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In talking about physical/geographical directions, I'm pretty comfortable using 朝 and 向 and 往 for the meaning of "to" or "toward". But I would be hard put to describe to a Chinese language learner any differences in usage or meaning among these three words. Are there any important differences?

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This link contains a good description of the similarities and differences of the three words. –  Question Overflow May 3 '13 at 12:22
    
Why is that a comment rather than an answer? –  Dan May 3 '13 at 12:30
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1 Answer 1

See the Chinese Grammar Wiki. The explanation is quite extensive with many examples.

Some relevant parts:

向 and 往 can be placed after the verb, however it has to be used with an appropriate verb, Often used verbs are 开, 飞, 发, 运, 送, 寄, 带, 驶 etc. As you can see, this are words that at least imply some sort of motion. In addition, compared to 向, 往 is used more often with those verbs, because 往 expresses the destination while 向 merely expresses a direction, 朝 cannot be used this way.

When the action that takes place is specified to a specific target, use 向 or 朝. 往 cannot be used this way. Also, when the verb is a concrete action, the use of 向 and 朝 are the same, and they can be interchanged.

When the verb has an abstract meaning, you can only use 向, and you cannot use 朝.

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