Understanding ‘被 (bèi)’: Passive Voice in Chinese Grammar HSK3

In language learning, grappling with grammar rules can often be challenging, especially when they involve concepts quite different from one’s native language. For learners of Mandarin Chinese, one such concept is the use of ‘被 (bèi)’ to form sentences in the passive voice. Unlike English, where passive voice is a verb conjugation, Chinese uses ‘被’ as a marker to change the sentence structure and imply that an action is being done to the subject rather than by the subject. This article will delve into the nuances of ‘被’ and how it is used in Chinese grammar.

The Basics of ‘被 (bèi)’

In Chinese, ‘被’ is a cover that is used to create passive sentences. A passive sentence generally highlights the recipient of an action rather than the doer. This is often done in English by conjugating the main verb and using “to be” as an auxiliary verb, as in “John threw the ball.” However, in Chinese, ‘被’ is used ahead of the verb to signify that the action is being performed on the subject by an external force or agent.

Structure of ‘被’ Sentences

The basic structure for a passive sentence using ‘被’ is as follows:

Subject + 被 + Agent + Verb + (Object)

For example:

  • 他被老师批评了。 (Tā bèi lǎoshī pīpíng le.)
  • He was criticized by the teacher.

Here, ‘他 (tā)’ is the subject receiving the action, ‘老师 (lǎoshī)’ is the agent acting, ‘批评 (pīpíng)’ is the verb, meaning “to criticize”, and ‘了 (le)’ is a particle indicating a completed action.

Usage of ‘被’

Emphasizing the Experience of the Subject

‘被’ sentences are often used when the speaker wants to emphasize the subject’s experience, especially if it is negative or if the subject suffers from the action.

  • 窗户被球打破了。 (Chuānghù bèi qiú dǎ pò le.)
  • The window was broken by the ball.

This sentence focuses on the window, which has experienced the action of being broken.

Omitting the Agent

It’s common to omit the agent in ‘被’ sentences when the agent is unknown, unimportant, or evident from the context.

  • 我的自行车被偷了。 (Wǒ de zìxíngchē bèi tōu le.)
  • My bicycle was stolen.

The thief is not mentioned because they are unknown or their identity is not essential to the context of the sentence.

Passive Voice Without ‘被’

Not all passive sentences in Chinese require ‘被’. There are other structures, such as those using ‘受 (shòu)’ or ‘让 (ràng)’, which can also express passive voice. However, these have different connotations and are used in specific contexts.

‘被’ in Different Tenses

The context or time words usually indicate the tense of a ‘被’ sentence, since Chinese verbs do not conjugate for tense. However, aspect particles such as ‘了 (le)’, ‘过 (guò)’, and ‘着 (zhe)’ are often used to indicate the completion, experience, or continuation of an action, respectively.

  • 明天我会被考。 (Míngtiān wǒ huì bèi kǎo.)
  • Tomorrow I will be tested/examined.

In this future tense example, ‘会 (huì)’ indicates a future action.

‘被’ with Modal Verbs

Modal verbs like ‘可以 (kěyǐ)’ and ‘应该 (yīnggāi)’ can be used with ‘被’ to express possibility or expectation.

  • 他可能会被提升。 (Tā kěnéng huì bèi tíshēng.)
  • He might be promoted.

Conclusion

Understanding and using ‘被 (bèi)’ is fundamental to mastering Chinese grammar. It requires a grasp of sentence structure and an understanding the nuances of emphasis and focus within a conversation or narrative. As you continue to study Chinese, pay attention to how ‘被’ sentences are used in different contexts, and practice forming them yourself to enhance your fluency. With time and practice, the passive voice in Chinese will become an integral part of your linguistic toolkit.

FAQs

Is ‘被’ only used for negative experiences?

While ‘被’ is often used to emphasize negative experiences, it is not limited to them. It can be used for neutral or positive contexts as well, depending on the sentence.

How do you know when to use ‘被’ in a sentence?

The use of ‘被’ is typically chosen when the speaker wants to emphasize the effect of an action on the subject, especially in contexts where the subject’s experience is more important than the agent’s action.

Can ‘被’ sentences be used in formal and informal contexts?

Yes, ‘被’ sentences can be used in formal and informal Mandarin Chinese contexts.

Is the usage of ‘被’ in Mandarin Chinese similar to the passive voice in English?

Conceptually, yes, in that both express actions performed on the subject rather than by the subject. However, structurally, they are different because Chinese relies on ‘被’ plus verb phrases, while English uses variations of the verb “to be” plus past participles.

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