It’s been more than 6 months since I last wrote about Chinese language, so it’s definitely past time to play with it again!
Two of the first characters Chinese children are taught to write in school are 上 (shàng) and 下 (xià). As with most characters, they are concepts – with a variety of usages that relate to those core concepts. 上 and 下 can be prepositions, verbs, and even adjectives or adverbs. Both words are used all day, every day, in many different ways.
The concept 上 is about: on, over, above, up
The concept 下 is about: under, below, down
Pair them with 面 (miàn) or 边 (biān) and the meaning is on top (上面）and underneath (下边). Both 面 and 边 mean “side” and are sometimes interchangeable, although there is a subtle difference. 面 means “face” and usually refers to the surface of something – the top of a table, the underside of a box. 边 means “edge” and usually refers to position, as in being next to (against) something – being on top of the table, or underneath the chair.
楼 (lóu) means building, but also floor/storey. To be more clear, one can say 层楼 (céng lóu) to specify floor as opposed to building, but usually the céng is dropped. SO! Pair 上 and 下 with 楼 and you get upstairs (楼上) and downstairs (楼下). Similarly, pair them with 地 (dì, ground) – and you get above-ground (地上) and underground (地下), very helpful words for navigating carparks!
For an extra twist, flip 楼上 (upstairs) and 上 becomes a verb: 上楼 – meaning to GO upstairs. The same works with 楼下／下楼. For a more general upward/downward verb, they can paired with 向 (xiàng) which is a direction-concept, often meaning “toward”. 向上 therefore means “toward 上” – so, upward.
Apparently 以 (yǐ) means “with” but I’ve never known it used on its own. 以上 means above, but in the context of “more than” – especially with numbers. So “fifty 以下” means “fifty and below” or “fifty or less”.
Another everyday use of 上 and 下 is in relation to transport. 车 (chē) means vehicle; 上车 means to get on/in and 下车 to get off/out. There is one important exception to the transport usage. 上 and 下 are reversed when referring to getting on or off a boat! You 下船 (chuán, boat) to get on, and 上船 to get off. It seems very confusing until you think about the up/down concept of 上/下. A boat is on water, and generally BELOW the level of the land (especially when you’re thinking of small boats, rather than large motorised watercraft), so getting onto a boat means going DOWN to the water – going 下. I had occasion to completely mess this up when my family visited water village Zhouzhuang (周庄) near Shanghai in 2004. We were looking for the place to get on a gondola for hire, to see the village from the water. I asked where we should go to 上船 and was directed to a spot where gondolas stop to let passengers disembark.
Next up – time. 午 (wǔ) means noon, although it’s not specifically the time 12:00, but rather the period around noon (about 11am-1pm – I’ve studied several languages that have a word for this period of the day.) It’s rarely used on its own, but is used in the names of periods of daylight hours: 上午 (morning), 中午 (noon – zhōng meaning “middle”), and 下午 (afternoon). I like to think of the 上 for morning referring the sun going up, and the 下 of afternoon referring to the sun going down.
An everyday usage of 上 and 下 that confused me for years is previous/next. If you were going to guess which means “next” – which would you choose? My English-primed brain considers 上 the logical choice, and I’m guessing you do too. Well, it’s actually 下 that means next. 下星期 = next week. 下一位 = next person (i.e. next in line). 上次 means last time, not next time!
I think the confusion comes from a difference in how cultures perceive time. I consider the future to be ahead of me, and that I move toward it by going “up”. Something that helped me keep it straight was thinking of the present as “noon” – so the future is like the afternoon, both using 下, and the past like morning, both using 上.
The idea that the future is “down” helps explain an interesting thing that happens with the word 去, meaning “to go/leave”. 上去 means up, or to go up – which is logical. 下去, however, is NOT a parallel – it means “to continue”. To “go 下” means to go forward, into the future. At least it’s consistent – afternoon, next week, future… everything beyond now is 下.
Another related use is with books. If there are two parts, the first would be the 上 book, and the second would be the 下 book. This goes for textbooks especially, where there are often two books for the year – the first and second semesters of a class.
Finally, my favourite 上下 word: 床 (chuáng) means bed, so “上下床” means, of course, “bunk bed”!
UPDATE: I wrote a follow up post, Behind and Before, about similar/related words 前 (qián) and 后 (hòu)