The concept of Time in Chinese Language


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 Time Keeper

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:

     Fā fèn wàng shí, lè yǐ wàng yōu,bù zhī lǎo zhī jiāng zhì yún ěr

“。。。发 愤 忘 食乐 以 忘 忧不 知 老 之 将 至 云 尔”

Extremely focused on one’s study or work that one forgets to eat, enjoys oneself so much that one forgets about all the worries, and not even aware of the becoming of old age

------孔子 kǒng zǐ

 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 Asian Buddhism, ksana (the tinest unit of time) and kalpa (a very very long period of time)


  1. Hi Chelsea,

    I enjoyed reading this post very much. In English, the concept of “timeless time”, the idea that one is so engrossed in one’s activity that one loses awareness of everything else is sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”. It is also reflected in the popular saying “Time flies when you are having fun”.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!



    • Great to here from you Ziggy!

      I like the way you set up a blog to learn Chinese, it’s such a great way to stay dedicated.

      ‘Being in the zone’ is a very nice new phrase to learn, thanks for letting me know!

  2. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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