How To Use Tenses In Chinese (Past, Present & Future Tense)

  • Jasmine Chiam
    Written byJasmine Chiam
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How To Use Tenses In Chinese (Past, Present & Future Tense)

In the Chinese language, there technically isn’t such a thing as verb tenses.

However there are still terms you can use to show whether an event is happening in the past, present, or future.

If you’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a while now, you may have noticed something very unique about the language.

In English, the verb is modified based on when the action happens. For instance, the past tense of “swim” is “swam.” So, you’re probably used to switching the form of the verb to express tenses.

However, this verb tense concept doesn’t apply to the Chinese language.

Whether or not the action happened months ago or will happen three years in the future, you’ll use the exact same form of the verb.

In other words, all verbs have a single form.

But there are other methods of expressing the future or past tense in Mandarin Chinese, so in this guide, I’ll show you how you can differentiate different tenses in Mandarin Chinese.

Let’s dive in!

Expressing the past tense

In Chinese, you will need to rely on the context of the sentence to show that something has already happened.

This sounds complicated, but don’t worry, let’s break it down. 😊

Using time-related phrases

Because there is only one form of a verb in Mandarin, one of the most common ways to refer to the past is to use phrases that state a certain point of time when an event occurred.

There are a whole bunch of different time-related words you can use to do this, and we’ll explore some of the most commonly used ones.

Here’s a table of them:

Phrase Chinese translation Pinyin
Yesterday 昨天 Zuótiān
The day before yesterday 前天 Qiántiān
Last week 上个星期 / 上周 Shàng gè xīngqī/ Shàng zhōu
Two weeks ago 两个星期前 / 两周前 Liǎng gè xīngqī qián / Liǎng zhōu qián
Last month 上个月 Shàng gè yuè
Two months ago 两个月前 Liǎng gè yuè qián
Last year 去年 Qùnián
Two years ago 两年前 Liǎng nián qián
Last time 以前 Yǐqián

These time-related phrases should either appear at the beginning of the sentence or after the subject. Though in English, phrases such as last week or yesterday can end up at the end of the sentence, this isn’t the same for Mandarin.

Here are some examples of sentences using these time-related phrases to express the past tense.

Listen to audio

昨天去了海滩。

Wǒ zuótiān qùle hǎitān.
I went to the beach yesterday.
Listen to audio

上周辞掉了工作。

Tā shàng zhōu cí diàole gōngzuò.
She quit her job last week.
Listen to audio

去年开始去健身房。

Wǒ qùnián kāishǐ qù jiànshēnfáng.
I started going to the gym last year.

It’s also important to note that the word 了 (le) in a sentence does not necessarily symbolize that the action occurred in the past.

了 can appear in sentences using the past tense, but it can also be found in sentences about present and future events.

Using 的时候 (de shíhou)

The phrase 的时候 translates to “when.”

This phrase can be used to refer to the past, present, or future and is used to talk about something that happens during or at a specific time.

的时候 should never appear at the end of the sentence.

Here are some examples of how you can correctly use 的时候 to refer to past events.

Listen to audio

我小的时候经常在操场上玩。

Wǒ xiǎo de shíhòu jīngcháng zài cāochǎng shàng wán.
When I was younger, I used to play at the playground.
Listen to audio

当我和朋友出去的时候,我遇到了我的前任。

Dāng wǒ hé péngyǒu chūqù de shíhòu, wǒ yù dàole wǒ de qiánrèn.
When I was out with my friends, I bumped into my ex.

In casual conversations, native speakers tend to remove the 的 (de).

Using 是…的 (shì… de)

This method of expressing the past tense can be a little tricky.

You’ll have to get used to the sentence order, which usually is as follows.

[subject] 是 [details] [verb] 的

These are some examples of how you can use this phrase to talk about past events.

Listen to audio

1998年毕业

Tā shì 1998 nián bìyè de.
It was in 1998 that she graduated.
Listen to audio

我的妈妈去年退休

Wǒ de māmā shì qùnián tuìxiū de.
It was last year that my mother retired.

是…的 can be used in Mandarin to emphasize a certain part of the sentence.

In the examples above, this phrase brings focus to the time aspect of each sentence.

Expressing the present tense

Using time-related phrases

Using time-related phrases is one way to show that an action occurring in the present is habitual.

Here are some phrases you can use to indicate a habitual action or event.

Phrase Chinese translation Pinyin
Every day 每天 Měitiān
Every week 每周 Měi zhōu
Every month 每个月 Měi gè yuè
Every year 每年 Měinián
Every time 每次 Měi cì
Often 经常 Jīngcháng
Always 总是 Zǒng shì
Sometimes 有时 Yǒushí

In English, we use phrases such as “last week” or “every time” at the end of the sentence.

However, in Mandarin Chinese, all the above time-related phrases should never appear at the end of the sentence.

These are some examples of using time phrases to talk about habitual events.

Listen to audio

每天开车去办公室。

Wǒ měitiān kāichē qù bàngōngshì.
I drive to the office every day.
Listen to audio

经常独自旅行。

Tā jīngcháng dúzì lǚxíng.
He often travels alone.

Using the present continuous tense

If you want to talk about an action right now, you’ll have to use auxiliary verbs to express that.

**在 (zài) and 正在 (zhèngzài) **can be used as auxiliary verbs for this purpose. These two phrases are usually interchangeable, but 正在 can be used in place of 在 if you would like to emphasize that the action is happening now.

For example:

Listen to audio

我哥哥看电影。

Wǒ gēgē zài kàn diànyǐng.
My brother is watching a movie.
Listen to audio

正在吃晚饭。

Tā zhèngzài chī wǎnfàn.
She is eating dinner.

The words 正在 modify 吃 (chī), which means “eat” to become “is eating.”

And this shows that the action is being done now.

However, do keep in mind that 在 can be used in other contexts and situations.

The sentence doesn’t automatically become the present tense just because the word 在 is in it. For instance, this word can also be used as a preposition, and in this case, it means “in” or “at.”

着 (zhe) is a word you can use to talk about a continuous static action and is used to emphasize the continuous aspect in Mandarin.

Basically, you’d use 着 to show that the action is in progress and will continue for a while.

It can be a little tricky to use the word 着. Some textbooks might note that the word 着 can be used to modify a verb by adding the -ing at the end. But this isn’t as simplistic as it sounds, and 着 isn’t that commonly used.

It is also not interchangeable with 正在 or 在.

Here are some scenarios where 着 can be used to express a present continuous state.

Listen to audio

她戴隐形眼镜。

Tā dàizhe yǐnxíng yǎnjìng.
She is wearing contact lenses.

In this case, 着 shows that the person is wearing an accessory. You can also use 戴着 (dàizhe) for other accessories, such as hats, watches, or jewelry.

Listen to audio

门是开的,但没有人在家。

Mén shì kāizhe de, dàn méiyǒu rén zàijiā.
The door is open, but no one is home.

Using related adverbs of time

You can also use adverbs to indicate that something is happening now.

Phrase Chinese translation Pinyin
Now 现在 Xiànzài
Currently 目前 Mùqián
At the moment 此时此刻 / 此刻 Cǐ shí cǐkè / Cǐkè

Here are some examples showing how you can use them.

Listen to audio

现在忙着作工。

Tā xiànzài mángzhe zuò gōng.
She's busy at work now.
Listen to audio

目前没有车。

Wǒ mùqián méiyǒu chē.
I currently do not have a car.

Again, these phrases will never appear at the end of a sentence.

Expressing the future tense

Using time-related phrases

Since there are no grammatical tenses in Mandarin, you can use adverbs of time to show that an event will be happening in the future.

Phrase Chinese translation Pinyin
Tomorrow 明天 Míngtiān
The day after tomorrow 后天 Hòutiān
Tonight 今晚 Jīn wǎn
Next week 下周 / 下个星期 Xià zhōu / Xià gè xīngqī
Next month 下个月 Xià gè yuè
Next year 明年 Míngnián

Here are some examples of how you can use these phrases.

Listen to audio

明天要去电影院。

Wǒ míngtiān yào qù diànyǐngyuàn.
I will be going to the cinema tomorrow.
Listen to audio

下周我将去看牙医。

Xià zhōu wǒ jiāng qù kàn yáyī.
I will be seeing the dentist next week.
Listen to audio

今晚会到。

Tā jīn wǎn huì dào.
She will arrive tonight.

Using non-specific time phrases

In English, we use adverbs of time that do not specifically pinpoint a certain timeframe.

Words like “soon,” “later,” or “in the future,” do not let us know exactly when something will happen, but refers to the future nonetheless.

In Mandarin, there are phrases that carry the same function.

Phrase Chinese translation Pinyin
Soon 很快 Hěn kuài
Later 稍后 Shāo hòu
In a moment 一会儿 Yīhuǐ’er
In the future 将来 Jiānglái
Next time 下次 Xià cì

Here’s how you can use them.

Listen to audio

很快就会来接我们。

Tā hěn kuài jiù huì lái jiē wǒmen.
He will be picking us up soon.
Listen to audio

医生一会儿会见你。

Yīshēng yīhuǐ'er huìjiàn nǐ.
The doctor will see you in a moment.
Listen to audio

下次我会带我哥哥一起去。

Xià cì wǒ huì dài wǒ gēgē yīqǐ qù.
I will bring my brother along the next time.

Using verbs (and auxiliary verbs) that imply future events

Since there is only a single form of verbs in the Chinese language, you’ll have to use auxiliary verbs to modify their meaning.

Just like in English, adding something like “will” in front of a verb, let’s say “eat,” will symbolize that the action is to be carried out in the future.

Some verbs can also imply that something is likely to happen in the future. For example, something like “planning to” shows that a person intends to perform the action in the future.

Here’s a table of verbs and auxiliary verbs that can be used to express the future tense.

Phrase Chinese translation Pinyin
Will (likely to) Huì
Will (wish to/thinking of) Yào
Will (about to happen) Jiāng
Planning to 打算 / 计划 Dǎ suàn / Jì huà

You may have noticed some of these terms being used in the sections above.

Let’s take a look at some examples of how you can use each of these words.

Listen to audio

我今晚去吃火锅。

Wǒ jīn wǎn yào qù chī huǒguō.
I'm going to have hotpot tonight.

Technically, you can say 我要去吃火锅 (wǒ yào qù chī huǒguō) without a specific time mentioned to show that you’re going to have hotpot.

But this sentence could also mean that you want to eat hotpot, since 要 also translates to “want.”

Listen to audio

去看她。

Wǒ huì qù kàn tā.
I will be seeing her.

会 (huì) in this context shows that an action is likely going to happen in the future.

However, 会 also carries the meaning “can” (the ability to do something) in other situations.

Listen to audio

得到升职。

Tā jiāng dédào shēng zhí.
She will get promoted.

将 (jiāng) is usually used in formal contexts and can be combined with the auxiliary verbs 会 or 要, though this doesn’t make a significant difference in meaning.

将 indicates that a certain event will be happening.

Listen to audio

打算去西班牙旅行。

Wǒ dǎsuàn qù xībānyá lǚxíng.
I'm planning to travel to Spain.

It’s important to note that auxiliary verbs like 会 or 要 do not always refer to the future tense.

They have different meanings, so it’s not safe to assume that any sentence containing these words refers to future events.

Expressing the past, present, and future tense doesn’t involve modifying the form of the verb.

That’s because there’s only one form of each verb in the Chinese language.

Without a doubt, it can take some practice to wrap your head around the different auxiliary verbs, adverbs of time, and time-related phrases used to express various tenses.

But I promise this will come with practice and immersion! 😁


Know of any other ways to express tenses in Mandarin Chinese?

Let us know in the comments below!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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