It is commonly known that there is an absent of verb tenses in Chinese language.
However, the less known fact is that we do have something called ‘grammar aspect’ . The difference is that with tenses, the emphasis is on ‘when or what time certain action happens’, and with aspect, it is on ‘how certain action happens in relation to the flow of time’. The focus of the former is on time, while the later is on action.
The two concepts can be understand better, when one relates it to the two types of time in our life, the Clock Time and the Timeless Time.
The Clock Time:
“Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie… man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralysing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”
― Mitch Albom,
The above quote demonstrates just how the normative time restrains our life and regulates the way we act. This is also the same type of time that defines past, present, and future tenses in languages.
The Timeless Time:
发愤: fā fèn Extremely focused on one’s study or work 忘： wàng to forget 食: shí to eat
乐：lè happy 以：yǐ so 忧： yōu worries 不知： don’t know/not aware
老：lǎo old age 将至： jiāng zhì about to come 云尔：yún ěr just like that
The second type of time can be defined as the kind of time when you are fully immersed in certain task or activity that you forget about the presence of physical time. In this sense, time becomes trivial, we are defined by our actions.
This is the kind of time that is related to grammar aspect. When you are discussing certain events or activities in Chinese, the focus is on the action rather than when has things happened, or when it is going to happen.
Different Perspectives on Time
- I once asked a Russian man about his age, and he gave me this whole philosophical speech. To cut it short: He never remembers his age, because he dislike the idea of how time is being shaped by the society.
- In greek, similar concept exists, i.e. Chronos (quantitative) and Kairos (qualitative) Time.
- In Asian Buddhism, ksana (the tinest unit of time) and kalpa (a very very long period of time)