成 indicating a change of state in Chinese
6 May 2016
As a verb, 成 chéng has a range of meanings in modern Chinese: "accomplish, succeed; become, turn into; help complete; and all right, OK". It also forms a constituent element in many fixed expressions (that is, 'words'), for example 完成 wánchéng 'to complete', 形成 xíngchéng 'to form', etc.
Here I want to consider 成 chéng in its use as a verb meaning 'become, turn into' and, more importantly, in its very productive use as what is known in Chinese grammar as a 'complement' (补语 bǔyǔ) indicating a change of state. In this use 成 chéng is often translatable into English as 'into'.
1. 成 chéng as a verb
2. 成为 chéng wéi
3. 成 as a complement
成 chéng as a verb
'To become, turn into' is one of the key senses of 成 chéng as an independent verb. The grammatical object (underlined below) represents the resultant state. For example:
'He became captain'
'The two became close friends'
In the two examples, the state of being a 队长 duìzhǎng 'captain' or 朋友 péngyǒu 'friends' is the end result of the process indicated by the verb 成 chéng 'to become'.成 chéng in this sense also forms set expressions, such as 成家 chéng jiā 'to marry' (literally 'become a family').
A girl and a young man became a family (married). The girl had a taste for light flavours; the young man was not happy if the food was not spicy. The girl frequently went to her parent's house to scrounge a meal.'
The fact that 成 chéng and 家 jiā can be separated by 了 le indicates that the two still function, at least partially, as separate units (words), unlike indivisible words like 成交 chéngjiāo 'conclude a transaction' and 成就 chéngjiù 'to accomplish'.
Another example is from a headline:
'Beijing is to become the first Chinese city where ambulances charge by the meter'
The resulting state is expressed in more detail than a single word like 'friend' or 'captain'.
成为 chéng wéi
Often, however, the more normal expression used in sentences like these is 成为 chéng wéi. For example, in the article under the above headline the following sentence appears:
'The city is to become the first Chinese city to use meters to determine the fee charged by ambulances'
More examples of this construction are:
'How to become a hacker'
'You don't need to become perfect in order to become popular'
'Yuanjiashan has already become the place for the broad masses of cadres in our county to study and tour'
成 chéng and 成为 chéng wéi are subtly different in meaning and usage. 成 chéng refers to a simple change of state (e.g., becoming a friend), whereas 成为 chéng wéi appears to imply a transformation into something (e.g., becoming a hacker).
成 as a 'complement' to another verb
While 成 chéng can be used as a verb by itself, it is much more interesting when used after other verbs in a role traditionally identified in Chinese grammar as a 补语 bǔyǔ or 'complement'. This term refers to elements that follow the predicate (verb or adjective) and indicate concepts such as result, extent, trend, possibility, state, or quantity. The usual explanation is that the complement 'supplements' or 'explains' the predicate. The 补语 bǔyǔ in Chinese grammar is something of a grab bag and includes grammatically disparate elements, including whole clauses.成 chéng is generally characterised as a resultative complement (结果补语 jiéguǒ bǔyǔ). Similar resultative complements include 错 cuò 'wrongly', 好 hǎo 'successfully', 低 dī 'low', 高 gāo 'high', 紧 jǐn 'tightly', 坏 huài 'cause to become bad', 完 wán 'finish', 干净 gānjìng 'clean', 清楚 qīngchu 'clearly', 懂 dǒng 'understand', 掉 diào 'off', 死 sǐ 'dead', 住 zhù 'firmly', etc.
This productive use of 成 chéng after verbs does not feature in modern grammars of Chinese that I have to hand, namely A Grammar of Mandarin by Wiedenhof, and Mandarin Chinese by Li and Thompson. While such grammars attempt to cover the basic syntax of Chinese sentences, including auxiliary verbs, coverbs, and negation, 补语 bǔyǔ effectively form a blind spot.
The twists and turns of grammatical theory in basic areas like parts of speech (word classes) and syntactic analysis (phrase structure, dependency grammar, etc.) in past decades don't help in analysing expressions like 成 chéng. Interestingly, this paper on Role and Reference Grammar suggests that, within a classification of sentence constituents into ‘nucleus’ (predicate or predicates), ‘core’ (nucleus plus predicate arguments), and ‘clause’, an expression like 变成 biàn chéng 'turn into' consists of two cosubordinate nucleii -- 变 biàn and 成 chéng -- within a single nucleus (predicate).
The following are some of the verb + 成 chéng expressions I've collected. Many are from the Internet, but more are from the scifi novel 三体 sāntǐ by Liu Cixin (刘慈欣).
Some of the most common verbs found with 成 chéng are those concerning change, usually either the intransitive 变 biàn 'to change, transform' or its transitive counterpart 改 gǎi:
'At night, the usually dandyish director Huang suddenly becomes a handsome lad of 1.8 metres'
'When playing with WeChat (I) was careless and messed up the language in WeChat; it changed to English'
In the following sentence, the resulting state is not a noun but a sequence of clauses:
'From then, he suddenly changed to become unafraid of the forces of power, disregarding his own future interest and wholeheartedly only wanting to change society'
With 改 gǎi it's common to use the 把 bǎ construction:
'The director changed Shakespeare's plays from 16th century Venice to contemporary England'
The following sentence is abstract in nature as it lacks a subject. The resultative state is an entire clause:
'(To) switch to paying your mortgage by direct debit'
* Translation成 chéng is not confined to generic expressions of change. Translation is the process of transforming a message from one language to another, and it is unremarkable that 成 chéng is standard in this case:
'How to translate English-language WeChat chat records to Chinese?'
'The short film "We live in the world of lies", which this year has been translated into 28 languages'
* Breaking up and coming together成 chéng is also used with verbs to indicate changes of state such as breaking up and coming together.
In the following it is used to express breaking or cutting apart into a larger number of pieces:
'A sword cut into the rock, which flared out a spark and snapped into two parts'
'Wang Sen picked up the telescope that he'd put on his straw hat, overcame the trembling of his hands, and observed "Judgement Day" being cut into more than forty pieces by the "flying edge"'
'fruit cut up into pieces'
The following expresses the concept of welding together into a smaller number of pieces:
'If we use 48 cm wire to weld into a square frame, what is the volume of the square?'
Condensing into a smaller number of items also uses 成 chéng:
'...until a phalanx of one thousand stars shrank to one star'
'this memory was condensed into a series of classical European oil paintings'
The concept of coming together into an indivisible whole also uses 成 chéng. The following sentence uses the form 一片 yī-piàn, which literally means 'a slice' but here means 'an undifferentiated whole':
'The noise and gunshot sounds inside turned into a din'
This has even been combined into an idiom, 打成一片 dǎchéng yī-piàn, meaning 'become integrated with; become a harmonious whole; become [be] one with; be fused with'. 打 dǎ 'strike' in this case is a generalised concept of 'putting' into a certain state, or even, as a transitive verb, simply 'becoming' a certain state:
'to become one with the masses'
Concepts of bringing together and falling into formations also use 成 chéng. In this sentence, the verb is 站 zhàn 'to stand', and the result of large numbers of people standing is to form a square:
'If mankind stood in a square formation, the area would only be the size of Shanghai Pudong'
* Other actions that cause a transformation
Many other actions can result in a transformation, such as a change in colour or quality:
'In order to gain attention, you do not have to dye your hair pink or put a pattern on you face'
The following sentence describes a devastating change in value due to improper handling:
'A brand-name windbreaker worth 10,000 RMB was washed into street-stall clothing by a laundry'
'The recent rain had churned up the waterfall into a muddy whirlpool'
* Generalised verbs
Many changes are indicated by the use of general verbs like 弄 nòng 'to do':
'put into fragments'
'How to peel and blanch almonds'
'What was originally a happy wedding was transformed into a storm over a bridesmaid'
'turn into foam, beat into foam'
* Design成 chéng can refer not only to actions but also to conscious design:
'In order to pass through Panama Canal locks thirty-two metres wide, a considerable number of large ocean-going vessels were designed to be thirty-one metres wide, called the Panama type'
An interesting example is the following, where all that is needed to effect a transformation is imagination:
'While reading the messages, Ye Wenjie could only imagine the Three-Body people as being human in form'
* Giving rise to
A fixed and common form, especially in factual prose, is the use of 造成 zāo chéng, which is used in Chinese where English would use 'cause', 'give rise to' or 'result in':
'wealth and poverty do not cause social unrest'
'tax increases will cause many difficulties'
'This kind of behaviour could give rise to accidents'
'The immediate cause of death is unknown'
'The 7.8-scale earthquake that occurred in Ecuador on the 16th has caused 655 deaths, 16601 injuries, and twenty thousand people to lose their homes'
'A kind of bacterium is identified as the root cause of his duodenal ulcer'
Combinations of verb and complements like 成 chéng are close knit. As seen above, the perfective marker 了 le is placed between 成 chéng and its object. 了 le acts as an aspect marker for the 'verb + 成 chéng' combination as a whole. This is the reason that the verb and 成 chéng are regarded as two cosubordinate nucleii (predicates) of a single nucleus (predicate) in Role and Reference Grammar.
The combination 'verb + 成 chéng' happily forms adnominal clauses with 的 de, the Chinese equivalent of relative clauses. In the following exemples, the adnominal clause is shown in square brackets:
'a strange shapeless garment [ that was transformed from a jacket ] '
'In that direction there were hundreds of millions of stars; each had as a background a sea of stars [ that brought together stars at different distances ] '
'His head was swathed in layers of bandages [ that were made from tearing a sheet ] '
Split constructions can be created on the same principle:
'These misunderstandings were all inadvertently caused by him'
While 成 chéng indicating 'to become' is productive and widespread, it appears to be less productive in other resultative sentence patterns. For example, the negative resultative form 不成 bù chéng should indicate the meaning 'cannot transform into something else'. There are, indeed, examples where this is the case:
'Why can't the osmanthus lotus rice I'm making be cut into sheets?'
'The black crow can't be washed into a white goose' (proverb)
'Even (that which) can't be beaten into a creamy state can be used to make cake'
'Why can't I become one with my classmates'
'Why can't a wet and dry manure separator not get dry (manure)'
But such usages are relatively rare. 不成 bù chéng as a complement is more commonly understood in the meaning 'is not possible'. For instance, the negative expression 弄不成 nòng-bu-chéng normally means 'is not feasible'. 造不成 zào-bu-chéng is relatively rare and where used does not normally mean 'does not cause or give rise to'. Instead, it means 'unable to make or create', since 造 zào as a verb means 'to make, to create'.
Similarly for expressions using 得成 de-chéng, which generally refer to the feasibility of an action rather than the ability for such a transformation to take place.