Ok so let me start with some examples:

  1. xia ci 下次 (next time) is "down time". so... down = future?
  2. shang ci 上次(last time) is "up time" so... up = past?
  3. hou 后 (back) also often refers to future so... back = future?
  4. qian 前 (forward) also often refers to past so... forward = past?

These internal metaphors are quite at odds with English. We often refer to the future as forward and up. such as "whats coming up?" "next year"... there are more I can't think of right now.

Anyway so my question is: does anyone know how this came about? Is this correct?

  • 1
    probably it's easier for you to think of time linearly: ---前---now---后--- and ---上---now---下--- && then you can see the mentality is not far off from English
    – Mou某
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 4:45
  • Alway check the full context of the character. 下 and 上 ,each of them derived multiple meaning. As well as 后 and 前. E.g. full context of 下 zdic.net/z/14/js/4E0B.htm
    – mootmoot
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:33
  • 3
    It's interesting to note that even the English words "before" and "after" actually demonstrate a metaphor that matches the way Chinese thinks of time, even though they're the opposite of how modern English speakers think of time. "Before" literally means to be in front of ("fore"), while "after" literally means to be behind ("aft"). English speakers don't even realize this anymore because the metaphor has since been reversed in modern usage.
    – Claw
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 8:05
  • A good example illustrating my previous comment is the expression, "putting the cart before the horse." It can refer to placing something in the wrong order or doing something in the wrong order. In either sense, the temporal and spatial metaphors are aligned (i.e., having the cart first and then the horse).
    – Claw
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 8:59
  • 2
    @jdods: Occasionally, at work, someone will refer to moving a meeting up an hour, or down 30 minutes, and pretty frequently, they do mean earlier by an hour, or later by thirty minutes (because that's the way it looks on a day-at-a-glance calendar). But in practice, it's ambiguous enough that I usually ask them to clarify with a specific new time.
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 21:00

4 Answers 4

  1. 下一次/下次 (next time)

Imagine the present time is the beginning of a list. When you go further down the list, the further into the future you will be at.

  1. 上一次/上次 (last time)

Imagine you are currently in the middle of a list. When you look up the order on the list, the further you go up, the further you got back in the past.

  1. 之後/以後/後 (after)

Imagine the present time is on the first page of a book, the more you turn the pages, the further you will get to the future - in the back of the book.

For Example: " 第二次世界大戰 " (after WWII) .

"第二次世界大戰" was the reference point of a time line (it is on the first page). Every thing that followed (future), are all in the back of the book.

  1. 之前/以前/前 (before)

'前' here doesn't mean 'forward'. It means 'previous'. As in '前男友' (ex-boyfriend), '前政府' (previous government). Therefore. '以前' means 'from the previous' = 'before'.

*前(in front/forward) can also mean 'future'. Imagine the present time is a line you stand on. '向前看' (look in front) is the future. See similar terms like:

  • '前途' (road in front = future ahead)

  • '前景' (scene in front = future prospect)

  • '后' can also be used to refer to the past in some cases. For example, '向后兼容性' means backward compatibility. Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 9:28

To understand these words better you should first identify the context.

In the context of time, 上/前 means "before the current"; 下/後 means "after the current". For example

  • 上次/下次 (last time/next time)
  • 之前/之後 (before/after)
  • 提前/延後 (move up/move back)

In the context of space, 上 means up/above, 前 means front/ahead, 下 means down/below, 後 means back/behind. For example:

  • 樓上/樓下 (upstairs/downstairs)
  • 前進/後退 (moving forward/moving backward)

Having that said, there are some gotchas when the context of time and space is mixed together. For example:

  • 前景: literally it means "the scene in front" if translated word by word, but what it really means is the future (which is "what you will see when you move forward").
  • 向後兼容 (backward compatibility): In my opinion, "backward compatibility" is translated to "向後兼容" only because the translation was done word by word, without taking the context of time/space into account. I would personally prefer considering it as an unfortunate mistake in translation to considering "後" meaning "backward in time"

“前” means "near the beginning" and “后” means "near the end". If we consider events happen as a queue, it is obvious that “前” means "earlier in time". We can also consider the history as a book that tells the story in chronological order, and earlier events also appear in the front “前” chapters of the book.

When there is ambiguity, alternative expressions are used. For example, on buses and metros, the announcement says:

前方到站是积水潭站。” (The (next) stop in the forward direction is Jishuitan.)


You are right that 上 and 下 imply past and future, and these can pretty much be used before any noun specifying a time: 周、星期、礼拜 (all meaning "week", in ascending order of informality)、 次、回 (both meaning "time")、 学期 (semester), etc. Numbers 1-6 or 天/日 can be placed after the words meaning week, as such: 上星期三 (last Wednesday)、 下礼拜天 (next Sunday), etc. Using 上/下 with 周 admittedly sounds a bit weird, so I would stick with 星期 for "week".

For other time-specifying nouns, such as the following, 上个 and 下个 can be used: 月 (month)、周末(weekend). In these two, the measure word 个 is optional, but can make the phrase sound a bit less awkward. Of course, with other nouns, the measure word should adjust. For example: 下一场球赛 (the next ball game). The 一 is used here to specify that the phrase refers to the next one ball game, as opposed to, for instance, the next few: 下几场球赛. This quantifier usage is more common for these "other" nouns (basically the ones that don't deal with basic units of time defined by earth's rotation and revolution).

For 天 (day) and 年 (year), however, 今 (current) and 明 (next), and by extension, 前 (one before previous) and 后 (one after next), should be used. For "previous", 天 takes 昨, and 年 takes 去.

In general, Chinese grammar rules are not as strict, but word usage is. Make sure that you use follow the rules in the last paragraph to avoid usage mistakes. For example, use 昨天 for "yesterday" and 去年 for "last year" instead of getting them mixed up or even using 上 or 下.

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