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how to use zai in chinese

96. Using “zai” in Chinese

Podcast Duration: 00:50:38

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The Mandarin Blueprint Podcast focuses primarily on The Mandarin Blueprint Method online curriculum. Creators Luke Neale & Phil Crimmins answer questions and comments, discuss topics related to China and Mandarin learning, and have special guests.

96. Using "zai" in Chinese

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GS-Special-在-Relator-Usage & GS-Special-在-DoesWhat-Usage

在 zài is a highly dynamic character, and this article will tackle two of its most important uses. The first is the “GS-Special-在-DoesWhat-Usage,” and it’s quite simple to understand. It means that “在” is serving as the verb in a sentence. For example:

Sentence 1:

他在中国。 – Level 14

Tā zài zhōngguó.

He’s in China.

Host: 他 He

Does What: 在 is (located) in

Guest: 中国 China

在 only shows up as the “Does What/Verb” in simple sentences when it’s the only point the speaker is making. A: Where is he? B: He’s in China. Easy peasy.

Sentence 2:

他在中国生活。 – Level 14

Tā zài zhōngguó shēnghuó.

He lives in China.

Here we have the same sentence, but by adding the word “生活,” the “Does What” of the sentence shifts to “生活” and “在” becomes a relator showing the relationship between ‘生活’ and ‘where 在’ it’s happening.

We can see that (so far) the structure is:

Host + 在 + Location + Does What

Sentence 3:

我在台上唱歌。 – Level 14

Wǒ zài táishàng chànggē.

I sing on stage.

Once again, the point of this sentence is not that “I 我 “is “on the stage 在台上” but rather that “我” is “singing 唱歌.” Therefore, the function of 在 is to relate the ‘does what’ of singing to the location of the singing (台上). Here we still have the “Host + 在 + Location + Does What.” 

Sentence 4:

爷爷在门口坐了下来。 – Level 15

Yéye zài ménkǒu zuò le xiàlái.

Grandpa sat down at the entrance.

爷爷坐了下来 “Grandpa sat down” is a perfectly fine sentence, but by adding “在门口” you are becoming more precise in your description. Relators like 在 are almost always not necessary grammatically, but they help convey more detail and change the meaning of a sentence significantly.

We chose this sentence as our final example of “Host + 在 + Location + Does What” because “坐” can be one of the special verbs that change the word order. In a moment we’ll explain why it didn’t change the word order in the above sentence, but let’s take a look at the next example:

Sentence 5:

我坐在桌子上吃饭。 – Level 14

Wǒ zuò zài zhuōzi shàng chīfàn.

I’m sitting at the table eating.

Here the word order changed:

Before: Host + 在 + Location + Does What 

Now: Host + [Movement/Location Verb] + 在 + Location + (Does What)

You’ll notice this word order when dealing with a particular set of verbs that imply movement or location. Some of them include: 

坐 zuò – to sit

走 zǒu – to walk

放 fàng – to put, to place

站 zhàn – to stand

住 zhù – to live, to reside

吐 tǔ/tù – to spit (tǔ), to vomit (tù)

This is not an exhaustive list, but as you can see, all of these verbs include either movement or location

Note that the “Does What” in this structure isn’t required. If you only want to say, “I sit at the table我坐在桌子上,” that’s fine.

But wait! Why was “爷爷在门口坐了下来” in the original word order? It’s because there is a resultative complement placed after “坐 “(下来). When you have a complement after the verb, the word order reverts to the “Host + 在 + Location + Does What + (Complement).”

Let’s look at a few more examples with the “Host + [Movement/Location Verb] + 在 + Location” structure:

Sentence 6:

他吐在地上。 – Level 14

Tā tǔ zài dìshàng.

He spits on the ground.

This sentence is an example of no further action after the “location” (地上). The entire point of the sentence is that he’s spitting on the ground, so there’s no need to add anything else.

Sentence 7:

他站在一边看着我们说话。 – Level 16

Tā zhàn zài yībiān kànzhe wǒmen shuōhuà.

He stood on one side, watching us talk.

Again, if the sentence were “他站在一边” that’s fine, but once you establish the Host’s location, you can then add what he’s doing while “standing to the side 站在一边,” which in this case is “watching us talking 看着我们说话.”

Sentence 8: 

我们今年住在这边。 – Level 20

Wǒmen jīnnián zhù zài zhèbiān.

We live here this year.

住 zhù is a verb that implies location, even if it doesn’t necessarily imply movement. You must reside somewhere, so that’s why it gets placed before 在. Also, note that if you want to add a time word like “今年” that you’ll put it either before or after the “host,” but before the movement/location verb.

在 will come up so often in your input that if you haven’t mastered it yet, you will so. Keep an eye out for those “Movement/Location” verbs, and as always, don’t overthink it!

11:08 Comments & Emails

Kristina via Email

Hi Phil!

Thank you, you guys are THE BEST! 

I have been studying on my own on the internet for about a year now, it started out without any real intention to really study Chinese, but one thing, app, site…. lead to another (Chinesepod, Skritter, Mandarin Companion & all their books, some Yoyo Chinese, Hacking Chinese, Mandarin Corner, and Everyday Chinese and various other youtube channels, etc.)  and by now I´m quite determined to continue. I have something like a “passive” (can´t speak…) HSK3-HSK4 level and about 1400 characters on Skritter, but most of them “only live in Skritter”, without context and therefore useless. 

I found your site a few days ago when I was looking for pronunciation advice on youtube. First, just the ji-qi-xi video, thinking “this guy had tips I had not heard from anyone else”… and a bit later I ended up looking for “that British guy´s videos” again and realized that Mandarin Blueprint is much more than just a youtube channel. And now I want to scream HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT I HAD NOT HEARD OF YOU BEFORE!!!??? 

Not necessarily because I regret anything in my learning path so far, things happen for a reason and I probably had to follow the path I have “walked”. But I have been around the Chinese learning sites and apps and channels practically every day for a year, not active on any forums but yes , reading some comments and finding one site after another through them and just searching in google. When I found your pronunciation course I just could not believe that there´s something SO complete and SO well done I hadn´t even heard of! how is it even POSSIBLE that I had not found you before, why isn´t EVERYONE in the Chinese learning sphere talking about this???!!! And that was just because of the pronunciation course, now I have seen there is MUCH more to the blueprint than just that. I then found out that your company is still quite new so maybe that is why. I hope you will soon get all the attention and “internet fame” that you deserve because what you are doing really is high quality and different and new.

Even your American – British accent mix is just PERFECT for me, I learned my English in the US and American English always will be “the real English” for me, but living on the Costa del Sol in Spain I hear British English daily and since many of the Chinese teaching sites seem to have American origin it was nice to see that there is someone European around as well – and then get “my dose” of that “real American English” as well. 🙂 

So thank you in advance, I look forward to bringing the characters and the language to LIFE now that I have found your blueprint for how to use it! I found Stephen Krashen’s theories thanks to Mandarin Companion and became a great fan because looking back on how I learned my other languages decades ago (native Finnish, almost native level Spanish after 23 years living here, fluent English and decent German and Swedish) I saw that Krashen describes exactly how I learned when I was young: Not in class, but outside of class! And I´m really looking forward to putting those methods into practice again now with the “ultimate challenge” of Chinese. Thank you for making that possible!

Wishing both of you and your company all the best and looking forward to learning with you!


Eleanor Todd by Community

Re: Characters with alternate meanings and pronunciations.

I’m having trouble remembering the alternate meaning and pronunciation for characters like 着 (zhe/zhao) and 还(hai/huan).

Do you have a suggested method for handling these? 

It seems like I could create an additional Hanzi movie scene for each of these, but I’m concerned that it might conflict with the primary scene I’ve created and thus hinder my recollection of that one!



Jane by Community

Hello.  I love langauges and am currently learning Italian.  I had hoped to “some day” learn a non-romance language one of the big ones like Russian or Chinese.  Then recently everywhere I look there are Youtube references and Chinese language prompts popping up all over the place including Mandarin Blueprint.  These guys look like they know what they are talking about.  I thought ‘why “some day” why not now?’  So here I am, going all in with courses and e-books.  It has been lovely to read the forum posts but they don’t mean much to me as I am at the very beginning of this experience.  So….off to do some pronunciation practice / learning.  Consistency is the secret!  Best wishes to all of you.


Neil Rogers on (BONUS) Principle vs. Reality in Mandarin

Wow, Luke, Phil, and Anny I’m hooked.

I actually feel confident with this material that I can learn
Standard Mandarin. I’m not going to rush pronunciation. I really
like the bite-size videos and being able to download the bonus
material. I am planning on going to Shanghai and Ningbo in
October 2021 to visit friends.


Joseph Glover on (BONUS) What About 呢 ne?

I love how the videos are connected to the Anki cards, it helps
so much! =)


Michael Roberts on BONUS: From FAILURE to HSK 6 Exam in ONE YEAR!

What a great story!
And, thank you so much for your trailblazing efforts for those of
us following your footsteps!
I’m looking forward to one day meeting you in person and
conversing in Chinese.



Andrew Clapham on The Phase 3 Blueprint Expansions

So pumped! I trusted you guys with the decision of what I should
learn and in what order, and I can tell that it’s totally paying
off ?. All those years of you guys studying and making mistakes:
we’re benefiting from that learning right now! Thanks.


Ric Santos on Problem Initial C: 词 cí

Very very good to teach us the technique, breaking the syllable
in 2 parts.


babes gutierrez on YOU DID IT!!!

No enough words can truly describe how grateful I am to Luke and
Phil for making this course available to us. I like the idea of “
Do not push yourself to speak “. Awesome pieces of advice.
Definitely do the entire Mandarin Blueprint Method. Amazing


John Morrison on New Vocabulary Unlocked! 为什么

Now this is what I’m talking about, I can read and write these
words. I am moving closer and closer to my ultimate goal.


Alex Sumray on ANKI DECKS INSIDE – Now Just LOOK at how SOLID that Foundation Is!

Can’t thank you both enough.
I’ve never experienced a course like this really.
It’s given me the belief that Chinese fluency is an attainable
goal…ok, with another 1000 characters at least to go and a
tonne more listening, reading and speaking practice, but the
blueprint has de-mystified what was once rather heavily misted!

I now plan to give myself a few days of solely revising what
we’ve learnt here, before diving into the intermediate (bring it
I plan to work my way through it at a much more leisurely pace
however; one, to allow me time to practice these other elements
of the language and two.. to keep me sane and maybe give me a
little extra time to spend with the family… though that may
soon get tiresome, in which case, I can just up my workload once

Thanks again,


TJ Chernick on MAKE A MOVIE 讨

I’m surprised with how well hearing others’ stories can help
finesse mine a bit when I’m struggling. Even when all the props
are different just hearing how people wrapped their brains around
an obscure topic really helps.


Jonathan Glazier on Reviewing is ESSENTIAL & So is This Lesson – ANKI DECK(S) INSIDE

Whats a good number of characters to learn a day?


Benjamin Rees on New Vocabulary Unlocked! 总算

If anybody is a Simpsons fan, I find it really helpful to use
the Frinkiac meme generator to help me remember these compound
words. I think of a particular scene, object, or phrase that
occurs in The Simpsons, and use Frinkiac to find a picture of the
scene where it is used to add to my flashcard. For this
particular one, I have a picture of Homer’s “Nuts and Gum
(together at last)”.


Christopher Weeks on Nasal Final EN Quiz

嗯 èn – (grunt of agreement) and 摁 èn – to press (e.g. a button)
are pronounced the same way. The answer for this is True, right?
At the moment it marks False as the correct answer.


Ric Santos on Nasal Final IN (YIN): 拼音 pīnyīn,您好 nínhǎo,今天 jīntiān

I hear the “-ng” every slightly oftentimes with native Chinese
speakers ; In fact with Anny in the review I hear Pin Yin as
“ping-yin” , and JinTian as “Jing Tian”. It might be that
something is wrong with my ears… but as you said, I will just
keep these in mind. Who knows (?) in the near future I would hear


Dom Thomson on Vocab Unlocked from 清


I can’t find any reference to 清 meaning ‘count’?

It seems this means more like ‘clear away’ (the winter clothes).

Am I missing something?


qīng yī qīng xíngli de jiànshu
count the pieces of luggage and see how many there are


William Beeman on  MAKE A MOVIE 日

I got curious about the distribution of tones in Mandarin. It
seemed that a large number off the tones we have been using are
4th Tones, so I looked up some research. At least one researcher
on the web site Research Gate suggested the following (but still
had questions)

“I have developed some very general data eg Tone 1 occurs around
18% of the time, Tones 2 and 3 slightly higher than Tone 1, Tone
4 occurs > 40%, and the neutral is relatively low. But I’d
like to obtain more detailed data and also theories as to how
experts view tones in probability [if this style can even be
accomplished]. Would Bayesian probabilities not be appropriate?”

Respondents suggested several published works.


Aladin Farre on Compound Final AI: 爱 ài,我爱你 wǒ ài nǐ,在 zài

Hello, just to add up on Ipsita’s question.

Why does 你爱不爱我? is “nǐ ài bu ài wǒ?” and not “nǐ ài bú ài wǒ?” ?
If I recall a succession of 4th tone (4th-4th-4th) become
“5th-5th-4th”, but in that case why don’t we have “nǐ ai bu ài


Kathryn Nixon on How to “Make a Movie” with 十 shí – “ten”

Hi. I have an unusual condition where I cannot remember faces.
Any suggestions on how I can adapt the method?

43:40 Movies! 

This blog post explains the theory behind Movie Scenes and learning characters.

Denis Aganin on Make a Movie 辛

My actress is standing outside of my scene in front of an empty
vase. She uses a big syringe to pierce the asphalt under her feet
and extract a little bit of water to then put inside the vase.
She does that a few times and wipes of her sweat catching a break
from the “hard labor”.


Dom Thomson on Make a Movie 海

Alexander Hamilton in my old office

MARGE SIMPSON is walking through with a SNIPER DOT on her

Alexander Hamilton sees this and squirts a giant WATER BOTTLE at
her with tremendous force.

Marge is knocked across the room and saved from the sniper shot.
But, there is so much water that whole room immediately fills up.
Marge and Hamilton are flailing about in the middle of a rough


Dom Thomson on Make a Movie 源

Barack Obama is in the kitchen, closely inspecting a WATER

Something tastes funny about it so he wants to know the SOURCE of
this water. He closely examines the picture on the label.

The camera zooms into the idyllic garden scene, follows a stream
that winds up through the hills. At the top of the stream is an
image of a man wearing just a FIG LEAF.

As the fig leaf drips into the stream, Barack understands the
true SOURCE of this water and is horrified.


Della Fuller on Make a Movie 五

The Olsen twins are in my childhood home livingroom, and it is
their birthday. They have lots of friends over, and there is a
horsehead pinata hanging from the ceiling. They are taking turns
trying to hit the pinata and release all the candy inside. They
are only allowed FIVE hits with the stick each time to break the
pinata. “One, two, three, four, FIVE! Okay, my turn!” The stick
is handed over and then, “One, two, three, four, FIVE!”


Georg Lohrer on Make a Movie 厂

Charlie Chaplin, movie “Modern Times”, he works in a FACTORY
like a gear in a big machine, stapling razor blades that they can
be forged into a samurai sword.
Of course with all the noises and especially the smell you have
on a metal-working factory shop-floor.

14 July, 2020