April 22, 2018

Two ways to say “the future” in Chinese: the future that will come (将来) and the future that hasn’t come (未来)

Chinese is my native language. Like most native speakers of their languages, I rarely ponder on the words of the literal meaning but take them for granted; we already know the meaning and how to use them, right? That’s why I was so fascinated when, after speaking Chinese for about 30 years, I realized there are two words to say “the future” in Chinese: 将来 and 未来.

They’re identical in the dictionary, both can be translated to “the future”, but if we take apart the two-character-combination word, as every character has its meaning in Chinese, and examine the literal meaning of each character, we got a different explanation: 将来 - (the future that) will come and 未来 - (the future that) hasn’t come.

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Isn’t it amazing?! Suddenly I had this urge to go back and analyze how I have been using them, do I make a clear distinction between what kind of future I refer to?

For all the information that I could collect from my knowledge, experiences, friends’ comments, and the online dictionaries, I made my draft conclusion. In practice, the will-come-future is mostly used to express “near future,” and the has-not-come-future as “far future” or “future in general.” In some cases, they are even interchangeable.

(Note that Japanese also use the same Chinese characters to represent the future, and they convey a very similar meaning and nuance, but I won’t go deeper in this post and will keep the discussions within the scope of Chinese.)

Let’s see some examples:

1) “No one can predict the future.”

2) “Does Ready Player One reveal the future of VR?”

3) “You would get it when you become a parent in the future.”

4) “When she grows up (in the future), I’ll give her the best education I can offer.”

An observation I’ve made about the usage of 将来, the will-come-future is that it’s especially used when we talk about the future of someone very close to this, like a family member, your best friend, etc. Indeed, the 3) example was actually what my mom told me a few years ago when we were talking about parenting, and 4) was from my best friend who was talking about his newborn baby girl.

I know such usage can be well explained by the simple rule of “near future” - how near or far that future is from us. But I can’t help making a hypothesis that, even it is perhaps subtle to the speaker and the listener, wouldn’t we use it to express the belief or longing or hope or fear of that specific future, the one we want to witness and be part of it? So maybe I can tweak the examples with the literal meaning of the word, and see how that feels like.

“You would get it when you become a parent in the future (and that day will come).”
“When she grows up, (and she will), I’ll give her the best education I can offer.”

It could be that I was just overthinking, in reality, the distinction of the two words could be vague. But I want to believe what I see from the words and will keep the notes from now on. Isn’t it beautiful to have this special word for our future?

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Qihuan Piao

Qihuan Piao

(aka kinopyo) is Chinese based in Tokyo. Software writer. He shares stories inspired him in this blog. His infamous line - "I feel calm when I kill those monsters, or people (in game)" shocks his friends deeply.

He also writes in Japanese and Chinese.