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I'm having a little trouble with learning directions and positions. It seems that most often the word bian is being used to indicate a position: front side 前邊, back side 後邊, etc.

But then I see stuff that uses mian for position: 外面有人吗?

So I'm a little confused as to when I should use bian and when I should use mian. Can you help me come to an understanding of the two?

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前边/后边/外边 is slightly more formal than 前面/后面/外面. –  user58955 Feb 17 at 0:09
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@user58955 Disagree. I see 前面/后面 in formal documents more often. As some evidence, according to the search results on the official website of the central government of PRC, 前面 hits 23/181/329897 and 前边 hits 1(mismatched)/6/12639 respectively on posts of Department of State Bulletins / laws / government websites. –  Stan Feb 17 at 1:45
    
to Kevin: I think it is not necessary to distinguish between 前面/後面/外面 and 前邊/後邊/外邊 -- just remember 左邊/右邊 is much more often used than 左面/右面. –  Stan Feb 17 at 1:58
    
Thanks Stan. If you answer the question I'll mark it as the accepted answer. –  Kevin Thompson Feb 17 at 2:41
    
@Stan point taken. On second thoughts, I think it's a regional thing... Northerns use 边 more and southerns 面. I made the mistake because I've almost never used 前边 in my life... btw, PRC's official documents are bad examples -- they are often way too colloquial, sometimes intolerable to me. Should look up ROC's official documents... –  user58955 Feb 17 at 9:04

4 Answers 4

To understand the differences properly, you need to know what is 面 and what is 边. 面 is a face whereas 边 is an edge. An edge is like a line guiding you the direction. A face is what is facing you giving you a sense of position.

  • 前/后面 is used to describe the position of something within your visual range. Whereas, 前/后边 is more appropriately used to describe something beyond visual range when giving directions.

    镜子前面 (in front of the mirror) vs 车站前边 (beyond that bus stop in front)

  • 外/里面 is used to describe location of an object in relation to another object. 外/里边 is used strictly for giving directions.

    书包里面 (inside the school bag) vs 巷子里边 (in that alley)

  • 左/右面 is used mainly to point to the left or right face of an object. 左/右边 is used to describe left or right side directions.

    墙的左面 (on the left face of that wall) vs 车道左边 (left side of the roadway)

In summary, when you are giving directions, use 边; when you are describing positions, use 面.

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Partly disagree. For 前面/後面 vs. 前邊/後邊, both 《现代汉语词典》(5th ed.) and 《中華民國教育部重編國語辭典修訂本》 consider 前面/後面 respectively equal to 前邊/後邊; and I don't see much difference between them in daily use. For 外面/裡面 vs. 外邊/裡邊, setting aside the special meaning of 外邊, they are also considered the same by the two dictionaries. For 左面/右面, I agree with the case 墙的左面, but it's a special case that 左面 here means the "left face" but not "on the left side". –  Stan Feb 17 at 7:09
    
@Stan, based on my own experience, I have never heard anyone say 镜子前边. Neither have I heard of 书包里边. As such, I disagree that they are equal regardless of what is prescribed in 《现代汉语词典》. Although there are cases where the usage of 面 overlap with 边, we should learn to distinguish them for the sake of clarity. –  杨以轩 Feb 17 at 9:22
    
The problem is, both 镜子前边 and 书包里边 sound valid to me, and I did have heard it (and even occasionally I would use it :p) user58955's comment in OP's post said it's a regional thing... Northerns use 边 more and southerns 面, I think it is quite possible (as I've stayed in northern China for several years), though I didn't see any statistical analysis for this issue. –  Stan Feb 17 at 9:47
    
@Stan, in cases where there is overlap, I agree there could be some regional preference. But, I don't see how 镜子前边 is proper Chinese. You may like to provide your own answer if you are adamant about it :) –  杨以轩 Feb 17 at 10:51
    
There seemed to be some misunderstanding ... I totally agreed with your explanations of the single characters 面 and 边. My point was 前面 is not exactly equal to 前+面, and 前边 is not exactly equal to 前+边 either. Hmm, in exact match via Google, "镜子前边" vs. "镜子前面" hit 49,900 vs. 585,000 here, not bad for the previous one. Well you would say many Chinese people use it in a wrong way, but I think the inference like 前+面 => 前面 doesn't have to be always correct either. –  Stan Feb 17 at 14:58

外面( literally out-surface)=外边=out-side

Speaking of etymology, 边 is a 1-D concept, while 面 is a 2-D concept. The sides of a rectangle is addressed as 长边(长)、短边(宽), while 面 is its area.

Habitually, ~边 is more oral while ~面 is more literal. But as far as I know, people in southern regions do not really distinguish them.

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I'm Chinese and basically both are same to me. We don't really differentiate them :).

  • 外面 - normal to say in Mandarin
  • 外边 - normal to say in Cantonese.
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as a native speaker, i would almost always use 前面,後面,上面,下面,裡面,外面, but 左邊 and 右邊 for simple positioning. no why, they just sound right to my taiwanese ears and i guess you can use 邊 for all of them and it would sound more mainland-ish. even more general is 旁邊 (next to), which has no discernible direction. e.g. 我坐在他旁邊, 超市在加油站旁邊

as a side note, for 前後左右上下 + 面/邊, there's no concept of inside or outside, so something like 火車前面 can mean both "at the front of the train (inside)" or "in front of the train (outside and about to be hit!)". in practice it never really causes too much confusion because you can tell from context. e.g. 駕駛座在火車前面 or 有東西擋在火車前面。

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