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I'm not sure how non-linear grammar is defined. The search results seem to all come back with programming languages.

That being said, I learned it from from a video of a college course by 万献初 Link. He claims

汉语的语法是非线性的。

汉语语法关系是隐现或体现的。

汉语语法是块状结构

These three are closely related. For example, 枯藤老树昏鸦。Building blocks of the sentence, 枯藤、老树、昏鸦 are not simply put together, they have implicit syntactical relation.

He also gives the following example:

沛公军霸上。《史记》

沛公 is the name of a person which acts as Subject. 霸上 is a place name; it's an unmarked NP as a locative phrase.

Commonly 军 is interpreted as a verb with lexical meaning to station.

万献初 argues that 军 actually plays two roles here because 沛公 as a single person cannot station there. Firstly, it's a noun with meaning army. So 沛公军 forms an NP to be the subject. Secondly, it's a verb with meaning to station. It connects the Subject with the locative phrase. He says it's inaccurate to understand it as omission; that is (the army of) is omitted from the sentence.

This form looks like the pivot construction (兼语) but is syntactically very different. In the pivot construction V1 + NP + VP, NP acts as the object of V1 and subject of NP. The two roles have exactly the same part of speech and meaning. Also the NP cannot be repeated. For example, 令赵王鼓瑟, 赵王 is the object of 令 and subject of 鼓瑟. It connects the two clauses; it's ungrammatical to say 令赵王赵王鼓瑟. In the case of 沛公军霸上, it's a simple clause, and it's perfect to be completed as 沛公(之)军军(于)霸上。.

He has another example in the paper: 万献初.上古汉语语句的形象流块式建构[J].古汉语研究,1991(04):48-50.

陨石于宋五。《春秋》

陨 plays two roles. Firstly it's a verb which means to fall. Secondly, it forms an NP with 石, meaning aerolite.

I'm wondering if 万献初's interpretation of non-linear grammar makes sense. How does this fit in or conflict with the current grammatical framework?

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  • I am not familiar with the term "non-linear grammar." What is it in Chinese, just in case something is lost in translation. Jan 31 at 21:42
  • He says "汉语的语法是非线性的。汉语语法关系是隐现或体现的。汉语语法是块状结构。“ He also used a name 形象流块式建构 in a related paper. The name feels quite ad hoc. I updated the question after reading this paper.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 1 at 1:17
  • mr 萬’s opinion “it's perfect to repeat 军 as 沛公军军霸上” is, bxxxsxxx 😾 such saying “軍軍” is unacceptable. Feb 1 at 1:57
  • He didn't actually say that. I was sloppy. Sorry. He said ”沛公(之)军军(于)霸上。“ Is there any source that it's unacceptable? Quote like ”君君,臣臣,父父,子子。“ is in favor of it.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 1 at 2:15

4 Answers 4

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I am barely competent to talk about Chinese grammar in such detail, but don't interpret these constructions in the way described or as something linguistically unusual.

I also do not see evidence that Chinese is any more non-linear than other languages or do not understand what is meant by 隐现 (implicit), 体现 (embodying?), or 块状结构 (block structured) in any linguistic framework I have read about. Perhaps if I were more familiar with this scholar's work, I would understand the references better. It could be that these terms are related to ideas described in discourse grammar, but I don't see a close connection to anything I have read.

I would interpret the sentence 沛公军霸上 in one of two ways.

First, most linguists now call Chinese a topic-prominent language, as opposed to English, which is a subject-prominent language. "Subjects" are limited to certain thematic roles determined by the predicates they are associated with, but topics can bear more relationships to their comments and the verbs contained in them.

I personally think it often confuses things to talk about the "subject" of a Chinese verb in a technical analysis. For instance, in sentence like 这个人个子很高 ("This person is tall in stature"), what sense does it make to talk about a double subject, when verbs in subject-prominent languages like English can have only one subject? A topic-comment analysis makes such sentences easy to explain, however. ("As for this person, with respect to stature, there is much height.")

In 沛公军霸上, I think 沛公 is the topic and the rest is the complement. I interpret it literally as saying: "With respect to Peigong, there was/is a stationing in Bashang." In plain English, which needs a subject, I would translate it as "Peigong's troops were stationed in Bashang," using a passive sentence. But again, the whole notion of passive sentences comes from the analysis of subject-prominent languages which need to explain how the subject can change thematic roles from agent to patient. Chinese does not have active or passive verbs in this sense, since it doesn't have subjects and has no need to show this change in thematic roles. (Compare the structure, 鱼吃光了. Calling 吃 a passive verb is imposing an English notion on something not present in the Chinese syntax, since Chinese has no special morpheme in this structure to alter the meaning or usage of the verb.)

If someone insisted on calling Peigong a subject of the verb 军, I would just call it "loose reference," like talking about the US marching into Germany during World War II. Literally speaking, countries are pieces of land that cannot move or march, but with loose reference, you can use the name of a country to refer to its armed forces in an appropriate context. Similarly, I don't see why we can't talk about Peigong encamping somewhere or taking up station with his army somewhere. What is allowed in a given language is, however, very idiomatic, so loose reference cannot be applied to all structures indiscriminately.

Personally, I simply read 沛公军霸上 as a topic-comment structure with the "subject" of "军" omitted as being obvious from the situation. 沛公军 is also a meaningful phrase as Peigong's army, but I don't find that relevant to understanding the full sentence, except that the meanings will probably bleed over into each other a little. This is the same in English. Saying "I googled that" overlaps in semantics with "I found information about that using the Google website."

I understand 陨石于宋五 in broadly similar terms, except that here there is no topic mentioned. It reads like a presentational sentence, like 来了两个人. I understand it as saying literally: "there was a falling of rock at Song to the extent of five." Since 陨石 is also a specific term for meteorite, I would also understand the sentence as referring to a meteorite. You could translate it as "Five meteorites fell in Songwu" or "There five meteoritse that fell in Songwu."

The one area I could imagine talking about something like block-structure (块状结构) would be in a sentence like 他生我的气 ("He gets angry with me"), which has an opaque lexical structure that only makes sense if you take it apart in layers. But I view the core structure as a normal verb and complement, 生气 ("produce qi"),that semantically needs a second complement, 我 (me). This is done by using a "genitive" expression, since two complements are not permitted with the same verb. English does the same thing with the expression "avail oneself" that means "to use." The only way to give it a direct object, since it already has one, is to use a "genitive" expression, i.e., "avail oneself of something." Since Chinese and English use similar mechanisms in this case, I would not single out Chinese as having some special linguistic property.

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  • Thanks for your detailed answer. The topic-comment interpretation is very interesting. I'll take that view for now, though the text-book translation is always 沛公(的军队)在霸上驻扎, which doesn't necessarily reflect the current mainstream scholarly view. I too haven't seen anything closely related to 万献初's view, but it does provide a new way of thinking by which many features of ancient Chinese are possible to fit in a unified framework, even the grammar of poems, which is thought by many as over-simplified, if not non-existent.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 2 at 13:54
  • I now see from one of you comments below that I misunderstood 宋五 Song Wu as a place name. I will edit my answer accordingly. Feb 2 at 23:03
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I want to elaborate on my previous answer in response to one of your comment, but have too much to say to put in a single comment. As you can probably tell, I feel passionate about the subject matter; however you should feel completely free to ignore all of these ramblings if they go beyond what you are actually interested in or if your passion does not match mine.

Modern "grammatical" terminology has its ultimate roots in terms originally designed to describe classical Greek and to reflect specific traditions of Aristotelian logic and predicate logic; however, linguists, as opposed to traditional grammarians, have come to realize that that approach has many aspects that are inappropriate to describe some languages that are structurally unlike classical Greek.

Some linguistics even reject that the dichotomy of subject and predicate is fundamental to language analysis and think this idea arose from early linguists unconsciously biased by native languages that happened to be grounded in this dichotomy. Topic-comment structure is an example of one of these new realizations that is now widely accepted by modern linguists and applied to many languages.

The topic-comment structure doesn't apply only to Chinese, but is helpful in describing aspects of many languages. That structure can even describe some aspects of classical Greek despite its structure of subjects and predicates. In the case of classical and modern Chinese, however, topics-comment structure is not just helpful, but fundamental.

Consider the beginning of one version of the Tai Chi Chuan/Taijiquan Treatise of Wang Zongyue (太极拳论), one of the "Tai Chi classics." (I am using the version from Fu Zhongwen's book Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan translated by Louis Swaim:

太極者無極而生。陰陽之母也。 動之則分。靜之則合。無過不及,隨曲就伸。

Taiji, being born of Wuji, is the mother of yin and yang. In movement, it differentiates; in stillness it consolidates. It is without excess or insufficiency. Follow, bend, then extend.

I would argue that there is no grammatical subject or even thematic agent stated anywhere in the Chinese; however, the particle 者 unambiguously marks 太極 ("Taji"/"Tai Chi") as the topic of the first sentence. According to the syntax of classical Chinese, 太極 ("Taji"/"Tai Chi") will continue to be the default topic of all subsequent "sentences" until replaced by something else. Other sentences, however, can also have different subtopics. How Chinese handles the identification of topics and subtopics is something linguistics have now begun to study and understand better.

To me, the structure and syntax of the Chinese is simple and clear, but utterly unlike what is necessary for English sentences.

When you translate the sentences into English, you have to add in subjects and predicates. You have to segment the text according to English syntax, which requires a more hypotactic structure than Chinese. An English sentence is actually not quite the same unit as a Chinese sentence, and so you have to make choices about how to relate the sentences to each other. Chinese is syntactically vaguer, relying on discourse relationships to make the relationships clear. You also have to make decisions about what tenses and moods to use, since again Chinese does not make such distinctions.

Because of this vast difference in syntax between the languages, you could translate the English very differently, for instance, replacing all the instances of "it" with "you" and changing all the statements to commands and vice versa. These differences would appear to change the meaning, but actually, these are just quirks of English syntax that handle discourse relationships quite differently from Chinese. In classical Chinese, specifying subjects, agents, tense, and mood is often unnecessary and often inappropriate for general statements of principle, such as this one is.

I have used this long comment to explain further why the analysis of sentences like 沛公军霸上 and 陨石于宋五 becomes very awkward if we rely only on terms like "subject" and "predicate" developed to describe languages like English. It turns out that the concepts of "topics," "agents," and "patients" are probably more fundamental to all languages, and concepts of "subjects," "predicates," and "active and passive verbs" are merely one way to grammaticalize these relationships in a particular way. Chinese remains structured around "topics" and "comments" and does not grammaticalize things like "subjects," "predicates," "moods," "voice," "tense," and other grammatical features prominent in English and similar languages.

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  • Thanks! This is very inspiring and interesting. I wrote an answer in response. The 太極 quote is very beautiful but your explanation is not quite accurate. I tried to illustrate it with a little bit of background in my answer.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 2 at 20:23
  • excellent explanation 😻 Feb 2 at 21:05
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Thanks @Vegawatcher for such an enlightening answer.

I came across the book 《古汉语語法及其發展》 by 楊伯峻 and 何樂士. It differentiates and consolidates syntactic positions or structural forms with semantic roles. In this view, the terms Subject, Predicate and Object are broadly defined and merely structural forms bridging with the traditional view. Semantically, the Subject can be Agent, Patient, Existential, Topic, and the Predicate can be Verb (including Adjective, Number), Noun (including interrogative Pronoun), 主謂謂語 ([Subject-Predicate] as Predicate of the main clause), Adverb. This way the syntax becomes formally very simple but also "implict" in the sense that one simple form can accommodate many different semantic relations (including both the Subject-Predicate, here defined narrowly, and the Topic-Comment constructure) and that no explicit marker exist to differentiate them. It needs to be done by contexts.


Within this framework, in 沛公軍霸上,沛公 is Topic-Subject (Semantic-Syntax), 軍霸上 is formally a V-O as a VP, but semantically a 处所宾语 which is categorized under 關係賓語. 軍霸上 also forms the Predicate at the upper level(軍)軍霸上 in which (軍)is an omitted Agent-Subject Predicate.


To analyze 隕石于宋五, 五 is a Number-Predicate, and 陨石于宋 is VP-Subject, where 石 is the Agent-Object. A more normal word order would be [石五]Agent-Subject 隕V-Predicate [于宋]Complement. Grammatically they all fit in the framework, but the latter one hardly scratches the beauty of first sentence. 萬獻初's view (also the mainstream view in this specific case) of 形象流 helps describe it. People first caught sight of the action of something falling, so the verb 隕 comes first. After a second look, people realized that it was rock, thus 石. People looked afar and saw that was the direction of 宋. Finally, people went there and saw that there were actually 5 rocks. The Syntactic-Semantic rules is systematic and consistent but still allows much flexibility; 形象流 also affects the word order.


I play Tai Chi and love the quote a lot. There's more I want to say about it. I would punctuate it as

太極者,無極而生,陰陽之母也。 動之則分,靜之則合。無過不及,隨曲就伸。

Again under the above framework, for the first sentence, 太極 is the Topic-Subject, with the pronoun 者 recapitulating it. 無極而生 is VP-Predicate, and 陰陽之母也 is Noun-Predicate. ”無極生有極,有極生太極,太極生兩儀。“ Developing from 無極 to 太極 is the process of none to existence, and 兩儀 is 陰陽, which is developed from 太極.

動之則分,靜之則合。This sentence continues to describe the philosophy of 太極. 一動則陰陽分,一靜則陰陽合。The 混沌 chaos before everything came into being starts to change and split, that is 動 and 分, as a result 太極 is created from 無極. When it starts to 靜 and 合, then everything reverts back to the origin, that is 復歸於無極. The indefinite Subject (we, you, etc.) is omitted. This type of Subject is generally not needed. "動之則分,靜之則合" is the VP-Predicate of the main clause. Inside it, 動 and 靜 are causative Verbs, 之 (the chaos) is Agent-Object, and 動之 and 靜之 are VPs. 則 indicates results, while 分、合 are Verbs with the Agent-Subject coreferent with 之 and omitted.

The last sentence starts to tell people how to practice 太極. In 太極 the timing 時機 and the strength 勁力 of your action are very important. 無過不及, the omitted Existential-Subject is 時機. the Verb-Predicate is 無, and the Verb-Object is 過、不及. The timing of your action should be neither sooner nor later. 隨曲就伸 is a 對仗 structure. 隨、就 are verbs of the same meaning, to follow along. When the other guy bends 曲 (this is also 合、陰), you should follow along and extend 伸 (this is also 開、陽). When the other guy extends 伸, you should follow along and bend 曲. Only this way (順勢而為) can the 勁力 be just right. 你開我合,你曲我伸。 陰、陽 are constantly changing into and complementing each other. 伸、曲 are used as Nouns. The juxtaposed VPs 隨曲、就伸 forms the VP-Predicate, while the Topic-Subject 勁力 is understood in contexts and left unexpressed.

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  • Thank you for your response. I have very much enjoyed our exchange and think it will be informative to others. I would love to continue, but I think we have pushed the conversation about as far as the rules of the StackExchange allow. To go further, I think we would need to use the chat function (which I am actually not familiar with), or one of us would need to pose another question on the Chinese StackExchange, the Linguistics StackExchange, or the Martial Arts StackExchange. I am active on the first two and occasionally monitor the last one. Feb 2 at 23:38
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I am not sure what people mean by grammar, linear or otherwise, except "write or speak in a manner which is acceptable at the current time".

As far as interpreting your little five character sentence, it seems many people have puzzled over it. Somehow, language is failing in its objective!

霸上即灞上,
Bashang namely Bashang (the area),
在今西安市东,
lies east of Xi'an city,
因在霸水西高原上得名,
got its name from the Ba River West Plateau,
即如今的白鹿原。
which nowadays is called White Deer Plain.
汉高祖刘邦(时为沛公)屯兵霸上与项羽大军对峙,
Han Gaozu (aka) Liu Bang (aka Pei Gong) stationed soldiers in Bashang to oppose Xiang Yu's army,
发生了鸿门宴的历史典故。
(which is when) the famous classical tale Hongmen Banquet happened.
汉文帝时,
In the time of Emperor Han Wen,
为了抗击匈奴,
in order to resist the Xiongnu People,
任命刘礼为将军,
(Han Wen) appointed Liu Li as general,
驻军在霸上。
(and also) stationed troops in Bashang.

“军”为名词活用为动词,是 (军队)驻扎 的意思。
"army" is a noun used as a verb to mean station (troops).

沛公军霸上。
Peigong's troops stationed in Bashang. (Like a newspaper headline.)

新年快乐,玩句子如意

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