常常(cháng cháng) VS往往(wǎng wǎng): The Many Ways of Using the word “Often” in Chinese

In English, the word “often” means “frequently” or “many times”. In Chinese, the adverbs常常(cháng cháng) and 往往(wǎng wǎng) can both be translated as “often”. However, like other synonym pairs, they have some differences, and in Mandarin, their usage can signify different meanings for different situations.

1、常常(cháng cháng) indicates that an action occurs many times, whether this action is done on a regular basis or not. 往往(wǎng wǎng), however, indicates that an action frequently happens under specific or regularly timed circumstances. 往往(wǎng wǎng) specifies the particular situation, condition or result related to the action being talked about;常常(cháng cháng) has no such restrictions. For example:

He often works overtime. 常常加班。(Tā cháng cháng jiā bān.)

He tends to work overtime at the end of the year. 往往年底加班。(Tā wǎng wǎng nián dǐ jiā bān.)

2、常常(cháng cháng) can be used to express subjective wishes, so as to indicate actions that have not yet happened but may occur repeatedly. 往往(wǎng wǎng) is a summary of the current situation, demonstrating actions that are already happening regularly, or have happened regularly over time. For example:

Let us often go watch movies.

我们常常去看电影吧。

(Wǒmen cháng cháng qù kàn diànyǐng ba.)

They often watch movies on weekends.

周末他们往往去看电影。

(Zhōumò tāmen wǎng wǎng qù kàn diànyǐng.)

3、常常(cháng cháng) can be used for past, present or future events. 往往(wǎng wǎng) is most commonly used for past events, can be used for present events, but cannot be used for those set in the future. For example:

Past tense:

When I was young, Mom often used to tell me stories.

我小时候,妈妈常常给我讲故事。

(Wǒ xiǎo shíhòu, māma cháng cháng gěi wǒ jiǎng gùshì.)

Present tense:

The manager often gets to the company half an hour early.

经理常常提前半个小时到公司。

(Jīnglǐ cháng cháng tíqián bàn gè xiǎo shí dào gōngsī.)

Future tense:

I will often come to visit you.

我会常常来看您的。

(Wǒ huì cháng cháng lái kàn nín de.)

4、The negation of 常常(cháng cháng) is 不常(bù cháng), which, of course, means “not often”. 往往(wǎng wǎng) does not have a negative version, and so, there is no “不往往(bù wǎng wǎng)”, but it can appear in negative sentences, mostly expressed as 往往不/没(wǎng wǎng bù/ méi).

For examples:

We live close, but don’t often keep in touch.

我们住的很近,但是不常联系。

(Wǒ men zhù de hěn jìndànshì bù cháng liánxì.)

On rainy days, it’s not often easy to get a taxi.

下雨天,往往容易打车。

(Xià yǔ tiān, wǎng wǎng bù róngyì dǎ chē.)

Also, 常常(cháng cháng) can be used in question sentences, while 往往(wǎng wǎng) cannot.

Do you often watch TV?

常常看电视吗?

(Nǐ cháng cháng kàn diànshì ma?)

5、 常常(cháng cháng) can be shortened to 常(cháng), while 往往(wǎng wǎng) cannot be shortened to just 往(wǎng). 常常(cháng cháng) marks a commonplace  action that is regularly repeated or happening, while 往往(wǎng wǎng) marks a less common phenomenon, one that is usually surprising or unexpected. For example:

  • Here, it is often windy. 这里()刮风。(Zhè lǐ cháng (cháng) guā fēng.)
  • When it snows, it is often not cold.下雪时往往不冷。(Xià xuě shí wǎng wǎng bù lěng.)

Now let’s practice! Fill in the blanks with“常常(cháng cháng)” or “往往(wǎng wǎng)” :

  • 不要____晚睡,对身体不好。(Don’t often stay up late, it’s harmful for health.)
  • 公立博物馆____不收费。(Usually the public museum’s entrance is )
  • 春节时,火车票____好买。(It’s usually not easy to buy train ticket during the Spring Festival.)
  • 他____迟到。(He often arrives late.)
  • 成功的人往往都有积极的心态。(Usually the successful people have positive attitude.)
  • 他____做饭。(He doesn’t cook often.)

Rita Zhang

Rita is a professional Mandarin teacher, has been teaching more than 8 years. She enjoys digging more about Chinese grammar and culture work and helping more learners. Now she is working at the one-on-one online Chinese school TouchChinese.