Chapter 17: The Chinese passive

Updated:Sat, Oct 20, 2012 05:57 AM     Related:Chinese passive

The structure of the Chinese passive: Mandarin Chinese has three passive marking prepositions (passive markers): 被bèi, 叫 jiào, and 让 ràng, all of which may be translated with the English ‘by.’


1. The structure of the Mandarin passive

In active sentences, the subject is typically the agent, the noun phrase that initiates the action, and the object of the verb is the noun phrase affected by the action of the verb.

subject (agent)+ verb + object(affected object)

他偷走了我的车。He stole my car.

In Mandarin passive sentences, the affected noun phrase occurs as the subject of the verb, and the agent occurs as the object of a passive marking preposition. As in all sentences with prepositional phrases, the prepositional phrase occurs before the verb:

subject + prepositional phrase+verb

Mandarin has three passive marking prepositions (passive markers):被bèi,叫 jiào, and让 ràng, all of which may be translated with the English ‘by.’

Subject(Affected NP) +passive NP(agent) +verb
我的车 [被/叫/让] 他 偷走了

My car was stolen by him.

In passive structures, the word 给 gěi is sometimes placed before the verb.

Subject(Affected NP) +passive NP(agent) +verb
那本字典 [被/叫/让] 小李 给借走了。

That dictionary was borrowed by Little Li.

The presence of 给 gli before the verb indicates that the sentence is passive, even when the passive markers 被bèi, 叫jiào, and让ràng do not occur.

那个坏人被/给抓住了。That bad person was arrested.

The agent of a passive sentence need not be an animate entity. An inanimate entity, a force, or a situation may also function as the agent. For example:

他们的房子[被/叫/让]火烧了。 Their house was burned down by fire.

他被学校撤职了。He was fired by the school.

An agent is obligatory when using the passive markers 叫 jiào and 让 ràng. An agent is optional for the marker 被bèi.

他被撤职了。He was fired.

When the passive marker is followed by an object, all of the passive markers are interchangeable. Therefore, all remaining examples in this chapter will be illustrated with only one passive marker.

2. The passive and negation

Sentences in passive form typically refer to situations that occurred in the past. Therefore, negation in passive sentences is typically 没(有)méi (yǒu). 没(有)méi (yǒu) must occur before the passive marking preposition, and never before the verb.

The policeman didn’t tow your car away. Say this:你的车没有被警察拖走。 Not this:你的车被警察没有拖走。

The passive form can also be used when expressing prohibitions and warnings.

别被你的朋友骗了。 Don’t let your friend cheat you.

我们做的事不要被别人知道。 We shouldn’t let other people know what we did.

3. Conditions for using the passive in Mandarin

The Mandarin passive is used under the following circumstances:

To express adversity

To indicate that the event has negative consequences or is in some way ‘bad news’ for the narrator, addressee, or affected noun:

我的钱被小偷偷走了。 My money was stolen by a thief.

To express surprise or astonishment

我们的秘密被政府发现了。 Our secret was discovered by the government.

To emphasize the affected noun phrase rather than the agent

这儿的树都被人砍了。 The trees here were all cut down by people.

To describe an action when the agent is unknown

昨天银行被抢了。 The bank was robbed yesterday.

To avoid mentioning the agent of an action

我女儿被骗了。 My daughter was cheated.

4. Differences between the passive markers 被bèi, 叫 jiào, and 让 ràng

• Frequency:被bèi occurs more frequently in written or formal contexts than the other passive markers. In colloquial speech,叫jiào and 让 ràng are more commonly used. Dialects differ in the preferred passive marker.

• Adversity: 被 bèi connotes stronger adversity than the other three passive markers.

5. Additional functions of 让ràng, 叫jiào, and 给gěi

In addition to their role in passive sentences,让 ràng, 叫 jiào, and 给 gěi have other functions.

叫 jiào is also used as a verb meaning ‘to call,’ or ‘to order.’

ràng is also used as a verb meaning ‘to let’ or ‘to allow.’

gli is also used as a verb meaning ‘to give,’ and as a preposition meaning ‘to’ or ‘for/on behalf of.’

When the verb is not followed by an object noun phrase, 叫 jiào and 让 ràng may sometimes be interpreted as either a passive marker or as a verb, and the sentence may be ambiguous.

教授让学生批评了。 The professor was criticized by the students. (让ràng = passive marker: by the students)


The professor now allows the students to criticize. (让 ràng =allow: allows the students)

In most cases, however, the context will make clear the function of 叫jiào, or 让 ràng, or给, and only one interpretation will make sense. For example, the following sentence only makes sense if 让 ràng is interpreted as ‘to allow’ or ‘to let’ and not as the passive marker ‘by.’

妈妈让孩子吃饼干。 Mom let the children eat cookies. (by the children . . . )

6. English passives and their Mandarin equivalents

The association of Mandarin passives with the sense of adversity or bad news makes the passive structure more restricted and less common in Mandarin than in English. Compare the following:

Acceptable use of the passive in English Inappropriate use of the passive in Mandarin
The book was written by my professor. 这本书被我教授写了。
The check has already been received by the bank. 支票已经被银行收到了。
The fruit was sent as a gift by a friend. 水果被朋友作为礼物送来了。

Mandarin has several different patterns that are used to emphasize an affected object or to avoid mentioning the agent that do not convey adversity. These include the following:

• Topicalization

支票,银行已经收到了。 (As for) the check, the bank has already received it.

• The 把 bǎ construction

朋友把水果送来了。 A friend sent the fruit as a gift. (A friend took the fruit and sent it as a gift.)

• The 是shì . . . 的de construction

这本书是我教授写的。 This book was written by my professor. (This book, it was my professor who wrote it.)




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