Expressing Distance with 离 (lí) in Chinese: Everything You Need

Expressing Distance with 离 (lí) in Chinese Everything You need

离 () is considered one of the core, ‘basic’ words in Chinese. The way it works might not seem too intuitive to an English speaker. And no wonder: the concept of 离 (lí) barely exists in English, and to use it correctly, you need to resort to a seemingly twisted sentence structure.

But let’s try to make it less scary by analyzing some of its defining features. 

离 (lí) can be used to express the distance between various things, but the grammatical pattern is pretty much the same. To make things easier for you, we’ll start by discussing its two most common applications in space and time. Later on, we’ll take a look at the remaining ones.

Expressing Distance in Space with 离 ()

离 (lí) is often translated as “be (away) from” in English. It’s a close interpretation, but not an exact 1-1 match. It’s best to think of 离 (lí) as the symbol ↔.

it's best to think of 离 (lí) as the symbol ↔

离 (lí) is primarily used to measure the distance between two places or objects. To English speakers, the sentence pattern could take a little getting used to, as the “distance” is said at the end.

Pattern

place 1 + 离 (lí) + place 2 + distance

literally: place 1 is away from place 2 (by this) distance

The pattern is rather fixed. That is, whether you’re just saying if a place is close, or far from another place, or want to be more specific, the pattern stays the same.

The “distance” itself, however, can be anything from vague to concrete. Let’s have a look!

Non-specific Distance: 近 (jìn)/远 (yuǎn)

Unless you want to mention a specific distance between the two places, you can simply use the adjectives 近 jìn and 远 yuǎn (with adverbs of degree) to refer to the general distance in a 离 (lí) sentence.

Examples:

  • 火车站飞机场很近
    Huǒchē zhàn  fēijī chǎng hěn jìn.
    The train station is quite close to the airport.
    literally, the train station ↔ the airport | quite close
  • 北京上海很远
    Běijīng  shànghǎi hěn yuǎn.
    Beijing is far from Shanghai.
    Beijing ↔ Shanghai | very far
  • 我家公司非常近
    Wǒ jiā  gōngsī fēicháng jìn.
    My home is close to the office.
    my home ↔ the office | very close
  • 地铁站这里非常远
    Dì tiě zhàn  zhèli fēicháng yuǎn.
    The metro station is very far from here.
    the metro station  here | very far
  • 这家酒店海滩太远了
    Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān tài yuǎn le!
    This hotel is really far from the beach!
    this hotel  the beach | really far

The structure stays the same whether you are saying it in the negative form or asking a question.

Negation

  • 火车站飞机场不远
    Huǒchē zhàn  fēijī chǎng bù yuǎn.
    The train station is not far from the airport.
    the train station ↔ the airport | not far
  • 北京上海不近
    Běijīng  shànghǎi bú jìn.
    Beijing is not close to Shanghai.
    Beijing ↔ Shanghai | not close
  • 我家公司不太远
    Wǒ jiā  gōngsī bú tài yuǎn.
    My home is not too far from the office.
    my home  the office | not too far

Note that it is the the “distance” segment in the sentence that calls for negation, not the word 离 (lí).

Question

  • 火车站飞机场近吗
    Huǒchē zhàn  fēijī chǎng jìn ma?
    Is the train station close to the airport?
    the train station ↔ the airport | close?
  • 北京上海远吗
    Běijīng  shànghǎi yuǎn ma?
    Is Beijing far from Shanghai?
    Beijing ↔ Shanghai | far?
  • 你家公司近不近
    Nǐ jiā  gōngsī jìn bu jìn?
    Is your home close to the office?
    your home ↔ office | close or not close?
  • 地铁站这里远不远
    Dìtiě zhàn  zhèli yuǎn bu yuǎn?
    Is the metro station far from here?
    the metro station ↔ here | far or not far?
is the metro station far from here?

Specific Distance

Now, if you want to be more precise than just “close”, “not close”, or “far”, “not far”, you can also choose to talk about a specific distance using a metric unit of distance, such as kilometers, miles, meters, etc.

An optional  can be added at the end of the sentence to make clear that you are talking about the distance in space (it kind of works like “in length” in English, and has no implication whatsoever that the place is far).

  • 火车站飞机场十英里(远)。
    Huǒchē zhàn fēijī chǎng shí yīnglǐ (yuǎn).
    The train station is ten miles from the airport.
    literally, the train station ↔ the airport | ten miles (in length)
  • 北京上海1088公里(远)。
    Běijīng  shànghǎi 1088 gōnglǐ (yuǎn).
    Beijing is 1088 kilometers from Shanghai.
    Beijing ↔ Shanghai | 1088 kilometers (in length)
  • 地铁站这里五百米(远)。
    Dìtiě zhàn  zhèlI wǔ bǎi mǐ (yuǎn).
    The metro station is 500 meters from here.
    the metro station ↔ here | 500 meters (in length)
  • 这家酒店海滩两百多米(远)。
    Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān liǎng bǎi duō mǐ (yuǎn).
    This hotel is a bit more than 200 meters from the beach.
    this hotel ↔ the beach | 200+ meters (in length)

You can also use descriptions like “2 metro stops”, “5 minutes’ walk” to measure a distance (a number is usually required in these phrases). For example:

  • 火车站飞机场开车二十分钟(远)。
    Huǒchē zhàn  fēijī chǎng kāichē èr shí fēnzhōng (yuǎn).
    The train station is twenty minutes’ drive from the airport.
    the train station ↔ the airport | by car twenty minutes (in length)
  • 北京上海坐飞机两小时(远)。
    Běijīng  shànghǎi zuò fēijī liǎng xiǎoshí (yuǎn).
    Beijing is two hours away from Shanghai by plane.
    Beijing ↔ Shanghai | by plane two hours (in length)
  • 我家公司两站地铁(远)。
    Wǒ jiā gōngsī liǎng zhàn dìtiě (yuǎn).
    My home is two metro stops away from the office.
    the metro station ↔ here | two metro stops (in length)
  • 这家酒店海滩走路五分钟(远)。
    Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān zǒulù wǔ fēnzhōng (yuǎn).
    This hotel is five minutes’ walk from the beach.
    this hotel ↔ the beach | by walking five minutes (in length)
This hotel is five minutes’ walk from the beach

Note that native speakers often use words built on the character 有 yǒu (e.g. 只有 zhǐ yǒu, 还有 hái yǒu) before the number in the “distance” segment to emphasize that the distance is small or large. For instance,

  • 火车站飞机场只有十英里(远)。
    Huǒchē zhàn lí fēijī chǎng zhǐ yǒu shí yīnglǐ (yuǎn).
    The train station is only ten miles from the airport.
    the train station ↔ the airport | only exists ten miles (in length)
  • 火车站飞机场开车还有两小时(远)。
    Huǒchē zhàn  fēijī chǎng kāichē hái yǒu èr shí fēnzhōng (yuǎn).
    The train station is still two hours’ drive from the airport.
    the train station ↔ the airport | by car still exists two hours. (in length)

It could just be a 有 (yǒu) as well (translated as “exists” or “there is”) added before the number. When native speakers include it in the sentence, they are usually implying that the place is far in their opinions.

这家酒店海滩走路五十分钟(远)。
Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān zǒulù yǒu wǔ shí fēnzhōng (yuǎn).
This hotel is fifty minutes’ walk from the beach. (with implication: it’s far)
this hotel ↔ the beach | by walking exists fifty minutes (in length)

The 有 (yǒu) is totally optional. You don’t need to (and really shouldn’t) add it to the structure if the distance is obviously short.

这家酒店海滩走路五分钟(远)。
Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn hǎitān zǒulù yǒu wǔ fēnzhōng (yuǎn).
This hotel is five minutes’ walk from the beach.
this hotel ↔ the beach | by walking exists five minutes (in length)
(It’s grammatically correct, but sounds strange – unless we all agree that 5 minutes’ walk away is far)

Expressing Distance in Space with 离 (lí)

Asking about the Distance with 离 ()

Now that you know how to describe the distance from one place to another, you might as well want to find out how to ask the question “how far is place A from place B?”.

It’s actually quite easy. The pattern is basically the same, only this time you need to replace the distance description with the phrase “多远 (duō yuǎn)”, meaning “how far?”.

Pattern

place 1 + 离 (lí) + place 2 + 多远 (duō yuǎn)?

  • 火车站飞机场多远
    Huǒchē zhàn  fēijī chǎng duō yuǎn?
    How far is the train station from the airport?
    the train station ↔ the airport | how far?
  • 北京上海多远
    Běijīng  shànghǎi duō yuǎn?
    How far is Beijing from Shanghai?
    Beijing ↔ Shanghai | how far?
  • 你家公司多远
    Nǐ jiā  gōngsī duō yuǎn?
    How far is your home from the office?
    your home ↔ the office | how far?
  • 地铁站这里多远
    Dìtiě zhàn  zhèlǐ duō yuǎn?
    How far is the metro station from here?
    the metro station ↔ here | how far?
  • 这家酒店海滩多远
    Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān duō yuǎn?
    How far is this hotel from the beach?
    this hotel ↔ the beach | how far?

Just like in statements, native speakers often add 有 (yǒu) before the phrase 多远 (duō yuǎn), making it 有多远 (yǒu duō yuǎn) when they presume the distance between the two places is large.

Compare these:

这家酒店海滩多远
Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān duō yuǎn?
this hotel ↔ the beach | how far?
Raising the question with “多远 (duō yuǎn)” indicates that the speaker doesn’t have a clue whether the hotel is near or far from the beach.

这家酒店海滩有多远
Zhè jiā jiǔdiàn  hǎitān yǒu duō yuǎn?
this hotel ↔ the beach | exists how far?
Raising the question with “有多远 (yǒu duō yuǎn)” indicates that the speaker, though having no idea of the distance, presumes that the hotel is far away from the beach.

Note that, in English, you may also ask “How close is place A from B?” if the distance is obviously short. However, in Chinese, you will always need to ask the question with “how far – 多远 (duō yuǎn)”, no matter how close the places are to each other.

Expressing Distance in Time with 离 (lí)

Expressing Distance in Time with 离 ()

You can also use 离 (lí) to measure distance in time with a similar pattern.

Pattern

moment 1 + 离 (lí) + moment 2 + duration

literally: moment 1 is away from moment 2 (by) this duration

The moments can be any specific point in time in the past, present, or future, such as a particular year, a day, an era, happening of an event, etc.

Just as with distance in space, you can also use the adjectives 近 (jìn) and 远 (yuǎn) to refer to the distance in time (aka, duration) if you are not being specific.

  • 圣诞现在很近
    Shèngdàn  xiànzài hěn jìn.
    Christmas is quite close to now.
    Christmas ↔ now | quite close
  • 冬天现在不远
    Dōngtiān  xiànzài bù yuǎn.
    Winter is not far from now.
    winter ↔ now | not far
  • 侏罗纪我们的时代非常远
    Zhūluójì  wǒmen de shídài fēicháng yuǎn.
    The Jurassic is very far from our era.
    the Jurassic ↔ our era | very far
The Jurassic is very far from our era.

If you want to be more precise and talk about a specific duration, simply use units that measure the time, such as minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc.

Note that words like 有 (yǒu), 只有 (zhǐ yǒu), 还有 (hái yǒu), etc are usually used before the number for emphasis when indicating duration.

  • 唐朝现在有一千多年
    Tángcháo  xiànzài yǒu yì qiān duō nián.
    Tang Dynasty is more than one thousand years (ago) to now.
    Tang Dynasty ↔ now | exists more than one thousand years
  • 现在圣诞还有五个月
    Xiànzài  shèngdàn hái yǒu wǔ gè yuè.
    Now is still five months (away) from Christmas.
    now ↔ Christmas | still exists five months
  • 今天奥运会开幕只有一百天
    Jīntiān  àoyùnhuì kāimù zhǐ yǒu yì bǎi tiān.
    Today is only one hundred days (away) from the opening of the Olympics.
    today ↔ the opening of the Olympics | only exists one hundred days
  • 回到未来三部曲现在已经有三十多年了
    Huídào wèilái sānbùqǔ  xiànzài yǐjīng yǒu sān shí duō nián le.
    Back to the Future trilogy is already more than thirty years (ago) to now.
    Back to the Future trilogy ↔ now | already exists more than thirty years
Back to the Future trilogy is already more than thirty years (ago) to now.

Notice that when the current moment (e.g. 现在 xiànzài, 今天 jīntiān) is used as the starting point (in the position of moment 1) to measure duration, native speakers often choose to omit it to keep the sentence short and concise. This is particularly common in spoken Chinese.

  • 现在离圣诞还有五个月。Xiànzài lí shèngdàn hái yǒu wǔ gè yuè.
    → 离圣诞还有五个月。 shèngdàn hái yǒu wǔ gè yuè.
    There’s still five months before Christmas.
    now ↔ Christmas | still exists five months
  • 今天奥运会开幕只有一百天。Jīntiān  àoyùnhuì kāimù zhǐ yǒu yì bǎi tiān.
    → 离奥运会开幕只有一百天。 àoyùnhuì kāimù zhǐ yǒu yì bǎi tiān.
    There’s only one hundred days before the opening of the Olympics.
    today ↔ the opening of the Olympics | only exists one hundred days

Expressing Other Distance with 离 (lí)

离 (lí) does not just dwell in the realm of space and time. You can practically use the same pattern to express the distance between any two things. Some most obvious examples include

people

  • 凶手我只有十米。
    Xiōngshǒu lí wǒ zhǐ yǒu shí mǐ.
    The murderer is only ten meters away from me.
    the murderer ↔ me | only exists ten meters

phenomena

  • 人工智能我们的日常生活越来越近。
    Réngōng zhìnéng  wǒmen de rìcháng shēnghuó yuèlaiyuè jìn.
    Artificial intelligence is (getting) closer and closer to our daily lives.
    artificial intelligence ↔ our daily lives | closer and closer

goals

  • 我的中文完美还很远。
    Wǒ de zhōngwén  wánměi hái hěn yuǎn.
    My Chinese is still far from being perfect.
    my Chinese ↔ perfection | still quite far

concepts

  • 成功失败只有一步之遥。
    Chénggōng  shībài zhǐ yǒu yíbùzhīyáo.
    Success is only one step’s distance away from failure.
    success ↔ failure | only exists one step’s distance

The list can go on and on. Just be attentive to how native speakers use 离 (lí) in real life and soon you’ll be very comfortable with the pattern.

Formal Version of 离 ()

The above is more than enough to be able to understand how to express distance in Chinese. We even included some fairly difficult sentences for this level, just to keep you on your toes! If you’re still in the mood for enriching your vocabulary, though, you might be interested in this formal version of 离 (lí):

距离 (jùlí)

The word 距离 (jùlí) is in fact the complete form of 离 (lí). It works exactly the same, but just sounds more formal. You’ll often come across this word in TV news, newspapers, books…

Let’s replace 离 (lí) with 距离 (jùlí) in some of the examples.

  • 北京距离上海很远。
    Běijīng jùlí shànghǎi hěn yuǎn.
    Beijing is far from Shanghai.
  • 我家距离公司两站地铁(远)。
    Wǒ jiā jùlí gōngsī liǎng zhàn dìtiě (yuǎn).
    My home is two metro stops away from the office.
  • 唐朝距离现在有一千多年
    Tángcháo jùlí xiànzài yǒu yì qiān duō nián.
    Tang Dynasty is more than one thousand years (ago) to now.
  • 距离奥运会开幕只有一百天。
    Jùlí àoyùnhuì kāimù zhǐ yǒu yì bǎi tiān.
    There’s only one hundred days before the opening of the Olympics.
Olympics countdown

Wrap up 

  • 离 (lí) is primarily used to express distance in space and time.
  • It can also measure the distance between various other things.
  • It’s best to think of 离 (lí) as the symbol ↔.
  • The formal version of 离 (lí) is 距离 (jùlí). They work the same.

All right, that’s everything you need to know about 离 (lí) in Chinese. As we said, the sentence pattern could take a little getting used to, so keep practicing! Soon you’ll be able to use it like a pro!

Don’t forget to check other grammar articles on ImproveMandarin.Com’s Grammar Channel. Remember, grammar is the glue that holds the pieces of language together!