The particles jiù (就) and cái (才) seem difficult because, like most aspects of language learning that are difficult, they really don’t translate easily. But don’t let that scare you off because I’m about to explain why these particles are another example of how Chinese is actually much simpler and easier than English. Here we will not cover all of the uses of these particles, but we will look at three of the most common uses and this will give us a feel for how these words are used.
Consider the English sentences “I got up at 10 o clock” and “I didn’t get up until 10 o clock”. The second sentence sounds like the speaker thinks 10 o clock is late time to get up. This is the same feel that the particle cái gives to sentences involving time.
wǒ shí diǎn zhōng qǐ chuáng le (I got up at 10 o clock)
wǒ shí diǎn zhōng cái qǐ chuáng le (I didn’t get up until 10 o clock)
So for these sentences we can place cái after the time and before the verb and translate it as “didn’t do until…” The particle jiù has the exact opposite meaning, that the speaker considers the time to be early. So if you usually finish work at 5 o clock you can say
wǒ píng shí wǔ diǎn zhōng xià bān (I usually finish work at 5 o clock)
But if you got off work early today at four o clock you might want to emphasise that it was early by using the particle jiù
jīn tiān wǒ sì diǎn zhōng jiù xià bān le (today I it was only four o clock when I finished work)
In this respect Chinese is a lot easier than English because if you want to emphasise that something happened early or late then in English you need to re-word the sentence. In Chinese you just need to pop the particle jiù or cái in between the time and the verb.
cái can also be used to indicate that a long process (rather than a long time) has passed before the verb is completed. The process might not actually be that long, but it’s at least long from the speaker’s perspective.
For example, some people can go to work without drinking coffee. But I need to drink coffee before going to work.
wǒ hē kā fēi yǐ hoù cái néng shàng bān (I can only go to work after I’ve had a coffee)
This sentence, using cái, indicates that going to work is a long and difficult process (or at least longer and more difficult than it would be if I didn’t have to drink coffee beforehand). If we change cái to jiù in this sentence is sounds like the condition of drinking coffee is short and easy.
wǒ hē kā fēi yǐ hoù jiù néng shàng bān (I only need to drink a coffee and then I can go to work)
Here we place cái or jiù in between two verbs, which indicates the second verb is carried out after the first verb. The difference is that cái suggest that things aren’t so easy (I can only do this after I have done that) but jiù suggests things are easy (all I need to do is this and then I can do that.) Rather than explaining it anymore let’s just look at a couple of examples of how you might use it.
Imagine someone invites you to dinner but you don’t know if they will pay (qǐng kè) or not. If you’re reluctant to go you might say
nǐ qǐng kè wǒ cái qù (you pay I cái go/ only if you pay will I go)
However, if you’re happy to join them for dinner the you could say
nǐ qǐng kè wǒ jiù qù (you pay I jiù go/ all you need to do is pay and I will go)
The sentence using cái sounds like it is difficult to get you to go, whilst the sentence using jiù sounds like getting you to go to dinner is easy.
Another example that is quite relevant to students will be drinking. How much beer (pí jiǔ) does it take you to get drunk (hē zùi)?
If you think five bottles (wǔ píng) is a lot of beer then you might say:
wǒ hē wǔ píng pí jiǔ cái hē zùi le (I drink five bottles beer cái drunk/ I only get drunk after five bottles of beer)
But if you think five bottles of beer is not a lot then you will probably say
wǒ hē wǔ píng pí jiǔ jiù hē zùi le (I drink five bottles beer jiù drunk/ I get drunk after only five bottles of beer)
Although the meaning of the sentences is the same, the feeling is different. cái makes it feel like it is difficult for you to get drunk, whereas jiù makes it sound easy. Again, two simple words in Chinese require rewriting the whole sentence in English.
cái and jiù often appear before the verb shì (is/am/are). In these sentences it is used to emphasise, but what is being emphasised is different. Let me explain using an anecdote about myself.
I’ve spent a long time studying foreign languages and as a result my English pronunciation has changed a bit, to the extent that some people don’t think I sound very British. If I say wǒ shì yīng guó rén people sometimes doubt me and say
nǐ què dìng ma? hǎo xiàng bú shì (are you sure? It seems like you’re not)
To this I then reply wǒ jiù shì yīng guó rén (I am British)
In this sentence using jiù the emphasis is on am. I’m stressing the fact that I am British. But if I’m at a party and meet someone who is pretending to be British but clearly isn’t I might say
nǐ bú shì yīng guó rén. wǒ cái shì yīng guó rén. (you are not Bitish. I am British.)
In this sentence using cái the stress is on me. I am stressing that I am the one who is British.
This use of cái and jiù is very common when exchanging insults. If a friend calls you stupid twat (shǎ bī) you might respond with wǒ jiù shì gè shǎ bī, that is to say “I am a stupid twat. (so what?)”. There is also another option to retort with nǐ cái shì gè shǎ bī, which is like saying “you are the one who is a stupid twat (not me).”
If you have any questions or comments, are still unsure about the use cái and jiù or believe you can help explain these words more clearly then please leave a comment or email email@example.com