在 (zai) is quite frequently used word in both spoken and written Chinese. Its original meaning is existence. However, to most students of Chinese language, 在 is introduced first as a verb indicating a location of somebody or something in relation to a reference point. This is one of the important meanings, but how many more meanings of 在 are there?
1. Original meaning: used as a verb, means to exist or to live.
我父母健在。My parents are living in good health.
他父母不在了。His parents passed away.
上海的很多老房子已经不在了。Many old buildings in Shanghai were already gone.
2. Verb 在, means to lie in, to depend on.
生命在于运动。Life lies in movement.
幸福不在钱多少。Happiness doesn’t depend on how much money you have.
他的成功在于他的坚持。His success depends on his persistence.
3. Verb 在，means to stay, to remain.
他在位十年。He reigned ten years.
前总统在职多长时间？How long did the ex-president remain in power?
4. Verb 在 is used to indicate a location of somebody or something in relation to a reference point(s).
The basic structure and examples:
Somebody/something + 在 + reference point + location.
|Sombody/something||在||reference point(s)||location||English Translation|
|手机||在||桌子||上。||The mobile phone is on the table.|
|书||在||桌子||下。||The book is under the table.|
|我家||在||公司||附近。||My home is near the company.|
|我家||在||学校和公司||中间。||My home is between the school and the company.|
|手机||在||包||里。||The mobile phone is in the bag.|
Special notes on how to express “Somebody/something is in somewhere.”
a. When somewhere is a geographical unit such as a country or a city, 里 has to be omitted.
I’m in China.
I’m in Beijing.
b. When somewhere is a container, 里 has to be kept.
The book is in the drawer.
5. 在 is used as a preposition, indicates time, locality, range, etc.
She was born in 1988.
He often has dinner at home.
He has a good reputation among musicians.
6. Adding adverb 在 before a verb can express the processing of an action, here 在 has same meaning and function as 正在.
我在吃午饭。 I am having lunch.
他在打篮球。He is playing basketball.
外面在下雨。It is raining outside.
When adding 没 or 没有 before 在 to deny the processing action (in negative processing sentences) 正在 cannot be used.
I’m not reading a book now.
It was not raining when I came back home.
It is necessary to point out: when 在 is used as a verb, it has a real meaning and can be used as a sentence constituent alone. When 在 is used as a preposition, it doesn’t have a real meaning and can not be used as a sentence constituent alone, it has to be placed before a pronoun, a noun or a noun phrase, to become a sentence constituent. When 在 is used as an adverb, it can be placed before a verb to imply the processing of an action.
As you can see there are many meanings to 在, all of which are important in understanding the Chinese language more in-depth. I hope this article has provided you with some useful tips to break through the intermediate Chinese level and reach your learning goals.