True or False Question:

In classical Chinese, “之” is usually used as a possessive pronoun (attributive), “其” is usually used as a subject, and “彼” is usually used as an object.

a. True b. False

I think the statements about the “其” and “彼” are true. I'm not sure about the statement regarding “之”. I don't think "possessive pronoun" and "attributive" are equivalent. It's quite true that 之 can be used as a possessive marker (e.g.,美国之音).

Thank you for your help.

  • for those of us who aren't grammarians - can you give examples of what "possessive pronouns" are? if you mean "his"/"her" then no 之 never means that, and also isn't what 之 is functioning as in case (3) in shellbye's answer. Apr 10, 2015 at 23:48

6 Answers 6


之 is a common way to say ‘him/her/it’ in classical Chinese. It’s usually in the object position, not the subject one though: 殺之 ‘kills him’; 由之 ‘from it’. The use like modern Chinese 的 is different.

其 is actually a possessive pronoun, as in 其妻 ‘his wife’. More generally, it substitutes for ‘noun + 之’.

彼 can be used as a third-person pronoun in either subject or object position, but mainly it is a demonstrative (‘this’ or ‘that’). There are other words that work the same way and appear as pronouns.

All of this is based on the section on pronouns in Edward Pulleyblank’s ‘Outline of Classical Chinese’, esp. pp 79-80. You can find it on Google Books.

  • the specific use of 之 you cite is different from 的, yes. there are other ways to use 之 that are equivalent to 的, which are noted below. Those other ways are what is generating the confusion noted in the original question. Apr 11, 2015 at 22:04
  • neubau: Thanks for your answer. So the correct answer to my question is "false"? Apr 13, 2015 at 14:13
  • Yes, it seems to be false. Take a look at Pulleyblank and you'll see that no generalization of this sort about 3rd person pronouns is possible. And anyway, 之 has several possible meanings, only one of which is a pronoun.
    – neubau
    Apr 14, 2015 at 0:59

assuming that "possessive pronoun" means "his/hers" then no, the closest 之 gets is 的, which never functions as a noun.


True and false.

When talking about possessive or attributive, 之 is not a pronoun. It is an auxiliary word similar to "of" which is categorised as preposition in English.

As an auxiliary word, it could connect both possessive and attributive modifiers with the subject they modify.

According to the The Standard Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese Copyright © 2010, 2012 Oxford University Press and Foreign Language Teaching and Research Publishing, Co., Ltd


a. 用在定语和中心词之间,构成偏正短语,表示领属或修饰关系。

Translation: Used between modifier and subject to construct possessive or attributive modified phrases.

赤子之心 | 大旱之年

Translation: heart of patriot | year of grate drought

b. 用在主谓短语的主语和谓语之间,使它变成偏正短语。

Translation: used between the subject and predicate of a subject-predicate phrase and convert it to a modified phrase

影响之深远出乎预料 | 速度之快

Translation: The far reach of the influence is beyond expectation | the quickness of speed

c. 与后面的单音节语素结合,构成名词或名词性短语。

Translation: Combined with the following single syllable element to construct noun or noun phrase

之后 | 之类

Translation: afterwords (maybe it should be the descendants here?) | the alike

I wrote the above translation. They may sound very odd in English because those are meant to demonstrate the construction of the phrase.

So the question is concerning usage 3-a and 3-b. And I'd say it is more common to see 之 use to connect possessive modifiers than attributive. But it doesn't seem to be a very drastic gap. Maybe it's just because there are more alternatives for attributive constructions. E.g. 美人 (beautiful people), it's a quite basic construction and there is no need to interpolate it to 美之人 unless the author has some special needs like matching sentences or something.

And according http://baike.baidu.com/view/42455.htm, in Classic Chinese 之 can be used for both as well. So whether one usage is more "usual" than the other is really a statistical issue. And I don't know any such statistics. But according to the examples on the aforementioned page, possessive usage seemed to be slightly more common.

  • I'm still really curious what difference there is between 3(a) and 3(b) - they seem to be exactly the same usage, so why differentiate there? I see both as simply meaning 的. I've seen "之后" stand alone (ex "之后我们...") but I've only ever seen "之类" as "XX之类" in which case it's 3(a)/(b) assuming that you accept the differentiation there. I doubt that "之后" is really any different from "以后", i.e. it's derive from more frequent "XX之/以后" patterns which also adhere to 3(a/b) Obviously not on you, just saying the source is weird. Apr 14, 2015 at 21:00
  • @MasterSparkles I think I made a mistake translating 之后, already edited it. Anyway that is 3(c). 之后 here should be the one that means the decendants of something. Because 3(c) is about constructing noun and 之后 as afterwards isn't exactly a noun. And the difference between a and b is that if you removed 之 a becomes a noun phrase but b become a predicate that express an attribute of the subject Apr 15, 2015 at 3:07

So you're asking if it's possessive in Classical Chinese?

It is certainly possessive. I learned that 之 is a classical way to say 的, making it a possessive particle.

An example sentence would be 父母之爱

However I've seen examples like

自知之明, which to me indicates it is attributive?

However if you're asking whether or not 之 can function as a pronoun - the answwer is yes.


I understand possessive to mean that an object "own's" a characteristic or another object. e.g. 我的肚子 (it's MY stomach).

I understand "attributive" to mean that a quality ( e.g.快)is associated with the object or subject (e.g. 兔子) = 快的兔子。 ( in this example the quality fast, is attributed to the rabbit)

Hahaha, hope that helps. Not sure about 其 or 彼.... :S


1.我聪明之老师 (杨老师) 2. http://www.yellowbridge.com/chinese/dictionary.php?word=之 3. http://www.linedict.com/dict.html#/cnen/entry/c56e6059137441a99d708c56ab0515d1


Sadly, but in a fun way, none of the generalizations in the original question are true. The character "之" means "him/her/it" as well as "of", so it is not uncommon to see "之之 blah-blah" to mean "his blah-blah" or "A之A" to mean "A's being A".

"其" means "he/she/it", it is not necessarily possessive. It also means "proper" in the sense of "suitable".

“彼” is often used as subject rather than object.


The answer is no.

In classical Chinese, "之" has the following meaning:

1.It means "的", it turns the former words into adjective or adverbial for the later word. It's just for pronunciation. e.g.,缓兵之计, 不速之客, 莫逆之交

2.It means "of". "美国之音" means "音" of "美国".

3.possessive pronoun. "等闲视之”

4.It means "go to". "吾欲之南海"

For more information, you can check here

  • function in (1) and (2) is the same: 之=的. It's not accurate to say it has no "meaning" Apr 9, 2015 at 2:08
  • In 等闲视之, why is it a "possessive" pronoun? I thought it's just a regular pronoun (it, him, her, them). Why "possessive"? Thank you! Apr 9, 2015 at 14:14
  • Can you explain what is "possessive" first? In my understanding, it is what you said a regular pronoun(it, him, her, them).
    – shellbye
    Apr 10, 2015 at 1:25
  • I'm not very clear on this either. You said the answer is "no," but could you point out which part is incorrect? Thank you very much! :) Apr 10, 2015 at 16:49
  • In classical Chinese, “之” is not usually used as a possessive pronoun (attributive). It is usually used as "的".
    – shellbye
    Apr 11, 2015 at 14:14

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