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A reevaluation of so-called passive constructions in ancient Chinese : from Pre-Qin to the Han dynasty

Jianhong Zeng (UGent)
(2020)
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(UGent) and (UGent)
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Abstract
While there have been written many linguistic studies on the passive voice in Chinese, many aspects of this field of research have remained controversial, such as the emergence of various constructions, their exact syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic features, as well as the question from which period onward we can talk about a “mature” passive (i.e., passive voice). Three main opinions are presented in current scholarship. Ma, in a pioneering work from 1898 (reprinted in 2007: 160), defined the Chinese passive construction as a construction with “a patient appearing in the subject position” without clearly defining the “subject” or discussing the construction (外动字之行,有施有受。受者居宾次,常也。如受者居主次,则为受动字,明其以受者为主也。). Much later, Gao 1949 (reprinted in 2011: 226-227) argued that none of the explanations that have been provided in scholarship so far validated the assumption that the constructions could be treated similarly to the passive voice found in many western languages (汉语具有动词功能的词,实在并没有施动和受动的分别), while other recent studies have labeled the Chinese structures that had overt syntactic markers as passive structures. In order to contribute to this fundamental and long-lasting scholarly debate, this comprehensive study provides a review of the diachronic development of the so-called Chinese passive from the pre-Qin era to the end of the Han dynasty. Part 1 reviews the studies of passive in Chinese and also introduces the definition of passive in a cross-linguistic perspective. Especially, some relevant terminology, in particular, “passive sense”, “passive voice”, “passive function” and “passive construction”, are distinguished in order to better understand the passive in Ancient Chinese. Meanwhile, three important factors that could trigger a passive interpretation in Ancient Chinese are introduced as a general background of this dissertation. Part 2 examines two types of notional passive (i.e., PV construction) in Ancient Chinese, i.e., Type 1 and Type 2. It is found that most notional passives were in fact the intransitive use of labile verbs (i.e., Type 1) that could only be interpreted as a passive depending on the context. Meanwhile, in some special contexts, a few verbs with strong transitive features are also found in the notional passive construction (i.e., Type 2), which is rarely observed cross-linguistically. Type 2 should be understood as a special situation of Type 1 in which the event expressed by the verb is not likely to occur spontaneously. Part 3 focuses on the diachronic development of the four lexical items traditionally regarded as “passive markers”: jian见, bei 被, wei 为and yu于, and concludes that all are ambiguous for both passive and non-passive interpretations, since a passive interpretation is determined by the context rather than by these markers themselves, which were also used in active sentences and could also be assembled to constitute new structures and variations. Therefore, it was concluded that there was no consistent syntactic marker that specifically expressed the passive voice in Ancient Chinese. Part 4 examines whether the ke construction was a passive construction in Archaic Chinese by reviewing the formation of the ke (and ke yi) constructions, as well as the nan (yi), yi (yi) and zu (yi) constructions. It was concluded that these were more likely to be interpreted as serial verb constructions with deontic modality and a generic reading with middle characteristics that possibly also expressed a passive meaning. However, it was concluded that ke, nan, yi and zu could not justifiably be defined as passive markers. Part 5 concludes that in Chinese it is important to differentiate between the passive voice and a passive sense. From a translation perspective, some so-called passive structures were found to express passive meanings and were translated as such into English and other languages. However, as the passive meaning appeared to be pragmatically rather than syntactically determined, none of the alleged passives in Ancient Chinese can be qualified as passive voice in accordance with a syntactic definition of passive. In general, the degree of grammaticalization of the passive markers in Archaic Chinese was quite low and they are better explained from a functional grammar viewpoint rather than a transformational generative grammar perspective.
Keywords
notional passive, marked passive, Ancient Chinese, pragmatic, passive sense, passive voice

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MLA
Zeng, Jianhong. A Reevaluation of So-Called Passive Constructions in Ancient Chinese : From Pre-Qin to the Han Dynasty. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 2020.
APA
Zeng, J. (2020). A reevaluation of so-called passive constructions in ancient Chinese : from Pre-Qin to the Han dynasty. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Chicago author-date
Zeng, Jianhong. 2020. “A Reevaluation of So-Called Passive Constructions in Ancient Chinese : From Pre-Qin to the Han Dynasty.” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Zeng, Jianhong. 2020. “A Reevaluation of So-Called Passive Constructions in Ancient Chinese : From Pre-Qin to the Han Dynasty.” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Vancouver
1.
Zeng J. A reevaluation of so-called passive constructions in ancient Chinese : from Pre-Qin to the Han dynasty. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte; 2020.
IEEE
[1]
J. Zeng, “A reevaluation of so-called passive constructions in ancient Chinese : from Pre-Qin to the Han dynasty,” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 2020.
@phdthesis{8683519,
  abstract     = {{While there have been written many linguistic studies on the passive voice in Chinese, many aspects of this field of research have remained controversial, such as the emergence of various constructions, their exact syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic features, as well as the question from which period onward we can talk about a “mature” passive (i.e., passive voice). Three main opinions are presented in current scholarship. Ma, in a pioneering work from 1898 (reprinted in 2007: 160), defined the Chinese passive construction as a construction with “a patient appearing in the subject position” without clearly defining the “subject” or discussing the construction (外动字之行,有施有受。受者居宾次,常也。如受者居主次,则为受动字,明其以受者为主也。). Much later, Gao 1949 (reprinted in 2011: 226-227) argued that none of the explanations that have been provided in scholarship so far validated the assumption that the constructions could be treated similarly to the passive voice found in many western languages (汉语具有动词功能的词,实在并没有施动和受动的分别), while other recent studies have labeled the Chinese structures that had overt syntactic markers as passive structures. In order to contribute to this fundamental and long-lasting scholarly debate, this comprehensive study provides a review of the diachronic development of the so-called Chinese passive from the pre-Qin era to the end of the Han dynasty.

Part 1 reviews the studies of passive in Chinese and also introduces the definition of passive in a cross-linguistic perspective. Especially, some relevant terminology, in particular, “passive sense”, “passive voice”, “passive function” and “passive construction”, are distinguished in order to better understand the passive in Ancient Chinese. Meanwhile, three important factors that could trigger a passive interpretation in Ancient Chinese are introduced as a general background of this dissertation.

Part 2 examines two types of notional passive (i.e., PV construction) in Ancient Chinese, i.e., Type 1 and Type 2. It is found that most notional passives were in fact the intransitive use of labile verbs (i.e., Type 1) that could only be interpreted as a passive depending on the context. Meanwhile, in some special contexts, a few verbs with strong transitive features are also found in the notional passive construction (i.e., Type 2), which is rarely observed cross-linguistically. Type 2 should be understood as a special situation of Type 1 in which the event expressed by the verb is not likely to occur spontaneously. 

Part 3 focuses on the diachronic development of the four lexical items traditionally regarded as “passive markers”: jian见, bei 被, wei 为and yu于, and concludes that all are ambiguous for both passive and non-passive interpretations, since a passive interpretation is determined by the context rather than by these markers themselves, which were also used in active sentences and could also be assembled to constitute new structures and variations. Therefore, it was concluded that there was no consistent syntactic marker that specifically expressed the passive voice in Ancient Chinese.

Part 4 examines whether the ke construction was a passive construction in Archaic Chinese by reviewing the formation of the ke (and ke yi) constructions, as well as the nan (yi), yi (yi) and zu (yi) constructions. It was concluded that these were more likely to be interpreted as serial verb constructions with deontic modality and a generic reading with middle characteristics that possibly also expressed a passive meaning. However, it was concluded that ke, nan, yi and zu could not justifiably be defined as passive markers.

Part 5 concludes that in Chinese it is important to differentiate between the passive voice and a passive sense. From a translation perspective, some so-called passive structures were found to express passive meanings and were translated as such into English and other languages. However, as the passive meaning appeared to be pragmatically rather than syntactically determined, none of the alleged passives in Ancient Chinese can be qualified as passive voice in accordance with a syntactic definition of passive. In general, the degree of grammaticalization of the passive markers in Archaic Chinese was quite low and they are better explained from a functional grammar viewpoint rather than a transformational generative grammar perspective.}},
  author       = {{Zeng, Jianhong}},
  keywords     = {{notional passive,marked passive,Ancient Chinese,pragmatic,passive sense,passive voice}},
  language     = {{eng}},
  pages        = {{395}},
  publisher    = {{Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte}},
  school       = {{Ghent University}},
  title        = {{A reevaluation of so-called passive constructions in ancient Chinese : from Pre-Qin to the Han dynasty}},
  year         = {{2020}},
}