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Reported speech in Chinese

17 February 2016 (updated June 2018)

This page looks at the fluid nature of direct and indirect speech in Chinese as seen in a popular essay on the Internet.

1. Introduction: Reported Speech in English

In contemporary English, the difference between direct and indirect speech is linguistically clearly marked.

Direct speech is an attempt (or purports to be an attempt) to quote what the speaker actually said. The use of pronouns, deixis, verb tenses, etc., follows what the speaker would have actually used. Depending on the delivery, a different tone of voice or intonation might be adopted to highlight the quoted content. In the written language, quotation marks (inverted commas) are used to set off quoted content. The following is an example of direct speech:

Another expanded version is:

Indirect speech reports what the speaker said modified to reflect the perspective of the person quoting. The factual content of the quoted speech takes into account both the grammatical context of the surrounding sentence and the context in which the speech is reported. There may or may not be a pretence at reproducing the original speaker's words. Several features of indirect speech are:

For example, our sentence above might become:

These changes indicate that the location indicated by 'there' in the original is the present location ('here') for the speaker or listeners, and that the speaker is not being quoted on the same day ('yesterday' is thus 'the day before' the sentence was uttered). English requires 'went' to be changed to 'had been' because the past tense of the quotation is now 'past-in-past'. These changes will depend on the larger narrative frame, that is, when and where the speech is being quoted.

For our second example, we might get:

This represents an attempt to indicate what the speaker actually said, but still shifts 'if you don't mind' to 'if I didn't mind' according to the conventions of indirect speech.

2. Reported Speech in Chinese

reported speech

In Chinese, the distinction between direct and indirect speech is fuzzier than in English.

For direct speech, modern written Chinese, under the influence of foreign models, does enclose such speech in quotation marks. However, this appears to be less well entrenched than in English.

For indirect speech, referring to the features found in English above:

In fact, it is not uncommon for pronoun usage to be the only indicator in Chinese as to whether speech is direct or indirect.

3. Actual Examples from Online Piece

These characteristics are well represented in a recent piece extensively distributed on the Internet. The piece is 低调是真正的奢华 (dīdiào shi zhēnzhèng de shēhuá 'True extravagance is being low key'), attributed to Ren Fengnan (任风南). It has a number of examples of reported speech seamlessly woven into the narrative, switching fluidly between direct and indirect speech.

The following are examples drawn from the text of the article (shown here), not necessarily listed in order. Note the use of pronouns.


他说 他平时出门也是这样
tā shuō tā píngshí chūmén yě shi zhèyàng .
He said [ that's normally how he is when he goes out ].

The subject of the sentence is third person ( 'he'), referring to 小朋友 xiǎo-péngyou 'young friend'. is repeated in the reported speech (他说... tā shuō ... 'he says he...'). There is no comma between the main sentence and reported speech.

As DIRECT SPEECH, the speaker would have used 我 'I' when speaking about himself:

他说,“ 我平时出门也是这样 ”。
tā shuō wǒ píngshí chūmén yě shi zhèyàng .
He said, [ that's normally how I am when I go out ].


停下后,从车筐里面拿出一瓶洋酒,说 今晚上尝尝
tíngxià hòu, cóng chē chuāng lǐmiàn ná chū yī-píng yángjiǔ, shuō jīn wǎnshàng cháng-chang .
After stopping, he took a bottle of foreign liquor out of the basket of his bicycle and said [ let's try it this evening ].

The subject of the sentence is 第一个朋友 dì-yíge péngyou 'my first friend', omitted but understood. No pronoun occurs in the reported speech. If it were expressed, it would be 我们 wǒmen 'we' or 咱 zán 'we (inclusive)', whether in direct or indirect speech.

This is INDETERMINATE as there is no way in this sentence of formally distinguishing between INDIRECT and DIRECT speech.


朋友问我的小朋友, 你是自己干还是给人打工干?
péngyǒu wèn wǒ de xiǎo-péngyǒu, nǐ shi zìjǐ gàn háishì gěi rén dǎ gōng gàn?
My friend asked my young friend, [ do you have own business or work for someone else? ]

The subject of the main sentence is third person (朋友 péngyou 'friend'). 你 is the pronoun that would have been used in actual speech. As INDIRECT speech, the pronoun would be converted to second person ( ):

朋友问我的小朋友, 是自己干还是给人打工干
péngyǒu wèn wǒ de xiǎo-péngyǒu, tā shi zìjǐ gàn háishì gěi rén dǎ gōng gàn?
My friend asked my young friend [ does he have his own business or work for someone else ?]

Aside from these simple examples, the passage also contains a number of extended quotations, as covered below.


聚会是我组织的,因为在此之前,我曾跟小朋友说过, 要给他介绍几个做生意的朋友认识,互相交流一下, 虽然从事的行当不一样,但就做生意来讲,会有很多共同点可以借鉴一下。
jùhuì shi wǒ zǔzhī de, yīnwèi zài cǐ zhīqián, wǒ céng gēn xiǎo-péngyǒu shuō-guò, yào gěi tā jièshào jǐgè zuò shēngyì de péngyǒu rènshi, hùxiàng jiāoliú yíxià, suīrán cóngshì de hángdang bù yíyàng, dàn jiù zuò shēngyì lái jiǎng, huì yǒu hěn duō gòngtóngdiǎn kěyǐ jièjiàn yíxià .
I was the one who arranged the gathering, because I'd said to my young friend [ that I would introduce him to some friends who are in business so he could get to know them and interact with them a bit. Although they are in a different line, from the point of view of doing business there would be many points in common that he could learn from ] .

The narrative uses first-person (我曾跟小朋友说过 wǒ céng gēn xiǎo péngyou shuōguo 'I had said to my young friend').

a) The subject of the first sentence of reported speech, omitted because it is understood, is also 我 'I':

(我)要给他介绍几个做生意的朋友认识, 互相交流一下。
(wǒ) yào gěi tā jièshào jǐgè zuò shēngyì de péngyǒu rènshi, hùxiàng jiāoliú yíxià.
(I) wanted to introduce him to several friends who are in business to get to know (them) and interact (with them) a bit'.

The narrator does not directly quote what he actually said. Instead of 'you', which is what he would have said to his young friend, he uses 'he'. To be sure, is spelt out just once in the entire quotation. In all other places, the pronoun is dropped.

介绍 ... 认识 jièshao... rènshi 'introduce ... get to know' exemplifies a particular Chinese construction where 认识 rènshi (getting to know) is the objective or purpose of 介绍 jièshao (introducing). In this construction the verb 认识 rènshi has no arguments indicating subject, object, etc; the verb 认识 rènshi is bare. However, it is understood as 'he gets to know them'.

互相交流 hùxiāng jiāoliú 'mutually interact' is a continuation of 认识; the actors are understood as being unchanged. The use of 一下 yíxià 'a bit' is a means of signalling a suggestion in ordinary speech.

b) Although there is only a comma separating it, what follows is grammatically a completely new sentence:

suīrán cóngshì de hángdang bù yíyàng, dàn jiù zuò shēngyì lái jiǎng, huì yǒu hěn duō gòngtóngdiǎn kěyǐ jièjiàn yíxià.
While the line (he or they) is/are engaged in is different, from the point of view of doing business there will be many points in common that (he) can learn from.

No personal pronouns are used — which is normal in Chinese — but the focus remains on 'he', the young friend.

As shown in the English gloss, the first part could also be understood as 'Although the line they are engaged in is different'. While there is ambiguity, there is no semantic contradiction in this vague interpretation since the relationship is a symmetrical one, that is, they would get to know each other.

The final 一下 yíxià 'a bit' again indicates that this is a suggestion offered to the 'young friend'.

While the speaker probably did not use the exact words reported in the piece, the lack of personal pronouns means that there is no formal difference between direct and indirect modes. The main difference lies in the understood pronoun, which would have been 你 rather than . The hypothetical original (DIRECT SPEECH) would have been exactly the same:

suīrán cóngshì de hángdang bù yíyàng, dàn jiù zuò shēngyì lái jiǎng, huì yǒu hěn duō gòngtóngdiǎn kěyǐ jièjiàn yíxià.
While the line (you or they) are engaged in is different, from the point of view of doing business there will be many points in common that (you) can learn from.


我看着就想笑, 跟他说, 你今天怎么这么正式? 不是说好了几个朋友找个小店简单聚一下吗? 真是没有必要的
wǒ kànzhe jiù xiǎng xiào, gēn tā shuō, nǐ jīntiān zěnme zhème zhèngshì? bú shì shuō-hǎo le jǐge péngyǒu zhǎo ge xiǎo diàn jiǎndān jù yíxià ma? zhēnshi méiyǒu bìyào de .
I wanted to laugh when I saw (him), said to him, [ why are you so dressed up today? Didn't (we) agree that (it would be) a few friends finding a small restaurant for a simple get-together? There's really no need ].

The reported speech in this sentence begins with the pronoun 你 'you', which was the pronoun actually used.

The rest of the reported speech reflects what the narrator purportedly said to the 'young friend'.


结束后,小朋友对我说, 你这两个朋友也没什么出色的地方,也就是干个生意混口饭吃,看他们的穿衣就能知道……
我说, 他们这口饭吃得还可以

jiéshù hòu, xiǎo-péngyǒu duì wǒ shuō, nǐ zhè liǎngge péngyǒu yě méi shénme chūsè de dìfāng, yě jiù shì gàn ge shēngyì hùn kǒu fàn chī, kàn tāmen de chuānyī jiù néng zhīdào……
wǒ shuō, tāmen zhè-kǒu fàn chī dé hái kěyǐ.

After we had finished, my young friend said to me, [ there is nothing remarkable about these two friends of yours, they're just doing business to get by, you can tell from the clothes they wear....]
I said [ they didn't have a bad meal ]

a) The first sentence uses DIRECT SPEECH; the speaker is the 小朋友 xiǎo-péngyuo 'young friend'. 你这两个朋友 nǐ zhè liǎngge péngyou 'these two friends of yours' are (purportedly) the actual words used by the 'young friend' to the speaker. References to the two friends as 他们 tāmen 'they' similarly reflects the words of the 'young friend'. (混口饭吃 hùn kǒu fàn chī means 'get by' (混 hùn) 'a bite, a meal' (一口饭 yī kǒu fàn) 'to eat' ( chī).)

b) In formal terms the second sentence is INDETERMINATE — it could be either DIRECT or INDIRECT speech since no pronoun replacement is expected for third person. Normally this will be interpreted as DIRECT SPEECH.


虽然结束后,朋友对我说, 你的小朋友还没有吃过亏,等他跌过几个倒后,什么都会明白,他始终不肯承认他是个打工的,死要面子,不肯把自己放低,这个亏早晚得吃
suīrán jiéshù hòu, péngyǒu duì wǒ shuō, nǐ de xiǎo-péngyǒu hái méiyǒu chī-guò kuī, děng tā diē-guò jǐge dào hòu, shénme dōu huì míngbái, tā shǐzhōng bù kěn chéngrèn tā shi ge dǎgōng de, sǐ yào miànzi, bù kěn bǎ zìjǐ fàng dī, zhège kuī zǎowǎn děi chī .
Although it was after things finished, my friend told me, [ your young friend hasn't suffered losses yet, wait till he has come a cropper a few times, he'll understand everything, he doesn't want to admit that he is working for someone else, he's stuck on keeping face, doesn't want to put himself on a low level, this is a loss that he must take sooner or later ].

Like the previous example, this purports to represent the words used by the narrator's friends, including the use of 你的小朋友 nǐ de xiǎo-péngyou 'your young friend'.


Further down, there is a sentence containing two segments of reported speech, operating on the principle of 'I said, he said', plus a sentence that is not reported speech.

聚会前,我曾跟朋友电话商量过, 看去哪合适 ,朋友说, 不去酒店了,咱又不是正儿八经的处理业务,朋友几个人选个偏僻有特色的地方就行 ,所以定了这家店。
jùhuì qián, wǒ céng gēn péngyǒu diànhuà shāngliáng-guò, kàn qù nǎ héshì , péngyǒu shuō, bú qù jiǔdiàn le, zán yòu bú shì zhèng-er-bā-jīng de chǔlǐ yèwù, péngyǒu jǐge rén xuǎn ge piānpì yǒu tèsè de dìfāng jiù xíng , suǒyǐ dìng le zhè jiā diàn.
Before the get-together, I had discussed with my friends by phone, [ where do (you) think it's appropriate to go ] , my friends said, [ (let's) not go to a hotel, we aren't doing serious business, for a few friends choosing an out-of-the-way place with character is ok ] , so (I) decided on this restaurant.

a) The first sentence of reported speech is DIRECT SPEECH, the narrator's own question:

This is literally 'Think go where appropriate?' With pronouns inserted, this would be 你看我们去哪儿合适 nǐ kàn wǒmen/zán qù nǎr héshì? i.e., 'Where do you think it would be appropriate for us to go?' The omission of pronouns is very much in keeping with spoken Chinese.

b) The next segment is the friend's reply:

bú qù jiǔdiàn le, zán yòu bú shì zhèng-er-bā-jīng de chǔlǐ yèwù, péngyǒu jǐge rén xuǎn ge piānpì yǒu tèsè de dìfāng jiù xíng.
(let's) not go to a hotel, we aren't doing serious business, for a few friends choosing an out-of-the-way place with character is ok.

This is DIRECT SPEECH. There is no pronoun shift; the content directly represents what the speaker is supposed to have said. The first sentence, 不去酒店了 bú qù jiǔdiàn le, is in the form of a command or strong suggestion, roughly equivalent to 'Let's not go to a hotel'. As in the English, the understood subject is 'us'.

The second sentence uses the subject zán 'us', a pronoun of solidarity, and represents an appeal (to the narrator) that 'we' are not meeting to discuss specific business. Note the use of 又不是 yòu bú shì 'besides it's not', an expression of dismissal.

The third sentence has as its formal subject 朋友几个人 péngyou jǐge rén 'a few friends'. Its relationship to the rest of the sentence is vague. It could be the subject ('a few friends (should) choose an out-of-the-way place with character') or it could be the topic of the sentence ('for a few friends, (should) choose an out-of-the-way place with character'). However, since it is the narrator who is making the choice, the Topic interpretation is the appropriate one. The sense of the sentence is: "For the purpose of a few friends (getting together) you should choose an out-of-the-way place with character." This sentence illustrates the vagueness that can arise in a topicalising, pro-drop language like Chinese. Since this is probably a reproduction of what the person told the narrator, this is DIRECT SPEECH.

c) The final sentence is not reported speech; it indicates the actions of the narrator:

suǒyǐ dìng le zhè jiā diàn
so decided on (or booked) this restaurant.

4. Comment

1. In this passage, there is little formal indication of reported speech. In almost all cases, reported speech follows a verb of speaking (mostly 说 shuō 'to say'), separated by a comma.

2. Both direct and indirect speech, mostly disinguishable on the basis of pronoun usage, is used for reported speech. Direct speech appears to be used where vividness of expression is desired. It is not always possible to determine whether direct or indirect speech is involved.

3. Comma use is relatively loose. In normal Chinese prose commas are used as a boundary between grammatically distinct sentences. In the case of reported speech, commas are also often used to separate the verb of speaking from reported speech. They are also used to separate grammatically separate sentences WITHIN reported speech.

4. Chinese usage as seen in this passage is close to English spoken usage, where indirect speech and direct speech is often deployed in a flexible manner. However, it is very loose compared with contemporary written practice, which generally tries to draw a strict line between direct and indirect speech.

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