A lot of users don't understand how to express time and location in Chinese correctly. Time and location in Chinese is expressed from “big to small.” This is the general rule to keep in mind. But before I explain the grammar in detail, I would like to give a bit of a background on two different cultures.


Background on Two Different Cultures

In eastern cultures, which include Chinese, more importance is given to the group or family over the individual. This is different than western cultures where the individual is given more importance than the group of family. This contrast can be seen in how time and location is expressed. Chinese grammar dictates that the larger points are expressed before the smaller points. In English, the smaller points are generally expressed first. Let me explain with an example from how we say our names.

1- Chinese Names

Compare an English name and a Chinese name, you will see the “big to small” concept at work in the Chinese language, and the reverse order in English. For example, in English, if your name is John Smith, you started with John (the individual), and ended with Smith (the family or surname). From individual to family, that is “small to big.” On the other hand, in the Chinese name: 李小朋 Lǐ xiǎopéng, 李 is the FAMILY name and it goes first, and 小朋 xiǎopéng is the person’s name and it goes last. Here, we see “big to small” with family to individual. When we introduce our names in Chinese, we usually say something like this, “my surname is ..., and my name is ...”. So we start with the “big one,” which is “family.” Then go to the “small one,” which is “the person.”

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2- Time Order

Let’s look at this first infographic, “Time order in Chinese: Big to Small.”

How to Express "Time" in Chinese

The “Time Order Slide” shows how to express time in the proper order, from the BIGGEST (year) to the SMALLEST (second).The order is:

  • year 年 nián
  • month 月 yuè
  • date 日
  • day of the week 星期__ xīngqi + number from 一 to 六 and 日 (or 天) for Sunday
  • hour / o’clock 点 diǎn
  • minute 分 fēn
  • second 秒 miǎo

[*a period of time in a day may include 早上 zǎoshang (early morning), 上午 shàngwǔ (late morning), 中午 zhōngwǔ (noon), 下午 xiàwǔ (afternoon), 傍晚 bàngwǎn (dusk), 晚上 wǎnshàng (evening), 半夜 bànyè (midnight) and 凌晨 língchén (dawn).]

Of course you don’t have to mention all of these every time you want to make an appointment or talk about time. Just mention the ones you need. But the order is generally from big to small.

For example, let’s say you would like to go watch a movie with your friend on the weekend. You check the time and there is a showing at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon. So you would like to meet him at the theater at 3:10pm.

There are four time expressions, 3 o’clock, the 10th minute, Saturday and afternoon. Before you try to put them in the right order, remember the time order slide...big to small. Then you know the order should be Saturday, afternoon, 3 o’clock and the 10th minute. Saturday is 星期六. Afternoon is 下午. 3 o’clock is 三点. The 10th minute is 十分. Put them together and the correct order would be 星期六下午三点十分. That’s it!

Also important to note, besides 分 fēn minute, the word 刻 kè, which means “quarter of an hour,” is also used.

For example, if you want to say 6:15, both “六点一刻” and “六点十五(分)” are acceptable. Same for 10:45, both “十点三刻” and “十点四十五(分)” are ok.For 4:30, you can say “四点半” and “四点三十(分)” but never “十点二刻.” And “四点半” is more common.

3- Location in Chinese

And you guessed it, we also follow the rule, from “big to small.” Check out the infographic below, How To Write A Postal Address In Chinese. Whenever you want to write an address, or make an appointment, or talk about the location of an event, you can apply this idea. For writing a formal address, the order could be

国家  guójiā country, 省 shěng province, 县 xiàn county, 市 shì city/town,
区 qū district, 大街  dàjiē avenue, 路 lù road, 楼 lóu floor, 号 hào number,
室 shì flat/apartment

Please note that it is NOT necessary to use all of these for an address.

How to Express "Location" in Chinese

For example, if you would like to send a letter to Mr. Wang Peng, the address written in English would be: No.24 South Section 1, Yihuan Road, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, 610065

First, let’s break down each component.

No.24: the specific number for someone’s place
South Section 1: a certain section of a road
Yihuan Road: a road in a city
Chengdu: a city in a province
Sichuan: a province in China
China: a country
610065: a zip code

Ok, from BIG to small, let's re-order the components:
Zip Code: 610065
Country: China 中国
Province: Sichuan 四川省
City: Chengdu 成都市
Road: Yihuan Road 一环路
Section of a road: South Section 1 南一段
The specific number for someone’s place: No. 24 24号
Then you put the recipient’s name, Mr. Peng Wang, BELOW the address.

Remember the name is also from big to small, family name goes first, which is “Wang 王”, then given name “Peng 朋”, then “Mr. 先生.”

Here are some more examples to help you get familiar with this grammar.

1- In the school library: 在 学校 (school) 的 图书馆 (library)
    The school is bigger than the library.

2- The water in the cup: 杯子 (the cup) 里的 (inside) 水 (water)
    The cup is bigger than the water in it.

3- California, USA: 美国 (USA) 加州 (CA)
    USA is bigger than California.

4- The picture in my computer: 我电脑 (my computer) 里的 (inside) 照片 (picture)
    The computer storage space is bigger than the picture file size.

Hopefully these examples can help you learn to express time and location in the proper order. Just keep this in mind whenever you need to express things in the correct order in Chinese: if they can be grouped in the same category and they have a range from big and small, then try ordering from BIG to SMALL. Most likely you will get it right!

Author: Karen Chang from VividChinese

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