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One of the questions that I found very difficult to get a straight answer for when learning Mandarin was, “Is there actually a Past Tense?” Lots of books brush over this aspect and even worse, others just say, “Yeah, it’s with 了 le”
The actual fact is that there is really no “Past Tense” as such, but more a less a few clues to the speaker about whether the action has taken yet place or not.
One good example of this is the structure 的时候 ‘de shíhou’ meaning “when”.
我小的时候，很喜欢比萨 – wǒ xiǎo de shíhou, hěn xǐhuan bǐsa = When I was young, I really like(d) pizza.
The fact of the matter is that the verb ‘like’ is just an infinitive here, not a past tense like in English. We know that it means ‘liked’ however because it is talking about something that happened ‘when you were young’.
Another way of expressing the past in Mandarin Chinese is by using time references such as ‘yesterday’, ‘previously’, etc.
我上个月去北京 wǒ shàng ge yuè qù běijīng = I went to Beijing last month
The verb 去 qù (to go) here is again, in the infinitive. We translate it into ‘went’ in English simply because the time reference (last month) tells us that it is a completed action. In these type of sentences, 了le is not needed, although can be inserted, particularly in speech.
Other examples of good time references:
曾经 céngjīng = previously / in the past
前 qián = before
上个月 shàng ge yuè = last month
上个星期 shàng ge xīngqī = last week
昨天 zuótiān = yesterday
去年 qùnián = last year
最近 zuìjìn = recently
过去 guòqù = in the past
Finally, I have to leave a special mention to 了 le
Please don’t be fooled into thinking that this is an all answering ‘Past tense’ marker, it isn’t. It works perfectly well in sentences which will be in the future:
我明天上班了，买咖啡 wǒ míngtiān shàngbān le, mǎi kāfēi = After I’ve gone to work, I’ll buy a coffee / I’ll go to work, then buy coffee.
As we can see, here it is a future perfect marker, if you will.
What it does do, is provide us with a sentence in a completed state. Whether that is in the past, present of future is dependent on the meaning of the whole sentence. 我累了 wǒ lèi le = I’m tired (i.e. I’m tired now, but I wasn’t before)
Yes, it is true to say that this is a “past tense” sentence: 我来了 wǒ lái le = I’ve arrived. But the reason is because 了 le conveys the sense that you weren’t here before, and now you’ve completed the action and you’re here. This technically could also have been roped into a future tense like the previous example: 我明天来了，买咖啡 wǒ míngtiān lái le, mǎi kāfēi = After I’ve arrived tomorrow, I’ll get a coffee.
So in this category could also be other particles such as 好 hǎo， 完wán，成chéng，etc. Which is for another time.
Hope you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to visit my YouTube page for tutorials on Spanish, Mandarin and Korean: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCe0pYlh0CU9ewkQfh1t3nEQ and then visit my twitter feed https://twitter.com/Gtlanguages ]