Whether it’s an action or a moment, the small things matter.
But you know that already.
You’ve worked hard for every little bit of Chinese you know at this point.
You should definitely be proud of yourself!
And as we continue this journey of small steps, it’s time to add one small element to really build your knowledge of Chinese grammar—prepositions.
Don’t fret, 学生 (xué shēng) — student. Prepositions are actually way easier to understand in Mandarin than you would think. Sure, they’re often found in strange areas of Mandarin sentence structure, but we’re going to help you get the hang of them.
Once you’ve got these Chinese prepositions under your belt, you’ll be opening yourself up to a whole new chapter of Mandarin understanding (and well on your way to passing that Chinese proficiency test).
But first, what exactly are prepositions? And why the heck does anybody need to learn about them in Chinese?
What Are Chinese Prepositions and Why Do I Need to Know Them?
Prepositions are words that connect nouns, pronouns, adjectives and provide a way to understand the relationship between two words or sentence sections. The word or section that the preposition leads into is called the “object.”
Prepositions are vital to understanding English and even more so with Chinese. They can be used to describe time, place, actions and much more. Once you grasp how to use prepositions, you can easily put together sentences on the fly.
Here’s an example:
A dab of butter.
So how can we translate this into Chinese using the correct preposition and word order? Luckily, Mandarin operates on a subject-verb-object basis. (English also flows this way.)
的 (de) — of is the preposition of the sentence. It’s the word that connects two concepts together to make one solid statement. So here’s that same English sentence in Chinese:
少量的奶油 (shǎo liàng de nǎi yóu.)
Pretty simple, right?
While this translation might be fairly straightforward, they won’t all be that easy. There are some differences in terms of location of the preposition.
For example, let’s look at another sentence.
I will see to it.
由我来做。(yóu wǒ lái zuò.)
Well, that’s pretty crazy, right? Our preposition 由 (yóu) — to comes at the very beginning of the sentence. Sometimes, prepositions can even come at the end of the sentence (although this is less common). Most of the time, though, they’ll remain in the middle similar to where they are in English.
Chinese Prepositions: 21 Important Little Words and How to Use Them
1. 关于 (guān yú)
有关于猫的电影。(yǒu guān yú māo de diàn yǐng.) — There are movies about cats.
In this sentence, the preposition comes closer to the beginning of the sentence. (Remember, prepositions in Mandarin can appear near the beginning or even at the end of a sentence.)
2. 以上 (yǐ shàng)
Meaning: above, or more
他有三本以上的书籍。(tā yǒu sān běn yǐ shàng de shū.) — He has three or more books.
The preposition links 他有三本 (tā yǒu sān běn) — He has three books to the concept of having more books, but not a precise number.
3. 其中 (qí zhōng)
你是其中最帅的一个。(nǐ shì qí zhōng zuì shuài de yī gè.) — You are the most handsome one among them.
In Chinese, the preposition is at the forefront of this sentence, connecting 你是 (nǐ shì) — You are with the idea of being handsome. However, this preposition makes it clear that the person you’re talking to is the most handsome person in the group.
4. 在 (zài)
我会在家里等。(wǒ huì zài jiā lǐ děng.) I will wait at home.
This preposition is in a spot that makes more sense to beginners, but still sounds a bit off. Essentially, the translation is “I will, at home, wait.”
5. 前 (qián)
中午前回家。(zhōng wǔ qián huí jiā.) — Go home before noon.
前 (qián) — before can also be used as a noun in a sentence. So beginners, look for context clues! In this sentence, the time description comes first, then the preposition, then the action. Remember, Mandarin follows the subject-verb-object direction of sentence structure.
6. 旁 (páng)
她待在温暖的篝火的旁边。(tā dài zài wēn nuǎn de gōu huǒ de páng biān.) — She stays beside the warm bonfire.
7. 之间 (zhī jiān)
Meaning: among, between
我在工作之间。(wǒ zài gōng zuò zhī jiān.) — I am between jobs.
The rough translation of this sentence is “I’m here, jobs in between.”
The sentence establishes the existence of the subject, the existence of the possession of jobs or gigs and the distinction of not exactly possessing a job yet.
8. 由 (yóu)
Meaning: is, for
这由我负责。(zhè yóu wǒ fù zé.) — I am responsible for this.
Literally, “This is my responsibility.”
9. 尽管 (jǐn guǎn)
尽管你有缺陷, 我仍然爱你。(jǐn guǎn nǐ yǒu quē xiàn, wǒ réng rán ài nǐ.) — I love you despite your flaws.
Like we mentioned before, sometimes prepositions come right at the start of the sentence. In this sentence specifically, the use of 尽管 (jǐn guǎn) — despite changes the statement 你有缺陷 (nǐ yǒu quē xiàn) — you have flaws to 尽管你有缺陷 (jǐn guǎn nǐ yǒu quē xiàn) — despite you having flaws.
10. 除了(chú le)
除了夏林没有人来。(chú le Xià Lín méi yǒu rén lái.) — No one came except for Xia Lin.
Notice the location of this one at the front of the sentence, too.
11. 为了(wèi le)
她会为了爱而做任何事情。(tā huì wèi le ài ér zuò rèn hé shì qíng.) — She will do anything for love. (Literally,”She will, for love, do anything.”)
Pretty easy stuff. 为了(wèi le) — for is sometimes also seen as 对于 (duì yú) — for.
为了(wèi le) — for is notably different from 由 (yóu) — for. 为了(wèi le) is used when talking about doing something “for the purpose of” or “in order to” do something. 由 (yóu) is used as a preposition for something “as the result of” or “because of.”
12. 在…附近 (zài…fù jìn)
在教堂附近 (zài jiào táng fù jìn) — near the church
While these three characters are on opposite sides of the sentence, they only make sense when the others are present.
13. 的 (de)
他所有的朋友都很有趣。(tā suǒ yǒu de péng yǒu dōu hěn yǒu qù.) — All of his friends are fun.
You’ll see the preposition 的 (de) — of a lot in the Mandarin language. It’s probably the easiest preposition to remember. It’s also used to announce possession of someone or something.
Here’s another example.
你是我的朋友。(nǐ shì wǒ de péng yǒu.) — You are my friend.
The addition of 的 (de) changes the word 我 (wǒ) — me to 我的 (wǒ de) — my.
14. 至于 (guān yú)
Meaning: as for
至于我,我喜欢食物。(zhì yú wǒ, wǒ xǐ huān shí wù.) — As for me, I love food.
至于 (zhì yú) — as for is another really convenient and simple preposition. It almost always comes at the beginning of a sentence.
15. 外 (wài)
在餐厅外面等。(zài cān tīng wài miàn děng.) — Wait outside of the restaurant.
16. 自 (zì)
她自生病后变得很憔悴。(tā zì shēng bìng hòu biàn dé hěn qiáo cuì.) — She has gotten haggard-looking since she got sick.
17. 比 (bǐ)
你比我好。(nǐ bǐ wǒ hǎo.) — You are better than me.
This preposition comes after the subject of the sentence.
18. 通过 (tōng guò)
通过大门 (tōng guo dà mén) — through the gate
19. 至 (zhì)
我上九点至五点的班。(wǒ shàng jiǔ diǎn zhì wǔ diǎn de bān.) — I have work from nine until five.
This preposition makes more sense than many other prepositions in Mandarin. The rough translation is “I am at nine until five for work.”
20. 下 (xià)
椅子的下面 (yǐ zi de xià mian) — under the chair
21. 和…一起 (hé…yī qǐ)
和你一起 (hé nǐ yī qǐ) — with you
Like 在…附近 (zài…fù jìn) — near, this preposition needs to include every character around the noun or pronoun in order to make sense.
There you have it! While prepositions may be in different “spots” than they would typically be in English, it’s only a matter of switching a few things around to get where they need to go.
So congratulations! You’ve just moved on to the next round of Mandarin learning. Good luck on your journey!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.