says:

    I was pleased that Mr Martinsen came to your rescue on that and would have forgotten all about it. But it’s very interesting that you’re able to confirm the apparent lack of 左 for below in Japanese. How curious that Japanese speakers discarded that expression but retained its counterpart.

    The phrasal verbs (or whatever one calls them) are fascinating. Using little words seems to satisfy our need to keep things simple, but such expressions are far from simple for English learners.

    To your “cut” examples, I might add “cut someone up”, which I understand as “cutting someone off” in traffic, but in a more egregious way.

    I do feel that these are mostly connected to out understanding of the prepositions/adverbs/auxilliaries themselves and probably form some part of that understanding. In most cases, I think we should be able to trace the connections.

    I’ve always been amused by “warm down” (after strenuous exercise, as opposed to warming up beforehand) which seems simulateously nonsensical and completely logical.

    Of course, modern Chinese uses some very similar expressions:
    关上 (guānshang) – to close (up), to turn off
    放下 (fàngxia) – to put down, to set aside

  18. Zifre says:


    >Did you consciously construct this understanding to help you get over the up-down problem, or is this just reflecting on your feelings later on?

    Definitely later on. I never really thought about it until I almost had it down. However, I do think this was heavily influenced by my English understanding of the words, especially 下 in relation to rain falling.

    Sometimes I still do struggle with 上 and 下, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the meaning of the words. I think it has more to do with their use as postpositions when everything is prepositional in English (the same way I get thrown off by 的 in cases where I would use “of” instead of “‘s” in English, although I imagine a Spanish speaker, for example, would have a much harder time with this).

  19. Sima says:

    There’s an article here about an Amazonian tribe whose language may not relate space and time in the way that English and Chinese do.

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