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A couple years ago, I was at a Chinese(-American) gathering and the topic of 成语 came up. One of them was 三更半夜. My family is from Hangzhou, and previously I had always known of it as 深更半夜. On the other hand, someone from the northeast noted that she was accustomed to saying 三经半夜. After comparing among all of ourselves, it seemed that southerners tended to use 深更半夜 while northerners tended to use 三经半夜.

Is this a well-documented phenomenon? That is, is this actually a thing, or was our observation due to pure coincidence?

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It should be 三(geng1)半夜. In northern China, this shift was deliberate as a result of 避讳. It originated in Peking operas as the founder or some recent master has 庚 in his name. So geng1 must be avoided on the stage and all geng1 sound was changed to jing1. – user58955 Mar 19 '14 at 10:26
In the dictionary, it should be pronounced as "geng", not "jing". But as far as I know, in Beijing dialect it usually pronounced as "jing", such as "三更(jing)天", "打更(jing)", etc. – songyuanyao Mar 19 '14 at 12:02
Cool. What about 深 in the south? – Tony Mar 19 '14 at 14:43
Classically, it is pronounced ''jing'', whereas the modern official pronunciation is ''geng''. – Ma Ming Mar 24 '14 at 13:58
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Both "三更(gēng)半夜" and "深更(gēng)半夜" are correct. They are listed in most modern Chinese dictionaries. And "半夜三更" and "半夜深更" could also be used as there are no change in the meaning at all, although they may sound peculiar to some people, but they are totally correct to use. (Actually, in Chinese reverse such word constructions are widely used in many case to improve the variety of the text).

However, 三经半夜 is not valid or formal Chinese. 经 cannot be used to substitute 更 both in writing or in pronunciation in formal Chinese. However, it is widely used in speaking but it's widely believed to be a mispronunciation widely adopted. There are many similar cases that average Chinese use pronunciations which is not listed in dictionaries. You could say there is a gap between the speaking system and the writing system of Chinese. But those mismatches are normally minor and most of the time the meaning can be inferred from the context.

About 更

The essential meaning of the character is "Change"

It is also used as a time unit. In ancient China, a day is divided into 12 parts. Each part is called 时, thus it is equal to two hours. According to in Han dynasty, there were five shifts during the night in the palace.

  1. 一更/头更:戌时 19:00 – 21:00

  2. 二更:亥时 21:00 – 23:00

  3. 三更:子时 23:00 – 01:00

  4. 四更:丑时 01:00 – 03:00

  5. 五更:寅时 03:00 – 05:00

So 更 actually means the change of shift originally.

Regarding the difference between 三更 and 深更, from the table above you can see 三更 is actually midnight. 深更 means deep in the night, so basically they are the same thing except 深更 could also be used to refer 四更 or 五更 literally. But when used in 成语 and in combination with 半夜, they don't mean the literal, exact time, they just mean late in the night or midnight in general. In the past, numbers in Chinese are often used figuratively rather than indicating the exact.

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I come from a family that speaks Cantonese, and we say 三更半夜 (although my mother says 半夜三更 I don't know why). 三更半夜 refers to "midnight" (doesn't have to be exactly 12:00 am, but some time around 11:00 pm and 2:00 am mainly). One time I was still up at 1:30 am and my father comes in and says 「現在三更半夜,你還沒有睡覺嗎?」. Basically what he was saying was, "It is very late. You are still awake?"

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How about the pronunciation of 更? OP cares for it more. – songyuanyao Mar 23 '14 at 9:45
I am pretty sure it is "sān gēng bàn yè" but I am not sure (I don't speak much Mandarin) – JChau Mar 23 '14 at 18:10
I think the op is looking for an answer that covers this topic more holistically – deutschZuid Mar 24 '14 at 6:12

三更 is a Chinese term which means midnight.

19—21时 戌时 一更
21—23时 亥时 二更
23— 1时 子时 三更
1— 3时 丑时 四更
3— 5时 寅时 五更

So you can see, 三更 also means 深更. I think 更(jing1) or 深(sheng) is just dialect.

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Where does the op mention 三深? – deutschZuid Mar 24 '14 at 6:13
@deutschZuid Sorry, edit the answer now. – Ave Maleficum Mar 24 '14 at 6:18

The same way how Americans pronunciate "our" like "R" when it should be pronunciate as "hour", your friend perhaps was using regional dialect to pronunciate "更" as 经.

However, I disagree with all explainations above. Both 深更半夜 and 三更半夜 are idioms although they have the exact same meaning, they are not dialect.

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更is correct. Why used 经? Because when speaking in Cantonese, 更 and 筋 sounded the same. When it is in mandarin, 筋 and 经 got mixed up.

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This is explained by the 文白音 phenomenon that all Chinese dialects have. Some characters have two readings: one formal and one colloquial. Take Shanghainese for example (the dialect I am most familiar with): 聞 is pronounced [ven] in a formal context (i.e. in names, compound words and literary readings) such as in 新聞. But it is pronounced [men] in daily conversations, such as in 儂聞聞看. Now the Peking dialect also has words like this, 更 being one of them. The formal pronunciation is [geng] but the colloquial [jing]. Note that the meaning of the character is the same for both two pronunciations (as opposed to the two pronunciations of words like 長).

In fact, because Putonghua is heavily influenced by the Peking dialect, it also retains some instances of 文白音, such as 薄 (bo: 薄熙來 bao: 牆壁很薄) or 廈 (xia: 廈門 sha: 大廈). For some reason, 更 is not one such instance though; it is pronounced [geng] only in Putonghua. Other common examples in Putonghua:

字 文音 白音
給 ji  gei
車 ju  che
了 liao le
爪 zhao zhua
血 xuè  xiě

Because of a movement to simplify pronunciation, fewer and fewer of these 文白音 words are left in Putonghua. Examples that seldom are honoured today are:

字 文音 白音
白 bo  bai
六 lu  liu
北 bo  bei

More examples can be found on Wikipedia:

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更 (geng1) could pronounced as jing(1) because of ancient pronunciation, but not something ineffable. In ancient Chinese 更(geng1, not geng4) is pronounced like jing(1), and in modern China even today, some local forks are talking in this way.

更 is a way of timing. Ancient Chinese divided a whole night into 5 parts from 19:00-5:00(next day), each part as 2 hours. that is 一更(19:00-21:00)二更(21:00-23:00)三更(23:00-1:00 of next day)四更(1:00-3:00)五更(3:00-5:00), which are 戌亥子丑寅 accordingly. 三更(23:00-1:00 of next day) is just the middle of night, so, 半夜(mid-night)三更

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