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 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.
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.