Behind and before

qian-houI recently wrote about the Chinese words 上 (shàng) and 下 (xià). There are another pair of Chinese word-concepts that work in a similar way:
(qián) and (hòu).

The concept of  is both in front/ahead/forward AND before/earlier

The concept of  is both back/behind AND after/later

When explaining 上 and 下 I talked about the idea that in Chinese language the future is related to “down”. Now you can see it’s also related to “behind”.

As with 上 and 下, 前 and 后 are combined with 面/边 (miàn/biān – sideto create front/in front of (前面/前边) and back/behind (后面/后边).  Also as with 上 and 下, they can also be combined with 向 (xiàng – toward) to create forward (向前) and backward (向后) .

Again, as with 上 and 下, they can be combined with 以 (). 以+down = lower/less. 以 +前 means earlier/before. So 以后 means after, or in the future. Once again, it feels opposite to what I would naturally choose – I would pick “up” and “front” to refer to the future, but Chinese uses “down” and “behind”.

前 and 后 are commonly used to refer to things being earlier or later. Like 上 is used for last week/month and 下 for next week/ month, 前 and 后 are used for days and years – but with one difference. 前天means the day before yesterday, 后天 is the day after tomorrow; 前年 is the year before last, 后年 is the year after next.

Here’s a handy little chart I put together to lay it all out:


Two other especially common phrases are 后来 (hòu lái) meaning “later” or “afterward” and 从前 (cóng qián) meaning “before” or “in the past”. I think “后来” is a particularly fascinating word, because taken literally it would appear to mean “come back” rather than something future – but that’s my English-primed mindset popping up again. That’s the thing about learning another language. To do it well means going beyond translating my English thoughts into Chinese, and instead expressing myself in wholly Chinese thoughts – to see the world through the lens of the Chinese language. To not be chained to “front” as “future” and instead be able to think of “behind” as “future”.

Okay, ending on fun note (for me, anyway). Two less common (but interesting) uses for 后 relate to people. 后裔 (hòu yì) means descendants – the same “direction” of 后, referring to people further in the future than I. Finally, the normal word for “queen” is 女王 (nǚ wáng) – but a less common word is 王后 (wáng hòu) – literally, “behind the king”. I suppose etymologically it implies subjugation of women, but I prefer to imagine other scenarios. Like a queen being a woman “behind the king” – pulling the strings, or “after the king” – ruling after he dies.


One thought on “Behind and before

  1. Pingback: On, up, over – and earlier | Tanya's Stories

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