Expressing location with "zai... shang / xia / li"

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You can use 在 (zài) to express location, but this article will explain how to use 在 (zài) to express location in relation to another object. This way, you can describe if something is "on the table" or "in the room."

在 (zài) with "Big Locations"

If you're talking about a "big place," like a country or city, then all you need is 在 (zài) and the name of the place.


在 + Place


For example, these phrases are fine just as they are:

  • 中国 zàiZhōngguóin China
  • 美国 zài Měiguóin the USA
  • 上海 zài Shànghǎiin Shanghai
  • 纽约 zài Niǔyuēin New York

You wouldn't want to add other words to the ends of these place names.

在 (zài) with Specific Locations

To show where an object is in relation to another object, make a "sandwich" starting with 在 (zài), add a place, and then add one of the following words: 上 (shàng), 下 (xià), 里 (lǐ), 旁边 (pángbiān).


在 + Location+ 上 / 下 / 里 / 旁边

Notice that the "preposition" comes after the location and object that it modifies. That is, in English we say "on the table," but in Chinese, it is more like "at the table, on." This can be somewhat confusing, but don't worry. Once you start using this construction, it gets easy really quickly.


  • 桌子 zài zhuōzi shàngon the table
  • zàishàngon the floor.
  • 你 的 手机 吗 ?Nǐ de shǒujī zài bāo ma?Is your cell phone in the bag?
  • zài lóuxià.He is downstairs.
  • Walmart 我家 旁边Walmart zài wǒ jiā pángbiān.Walmart is next to my house.
  • 火车 zài huǒchē shàng.I am on the train.
  • 地铁 zài dìtiě shàng.I'm on the metro.

在 (zài) with Specific Occasion


在 + Occasion + 上


  • zàishàngin class
  • 派对 zài pàiduì shàngat the party
  • 会议 zài huìyì shàngat the meeting
  • 婚礼 zài hūnlǐ shàngat the wedding

Common Nouns of Locality

The little words that come after the location in the phrases above aren't really "prepositions." They are called "nouns of locality," or 方位词 (fāngwèicí) in Chinese. They actually tend to have several forms, which can be confusing if you're not used to them. The chart below shows their most common forms:

One-Character Two-Character English
shàng上面 / 上边shàngmiàn / shàngbiantop, above
xià下面 / 下边xiàmiàn / xiàbianbottom, under
里面 / 里边lǐmiàn / lǐbianinside
wài外面 / 外边wàimiàn / wàibian outside
biān旁边pángbiānside, beside
qián前面 / 前边qiánmiàn / qiánbian front
hòu后面 / 后边hòumiàn / hòubianback, behind

Abstract Uses

Some prepositions can be paired with more abstract concepts to form idiomatic phrases. These kinds of phrases can really make your Chinese sound polished. Later on you will learn about these idiomatic phrases with "zai".

See Also

Sources and Further Reading