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的时候 meaning 'if'

14 March 2017

This is what Wikipedia would call a 'stub'. It concerns a usage of 时候 shíhou in a counterfactual sense that I recently discovered in a story by the Chinese author Guo Moruo (郭沫若 Guō Mòruò, 1892-1978).

The standard explanation of 的时候 de shíhou is that it roughly equates to 'when' in English. This is the explanation found at Expressing "when" with "de shihou", which gives examples like the following:

我上大学的时候,有很多女朋友。
wǒ shàng dàxué de shíhou, yǒu hěn duō nǚpéngyou.
'When I was in college, I had a lot of girlfriends'

In the above example, 的时候 de shíhou refers to a past reality, as expressed by the English word 'when' in translation. The sentence is a statement of a situation that actually held at a particular time in the past.

的时候 de shíhou can also be used for events that have not actually occurred, but only in general statements of truth or with reference to future time. This can be seen in other examples given at the site:

你不在的时候,我会想你。
nǐ bù zài de shíhou, wǒ huì xiǎng nǐ.
'When you are not here, I'll miss you'

This sentence makes the prediction (which could also be interpreted as a commitment) that the speaker will think of the listener in an imminent (not hypothetical) situation.

上课的时候不要吃东西。
Shàngkè de shíhou bùyào chī dōngxi.
'Don't eat when you are in the class'

This sentence refers to a situation that regularly occurs and is similarly not hypothetical.

However, in the story 后悔 hòuhuǐ 'Regret' by Guo Moruo, 的时候 de shíhou is used for a counterfactual situation.

By way of background, a married couple go out shopping for mattresses, only to find that they are too dear. Instead of buying a mattress, they buy some toys and clothes for their children. That evening, sleeping on the cold hard floor, the author's wife suggests that they would have been better off buying mattresses. In reply, the author says:

没有买mattress我倒不后悔,我们买了的时候不是就不能买童衣了吗?
méi yǒu mǎi mattress wǒ dào bu hòuhuǐ, wǒmen mǎi le de shíhou bú shì jiù bù néng mǎi tóngyī le ma?
'I don't regret not buying mattresses. If we had bought mattresses we couldn't have bought the children's clothes, could we?'

In this sentence, 的时候 de shíhou clearly refers to what would have happened if they had bought mattresses. It is hypothetical and counterfactual. It is quite different in nature from the usage of 的时候 de shíhou described in the earlier examples given above.

This article is a stub because I am currently unable to find any similar examples or grammar explanations referring to this kind of usage. I can think of three possible reasons for the existence of this kind of sentence:

  • This is a highly colloquial usage and is not recognised in grammars of 'proper Chinese'.
  • This is a regional usage (perhaps from Shanghai) and is therefore not recognised as 'proper Chinese'.
  • Guo Moruo, who spent a long period of time in Japan and was married to a Japanese, was influenced by Japanese colloquial usage.

This post will be completed when I find more examples or explanations.