for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
at The University of Hong Kong
The aim of this thesis is to achieve a better understanding of the Patient-Subject Construction (PSC) in Chinese through an investigation of its syntax and semantics. Typical examples of PSCs include 那封信早就写好了(‘That letter has already been written a long time ago.’) or 绳子拉上去了(‘The rope has been pulled up.’), which have a patient in subject position but no passive marking on the verb or other parts of the sentence. For a construction as widely used and commonly seen as the PSC, the amount of knowledge about it and the quantity of scholarly attention that has been given to it are surprisingly small. Previous researchers have adopted two exactly opposite viewpoints. Those who give priority to meanings see it as a ‘notional passive’. Others who regard form as the more important factor treat it as a sub-class of SVO sentences. From this ‘either-form-or-function circle’ there seemed little hope of escape. In this thesis, a new approach is used, one in which consideration is given equally to both form and function, and especially to the interaction between them. First a historical survey was made, which provided a diachronic background to the subsequent synchronic study. From this survey it was seen that the PSC was one of the oldest and most stable grammatical patterns of the language. Next, three theoretically possible accounts of the PSC have been considered: as topicalization; as passive; as ergative construction, but each was found to be inadequate in one way or another. A corpus of some 2000 instances of PSCs are collected and studied in detail, resulting in several generalizations about its variety of forms and functions as they were found in the language. The theory of Construction Grammar is brought in to elucidate the relationship between the PSC and other constructions, as well as between different sub-types of PSCs. Finally, the PSC was placed in a typological context. Through comparisons and contrasts with cross-linguistic data and findings, it became clear that the PSC is a basic and unmarked construction that comes closer to being a middle than a passive. In conclusion, it was found that a fundamental opposition existed within the Chinese voice system between the active (SVO) and the middle (PSC), and that the real passive (i.e. the bei-construction), being marked and less stable, was historically a subsequent development from the PSC.