The second clause is translated as some version of: "If you look at it from the point of Change, then heaven and earth never stay the same for even a moment".

Here's what I think I know:

不 negates a verb 能 indicates that something is possible, and functions as an auxiliary to another verb 不能(verb) therefore means "cannot (verb)", "does not (verb)" 以 has a variety of meanings, but the only one that fits here is to indicate a period of time: 一瞬 ("a moment", "the blink of an eye").

My question is this: what verb is 不能 modifying? What in the verse conveys "to stay the same"? Is there an implied verb somewhere meaning "to be unchanged"? How is the above interpretation derived, exactly?

Many thanks to anyone who can explain this to me.

I should mention also that I first encountered this in its literary Japanese form, where the full gloss is: 蓋し将た其の変ずる者よりして之を観れば、則ち天地も曾て以て一瞬なる能はず, if that helps anyone to understand the issue. There is no verb explicitly indicating "existence", "stopping", or "lack of change" in the Japanese interpretation either.

  • 1
    In the textbook, "以" was translated to "停止" means "stop". However, there are researchers arguing that in the context the author may have omitted "存" (means exist) after "天地" and the whole sentence should be translated as "If you look at it from the point of Change, then heaven and earth have never existed for more than a moment". And this interpretation makes this sentence more antithetical to its following sentence. REF
    – Bolu
    Jul 5, 2016 at 10:54
  • So, this is actually an instance in which the verb modified by 不能 may have been omitted? That would make sense. 以 and 已 do seem to be very closely related, even sharing some functions, but I can't find any other usage like this one.
    – Aagrajag
    Jul 5, 2016 at 12:00
  • the Japanese gloss is a translation of the original Chinese version, Just in case.
    – Bolu
    Jul 5, 2016 at 12:53

3 Answers 3


First, I'm very surprised that a foreigner is even reading the classical article 前赤壁賦.

For your question, I think the answer is related to omission, a common grammatical phenomenon in classical Chinese.

Here, 以 doesn't mean "to stop". When it means to stop, 以 is just an alias of 已 (another common phenomenon, called 通假, where characters with similar pronunciations or shapes are used interchangeably) , which means to stop. If 以 really means to stop here, what is the role of 一瞬?

To stop a moment doesn't make sense. From the context, the author 苏轼 wants to express that "the universe is always changing. Changes never stop". If it means to stop within a moment, the meaning sounds weird: "the universe CAN'T STOP within a moment". So does it takes some time for the universe to stop?

I think the sentence omits the complement: 则天地曾不能以一瞬 观之/度 (duo 2nd tone, to consider, to think of)之. Then the universe can't be even observed / considered in (the unit of) one moment, since it changes so fast. Even in one moment (very short period), it has changed a lot, and you can notice no details or nothing meaningful.

Why is there such an omission? Well, the pattern of this article is 赋, and it requires the writer to use a lot of 对仗 ( coupling sentences. Two groups of sentences written in the similar pattern. For example, same numbers of characters, similar sentence structure). You can notice a lot of coupling sentences in this article, can't you? The next sentence is coupled with the sentence in the questions, so the number of characters is restricted here. Also, the verb in the complement repeats 观之 in the previous clause.

PS: I'm not a linguist, so please correct me if I use incorrect terms in the answer. I'll appreciate that.

  • The possibility that 不能 modifies 観 does actually make the grammar work, but the Japanese gloss doesn't support that. It could simply be an incorrect interpretation that became commonly accepted, but if 不能 were to modify 観, the gloss would probably give that structure explicitly as 観る能わず, but it does not. Also, 不能 always seems to modify the verb that follows; could it still be referring all the way back to 観 in the first clause? Either way, thank you for the input; it certainly does fit.
    – Aagrajag
    Jul 5, 2016 at 12:44
  • @Aagrajag if you just analyze the sentence from the Japanese version, then what is the predict in the Japanese version? 能わず? But what is the object part? For 观之, I meant, the verb of the latter clause is also 观之,however, it's omitted since it is a repeat, and the pattern of the composition is also a reason. In classical Chinese, if some grammatical part of the second clause repeats that of the previous one, that part is always omitted. The omission is more widely used in classical Chinese, compared to modern Chinese. I can show you another similar example from 史记: 军中无以为乐,请以剑舞
    – Huang
    Jul 5, 2016 at 13:06
  • Searching for the examples of emission, I also find another similar example. 大小之狱,虽不能察,必以情。
    – Huang
    Jul 5, 2016 at 13:15
  • I've tried analyzing it from both the original Chinese, and the Japanese gloss (they match perfectly, so that doesn't seem to be the problem). 能わず should follow the verb it negates. The interpretation that 不能 is modifying 観 from the first clause works, but every interpretation in modern Japanese is given as something like 同じ状態でいることはありえない: "It cannot exist in the same state". If 不能 (or 能わず) were really modifying 観る, then the gloss would read 観る能わず but it doesn't. Also, every English translation I've found of the original text also uses the "not stay the same" interpretation.
    – Aagrajag
    Jul 5, 2016 at 13:21
  • agree. But I'm curious - can someone provide evidence of 以 ever being used in stead of 已? Jul 6, 2016 at 0:23

"不能以" is a common term in 宋 dynasty, some examples from this time:

上清儲祥宮碑 by 蘇軾

. . . 臣嘗竊論之﹒黄帝老子之道﹒本也﹒方士之言﹒末也﹒修其本而末自應﹒故仁義不施﹒則韶濩之樂﹒不能以降天神﹒忠信不立﹒則射鄉之禮﹒不能以致刑措

the grammar of 不能以 in here is:

if 仁義不施, then 不能 (cannot) 降天神 以 (by) 韶濩之樂

if 忠信不立, then 不能 (cannot) 致刑措 以 (by) 射鄉之禮

不能 modify the verb "降" & "致"

答李端叔書一首 by 蘇軾

. . . 尋常不通書問﹒怠慢之罪猶可闊畧﹒及足下斬然在疚﹒亦不能以一字奉慰

(i, omitted) 不能 (cannot) 奉慰 以(by) 一字

that, 不能 modify the verb 奉 (offer)

婺州金華縣社倉記 by 朱熹

. . . 其行之也﹒以聚歛亟疾之意﹒而不以慘怛忠利之心﹒是以王氏能以行於一邑﹒而不能以行於天下

不能 (cannot be) 行 (~carry out) in the whole nation 以 (by) the method of 社倉

that, 不能 modify the verb 行

btw, the wiki has a pic claimed to be the authentic, original writing of 赤壁賦:



"以" here has the same meaning as "已", which means "stop" in this context.

Hence "不能" is modifying "以".

  • Hi Henry; thanks for your response. I suspected that 以 might be functioning as a verb, but I can't find any cites to support that theory. Also, I encountered this problem while studying the sentence in its Classical Japanese translation, in which it is given as 以て (motte), which is the reading it would take in its function as a marker for time adverbs. Unfortunately, there would be no way to interpret it as "stop" or anything similar.
    – Aagrajag
    Jul 5, 2016 at 11:56
  • Just wondering .... what if the true text is "則天地不曾能以一瞬", i.e., sth like "the universe have never been able to remain stationary for any moment". It is not uncommon to find such deliberate character arrangements in ancient literatures.
    – Henry HO
    Jul 5, 2016 at 15:50

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