So according to Wikipedia and other sources, Chinese was a tenseless language. It has aspects and moods that refer to time frames, but not tense itself.

This suggests to me that the nouns expressing concept of tense — past (过去), present (现在), future (未来) — are words imported from English and other European languages, and hence are new words.

Most likely, per the history of modernization, the Japanese first used those words to refer to specific tenses, which the Chinese imported in the 1900s.

Is this true? Or did the Chinese have words referring to specific tenses while not explicitly having a tense concept played out in their language?

  • Maybe you should search this site first. I am sure a common topic like 'tense' must had been asked many times. Here is one result chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/22011/…
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 1:51
  • To be sure, this is a question on the etymology of the words, guoqushi, xianzaishi and meilaishi.
    – Guset
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 2:18
  • 1
    Maybe you need to clarify the question a bit. It looks to me like you're asking if the words 過去, 現在 and 未來 are imported to be used for the tenses, which of course isn't the case. You can talk about the past, present and future in a language even if it doesn't have tense. If you mean the specific way of using 時 appended to these words, then maybe your question would be clearer if you wrote that!
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 6:28
  • Please edit your question to reflect exactly what you are asking. Incorporating your own comments will work. Right now if one doesn't read the comments, it's not clear how Firmin Martin's answer relates at all.
    – blackgreen
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:02
  • Dear Blackgreen, it means as it reads. I am really asking about the etymology of these words.
    – Guset
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 4:48

1 Answer 1


According to Wikipedia, the first Chinese's grammar《馬氏文通》is written by 馬建忠 in 1898, meaning that most likely, there was no use at all of 過去式、現在式 and 未來式 before that. Now, if we investigate a bit by searching the tenses we are interested in, we can quote:


In my understanding, this states the existence of three tenses corresponding to the perfect, the past and the future.

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