Many people who start learning Chinese are pleasantly surprised by how easy a lot of Chinese grammar turns out to be.
However, some of it is also quite different to English, so it takes a bit of practice to start using it correctly.
One such grammar point that can sometimes bamboozle new learners is what’s known as Chinese directional complements.
So in this post, I introduce what they are and how they work to remove some of the mystery and help you start using them with confidence.
Table of Contents
What Are Chinese Directional Complements?
In Chinese, whenever you want to express the direction of movement or the direction of an action, you can do so using so-called directional complements. The two basic words we use for this are 来 lái and去 qù.
The normal meaning of these words is “to come” and “to go” respectively. However, when used as directional complements, they tell us that the direction is towards (来lái) or away from (去 qù) a point of reference – which often means towards or away from the speaker.
- 走来 zŏu lái (walk [towards the speaker])
- 走去 zŏu qù (walk [away from the speaker])
- 拿来 ná lái (bring [towards the speaker])
- 拿去 ná qù (take [away from the speaker])
In the simplest terms, this is the basics of how Chinese directional complements function, although in practice, it’s a bit more complicated than just this. And that’s what we’re going to spend the rest of this post looking at.
However, at this point, it’s worth noting that the rules about “direction towards” and “direction away from” are stricter in Chinese than they are in English.
For example, in English, you can easily say something like “when I come to see you”. This is because the speaker is imagining things from the point of view of the person they are planning to visit – even though logically, the direction is clearly away from the speaker.
In Chinese, though, this doesn’t work – you would have to say the equivalent of “when I go to see you” for the sentence to be correct.
来lái And 去 qù Combined With Other Directional Verbs
Of course, there are more directions than just “towards” and “away from”. And to express these other possibilities, 来 lái and 去 qù can be combined with certain other verbs to give you more information about the direction of travel.
One example would be the verb 进 jìn, meaning “to enter”, which can be combined with the basic Chinese directional complements to give you more detailed information about what’s happening, like this:
- 进来 jìn lái (come in [the speaker is already inside])
- 进去 jìn qù (go in [the speaker is outside])
Only certain words can be combined with 来 lái and 去 qù in this way, and here’s the list:
- 上 shàng (ascend)
- 下 xià (descend)
- 进 jìn (enter)
- 出 chū (exit)
- 回 huí (return)
- 过 guò (cross)
- 起 qĭ (rise)
- 开 kāi (drive [in other contexts, this word can also mean “to open”])
Simple Sentences With Chinese Directional Complements – Standalone Verbs
来 lái and 去 qù can be combined with the words listed above to form standalone verbs of movement, like this:
- 他过来了 tā guò lái le (he came over)
- 他过去了 tā guò qù le (he went over)
- 过来吧！guò lái ba! (come over!)
- 他们八点才回来了 tāmen bā diăn cái huí lái le (they only came back at 8 o’clock)
- 先上去，然后再下来 xiān shàng qù, ránhou zài xià lái (first go up, then come back down again)
In the first example, we can see that the direction is towards the speaker since we use 来 lái, whereas, in the second example, the direction is away from the speaker because we use 去 qù.
We could imagine that these sentences refer to someone crossing a road or a bridge towards or away from the speaker. But they could also be about someone coming or going over to somebody’s house.
Similarly, the third example could be seen as the speaker encouraging another person to cross a road or a bridge. But in another context, the speaker could be telling the other person to come over to their house.
Used As Complements For Other Verbs Of Movement Or Action
As well as functioning as independent verbs, these combinations can also be used as what we can call “compound complements of direction” for other verbs of movement, like this:
- 手机从桌子上掉下去了 shŏujī cóng zhuōzi shàng diào xiàqù (the mobile phone fell off the table)
Here, the main verb is 掉 diào (to fall). The complement 下去 xiàqù tells you that it fell down (下 xià) and that it fell away from the table (去 qù).
And another one:
- 兔子从笼子里跳出来了 tùzi cóng lóngzi lĭ tiào chūlái le (the rabbit jumped out from inside the cage)
Here, the main verb is 跳 tiào, and the complement 出来 chūlái tells you that the direction is out (出 chū) from (来 lái) the cage.
Both of these examples use verbs of motion – 掉 diào (to fall) and 跳 tiào (to jump), but the same structure also works with verbs of action, like this:
- 玩具放回去了 wánjù fàng huíqù le (The toys have been put back)
Here, 放 fàng is the verb of action meaning “to put” – and 回去 huíqù tells you that the toys are put “back towards” wherever they are being placed.
In this sentence, we can imagine that the toys are being placed back on a shelf or something similar, but exactly where isn’t specified.
If you do want to specify where the toys are being put, it involves adding a grammatical object to the sentence, so let’s look at how this is done next.
Sentences With Locations And Simple Directional Complements
Look at the following sentences:
- 妹妹上山来了 mèimei shàng shān lái le (little sister came up the hill)
- 妹妹上山去了 mèimei shàng shān qù le (little sister went up the hill)
- 妹妹下山来了 mèimei xià shān lái le (little sister came down the hill)
- 妹妹下山去了 mèimei xià shān qù le (little sister went down the hill)
There are two points to note here.
The first is that with sentences like this, the object (here, 山 shān (hill)) is placed between the verb (here, 上 shàng (to go up, ascend) or 下 xià (to go down, descend)) and the directional complement.
(In these sentences, 上 shàng and 下 xià function as full verbs rather than as part of a compound directional complement with 来 lái or 去 qù, which you can tell because there is no other verb in the sentence.)
The second point to note is that these four sentences provide a clear example of how all possible directions can be clearly expressed.
In the first sentence, the speaker is at the top of the hill, and little sister “came up the hill” towards them.
In the second, the speaker is at the bottom of the hill, and little sister went up the hill away from them.
In the third, the speaker is at the bottom of the hill, and little sister came down the hill towards them.
Finally, in the fourth, the speaker is at the top of the hill, and little sister went down the hill away from them.
These four sentences clearly sum up the logic of Chinese directional complements. And if you can understand this logic, you’re well on the way to understanding how to use directional complements in sentences!
Sentences With Locations And Compound Directional Complements
In the four sentences above, we said that 上 shàng and 下 xià function as the main verbs in the sentences because no other Chinese verbs are present.
But what about when we use compound directional complements with other verbs? Let’s look at this next.
Look at these sentences:
- 妹妹爬上山来了 mèimei pá shàng shān lái le (little sister climbed up the hill)
- 妹妹跑上山去了 mèimei păo shàng shān qù le (little sister ran up the hill)
- 妹妹滚下山来了 mèimei gŭn xià shān lái le (little sister rolled down the hill)
- 妹妹走下山去了 mèimei zŏu xià shān qù le (little sister walked down the hill)
As you can see, these sentences are not much different. The only change is that we have now added a main verb before 上 shàng or 下 xià, so these have now become part of the directional complement with 来 lái or 去 qù. Otherwise, the word order is the same.
Here are a couple of extra examples:
- 爸爸跑回家来了 bàba păo huí jiā lái le (dad ran back home)
- the speaker is already at home
- 小偷跳过栅栏去了 xiăotōu tiào guò zhàlan qù le (the thief jumped over the fence)
- he jumped away from the speaker
- 玩具被放回架子去了 wánjù bèi fàng huí jiàzi qù le (the toys have been put back on the shelf)
With the last sentence, we are returning to the example we used earlier, but here we have added the location, “the shelf”.
Note that to complete the sentence, I’ve added 被 bèi, a marker that makes the sentence passive. But I haven’t mentioned who did the action.
Don’t worry too much about this grammar if you don’t understand it. It’s just to make the sentence sound more natural and complete without overcomplicating things!
Sentences With Grammatical Objects That Are Not Locations
Next, we need to look at how to make sentences where the object of the sentence is not a location. And with sentences like this, there are different ways you can say things.
When the directional complement is just 来 lái or 去 qù, the basic sentence structure is like this:
- 他带啤酒来 tā dài píjiŭ lái (he brings beer [direction towards])
- 你发短信去 nĭ fā duănxìn qù (you send a text message [direction away from])
However, if you add the Chinese particle 了 le to express a completed action and make a more complete sentence, there are two possibilities, like this:
- 他带了啤酒来 tā dài le píjiŭ lái (he brought beer)
- 他带来了啤酒 tā dài lái le píjiŭ (he brought beer)
- 你发了短信去 nĭ fā le duănxìn qù (you sent a text message)
- 你发去了短信 nĭ fā qù le duănxìn (you sent a text message)
With these pairs of sentences, both options are possible, and there’s no difference in meaning.
Grammatical Objects That Are Not Locations With Compound Directional Complements
Finally, when you use a compound directional complement, there are three possible ways to construct the sentence.
Here’s an example:
- 妈妈买了一些菜回来 māma măi le yì xiē cài huí lái (mum bought some vegetables)
- 妈妈买回来了一些菜 māma măi huí lái le yì xiē cài (mum bought some vegetables)
- 妈妈买回一些菜来 māma măi huí yì xiē cài lái (mum bought some vegetables)
Again, these three examples all express the same thing and are just different versions of the same sentence.
Note also that there is no 了le in the third version since 了 le can’t be placed between 回 huí and 来 lái – although you don’t need to worry too much about why this is since the use of 了le is a big topic in itself and isn’t the focus of this post!
Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that you don’t always have to use a directional complement in these sentences to make them correct. Often, just saying 妈妈买了一些菜 māma măi le yì xiē cài would be enough to express your meaning.
Common Errors To Avoid & Tips For Learning Chinese Directional Complements
Finally, let’s round up this post with a few suggestions for how to learn and use this Chinese grammar as well as some tips for how to avoid mistakes.
Generally speaking, there are two parts to this grammar – there’s understanding the logic of it and there’s being able to construct correct sentences.
In terms of the logic, although it’s a bit different from English, this grammar is not particularly hard to understand.
It’s all about understanding the difference between “direction towards” and “direction away from”. And if you can get your head round the examples I gave with little sister going up and coming down the hill, you’ll have mastered the basics.
In terms of structure and word order, my suggestion is that you remember a few model sentences that you can then use to help you create your own correct sentences.
As an exercise, you can then try changing the words and the Chinese directional complements to make new sentences of your own.
Where there’s more than one option, it’s best to just remember one version and to always use that, at the beginning at least.
This way, you’ll still be able to understand variations of these sentences when other people use them, and you can always start using the other versions yourself once you’ve mastered using your basic model sentences.
Finally, be aware of common mistakes that learners often make.
For example, don’t say things like these:
- *妹妹上来山了 *mèimei shàng lái shān le (little sister came up the hill)
- *妹妹滚下来了山 *mèimei gŭn xià shān lái le (little sister rolled down the hill)
- *他带了来啤酒 *tā dài le lái píjiŭ (he brought beer)
Instead, remember where the two halves of compound complements of direction belong – and where necessary, where to place 了 le.
This way, by remembering correct model sentences and avoiding incorrect structures, you will gradually get a feel for how these sentences are made and how to use them. So don't let the grammar villain stress you out too much.
And as for 了 le, at this point, the best advice is just to remember where it goes in specific model sentences and not to worry too much about why – since using this innocuous-looking particle can be deceptively complex, and it deserves a whole post of its own, if not more.
Chinese Directional Complements: Don't Be Intimidated
In this post, I’ve tried to break the concept of directional complements down and introduce them step by step.
As I’ve already mentioned, this grammar might seem a little strange at first since it’s a bit different from English. But the logic is not particularly difficult to grasp, so you don’t need to be intimidated by it because there’s nothing especially hard to master.
After that, it’s just a question of learning a few model sentences that will allow you to remember the sentence structure. And then with a bit of practice, you’ll soon be using directional complements naturally and without thinking.
The best way to get that practice of course is to use the StoryLearning method and read in Chinese so that you see Chinese directional complements over and over, in Mandarin graded readers for example.