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成 indicating a change of state in Chinese

6 May 2016

As a verb, chéng has a range of meanings in modern Chinese: "accomplish, succeed; become, turn into; help complete; and all right, OK". It also forms a constituent element in many fixed expressions (that is, 'words'), for example 完成 wánchéng 'to complete', 形成 xíngchéng 'to form', etc.

Here I want to consider chéng in its use as a verb meaning 'become, turn into' and, more importantly, in its very productive use as what is known in Chinese grammar as a 'complement' (补语 bǔyǔ) indicating a change of state. In this use chéng is often translatable into English as 'into'.


1. 成 chéng as a verb
2. 成为 chéng wéi
3. 成 as a complement
4. Examples
5. Grammar

1. 成 chéng as a verb

'To become, turn into' is one of the key senses of chéng as an independent verb. The grammatical object (underlined below) represents the resultant state. For example:

队长
tā CHÉNG le duìzhǎng
'He became captain'
两个人好朋友
liǎngge rén CHÉNG le hǎo péngyǒu
'The two became close friends'

In the two examples, the state of being a 队长 duìzhǎng 'captain' or 朋友 péngyǒu 'friends' is the end result of the process indicated by the verb chéng 'to become'.

chéng in this sense also forms set expressions, such as 成家 chéng jiā 'to marry' (literally 'become a family').

一个姑娘和一个汉子,姑娘的口味清淡,汉子无辣不欢,姑娘常去父母家蹭饭吃。
yīgè gūniáng hé yīgè hànzi CHÉNG le jiā, gūniáng de kǒuwèi qīngdàn, hànzi wú là bù huān, gūniáng cháng qù fùmǔ jiā cèng fàn chī
'A girl and a young man became a family (married). The girl had a taste for light flavours; the young man was not happy if the food was not spicy. The girl frequently went to her parent's house to scrounge a meal.'

The fact that chéng and jiā can be separated by le indicates that the two still function, at least partially, as separate units (words), unlike indivisible words like 成交 chéngjiāo 'conclude a transaction' and 成就 chéngjiù 'to accomplish'.

Another example is from a headline:

北京将国内首个救护车打表计费城市
Běijīng jiāng CHÉNG guónèi shǒu-ge jiùhù-chē dǎbiǎo jìfèi chéngshì
'Beijing is to become the first Chinese city where ambulances charge by the meter'

The resulting state is expressed in more detail than a single word like 'friend' or 'captain'.


2. 成为 chéng wéi

Often, however, the more normal expression used in sentences like these is 成为 chéng wéi. For example, in the article under the above headline the following sentence appears:

本市将成为全国首个使用计价器来确定救护车使用费的城市
běnshì jiāng CHÉNG WÉI guónèi shǒu-ge shǐyòng jìjiàqì lái quèdìng jiùhù-chē shǐyòng-fèi de chéngshì
'The city is to become the first Chinese city to use meters to determine the fee charged by ambulances'

More examples of this construction are:

如何成为一名黑客
rúhé CHÉNG WÉI yī-míng hēikè
'How to become a hacker'
你不必为了成为受欢迎的人而去变得完美
nǐ búbì wèile CHÉNG WÉI shòu huānyíng de rén ér qù biàn-de wánměi
'You don't need to become perfect in order to become popular'
袁家山现已成为我县广大干群学习游览的场所
yuánjiāshān xiàn yǐ CHÉNG WÉI wǒ xiàn guǎngdà gànqún xuéxí yóulǎn de chǎngsuǒ
'Yuanjiashan has already become the place for the broad masses of cadres in our county to study and tour'

chéng and 成为 chéng wéi are subtly different in meaning and usage. chéng refers to a simple change of state (e.g., becoming a friend), whereas 成为 chéng wéi appears to imply a transformation into something (e.g., becoming a hacker).


3. as a 'complement' to another verb

While chéng can be used as a verb by itself, it is much more interesting when used after other verbs in a role traditionally identified in Chinese grammar as a 补语 bǔyǔ or 'complement'. This term refers to elements that follow the predicate (verb or adjective) and indicate concepts such as result, extent, trend, possibility, state, or quantity. The usual explanation is that the complement 'supplements' or 'explains' the predicate. The 补语 bǔyǔ in Chinese grammar is something of a grab bag and includes grammatically disparate elements, including whole clauses.

chéng is generally characterised as a resultative complement (结果补语 jiéguǒ bǔyǔ). Similar resultative complements include cuò 'wrongly', 好 hǎo 'successfully', 'low', gāo 'high', jǐn 'tightly', huài 'cause to become bad', wán 'finish', 干净 gānjìng 'clean', 清楚 qīngchu 'clearly', dǒng 'understand', diào 'off', 'dead', zhù 'firmly', etc.

This productive use of chéng after verbs does not feature in modern grammars of Chinese that I have to hand, namely A Grammar of Mandarin by Wiedenhof, and Mandarin Chinese by Li and Thompson. While such grammars attempt to cover the basic syntax of Chinese sentences, including auxiliary verbs, coverbs, and negation, 补语 bǔyǔ effectively form a blind spot.

The twists and turns of grammatical theory in basic areas like parts of speech (word classes) and syntactic analysis (phrase structure, dependency grammar, etc.) in past decades don't help in analysing expressions like chéng. Interestingly, this paper on Role and Reference Grammar suggests that, within a classification of sentence constituents into ‘nucleus’ (predicate or predicates), ‘core’ (nucleus plus predicate arguments), and ‘clause’, an expression like 变成 biàn chéng 'turn into' consists of two cosubordinate nucleii — biàn and chéng — within a single nucleus (predicate).


4. Examples

The following are some of the verb + chéng expressions I've collected. Many are from the Internet, but more are from the scifi novel 三体 sāntǐ by Liu Cixin (刘慈欣).

* Change

Some of the most common verbs found with chéng are those concerning change, usually either the intransitive 变 biàn 'to change, transform' or its transitive counterpart 改 gǎi:

世界在他的眼中变成黑白两色
shìjiè zài tā de yǎnzhōng BIÀN CHÉNG le hēibái liǎng sè
'In his eyes the world turned into black and white'
夜里,平时纨绔的黄总摇身变成1米8的英俊少年
yèlǐ, píngshí wánkù de huáng zǒng yáo shēn BIÀN CHÉNG yī mǐ bā de yīngjùn shàonián
'At night, the usually dandyish director Huang suddenly becomes a handsome lad of 1.8 metres'
在玩微信的时候有时候一个不小心就把微信语言弄乱了变成英文
zài wán wēixìn de shíhòu yǒu shíhòu yīgè bù xiǎoxīn jiù bǎ wēixìn yǔyán nòng luàn le BIÀN CHÉNG yīngwén
'When playing with WeChat, carelessness (=I was careless and) messed up the language in WeChat; it changed to English'

In the following sentence, the resulting state is not a noun but a sequence of clauses:

从此,他摇身变成不畏势力强权,不顾自身前途利益,一心只想改变社会
cóngcǐ, tā yáoshēn BIÀN CHÉNG le bù wèi shìlì qiángquán, bù gù zìshēn qiántú lìyì, yīxīn zhǐ xiǎng gǎibiàn shèhuì
'From then, he suddenly changed to become unafraid of the forces of power, disregarding his own future interest and wholeheartedly only wanting to change society'

With gǎi it's common to use the construction:

导演把莎士比亚的戏剧从16世纪的威尼斯改成当代的英国
dǎoyǎn bǎ shāshìbǐyǎ de xìjù cóng shíliù shìjì de wēinísī GǍI CHÉNG dāngdài de yīngguó
'The director changed Shakespeare's plays from 16th century Venice to contemporary England'

The following sentence is abstract in nature as it lacks a subject. The resultative state is an entire clause:

改成用直接借记方式偿还抵押贷款
GǍI CHÉNG yòng zhíjiē jièjì fāngshì chánghuán dǐyā dàikuǎn
'(To) switch to paying your mortgage by direct debit'

* Development

The following example shows the result of change through development:

武术原为中国传统的打拳和使用武器的技术,现已发展成健身的运动项目
wǔshù yuán wéi zhōngguó chuántǒng de dǎquán hé shǐyòng wǔqì de jìshù, xiàn yǐ FĀZHǍN CHÉNG jiànshēn de yùndòng xiàngmù
'Wushu was originally a Chinese technique for traditional boxing and the use of weapons. Now it has developed into a fitness sport.'

* Creation

Creation through handiwork, craft, or artistry also uses chéng. This example from a story by Chen Kexiong (陈可雄 Chén Kěxióng) and Ma Ming (马鸣 Mǎ Míng) involves stitching with silver thread to create the upper body feathers of an embroidered cuckoo (note that the order is inverted through the use of the 是...的 shi..de structure — see grammar below):

那杜鹃,上体的羽毛是用银色的丝线绣成
nà dùjuān, shàng tǐ de yǔmáo shì yòng yínsè de sīxiàn XIÙ CHÉNG de
'The feathers of the upper body of the cuckoo were stitched using silver thread'

Another sentence from the same story exemplifies creation through stonework or masonry. The structure is an attributive clause:

那些黑色的、茶褐色的大理石砌成大厦,突兀矗起,在高天云际移动,仿佛要倾倒下来,
nàxiē hēisè de, cháhésè de dàlǐshí QÌ CHÉNG de dàshà, túwū chù qǐ, zài gāotiān yúnjì yídòng, fǎngfú yào qīngdǎo xiàlái
'Those black, dark brown marble masonry buildings towered and moved against the high sky as if to fall down'

* Translation

chéng is not confined to generic expressions of change. Translation is the process of transforming a message from one language to another, and it is unremarkable that chéng is standard in this case:

如何将微信聊天记录的英文翻译成中文
rúhé jiāng wēixìn liáotiān jìlù de yīngwén FĀNYÌ CHÉNG zhōngwén?
'How to translate English-language WeChat chat records to Chinese?'
今年被译成28国语言的短片《我们身处的谎言世界》
jīnnián bèi YÌ CHÉNG èrshíbā guó yǔyán de duǎnpiàn “wǒmen shēn chǔ de huǎngyán shìjiè”
'The short film "We live in the world of lies", which this year has been translated into 28 languages'

* Breaking up and coming together

chéng is also used with verbs to indicate changes of state such as breaking up and coming together.

In the following it is used to express breaking or cutting apart into a larger number of pieces:

长剑砍在巨石上,迸出一片火花断成两截
cháng jiàn kǎn zài jùshí shàng, bèng chū yī-piàn huǒhuā DUÀN CHÉNG liǎng jié
'A sword cut into the rock, flaring out a spark and snapping into two parts'
汪森拿起了他放在草帽上的望远镜,克服着双手的颤抖观察被“飞刃”切割成四十多片的“审判日”号。
Wāng sēn náqǐ le tā fàngzài cǎomào-shàng de wàngyuǎnjìng, kèfú-zhe shuāngshǒu de chàndǒu guānchá bèi “fēi rèn” QIĒGĒ CHÉNG sìshí-duō piàn de “shěnpàn rì” hào
'Wang Sen picked up the telescope that he'd put on his straw hat, overcame the trembling of his hands, and observed "Judgement Day" being cut into more than forty pieces by the "flying edge"'
切成的水果
QIÈ CHÉNG kuài de shuǐguǒ
'fruit cut up into pieces'

The following expresses the concept of welding together into a smaller number of pieces:

用48厘米的铁丝焊接成一个正方形框架,这个正方形的体积是多少?
yòng 48 límǐ de tiěsī HÀNJIĒ CHÉNG yīgè zhèngfāngxíng kuàngjià, zhè-ge zhèngfāngxíng de tǐjī shì duōshǎo?
'If we use 48 cm wire to weld into a square frame, what is the volume of the square?'

Condensing into a smaller number of items also uses chéng:

...直到一千颗星星的方阵缩成一颗星
...zhídào yīqiān-kē xīngxīng de fāngzhèn SUŌ CHÉNG yī-kē xīng
'...until a phalanx of one thousand stars shrank to one star'
这段记忆被浓缩成一幅幅欧洲古典油画
zhè duàn jìyì bèi NÓNGSUŌ CHÉNG yī-fúfú ōuzhōu gǔdiǎn yóuhuà
'this memory was condensed into a series of classical European oil paintings'

The concept of coming together into an indivisible whole also uses chéng. This simple example from a tweet shows chéng describing people coming together in a 'lump'.

抱抱挤成一坨
bào bào JǏ CHÉNG yī-tuó
'hugging and squeezing into a lump'
The following sentence uses 一片 yī-piàn, which literally means 'a slice' but here means 'an undifferentiated whole':

里面的喧闹声和枪声响成一片
lǐmiàn de xuānnào shēng hé qiāng shēng XIǍNG CHÉNG yī-piàn
'The noise and gunshot sounds inside turned into a din'

There is an idiom based on this usage, 打成一片 dǎchéng yī-piàn, meaning 'become integrated with; become a harmonious whole; become [be] one with; be fused with'. 'strike' in this case is a generalised concept of 'putting' into a certain state, or even, as a transitive verb, simply 'becoming' a certain state:

与群众打成一片
yǔ qúnzhòng DǍ CHÉNG yī-piàn
'to become one with the masses'

Concepts of bringing together into formations also use chéng. In this sentence, the verb is zhàn 'to stand', and the result of large numbers of people standing is to form a square:

如果全人类站成这样一个方阵,面积也不过是上海浦东大小
rúguǒ quán rénlèi ZHÀN CHÉNG zhèyàng yīgè fāng zhèn, miànjī yě bùguò shì shànghǎi pǔdōng dàxiǎo
'If mankind stood in a square formation, the area would only be the size of Shanghai Pudong'

The following example from a story by Chen Kexiong (陈可雄 Chén Kěxióng) and Ma Ming (马鸣 Mǎ Míng) uses pái 'to line up, arrange in a line, queue':

数不清的汽车、卡车和小轿车在街中心排成一条长龙
shǔbuqīng de qìchē, kǎche hé xiǎo jiàochē zài jiē zhōngxīn PÁI CHÉNG yī-tiáo chánglóng,'
'countless cars, trucks and small cars in the middle of the street lined up into a long dragon (long line),

* Other actions that cause a transformation

Many other actions can result in a transformation, such as a change in colour or quality:

你不必为了得到关注把头发染成粉色或者在脸上纹上图案。
nǐ bùbì wèi le dédào guānzhù bǎ tóufǎ RǍN CHÉNG fěnsè huòzhě zài liǎn shàng wén shàng tú'àn
'In order to gain attention, you do not have to dye your hair pink or put a pattern on your face'

The following sentence describes a devastating change in value due to improper handling:

价值万元的名牌风衣被洗衣店洗成地摊货
jiàzhí wàn yuán de míngpái fēngyī bèi xǐyī-diàn XǏ CHÉNG le dìtān-huò
'A brand-name windbreaker worth 10,000 RMB was washed into street-stall clothing by a laundry'
最近的一场雨把瀑布搅成泥水漩涡
zuìjìn de yī chǎng yǔ bǎ pùbù JIǍO CHÉNG le níshuǐ xuánwō
'The recent rain had churned up the waterfall into a muddy whirlpool'

* Generalised verbs

Many changes are indicated by the use of general verbs like 弄 nòng 'to do':

弄成碎片
NÒNG CHÉNG suìpiàn
'put into fragments'
如何把杏仁去皮弄成白色
rúhé bǎ xìngrén qù pí NÒNG CHÉNG báisè
'How to peel and blanch almonds'
本来高高兴兴的婚礼,搞成一个“闹伴娘”风波
běnlái gāogāo xìngxìng de hūnlǐ, GǍO CHÉNG le yī-gè “nào bànniáng” fēngbō
'What was originally a happy wedding was transformed into a storm over a bridesmaid'
打成泡沫
DǍ CHENG pàomò
'turn into foam, beat into foam'

(See also the example with 打成 above.)

* Design

chéng can refer not only to actions but also to conscious design:

为通过巴拿马运河的三十二米宽船闸,相当一部分大型海轮被设计成三十一米宽,称为巴拿马尺型。
wèi tōngguò bānámǎ yùnhé de sānshí'èr-mǐ kuān chuánzhá, xiāngdāng yī-bùfèn dàxíng hǎilún bèi SHÈJÌ CHÉNG sānshíyī-mǐ kuān, chēng wèi bānámǎ chǐ xíng
'In order to pass through Panama Canal locks thirty-two metres wide, a considerable number of large ocean-going vessels were designed to be thirty-one metres wide, called the Panama type'

* Painting

In the following sentence, the act of portraiture transforms the subject into something different:

把这么漂亮的姑娘画成大妈了也叫画得好吗?
bǎ zhème piàoliang de gūniang HUÀ CHÉNG dàmā le yě jiào huà de hǎo ma?
'Could you call painting such a pretty girl as an older women a good painting?'

* Imagining

An interesting example is the following, where all that is needed to effect a transformation is imagination:

在阅读信息时,叶文洁只能把三体人想象成人类的形象
zài yuèdú xìnxī shí, yèwénjié zhǐ néng bǎ sān tǐ rén XIǍNGXIÀNG CHÉNG rén lèi de xíngxiàng
'While reading the messages, Ye Wenjie could only imagine the Three-Body people as being human in form'

* Giving rise to

A fixed and common form, especially in factual prose, is the use of 造成 zāo chéng, which is used in Chinese where English would use 'cause', 'give rise to' or 'result in':

贫富不均可造成社会动荡
pín fù bù jūn kě ZÀO CHÉNG shèhuì dòngdàng
'wealth and poverty do not cause social unrest'
增加税收归结起来将造成很多困难
zēngjiā shuìshōu guījié qǐlái jiāng ZÀO CHÉNG hěnduō kùnnán
'tax increases will give rise to many difficulties'
这种行为可能造成意外
zhè-zhǒng xíngwéi kěnéng ZÀO CHÉNG yìwài
'This kind of behaviour could give rise to accidents'
造成死亡的直接原因不明
ZÀO CHÉNG sǐwáng de zhíjiē yuányīn bùmíng
'The immediate cause of death is unknown'
厄瓜多尔16日发生的7.8级强震,已造成655人死亡,16601人受伤,两万多人失去家园
Èguāduō'ěr shíliù rì fāshēng de qī diǎn bā jí qiáng zhèn, yǐ ZÀO CHÉNG liùbǎi wǔshíwǔ rén sǐwáng, yīwàn liùqiān liùbǎi líng yī rén shòushāng, liǎng wàn duō rén shīqù jiāyuán
'The 7.8-scale earthquake that occurred in Ecuador on the 16th has caused 655 deaths, 16601 injuries, and twenty thousand people to lose their homes'
一种细菌被断定为造成他十二指肠溃疡的根源
yī zhǒng xìjùn bèi duàndìng wèi ZÀO CHÉNG tā shí'èr zhǐ cháng kuìyáng de gēnyuán
'A kind of bacterium is identified as the root cause of his duodenal ulcer'

5. Grammar

Combinations of verb and complements like chéng are close knit. As seen above, the perfective marker le is often placed between chéng and its object. le acts as an aspect marker for the 'verb + chéng' combination as a whole. This is the reason that the verb and chéng are regarded as two cosubordinate nucleii (predicates) of a single nucleus (predicate) in Role and Reference Grammar, as noted above.

The combination 'verb + chéng' happily forms adnominal clauses with de, the Chinese equivalent of relative clauses. In the following exemples, the adnominal clause is shown in square brackets:

[ 用夹克衫改成的 ] 不成形的一件衣服
[ yòng jiákè shān GǍI CHÉNG de ] bù chéngxíng de yī-jiàn yīfú
'a strange shapeless garment [ that was transformed from a jacket ] '
那个方向有亿万颗恒星,每一颗都以 [ 远近不同的星星汇成的 ] 星海为背景
nàgè fāngxiàng yóu yì wàn kē héngxīng, měi yī kē dōu yǐ [ yuǎnjìn bùtóng de xīngxīng HUÌ CHÉNG de ] xīnghǎi wéi bèijǐng
'In that direction there were hundreds of millions of stars; each had as a background a sea of stars [ that brought together stars at different distances ] '
他的头上缠满了一层层 [ 用床单撕成的 ] 绷带
tā de tóu-shàng chán-mǎn le yī-céngcéng [ yòng chuángdān SĪ CHÉNG de ] bēngdài
'His head was swathed in layers of bandages [ that were made from tearing a sheet ] '

Split constructions using 是...的 shi...de can be created on the same principle:

这一切误会都是 [ 他在无意中造成的 ] 。
zhè yīqiè wùhuì dōu shì [ tā zài wúyì zhōng ZÀO CHÉNG de ]
'These misunderstandings were all inadvertently caused by him'

While chéng indicating 'to become' is productive and widespread, it appears to be less productive in other resultative sentence patterns. For example, the negative resultative form 不成 bù chéng should indicate the meaning 'cannot transform into something else'. There are, indeed, examples where this is the case:

我做的桂花米藕为什么切不成
wǒ zuò de guìhuā mǐ-ǒu wèishéme QIÈ-BU-CHÉNG piàn
'Why can't the osmanthus lotus rice I'm making be cut into sheets?'
黑老鸹洗不成白鹅
hēi lǎoguā XǏ-BU-CHÉNG bái é
'The black crow can't be washed into a white goose' (proverb)
打不成奶油状也可以做蛋糕
DǍ-BU-CHÉNG nǎiyóu zhuàng yě kěyǐ zuò dàn'gāo
'Even (that which) can't be beaten into a creamy state can be used to make cake'
为何我和我的同学打不成一片
wèihé wǒ hé wǒ de tóngxué DǍ-BU-CHÉNG yī-piàn
'Why can't I become one with my classmates'
牛粪干湿分离机为什么总弄不成干的
niú fèn gān-shī fēnlíjī wèishéme zǒng NÒNG-BU-CHÉNG gàn de
'Why can't a wet and dry manure separator not get dry (manure)'

But such usages are relatively rare. 不成 bù chéng as a complement is more commonly understood in the meaning 'is not possible'. For instance, the negative expression 弄不成 nòng-bu-chéng normally means 'is not feasible'. 造不成 zào-bu-chéng is relatively rare and where used does not normally mean 'does not cause or give rise to'. Instead, it means 'unable to make or create', since zào as a verb means 'to make, to create'.

Similarly for expressions using 得成 de-chéng, which generally refer to the feasibility of an action rather than the ability for such a transformation to take place.