The Chinese counterfactual (subjunctive, or irrealis mood)

The counterfactual is a mood or inflection of language that signals a departure from reality and an entry into the realm of hypothesis.  

The Chinese counterfactual is quite an specific and advanced topic in Chinese grammar, thus information (especially simple, clear information) about it is hard to find online.

This article about the Chinese counterfactual and the comparisons between the Chinese and English counterfactual is written as an opinion by me, based on personal research and empirical language experience. I have also read a book about it and several smaller articles. References are listed below. This article contains a lot of explanation of these concepts which may initially be hard to grasp (it may just sound like a bunch of “theory”), so at the end I am going to attempt to give as many great examples as possible to illustrate all of the principles spoken of and refer back to them.

Let’s start with the English counterfactual, and “subjunctive” for analogy and reference

The “subjunctive” is a grammatical mood or inflection wherein we express counterfactual arguments and thought. The subjunctive can also be used in English (and other Indo-European languages) to express certain emotions like longing / wishing, and other things like necessity, desire, purpose, and suggestion. [2] However the focus of this article comparing the English and Chinese subjunctive is on the counterfactual element of the subjunctive — in other words, the depature from reality. I will also mention the longing / wishful aspect.

The subjunctive in English is typically characterised by the inflection of verbs. Inflection in a linguistic sense means a change in the form of a word to indicate a change of its grammatical function. A simple example would be the change from “Specify” to “Specified” which changes the function from the present tense to the past tense. An understanding of this concept of inflection is very important when entering a discussion about the Chinese counterfactual and its distinction with the English counterfactual.

In English, when we wish to express a counterfactual argument or hypothetical situation, we use the subjunctive to clearly mark our departure from normal “factual” speech into the realm of “what if” or “possibilities” (called an “irrealis mood”). It is this structure that allows counterfactual argument in English to be easier and more naturally identified.

Finally before I give some examples, I want to mention the opposite of the subjunctive, which is the indicative, (called a “realis mood” — or a mood or inflection which indicates things that are real and true) this is important to mention in this discussion because as we will see later on the difference of Chinese is an absence of a very clear distinction between the indicative and the subjunctive (even though counterfactual argument is possible in Chinese)

Examples of the counterfactual English subjunctive in daily conversation

There are actually several types of subjunctive in English as mentioned before, but this article is focused on the counterfactual. Here are some examples:

“I wish you had come to my party” — note the past tense of the word “have” (had), note that when you say this sentence it implies that the listener did not come.

“If I were you, I would not pursue dancing as a career” — note the past tense of the verb “to be” (were) and the past tense of the word “will” (would)

“Babies need to change orientation in the womb in the final few weeks, otherwise their feet would be facing out first instead of their head” — note the past tense of the verb “to be” (wouldas an indication that this is a counterfactual statement.

Now that the picture of the English subjunctive (as a reference point) is clear, I will turn to the Chinese subjunctive.

The Chinese subjunctive

I will begin with an overall statement about the Chinese subjunctive, and then explicate it with a few paragraphs, and then give several examples.

In summary:

Counterfactual sentences are definitely possible in Chinese, but they are not expressed in the way we usually refer to as the “subjunctive” because In Chinese there are no verb inflections, hence when departing from “reality” to “counterfactual” the distinction is not as transparent as in English (and other languages), and consequently all counterfactual sentences expressed in Chinese are in the indicative mood, I.E they are grammatically similar to non-counterfactual sentences…

However, in Chinese there are unique markers (individual words) that are often used to indicate a departure from reality into counterfactual, one specific one, 的话, (Dehuà) is frequently associated with a departure from reality into the counterfactual (but not always). Hence counterfactual sentences in Chinese are not as natural and the distinction between the so called “irrealis mood” and the “realis mood” is not as transparent as in other languages. This is the main message and opinion of this article.

Some Chinese “subjunctive” sentences don’t involve any of these markers either, and these will be illustrated later in the examples.

The function of “如果。。。就” (Rúguǒ. . . Jiù) in both “subjunctive” and “indicative” in Chinese. 

“如果” (Rúguǒ) is translated to “if” in English. 就 (Jiù) is often translated (when used together with “如果” (Rúguǒ) in a pair) to “then” in English, in English the words “if … then” are associated both with indicative (realis mood) and subjunctive (irrealis mood), for example, “if it rains today, we will not be going to the beach” (realis, indicative) and “If it rained today, we wouldn’t have gone to the beach” (irrrealis, subjunctive, notice that this implies that we did go to the beach).

Note that the function of 就 (Jiù) in this situation can sometimes be replaced by other similar words like 并 (bìng) or 才 (Cái) depending on the inflection of the sentence.

In Chinese this is the same, the structure “如果。。。就” (Rúguǒ. . . Jiù) is used for both realis (factual / indicative) and irrrealis (counterfactual / subjunctive) moods. Again I will illustrate this through many examples at the end of this article.

“的话” (De huà) sometimes saves the day for the “Chinese subjunctive”

This particular word, “的话” (De huà), I believe is the answer we are looking for with regards to the Chinese subjunctive. Actually “的话” (De huà) has many uses and implementations in Chinese, so it is not exclusively associated with counterfactual sentences, however, I have found that most sentences that most closely resemble the subjunctive in English involve the use of “的话” (De huà), however, couterfactual sentences also can be expressed without “的话” (De huà). Later on in this article I will translate those original English sentences into Chinese and some of those translations will involve the addition of  “的话” (De huà)

In case all of that was just boring, here are some solid examples to illustrate everything I have been talking about

I personally prefer learning principles and then following them up with solid examples to illustrate them, so I am now going to translate the three sample sentences I gave as examples of English subjunctive sentences and a bunch of others into Chinese.

Example #1: “I wish you had come to my party” — 我希望你有来我的聚会 (Wǒ xīwàng nǐ yǒu lái wǒ de jùhuì)

–I believe this is a good subjunctive translation as this Chinese sentence does imply that you did not come to my party. Notice that this neither has “if, then” nor “如果。。。就” (Rúguǒ. . . Jiù), nor does it have “的话” (De huà), yet it is still a counterfactural sentence, speaking of something after the event. This could be thought of as like “Chinese past tense subjunctive”

Example #2: “If I were you, I would not pursue dancing as a career” — 如果我是你的话, 我并不会把舞蹈作为我的职业 (Rúguǒ wǒ shì nǐ dehuà, wǒ bìng bú huì bǎ wǔdǎo zuòwéi wǒ de zhíyè)

— this is a great example of a counterfactual sentence in Chinese that conforms to a similar structure very often used English counterfactual (if I were you…), please note that in this instance I have chosen to use the word 并 (bìng) to accompany 如果 (Rúguǒ) for inflection purposes, but I could have easily substituted it for 就 (Jiù) or 才 (Cái) This sentence illustrates the power of 的话 (de huà) in adding a subjunctive inflection.

Example #3: “Babies need to change orientation in the womb in the final few weeks of gestation, otherwise their feet would be facing out first instead of their head” — 在怀孕的最后几周里, 宝宝需要在子宫里转换体位, 否则的话, 他们就会脚先出来而不是头先出来 (Zài huáiyùn de zuìhòu jǐ zhōu lǐ, bǎobǎo xūyào zài zǐgōng lǐ zhuǎnhuàn tǐwèi, fǒuzé dehuà, tāmen jiù huì jiǎo xiān chūlái ér bùshì tóu xiān chūlái)

— This is another solid example of the subjunctive in Chinese, I chose this sentence because the first part of the sentence (babies … gestation) is not subjunctive but merely a statement of necessity, and then the conjunctive adverb “otherwise” is used to switch the mood of the sentence into a subjunctive / counterfactural one, which is reinforced by the presence of “would”. in Chinese, 否则的话 (fǒuzé de huà) plays exactly the same role in switching the mood or inflection of the sentence into a counterfactual one, note the presence of “的话” (de huà), and later on you can also see another marker “就” (jiù) present as well.

 Example #4: (This example was actually a Chinese sentence in the first instance, I am going to translate it back to English)

In a Chinese TV show called 非诚勿扰 (Fēichéngwùrǎo) female guests to the show get to interact with male contestants to see if they are interested in potentially dating in the future, in this episode, a girl danced with a guy on stage. This particular dance opened a discussion with the rest of the female guests in the show. After one of them spoke, the host said the following:

“你在想象一下, 刚才跳舞的人不是17号, 是你, 你会怎样?”Nǐ zài xiǎngxiàng yīxià, gāngcái tiàowǔ de rén bùshì 17 hào, shì nǐ, nǐ huì zěnyàng?” [3]

My English translation: “Just imagine this again, the girl who just danced were not number 17 but were you, what would you do?”  —

This English translation feels a little weird without the “if”, but it’s true to the original since the Chinese sentence did not contain a “如果” (Rúguǒ). This sentence is clearly a “subjunctive” / counterfactural sentence because the event spoken of (the dance that had just occured) was not with the girl this comment is addressed to.

I will be adding further examples of the Chinese subjunctive later on as I encounter or think of them but I think the ones present here are very clear and appropriate.

This article will change over time as I can refine it, come back later if you are really interested!

To your Mandarin Chinese learning success!

Shawn Powrie

References and scholarly discussion
[1] The linguistic shaping of thought, Alfred Bloom. I have actually read this book but disagree with his findings to an extent (I partially agree and partially disagree), my opinion/position is clarified in the this article. In summary: I found his English – Chinese translations lacking and thus his test methodology flawed. Chinese does have a semblance of the subjunctive but it is not as clearly defined as in English, but counterfactual thought and speech is certainly possible in Chinese (as per exampes given in this article)
Furthermore several other scholars have disagreed with some of his findings as well: for example
a) Language in Society, On the linguistic shaping of thought: Another response to Alfred Bloom, Donna Lardiere
b) Pictures of Ghosts: A Critique of Alfred Bloom’s The Linguistic Shaping of Thought, P. Wenjie Cheng

[2] Subjunctive MoodWikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood

[3] 非诚勿扰 Some episode, forgot when!

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14 Responses

  1. Su says:

    Your explanation was crystal clear. I couldn’t have done it myself. 我不能那样做

  2. Language Boat says:

    This was amazing! Thank you so much! I am a beginner Chinese language learner, but I have been so stumped and curious about this topic. This is the first explanation that has really made sense. I appreciate that you made a video in English about it. My Chinese level isn’t nearly good enough to use and understand this yet, but now I know what’s coming, and I can be on the look out for “de hua” and other indicators of counterfactual statements. I live in Taiwan and through my observations of native speakers I had concluded they seem to “intuit” when something is counterfactual, perhaps based on context. Thanks for clarifying this. It’s a really, really great post!

    • shawn says:

      Hi Language Boat!

      You’re welcome! I am glad to know someone benefited from my many hours of hard work on this subject! Wow you’re living in Taiwan learning Mandarin, I am so jealous, unfortunately although I have been studying Mandarin for a while I still have never had the opportunity to go to Taiwan, dated a few Taiwanese girls though!

      I am really passionate about this particular subject (the counterfactual) for some reason it really fascinates me — you are right about how they intuitively know when the context is counterfactual and when it’s not, hence why I strongly believe although some others have stated otherwise that it is possible to express counterfactual thoughts in Chinese, but it is just not as explicit as in English.

      Good luck in your Mandarin learning journey and thanks for visiting the site!

      Shawn

      • Language Boat says:

        Thanks so much Shawn!

        I came across a few articles on the internet that claim there is no counterfactual in Chinese. But after reading and watching your post, I know better! It just doesn’t seem possible that a language as sophisticated and old as Chinese lacks the ability to talk about counterfactual ideas. Recently a Taiwanese guy who is studying Spanish asked me to post about the Spanish subjunctive and said he has a hard time understanding it with his Taiwanese brain. So that has me even more curious about the Chinese subjunctive! Please, please keep writing about it! Thanks!

        • shawn says:

          You’re welcome!

          Yeah, one of my references in this article (the book by Alfred Bloom) I specifically bought just to try to understand this topic deeper (imagine how long those days were while I was waiting for it to arrive at my house!) — in that book he claims also that there is no counterfactual, after reading that and thinking and researching this for a long time I eventually came up with my conclusion as it is presented in this article (this is actually the third version of this article, it’s been updated and refined as my version of the argument has improved)

          It is hard for native Chinese speakers to grasp the subjunctive because Chinese doesn’t have a clear distinction, to draw an analogy, in oral Chinese the word for “he” and the word for “she” are pronounced the same (Tā), although in written Chinese the characters are different (他,她) as I am sure you know, when native Chinese people speak English if their level is less advanced they will frequently make the error of saying “he” instead of “she” and vise versa, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of understanding the distinction — it just means they are not used to having to make it. Similarly Chinese people DO understand the distinction between subjunctive and indicative “deep down inside somewhere”, but in every day speech and in writing they have no need to distinguish them, hence they find it difficult to do so, I believe merely because of lack of practice.

          Interesting discussion! Thanks for contributing!

          Shawn

  3. Anonymous says:

    hey ,i am a chinese Phd student and my research area is about the counterfactual category of Mandarin chinese. i think this article is very correct!

    • shawn says:

      Hi “someone”!

      That’s great. Thanks for verifying the views in this article — it took a few years to build this up to where it is and I’m so happy people gain value from reading it.

      Shawn

      • EUNSON says:

        Hi, I read it well. I’m just wondering if you have built up more cases to support your thinking..I’m also interested in comparing this subjunctive marker between Korean and Chinese through text comparison. If you could share how you have been collecting example sentences between Chinese and English…for instance, how you selected samples found in translations, that would be very helpful for me. Thank you.

        • shawn says:

          Hi Eunson. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

          The examples shown in this article are limited, there could be many more. I would also be interested to compare the subjunctive marker between Korean and Chinese, though I have no skill in Korean (I presume you do?).

          My sample collection is purely arbitrary and random. I speak Chinese at home with my wife and her family, my wife watches TV in Chinese so I often bump into things (like the fei cheng wu rao example above) and I listen out for counterfactuals. The English examples were made by me since English is my first language I’m very confident in their accuracy. The Chinese translations I made with help from my wife and some Chinese speaking friends.

          I am definitely interested in collecting more samples, I bump into the subjunctive here and there and don’t necessarily record every example.

          Do you want to collaborate on a Korean vs. Chinese subjunctive article? 🙂 I’d be happy to help out.

          Shawn

          • EUNSON says:

            I’m involved in a PhD program in the Chinese language department in China. Currently, I’m at the initial stage of research, collecting relevant papers. Until now, I haven’t come across any paper that argues that “de hua” has to do with counterfactuality.. you are the first one to bump into, that’s what I contacted you. Most of the stuff that I’ve come across has to do with epistemic theory. Anyway, I’m kind of interested comparing translations between Chinese and Korean and see if ” de hua” tends to occur more often to mark counterfactuality. The Korean language has a clear counterfactual structure unlike Chinese. But we always need data to back up things. Have you ever tried to compare certain materials (like some novels) or thought about which materials would be appropriate for comparison? I’m glad to exchange ideas with you. Thank you 🙂

          • shawn says:

            Hi Eunson, again thanks for commenting.

            Ah interesting, you are the third person doing a PHD that I’ve spoken with about these concepts.

            For transparency and honesty, I am not technically an academic, I am just a hobbyist. I have been studying Mandarin for over six years but all self study. I also teach it online at my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/VLearnChinese — my real profession is that I have a degree in computer engineering and I work in digital marketing.

            So technically this cannot be considered a “paper” on the topic, at least not in the academic sense. I am not qualified in linguistics to be able to discuss this stuff. Nevertheless, I am willing to back up my position / argument as best I can and modify it to make it more accurate. To establish my street cred — my wife is Chinese and I spend a lot of time studying / teaching / speaking Chinese on a daily basis.

            Have you ever tried to compare certain materials (like some novels) or thought about which materials would be appropriate for comparison? I’m glad to exchange ideas with you. Thank you

            That’s a great question. See all of my linguistic ideas come from practical, everyday experience and are not necessarily rooted in academia. Frankly, what I’d suggest is actually YouTube or a Youku approach, because written novels, while a great source of data and easily processed by computers, are not necessarily representative of everyday, colloquial speech. I’d prefer to find real life examples that are not staged in any way and are modern, oral Chinese and analyse them.

            For example, “你在想象一下, 刚才跳舞的人不是17号, 是你, 你会怎样?” comes from the TV show 非诚勿扰, and is real, unstaged, and in my opinion unequivocally counterfactual natural language sentence. By the way, as an afterthought, the TV show 非诚勿扰 is actually a good place to go for counterfactual sentences in Chinese because it’s a dating show. People often ask each other questions that are hypothetical (if you were in X situation what would you do?) that kind of stuff, just to get to know each other and how they think.

            As for my argument for 的话, 的话 is an interesting word in Chinese that is used in multiple contexts. I have found that there are several sentences in Chinese which very closely match English counterfactual sentences that involve 的话, but again to be clear, NOT ALL sentences that are counterfactual sounding involve 的话, and not all sentences with 的话 are counterfactual. This is not a one-to-one matching with the English subjunctive verb inflections. Hence why I feel the counterfactual markers in Chinese are not as unequivocal as English.

            For example:

            如果我是你的话… if I were you…
            他要是跟我这样说的话, 我就会… if he were to speak this way with (to) me, I would….
            如果她会说中文的话,你会愿意跟她在一起吗?… if she could speak Chinese, would you be willing to get together with her?

            Please, do share your thoughts as I am always looking for other people studying in the area to offer me some more formal analyses.

            Looking forward!

            Shawn

  4. EUNSON says:

    http://shawnpowrie.com/chinese/counterfactual/#comment-61562

    Thanks for the comments. I’ve been reading stuff and came across this paper which claims otherwise… with “de hua” the degree of hypothetical degree decreases, compared to the independent use of “ru guo”, it’s more realis. Please see page 54, Hsiao (2005).

    • shawn says:

      Hey Eunson,

      I’d sooner trust a formal source than my personal blog. However I still think there’s more to it than meets the eye. I think you’d need to get a sample of sentences that are conditional and use “de hua” and translate them and see how many natural translations land up in the English subjunctive.

      • EUNSON says:

        I still have a gut that de hua has to do with a stronger degree of hypotheticality since it contains “hua”, a reportative marker. It seems like in other languages as far as I know, it works this way, but, some studies done in Taiwan say the opposite. It’s quite confusing, and I’d like to find sources that can contradict it. I’m always glad to hear your opinions 🙂

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