Anatomy of ‘当(dāng)’ in Chinese: Roles and Grammatical Functions HSK3


With its intricate structure and deep roots, the Chinese language offers fascinating linguistic elements, one of which is the versatile character ‘当’ (dāng). This article aims to dissect the various roles and grammatical functions of ‘当’ (dāng) in Chinese, providing insights into its diverse applications.

Historical Background and Etymology

The character ‘当’ (dāng) originates in ancient Chinese and is first seen in oracle bone and bronze inscriptions. It combined initially ‘目’ (mù, meaning eye) and ‘尚’ (shàng, pointing still/upward), indicating a connection to sight or looking upwards. Over centuries, ‘当’ (dāng) evolved in its written form and the breadth of meanings it acquired.

The Polysemy of ‘当’ (dāng)

‘当’ (dāng) exemplifies polysemy, where one word possesses multiple related meanings. Its primary interpretations include:

  • To be: As a verb, it often means “to be” or “to act as,” signifying a role or identity.
  • To face: Rooted in its initial meaning related to sight, ‘当’ (dāng) can imply facing or confronting something.
  • Should/ought to: In modal usage, ‘当’ (dāng) conveys obligation or advisability, akin to “should” or “ought to” in English.
  • To regard as/to consider: It also functions in expressions where one thing is considered or viewed as another.
  • In the capacity of: Here, ‘当’ (dāng) denotes functioning in a specific capacity or role.

Grammatical Functions of ‘当’ (dāng)

  • As a Verb: When used as a verb, ‘当’ (dāng) can indicate an action or state, such as in ‘他当老师’ (tā dāng lǎoshī, meaning “He is a teacher”).
  • As a Modal Verb: In its modal form, ‘当’ (dāng) suggests necessity or suitability; for example, ‘你当小心点’ (nǐ dāng xiǎoxīn diǎn, meaning “You should be careful”).
  • As a Preposition: Rarely, ‘当’ (dāng) can function as a preposition, implying ‘in the capacity of’ or ‘in the position of.’
  • In Fixed Expressions: ‘当’ (dāng) appears in numerous set phrases and idiomatic expressions, enriching its contextual meanings.

Usage in Contemporary Chinese

In modern Mandarin, ‘当’ (dāng) is widely used in spoken and written forms. Its versatility allows it to fit into various contexts, from formal writings to everyday conversations. The complexity of ‘当’ (dāng) lies in its multiple meanings and how it interacts with other words to form phrases and expressions that are pivotal in Chinese communication.


Understanding the multifaceted character ‘当’ (dāng) is crucial for anyone delving into the Chinese language. Its ability to convey different meanings and serve various grammatical functions makes it a unique and exciting aspect of Chinese linguistics. As learners and speakers of Chinese explore the depths of ‘当’ (dāng), they unlock a greater appreciation for the language’s richness and versatility.

The exploration of ‘当’ (dāng) provides a window into the broader complexities and beauties of the Chinese language. Its study is not just about a single character but about understanding how language and meaning intertwine in Chinese culture and communication.

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