Classical Chinese Essentials: Mastering 之 zhī
One of the most common Chinese characters inherited from Classical Chinese is 之. Mastering this character can unlock many difficult idioms, newspaper articles, and Chinese literary texts. 之 is also used to express percentages and fractions. Understanding 之 will make you a better writer in Chinese, allowing you to use more advanced words and phrases. This post will break down the many uses of 之 and provide you with examples to gain a better understanding of how and when to use it.
The most common usage of 之 is to express possession. In this context, 之 is the same as 的. However, it gives phrases a more formal and literary feel. The easiest way to grasp how to use 之 is to look at how movies are translated into Chinese. The most famous example is “The Sound of Music” translated as 音乐之声 yīnyuè zhī shēng. It could also be translated as 音乐的声音 yīnyuè de shēngyīn but that is too literal and loses the four character structure that is characteristic of many Chinese idioms and phrases. Another example is “The Wolf of Wall Street” 华尔街之狼 huá’ěrjiē zhī láng staring 莱昂纳多·迪卡普里奥 lái áng nà duō·dí kǎ pǔ lǐ ào. In this title, 之狼 means “wolf of” and 华尔街 is the transliteration of Wall Street.
Since this is the Taiwanese release of The Wolf of Wall Street, the title is in traditional Chinese and Leonardo’s name is translated as 李奧納多·狄卡皮歐 (Lǐ ào nà duō·dí kǎ pí ōu).
The movie “Revolutionary Road” is translated as 革命之路 gémìng zhī lù, literally “Revolution’s Road.” 之路 zhī lù is also used frequently in other four-letter phrases, and it means “the road,” “the journey,” or “the path.” Another movie that uses 之路 is “The Road to Perdition” 毁灭之路 huǐmiè zhī lù. Outside of movies, the Silk Road is translated as 丝绸之路 sīchóu zhī lù.
A more direct translation of a movie is the “Son of God,” which is translated as 上帝之子 shàngdì zhīzǐ. The movie could be translated as 上帝的孩子 shàngdì de háizi but it sounds too colloquial (白话 báihuà) and it breaks the four character structure of many Chinese expressions. As these examples show, 之 serves the same function as 的 but gives titles a more formal feel and helps retain the four character structure of idioms (not always though).
Here are a few more examples of English movies translated into Chinese that use 之.
- 人类之子 Children of Men
- 战争之王 Lord of War
- 狂蟒之灾 Anaconda
- 罪恶之城 Sin City
- 诸神之战 Clash of the Titans
- 暮光之城：暮色 Twilight
- 公众之敌 Public Enemies
After you understand how 之 can be used as 的, more difficult four-letter phrases can be deciphered. Let’s take a look at 共同之处 gòngtóng zhī chù which means “something in common” or “overlap.” 处 chù means “place” or “point,” similar to 地方 dìfāng. By extension, it can also mean “aspect.” Words that use 处 include 到处 dàochù (everywhere), 好处 hǎochù (good point; benefit; advantage), and 难处 nánchu (difficulty; trouble). It is important to note that fourth tone 处 is different from third tone 处, which means “to live”, “to dwell”, and “to manage” as in 处理 chúlǐ (to handle; to deal with) or 处罚 chǔfá (to punish). 共同 means “common” and “mutual.” If you translate 共同之处 literally into more casual Chinese you get 共同的地方 (a place of commonality), but 共同之处 retains that four letter structure and just sounds more elegant. Below are some examples of 共同之处. Also, note how it is used in conjunction with 有 (to have).
They have a lot in common.
What do they have in common?
The two health insurance schemes have nothing at all in common.
What do these newspaper stories have in common?
(In this example, 何 is the formal version of 什么. You can translate this as 有什么共同之处).
I realized that we have nothing in common.
There are many more idioms and set phrases that use 之 as a possession marker. Below are just a sample:
- 当务之急 – a matter of vital importance
- 井底之蛙 – the frog at the bottom of the well (idiom); a person of limited outlook and experience
- 漏网之鱼 – a fish that has slipped through the net; fugitive; homeless exile
- 患难之交 – friend in adversity
- 一面之交 – have met only once; be casually acquainted
- 可取之处 – a saving grace; positive point; redeeming point
之 as an Object Pronoun
Another common usage of 之 is as an object pronoun of a sentence. This is very similar to the English “it.” However, it is different from 他 tā and 她 tā, which mean “he” and “she,” respectively. 牠 tā is used exclusively for animals. While 它 also means “it,” it is used differently in Chinese, and the two not interchangeable. A few examples will make it clear how to use 之 as an object pronoun.
In the phrase 为之付出, 为 (fourth tone) means “for,” 之 means “it,” and 付出 is a verb that means “to pay” or “to invest.” When you combine them, they mean “pay for it.” Another example is 用之不竭 yòng zhī bù jié (use-it-not-exhaustible) which translates as”inexhaustible.” 用之不竭 is often combined with 取之不尽 qǔ zhī bú jìn (take-it-endless), which means “inexhaustible,” “bottomless,” and “endless,” to form 取之不尽, 用之不竭. As you can see, both set phrases essentially mean the same thing but with different characters. This is a feature of the Chinese language that also appears with verb-object combinations like 游泳 yóuyǒng (to-swim-swimming) and 睡觉 shuìjiào (to-sleep-a-sleep).
An inexhaustible supply of coal
An endless supply of money
These rivers have an inexhaustible supply of fish.
The wealth of our country seems inexhaustible to many people abroad.
When summarizing a statement or argument you can conclude with 总而言之 zǒng’éryánzhī (sum-up-and-express-it) or the simplified version总之 zǒngzhī (sum-up-it), which means “in short” or “in a word.” Finally, another word that contains 之 as an object pronoun is 反之 fǎnzhī (reverse-it) translated as “on the contrary” or “conversely.” This can be used when you want to present a counterpoint to something you said before. It sounds very formal, so it’s best for speeches or written compositions.
In short, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
What, in short, are your values now?
In short, speak the language of your users.
Specific Period of Time
以内 yǐnèi is used to express time within a certain period such as 一年以内 yì nián yǐnèi “within on year.” A more formal version of 以内 is 之内 zhī nèi.
- 一天以内 一天之内 within a day
- 一个星期以内 一个星期之内 within a week
- 一个月以内 一个月之内 within a month
- 一个小时以内 一个小时之内 within an hour
- 两天以内 两天之内 within two days
Except or in Addition with 除了。。。之外
You can also replace 以外 yǐwài with 之外 zhīwài in the grammar pattern 除了。。。以外 chúle…yǐwài for 除了。。。之外 chúle…zhī wài. A more condensed form is 除此之外 chú cǐ zhī wài, which translates to “expect for this” or “in addition to this.” 此 is another remnant from Classical Chinese that means “this.”
In addition to this, there are other reasons.
In addition to this, I have many more.
However, even beyond that, the truth is often hard to find.
But in addition to this, much do you know beyond that?
Before and After with 之前/ 之后
When 以前 and 以后 are used as stand-alone adverbs they are similar to 现在. In this context, 以前 means “in the past” or “previously” and 以后 means “in the future.” When these two are adverbs, they can be put at the start of a sentence or immediately after the subject. 过去 guòqù is a less formal word for 以前. 将来 jiānglái and 未来 wèilái can be used to replace 以后, but both are more formal that 以后.
At first glance, 之前/ 之后 just looks like a more formal, literally version of 以前/ 以后. However, the difference between them is that 之前/之后 cannot function as an adverb like 现在 (although you might hear it used like an adverb). In other words, 之前/之后 cannot be used at the beginning of a sentence like 以前 and 以后. The reason for this is that the 之 in 之前 is a pronoun that refers to a specific time or event. For example, in the clause 我去中国之前, the 之 is referring to 我去中国. 之前 can’t go at the beginning of the sentence because then the 之 would be referring to nothing. When you cannot decided whether to use 之前 or 以前, try replaying it with 过去. If you can substitute with 过去, then only 以前 can be used. However, if 过去 is not suitable in the sentence, then you can use both 以前 and 之前。
In the past, I liked ice cream. Now I don’t really like it.
In this example, both 以前 and 现在 are used as adverbs and can be placed at the beginning of the sentence. You can easily change 以前 to 过去 and keep the same meaning. However, 之前 would be grammatically incorrect because the 之 is a pronoun and needs something before it to reference.
Another thing to note about 之前 and 之后 is the time from the event is much shorter than 以前 and 以后. It is almost like immediately before or after, whereas 以前/ 以后 have a much broader meaning of before and after. 之前 is similar to”prior to,” while 以前 is more like ” in the past” or “some time ago.” 以后 is like “after some time,” whereas 之后 is like “right after.”
Understanding 之 is vital to expressing fractions. The pattern for fractions is X 分之 Y. The easiest way to grasp how to use fractions is with the fraction 二分之一, which means 1/2 or literally “one part out of two parts”. 二分 is the “whole” while 一 is the “part of the whole”. At first, it might seem opposite from how we express fractions in English, but it becomes much easier after you understand the pattern.
三分之一 “one part out of three” 1/3
四分之一 “one part out of four” 1/4
五分之一 “one part out of five” 1/5
五分之二 “two parts out of 10” 2/5
十分之九 “nine parts out of 10” 9/10
The way to express percentages is similar to fractions, but 百分之 is used to express “parts of 100.”
- 百分之十 10%
- 百分之五十 50%
- 百分之七十 70%
- 百分之九十九 90%
- 百分之百 100%
- 百分之一 100%
- 百分之一零十 110%
Other Uses of 之
之际 is the equivalent of 的时候 and is often used on conjunction with 在 in the grammar pattern 在。。。之际. Another use of 之 is 之间 which means “among” or “between” as in 那两个人之间. 之多 can be used to express “as many as” after a number of people or things.
A very useful fixed expression using 之久 is 久而久之 which means “in the course of time” or “as time passes.” It can be great to describe a passage of time or a change over time such as when you have lived abroad for a few months and are about to leave.
Photo by Blair Fraser