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Pursue the Commons in the words“上”(shang) and “下”(xia)

“上”and“下”,two of the most common words in daily life . We always say“上班(shàng bān: on duty) ”、“下班(xià bān: off duty)”,“上车(shàng chē: get on)”、“下车(xià chē: get off)”,“上厕所(shàng cè suǒ: go to bathroom)”,but we never say“下厕所(xià cè suǒ: get out the bathroom)”. If that confuses you, then let’s study these two characters in greater detail:

First, Let’s look at the background of the two characters:

“上”’s written character in different forms:


“下”’s written character in different forms:


These characters are all based on the pictographic character a horizontal line”. If you add one more stroke above the line, you get the “the up 上”. Conversely, adding a stroke below the line brings you to “the down 下”. Look at these characters. They are almost inverted versions of each other. In dictionary definitions, many “items” are simply opposites. So you can try to start understand them like antonyms.

(1) About positions


“上”is “high position”,and“下”is “low position”.

Such as ,“楼上(lóu shàng: upstairs)”and“楼下(lóu xià: downstairs)”,“上铺(shàng pù: upper berth)”and“下铺(xià pù: lower berth)”.


Tā zhù zài lóu shàng, wǒ zhù zài lóu xià
他住在楼上, 我住在楼下
He lives upstairs, and I live downstairs.

(2) About orders:according to the time or sequence

“上”is the “front ”, and“下”is the “back ”.

Such as ,“上册(shàng cè: Volume One)”and“下册(xià cè: Volume Two)”,“上次(shàng cì: Last Time)”and“下次(xià cì: Next Time)”.


Shàng cì nǐ jiè le shàng cè,xià cì nǐ jiè xià cè ma
上次你借了上册, 下次你借下册吗?
Last time you borrowed the book volume one, next time will you borrow the volume two?

(3) About levels

“上”is “upper”, and“下”is “nether”.

Such as “上等(shàng děng: superior)” and“下等(xià děng: inferior)”,“上级(shàng jí: higher-up)”and“下级(xià jí: subordinate)”.


Zūn zhòng shàng jí,yě zūn zhòng xià jí
尊重上级, 也尊重下级。
To treat superiors with respect, and also treat subordinates with respect.

(4) About directions

“上”is “from down to top”, and“下”is “from top to down”.


Such as“上船(shàng chuán: get on; aboard)”and“下船(xià chuán: get off; debark)”,“上楼(shàng lóu: go upstairs)”and“下楼(xià lóu: go downstairs)”,“上山(shàng shān: go up the hill)”and “下山(xià shān: go downhill)”,“上升(shàng shēng: go up; ascend)”and“下降(xià jiàng: pull down; descend)”.


Lǚ kè gāng kāi shǐ shàng chuán
Passengers were just starting to board the ship.

(5) About taking part in some orderly activities

“上”is ”start”, and“下”is “finish”.

Such as,“上班(shàng bān: on duty; go to work)”and “下班(xià bān: off duty; get off work)”,“上课(shàng kè: Class begins;in class)”and“下课(xià kè: Class Over; after class)”.


Tā měi tiān zǎo shàng bā diǎn shàng bān, xià wǔ wǔ diǎn xià bān
他每天早上8点上班, 下午5点下班。
Every day he goes to work at 8am, and gets off work at 5pm.

Apart from these relative meanings, sometimes they are not opposites, and this can often confuse us:

I: In some phrases, like “上街(shàng jiē: go into the street)”“上网(shàng wǎng: get on the Internet)”“上厕所(shàng cè suǒ: go to the bathroom)”, “上”means “go to ”, some places. But“下”doesn’t have this usage.


Nǐ qù nǎ er le? Wǒ shàng jiē le
你哪去儿了? 我上街了。
Where did you go? I went into the streets.

II In some phrases, like “下海(xià hǎi: go into business)”“下基层(xià jī céng: get into grassroots)”,“下”means “get into” ;in these phrases like “下面条(xià mian tiáo: cook noodles)”“下饺子(xià jiǎo zi: cook dumplings)”“下厨(xià chú: cooking)”,you will figure out “下”means “cook”. But“上”can be used in this way too.


Mā mā shuō,yào xiān shāo shuǐ, zài xià jiǎo zi
妈妈说, 要先烧水, 再下饺子。
My mother says that you need boil water first, and then cook dumplings.

Michael Ma

Michael (马志 Ma Zhi),majors in Teaching Chinese as Second Language ,Who has already taught Chinese 3 years in University. Now he is working in the Confucius Institute in Croatia.His academic study fouces on Second Language Acquisition and Cross-cultural Communication. He is also good at training students for HSK Examinations.

This Post Has 8 Comments

    1. No,my friend. ‘Cause we will always make the chess down on the bord,.In the phrase “下棋’,“下”refers to “touch down,make fall down”.Just like we play the Chinese Chess(象棋) or Chinese WeiQi(围棋),we wil always first pick up the Chess Piece then touch down it in some place. So we say “下棋”,not “上棋”.The “下”still remains the direction points. Hope this could help you understand. If you still confuse about them, please tell me.

  1. Hi Michael, thanks for the great explanation. Could I please check of these characters 你哪去儿了 could also be written as: 你去哪儿了?

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