posted by insane.dreamers on April 13, 2012 | 12 comments
Hi. Slowly working through the podcasts and enjoying them! Great for Beijing subway rush-hour, when it's too packed even to try to read something standing up :)

I was wondering if you have a beginner or elementary level class that covers the past tense, specifically why sometimes 过 is used and why other times it's 了, and still other times neither. I'm fairly confused :) Is there an actual rule/pattern?

If there is no such episode, I'd like to submit it as a suggested topic. 谢谢!

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华金 on April 13, 2012 | reply

A: 你吃过火锅吗?

Have you ever eaten hot pot?

B: 吃过.

Yes, I have.

2) 了


Did you eat hot pot?


Yes, I did.

Hope that helps :)

insane.dreamers on April 13, 2012 | reply
Thank you!

If I understand correctly, you mean:

- If the action only just occurred, use 了

- if the action occurred in the past at any time, use 过.

if a time is specified in the sentence, then I use 了 ?

Yesterday I went to store = 昨天我去商店了。

Is that right?

Or, would it be:


华金 on April 13, 2012 | reply
As I understand it, using 过 after a verb refers to an action that took place in an indeterminate time, not necessarily just once, but perhaps many times. It does not refer to an action that happened at a specific point, so if you want to tell someone that you`ve been to America, but not specifically when, you would say 我去过美国. If you want to say that you went to the store yesterday, you can`t use 过.

It`s the same in English. If you ask me whether I`ve ever tried mint ice cream, I would say "I have", not "I did", because I don`t know specifically when or even how many times I`ve tried it, but I know that at some point I have. So use 过 when you're talking about the past in general, rather than a specific point in time.
trevelyan on April 14, 2012 | reply
I think this is probably the most direct lesson we have on this:

insane.dreamers on April 15, 2012 | reply
Thanks for the replies!
Hoistawesome on June 30, 2012 | reply
most of the the time they can be used interchangeably , it's just a matter of personal speaking style. Except for the hotspot example.

orbital on June 30, 2012 | reply
Both suggest an action has happened, sure, but there is a big difference between "have you ever gone" and "were you there?"

That said, to the extent this is advice not to worry too much about the difference, I actually sort of agree. Not because it doesn't matter, but because - at least personally - I found that after a while I just started using the appropriate particles naturally. In the meantime, if you're talking with a native speaker, you'll get feedback right away just by listening to how they frame the question/answer.
Brendan on June 30, 2012 | reply
Whoa whoa whoa! There's definitely a distinction between 过 and 了, and it's an important one! There are a lot of fine points of 了 usage, but whenever I get too nerdy David locks me in the cupboard under the stairs and refuses to feed me for a couple of days, so I'll keep it short and ditch a lot of the complexity in order to make broad rule-of-thumb generalizations:

  • Verb+过 tells us that something has happened at some unspecified point in the past, as you say.
  • Verb+了 tells us that something happened at a specific point in the past, so it often needs to have more context given:

A: "我昨天看了《3D肉蒲团之极乐宝鉴》."
B: "没看过。好看吗?"
A: "一般般."

A: "I watched 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy yesterday."
B: "I've never seen it. Was it any good?"
A: "Meh."

Your example with going to the store is basically solid, though as a general rule you'll be safest sticking 了 as close to the verb as possible ("我去了商店" rather than "我去商店了") when discussing things that happened in the past. (I think we've done a podcast on this point, but haven't got the link to hand at the moment.)
murrayjames on July 1, 2012 | reply

Could you help me unpack 《3D肉蒲团之极乐宝鉴》?

肉蒲团 is meat/sex + cushion/praying mat?

之 of

极乐 most pleasurable

宝鉴 ?

BTW I appreciate Popup's ongoing commitment to teach real world Chinese :-D
Brendan on July 1, 2012 | reply
肉蒲团 is an early-Qing pornographic novel by Li Yu. Patrick Hanan's translation (The Carnal Prayer Mat) is extremely well done and worth a read even for those without a strong interest in Imperial-era porn. The "prayer mat" of the title refers to the main character, who wants to become a monk...after he's given all the pleasures of the flesh a shot first.

"宝鉴" is basically a fancy word for "mirror," but it's often used in a moral sense (i.e., reflecting the reader's/viewer's deficiencies back at him/her).

One of the alternate titles of 红楼梦 A Dream of Red Mansions / 石头记 Story of the Stone is "风月宝鉴" -- "A Mirror for the Romantic" -- and in Chapter 12, an object by that name actually does turn up in the hands of an itinerant Daoist monk. The monk hands it to the character Jia Rui, who pining away and dying for the love of Wang Xifeng, and warns Jia only to look into the back of the mirror. I'll let David Hawkes' translation explain the rest:

Jia Rui now wanted desperately to live and eagerly swallowed every medicine that they offered him; but all was a waste of money, for nothing seemed to do him any good. One day a lame Taoist appeared at the door asking for alms and claiming to be able to cure retributory illnesses. Jia Rui, who chanced to overhear him, called out from his bed:

‘Quick, tell the holy man to come in and save me!’ and as he called, he kowtowed with his head on the pillow. The servants were obliged to bring the Taoist into the bedroom. Jia Rui clung to him tenaciously.

‘Holy one, save me!’ he cried out again and again.

The Taoist sighed.

‘No medicine will cure your sickness. However, I have a precious thing here that I can lend you which, if you will look at it every day, can be guaranteed to save your life.’

So saying, he took from his satchel a mirror which had reflecting surfaces on both its sides. The words A MIRROR FOR THE ROMANTIC were inscribed on the back. He handed it to Jia Rui.

‘This object comes from the Hall of Emptiness in the Land of Illusion. It was fashioned by the fairy Disenchantment as an antidote to the ill effects of impure mental activity. It has life-giving and restorative properties and has been brought into the world for the contemplation of those intelligent and handsome young gentlemen whose hearts are too susceptible to the charms of beauty. I lend it to you on one important condition: you must only look into the back of the mirror. Never, never under any circumstances look into the front. Three days hence I shall come again to reclaim it, by which time I guarantee that your illness will have gone.’

With that he left, at a surprising speed, ignoring the earnest entreaties of those present that he should stay longer.

‘This is intriguing!’ Jia Rui thought to himself when the Taoist gave him the mirror. ‘Let me try looking into it as he says, and holding it up to his face he looked into the back as instructed and saw a grinning skull, which he covered up hastily with a curse:

‘Silly old fool, to scare me like that! -- But let me see what happens when I look into the other side!’

He turned the mirror round and looked, and there inside was Xi-feng beckoning to him to enter, and his ravished soul floated into the mirror after her. There they performed the act of love together, after which she saw him out again. But when he found himself once more back in his bed he stared and cried out in horror: for the mirror, of its own accord, had turned itself round in his hand and the same grinning skull faced him that he had seen before. He could feel the sweat trickling all over his body and lower down in the bed a little pool of semen that he had just ejaculated.

Yet still he was not satisfied, and turned the face of the mirror once more towards him. Xi-feng was there beckoning to him again and calling, and again he went in after her. He did this three or four times. But the last time, just as he was going to return from the mirror, two figures approached him holding iron chains which they fastened round him and by which they proceeded to drag him away. He cried out as they dragged him:

‘Wait! Let me take the mirror with me...!'

Those were the last words he ever uttered.

To those who stood around the bed and watched him while this was happening he appeared first to be holding up the mirror and looking into it, then to let it drop; then to open his eyes in a ghastly stare and pick it up again; then, as it once more fell from his grasp, he finally ceased to move.

When they examined him more closely they found that his breathing had already stopped and that underneath his body there was a large, wet, icy patch of recently ejaculated semen.

At once they lifted him from the bed and busied themselves with the laying-out, while old Dai-ru and his wife abandoned themselves to a paroxysm of grief. They cursed the Taoist for a necromancer and ordered the servants to heap up a fire and cast the mirror upon the flames. But just at that moment a voice was heard in the air saying, ‘Who told him to look in the front? It is you who are to blame, for confusing the unreal with the real! Why then should you burn my mirror?’

Suddenly the mirror was seen to rise up and fly out of the room, and when Dai-ru went outside to look, there was the lame Taoist asking for it back. He snatched it as it flew towards him and disappeared before Dai-ru’s very eyes.

(So the next time someone waxes po-faced about the traditional propriety and purity of Chinese culture...)

Finally, the 之 there is basically just saying that this whole thing (极乐宝鉴) is in the 肉蒲团 series.
drummerboy on July 1, 2012 | reply
@ Brendan,

At the risk of you being locked up in the cupboard under the stairs without food, I'd like to hear you wax poetically on the fine and perhaps elusive points of using 了。 :)

Brendan on July 1, 2012 | reply
Heading over to record today -- I'll see what I can do!