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Mandarin

Mandarin passive voice: grammar and usage

The character 被The passive is an important construction to understand in many languages.

It’s also essential to know when it should be used, particularly for Mandarin, which uses the passive far less frequently than English.

How to form the passive in Mandarin

Simple passive

The basic form of the passive in Mandarin is:

[noun][verb]

or, more specifically:

[patient][verb]

This is the general structure for ‘Something gets verbed.’

Examples:

我昨天被解雇了。 Wǒ zuótiān bèi jiěgù le. “I was sacked yesterday.”

犯人被逮捕了。 Fànrén bèi dàibǔ le. “The criminal was arrested.”

老虎被杀了。 Lǎohǔ bèi shā le. “The tiger was killed.”

As in English, the passive can avoid specifying who the perpetrator of the action is.

Different Mandarin passive markers

There are various particles that can be used to mark the passive in Mandarin.

被 is by far the most common character for indicating the passive. A lot of grammar books will refer to the passive as ‘the 被 construction’. Funnily enough, it sounds quite a lot like ‘by’ in English, which is also used to mark passive.

让 is also quite common as a passive marker. It’s usage is much the same as that of 被.

Another interchangeable passive marker.

In Northern China, you may hear people use 受 as a passive marker.

In Literary Chinese, 為 can be used to mark the passive. Not so much in modern Mandarin.

Passive with an agent

You can also specify who carried out the action in a 被 construction. The structure for this is:

[noun A][noun B] [verb]

More specifically:

[patient][agent] [verb]

So, whilst in English the sequence is “Something is verbed by something”, in Mandarin it’s “Something is by something verbed”.

Examples:

我的车被小偷偷走了。 Wǒ de chē bèi xiǎotōu tōu zǒu le. “My car was stolen by a thief.”

那个孩子被老师批评了。 Nà ge háizi bèi lǎoshī pīpíng le. “That child was told off by the teacher.”

我的啤酒被我的同屋喝完了。 Wǒ de píjiǔ bèi wǒ de tóngwū hē wán le. “My beer was finished off by my room-mate.”

More complex passives

The passive can be combined with other verbal constructions to make more complex sentences. There are limitless options here, but some common ones are 得, 地 and 是…的 (see also: 的 地 得 grammar). Imperative passives can also be formed with 别.

Examples:

我被他让生气得头疼了。 Wǒ bèi tā ràng shēngqì děi tóuténg le. “I was angered by him so much that I got a headache.”

他被殴打得快死。 Tā bèi ōudǎ děi kuài sǐ. “He was beaten to within an inch of his life.”

军队意外地被攻击了。 Jūnduì yìwàide bèi gōngjī le. “The army was unexpectedly attacked.”

由于全球气候变暖,城市可能被完全地淹没。 Yóuyú quánqiúqìhòu biànnuǎn , chéngshì kěnéng bèi wánquánde yānmò. “Due to global warming, cities could be completely submerged.”

是…的

_Using this construction will add emphasis, equivalent to ‘It was … that …’ in English. _

她的玩具是被她妹妹弄坏的。 Tā de wánjù shì bèi tā mèimei nòng huài de. “Her toy was broken by her little sister.”

我是被外面的交通噪音唤醒的。 Wǒ shì bèi wàimian de jiāotōng zàoyīn huànxǐng de. “I was woken up by the noise of the traffic outside.”

别被抓获了。 Bié bèizhuāhuò le. “Don’t get caught.”

别被杀了。 Bié bèishā le. “Don’t get yourself killed.” (Literally, "Don't be killed.")

When to use the passive in Mandarin

As mentioned above, the passive is pretty rare in Mandarin, and its usage is quite specific. There are even arguments for Mandarin not really having a true passive.

Bad times

The Mandarin 被 construction should only be used to indicate misfortune or adversity. If the situation is bad or undesirable in some way, the 被 construction can be used. Otherwise, a different sentence structure would be more appropriate (a 把 construction is often good).

You may have noticed that all of the example sentences above express some sort of unwanted event. Strictly speaking, this is exclusively what the 被 construction is for. Unpleasant verbs like 杀 (kill), 偷 (steal) and 批评 (criticise) are often seen with 被. Note that the event can be undesirable for the recipient of the action, rather than the person describing it.

For example, the event in ‘犯人被逮捕了’ (‘The criminal was arrested’) might be good for everyone else, but the criminal probably isn’t too happy about it, so 被 can be used.

Adding some misfortune to neutral verbs

被 can of course be used with verbs that have more neutral meanings. In this case, using the 被 construction will imply that the event was undesirable in some way. Although this isn’t a hard and fast rule, you’re unlikely to see 被 used with positive verbs such as 爱 (love). Whilst ‘He was loved by everyone that knew him’ is fine in English, in Mandarin it would be better as an active sentence: ‘认识他的人都是爱他的。’

How to avoid the passive in Mandarin

It’s usually very easy to form a sentence without using the passive in Mandarin. A lot of the time, Mandarin sentences can do without a subject, so you can easily express that something was done without specifying who did it (a common reason for using the passive in English).

Another option, mentioned above, is to use a 把 construction. And of course, most sentences can just be arranged in a simple active structure.

Whilst 被 should only be used for negative implications in Mandarin, its use is changing and more and more writers and speakers are using it as a general passive marker. The reasons for this are of course complicated, but the translation of foreign texts into Chinese is certainly a factor, particularly from Indo-European languages which use the passive much more freely.

Whatever you think about language change, it would be foolish to ignore it. However, whilst native speakers can certainly use the language in whatever way seems appropriate to them, as a foreigner learning the language, it’s wise to try and sound as ‘correct’ as possible (whatever that means). If a foreigner deviates from established standards, it will most likely be interpreted as a lack of understanding rather than a ground-breaking new use of the language.

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