Chinese Corner

Passive-Aggressive3 min read

Expressing misfortune, and resistance, in Mandarin – Anne Henochowicz


Strunk and White’s classic textbook Elements of Style taught us to avoid the passive voice in our writing. Our verbs should take action, not a back seat, whenever possible. (This advice is not universally accepted.) In Mandarin, however, the passive voice packs a real punch. When something is done to you, the passive evokes your great misfortune.

Say the dog ate your homework. In the active voice, this turn of events doesn’t seem to bother you all that much:

Gǒu gōngkè chī diào le
功課 吃掉
Dog (preposition indicating disposal) homework eat up le (particle indicating completion)

The dog ate the homework.

But if you want to beg your teacher for mercy, let him know that this is a tragedy:

Gōngkè bèi gǒu chī diào le
功課 吃掉
Homework bèi dog eat up le

The homework was eaten up by the dog.

Note that bèi is not actually a verb, but a type of preposition called a coverb.

The bèi sentence construction is also known as the “adversative passive,” since it expresses the adversity of the situation at hand. Taiwanese, another variety of Chinese, also employs the adversative passive. So do many other Asian languages that are unrelated to Chinese, including Korean, Japanese, Thai (of the Kra-Dai language family), Vietnamese (Austroasiatic), Malay and the Formosan languages of the Taiwanese indigenous peoples (both Austronesian). Across East and Southeast Asia, the passive is the voice of pathos.

In their 1981 reference book on Mandarin grammar, Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson noted the rise of non-adversative passive constructions in written Mandarin, due to the influence of bad translations from Western languages, Russian especially. Li and Thompson cite Frank Kierman, who in 1969 laid the blame for the neutering of the passive on Soviet translators of Marxist texts from Russian into Chinese. The non-adversative passive has indeed persisted. It’s the reason why the 2012 film Django Unchained is called Bèi jiějiù de Jiānggē 被解救的姜戈, or “Django, who was rescued.”

The adversative passive never went away, though. If anything, it’s more potent than ever, now as a syntactic jab at disenfranchisement. In the late aughts, a twist on the adversative passive appeared online in descriptions of suspicious “suicides” committed by those in the custody of the authorities. Netizens called this being “suicided,” applying bèi to the verb “commit suicide” (zìshā 自殺). The snark quickly spread: when an apparatchik claimed to speak on behalf of the people, the people had “been represented” (bèi dàibiǎo 被代表); when workers were forced to donate to the Sichuan Earthquake relief effort, they had “been donatified” (bèi juānkuǎn 被捐款). And when the net nannies scrubbed your criticism from a web forum, you invoked President Hu Jintao’s doctrine of the “harmonious society” – your post had been “harmonized” (bèi héxié 被和諧). Perry Link and Xiao Qiang call this new grammatical form the “involuntary passive,” indicating that the subject has no choice in the matter at hand. It’s just one of many clever ways that ordinary Chinese citizens take back a bit of power from the party-state.

Shun the passive voice in English, if you must. Wield bèi when you share your woes – and when you want to fight back. ∎

Today’s passive-aggressive vocabulary:
  • bèi 被 – preposition used to indicate hardship or misfortune
  • bèi jiějiù de Jiānggē 被解救的姜戈 – Django Unchained
  • bèi zìshā 被自殺 – to be “suicided”; to reportedly commit suicide under mysterious circumstances
  • bèi dàibiǎo 被代表 – to “be represented”; to have your voice ignored by government officials
  • bèi juānkuǎn 被捐款 – to be “donatified”; to be forced to give money to a charitable cause
  • bèi héxié 被和諧 – to be harmonized; to have your online posts removed by the censors