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:
He said, "I went there yesterday".
Another expanded version is:
He said, "I went there yesterday, if you don't mind!"
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:
(1) Indirect speech is marked with the relative pronoun "that" or "whether" (for questions),
(2) Pronouns are made narrator-centric,
(3) Verb tense is matched to the larger context, including the shifting of tenses one step back into the past where the quote is referring to past circumstances,
(4) Place references are modified to match the larger narrative frame (e.g., 'here' might be used rather than 'there'), and
(5) Time references are modified to match the larger narrative frame (e.g., 'the day before' might be used rather than 'yesterday').
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
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:
(1) Chinese lacks a grammatical marker like "that" to signal reported content. Chinese simply adds the reported content after the verb of speaking or asking. In writing, a comma is usually added after the verb of saying or asking, but in short sentences even that is omitted.
(2) Unlike English, Chinese verbs aren't marked for person or time.
(3) The main mark of indirect speech in Chinese, as in English, is the substitution of different pronouns. Depending on the actors involved, 'you' (你 nǐ) could become 'he/she' (他/她 tā):
wǒ shuō：“wǒ ài nǐ” ➔ wǒ shuō wǒ ài tā.
or 'I' (我 wǒ),
tā shuō：“tā ài nǐ” ➔ tā shuō tā ài wǒ.
or could remain as 'you' (你 nǐ):
wǒ shuō：“wǒ ài nǐ” ➔ wǒ shuō wǒ ài nǐ.
(4, 5) As in English, time adverbials and place adverbials can be changed to take the time of reported speech as standard; for example, 'yesterday' in direct speech will become 'the day before' in indirect speech, 'tomorrow' in direct speech will become 'the next day' in indirect speech, etc.
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.
1. INDIRECT SPEECH
tā shuō tā píngshí chūmén yě shi zhèyàng .
The subject of the sentence is third person (他 tā 'he'), referring to 小朋友 xiǎo-péngyou 'young friend'. 他 tā is repeated in the reported speech (他说他... tā shuō tā... 'he says he...'). There is no comma between the main sentence and reported speech.
As DIRECT SPEECH, the speaker would have used 我 wǒ 'I' when speaking about himself:
tā shuō wǒ píngshí chūmén yě shi zhèyàng .
tíngxià hòu, cóng chē chuāng lǐmiàn ná chū yī-píng yángjiǔ, shuō jīn wǎnshàng cháng-chang .
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.
3. DIRECT SPEECH
péngyǒu wèn wǒ de xiǎo-péngyǒu, nǐ shi zìjǐ gàn háishì gěi rén dǎ gōng gàn?
The subject of the main sentence is third person (朋友 péngyou 'friend'). 你 nǐ is the pronoun that would have been used in actual speech. As INDIRECT speech, the pronoun would be converted to second person (他 tā):
péngyǒu wèn wǒ de xiǎo-péngyǒu, tā shi zìjǐ gàn háishì gěi rén dǎ gōng gàn?
Aside from these simple examples, the passage also contains a number of extended quotations, as covered below.
4. INDIRECT SPEECH
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 .
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 wǒ 'I':
(wǒ) yào gěi tā jièshào jǐgè zuò shēngyì de péngyǒu rènshi, hùxiàng jiāoliú yíxià.
The narrator does not directly quote what he actually said. Instead of 你 nǐ 'you', which is what he would have said to his young friend, he uses 他 tā 'he'. To be sure, 他 tā 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.
No personal pronouns are used — which is normal in Chinese — but the focus remains on 他 tā '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 nǐ rather than 他 tā. 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.
5. DIRECT SPEECH
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 .
The reported speech in this sentence begins with the pronoun 你 nǐ 'you', which was the pronoun actually used.
The rest of the reported speech reflects what the narrator purportedly said to the 'young friend'.
6. DIRECT SPEECH; INDETERMINATE
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.
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' (吃 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.
7. DIRECT SPEECH
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 .
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'.
8. DIRECT SPEECH
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.
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.
a) The first sentence of reported speech is DIRECT SPEECH, the narrator's own question:
kàn qù nǎr héshì?
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.
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 咱 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
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.