How to Learn Classical Chinese: Part 1

In the ten years I had studied modern Chinese, I had never given much thought to the sleeping giant that is Classical Chinese. Back in my days teaching English, I asked some students what some passages in a book written in Classical Chinese said. "We don't know!" they laughed. I figured it was really hard and thought learning modern Mandarin was enough of a challenge, so I just forgot about it.

But when I came to Taiwan and encountered the teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, I soon learned that the original texts were written in Classical Chinese. The Buddhist monk, Master Chin Kung, whom all the lay Buddhists I met at Hwadzan Pure Land Association followed, really pushes learning Classical Chinese and has said the following:

Classical Chinese is the medium for traditional Chinese culture. It is the greatest creation by our forefathers. It is a highly effective tool to pass down the wisdom and experiences accumulated over thousands of years to future generations. Despite the passage of time, later generations are able to understand its exact original meaning since it has not undergone any linguistic changes.

And,

I sincerely hope that Classical Chinese will become the common written language of the world in twenty to thirty years so that various cultural heritages can be passed down to future generations continually and the accumulation of human wisdom can secure global prosperity for the millennium.

I had already been living in Taiwan for about a year before I started learning. I was drawn in more by curiosity than anything else.

What Is Classical Chinese?

Classical Chinese, also called Literary Chinese, is to China what Latin is to the West. As far back as 3,000 years, the Chinese used this language to record their ideas. It was used in some form all the way up until the early 20th century.

A simple passage is below.

Classical Chinese: 學而不思則枉 (Xué ér bù sī zé wǎng)
Modern Mandarin: 一個人學習但是沒有思考就是徒然
English: If one studies but does not think, then it is in vain.

As you can see, it is a very terse language. I love this aspect of it, there is no excess. It uses the minimum amount of words needed to convey the meaning. Also, most words in Classical Chinese are monosyllabic (a single character), unlike modern Mandarin where most words are bisyllabic.

There are actually many varieties of Classical Chinese that have existed through the ages. Below is a brief summary.

  1. Old Chinese (1250 BC - 4th century AD): The ancestor language of all modern varieties of modern Chinese. Divinatory scripts on oracle bones date back to 1250 BC. Such classics as Book of Songs, Analects, Mencius, and Book of Rites come from this era.
  2. Middle Chinese  (4th - 12th centuries): This era includes many Buddhist scriptures translated into Chinese from Sanskrit and Tang dynasty poetry.
  3. Old Mandarin (12th - 14th centuries): Language of the Jin, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.
  4. Middle Mandarin (14th - 19th centuries): Language of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

This is a very simplified abstraction and the reality was far more complex. Each of these varieties has a lot of differences; knowing one doesn't mean you will understand the others.

A First Course in Literary Chinese

I first began my study of the language on my own and then took 1-1 classes at National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center (MTC). The textbook I used was the 3-volume A First Course in Literary Chinese by Harold Shadick and Ch'iao Chien.

The first volume of the textbook contains 34 texts and translation exercises. Volume two contains the new vocabulary used in each text along with detailed definitions in English. Volume three contains commentaries on all of the texts and an Outline of Grammar. Instead of pinyin, this book uses the old Wade-Giles system of romanization. The book is aimed at those who already know modern Mandarin. I suspect someone with an intermediate level of modern Mandarin would be able to dive right into this book.

The beginning texts are quite short, but soon increase in length and complexity; they also generally go from from earlier to later works. There are lots of texts from the Zhou, Han, and Tang dynasties like Mencius, Zhuangzi, Mozi, Annals of the Warring States, and Records of the Grand Historian. Towards the end of the book is the five-page excerpt of 原道 (Original Path) by the great Tang dynasty writer Han Yu (韓愈). This essay explains how Daoists and Buddhists strayed from the original path (Confucianism). The last several texts are from the late Qing dynasty and early Republic of China (early 1900s) and are written by political activists like Sun Yat-sen, Liang Qichao, and Hu Shi.

I found the texts fascinating: nothing like the typical, boring "At the Party" dialog or "China Goes Green" propaganda-style texts that are rampant in modern Mandarin textbooks.

The first ten texts I read 100 times each and then recalled them from memory 100 times each.

Surrounded at Gaixia

One of the first pieces I studied MTC with my teacher (Teacher Duan) was called "Surrounded at Gaixia" (垓下之圍). It is the story of the last stand made by Xiang Yu of the Chu kingdom against Liu Bang, the future first emperor of the Han dynasty in 203 BC. I remember during my first year teaching English two students reenacting this battle as a class assignment. Now was my chance to revisit it.

It starts by explaining Xiang Yu's predicament: his soldiers are few and their rations are all used up (兵少食盡). In the night, he hears the singing of the Han army in a Chu accent (夜聞漢軍四面皆楚歌). This is where the Chinese chengyu or four-character idiom 四面楚歌 (surrounded on four sides by the songs of Chu) comes from. It means "to be facing difficulty on all sides." Xiang Yu whips up a poem which he sings among his attendants and concubines. He then takes to his horse and is followed by 800 soldiers (麾下壯士騎從著八百餘人). They break through the Han army and speed away.

Eventually the Han army catches up with Xiang Yu and the battle ends with Xiang Yu saying to an officer in the Han army, "I heard there's a big bounty on my head, I'll do you a favor." Then he slits his own throat. (吾聞漢購我頭千金邑萬戶。吾為若德。乃自刎而死。)

I spent the next few months having class once or twice a week with Teacher Duan and reading passages in the textbook. Although Classical Chinese uses the same characters as Mandarin, the meanings are frequently different. For example, in the above passage 若, meaning "similar to" in modern Mandarin, means "you." And 德 in modern Mandarin means "virtue" but in Classical Chinese it can also mean "favor." So the phrase 吾為若德 at first glance seems to mean "I for similar to virtue," which obviously makes no sense. It actually means "I for you favor" meaning, "I'll do you a favor."

When I previously learned modern Mandarin, I spent a lot of time speaking and listening. But Classical Chinese is not a spoken language, so it is only really used in reading and writing. In this sense it is kind of like Latin nowadays.

Chinese Poetry

After moving back to the US and finishing A First Course in Literary Chinese  for the first time, but definitely not the last, I began learning Chinese poetry with a Chinese professor at my alma mater. We studied a book called 300 Poems from the Tang Dynasty (唐詩三百首). Chinese classical poetry is a somewhat different style compared to the stories and essays I had been studying with Teacher Duan.

Chinese poetry makes the reader imagine him/herself in the environment described by the poem in order for the reader to understand what the author is trying to express. It is often written in five-character lines and rhymes. Below is an example of a Tang dynasty poem.

松下問童子 (sōng xià wèn tóng zǐ)
言師採藥去 (yán shī cǎi yào qù)
只在此山中 (zhǐ zài cǐ shān zhōng)
雲深不知處 (yún shēn bù zhī chù)

This can be translated as:

Beneath the pine trees I inquired of your servant boy.
He said his master had gone to gather herbs
somewhere among these mountains,
but the clouds were deep and he knew not where.

Literally this poem is translated as:

Under the pines ask servant boy
said master picking herbs gone
only in these mountains
clouds deep not know place

You'll notice that there are no subjects or conjunctions. Poetry frequently omits the subject and almost always omits conjunctions like "and" and "but." It is left to the reader, through experience in reading, to fill in these words.

Common themes in Tang poetry include the moon, life as a hermit after leaving an official government post, and love. Below is one of my favorite Chinese poems, which is written by the most famous Chinese poet, Li Bai.

花間一壺酒,獨酌無相親。 (Huā jiān yī hú jiǔ, dú zhuó wū xiāngqīn)
舉杯邀明月,對影成三人。 (Jǔ bēi yāo míngyuè, duì yǐng chéng sān rén)
月既不解飲,影徒隨我身。 (Yuè jì bù jiě yǐn, yǐng tú suí wǒ shēn)
我歌月徘徊,我舞影零亂。 ( Zàn bàn yuè jiāng yǐng, xíng lè xū jí chūn)
暫伴月將影,行樂須及春。 ( Wǒ gē yuè páihuái, wǒ wǔ yǐng língluàn)
醒時同交歡,醉後各分散。 (Xǐng shí tóng jiāohuān, zuì hòu gè fēnsàn)
永結無情遊,相期邈雲漢。 (Yǒng jié wúqíng yóu, xiāng qī miǎo yúnhàn)

Among the flowers there's a jug of wine. I drink alone since there are no close friends with me.
I raise my glass and invite the bright moon. Along with my shadow, we are three.
The moon doesn't know how to drink, and my shadow follows my body uselessly.
For now, the moon and shadow accompany me. We should enjoy ourselves until the spring.
I sing while the moon walks up and down, I dance and my shadow is in disorder.
While awake, we are still friends, and after being drunk, we disperse.
Forever will we have this friendship without feeling. We fix a date with the distant Milky Way.

Other famous poets whose works I studied included Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Tao Yuan Ming. Many of these poets were hermits, who, fed up with life as a government official, retired to a quiet, contemplative life in the mountains. Tao Yuan Ming (365-427 AD) was the OG of this movement. His poem "Peach Blossom Spring" is about a fisherman who gets lost and finds a village out of time, but then when he leaves and tells others of its existence, he cannot find his way back to it. The village is considered a utopia in Chinese culture.

Below is a description of the village and its people.

土地平曠,屋舍儼然。有良田、美池、桑、竹之屬,阡陌交通,雞犬相聞。其中往來種作,男女衣著,悉如外人;黃髮垂髫,並佁然自樂。(Tǔdì píng kuàng, wū shě yǎnrán. Yǒu liángtián, měi chí, sāng, zhú zhī shǔ, qiānmò jiāotōng, jī quǎn xiāngwén. Qízhōng wǎnglái zhǒng zuò, nánnǚ yīzhuó, xī rú wàirén; huáng fà chuítiáo, bìng yǐ rán zì lè.)

The land is flat and the houses are orderly. There are good fields, beautiful ponds, mulberry trees, and bamboo groves. Paths crisscross the area, and the sounds of chickens and dogs can be heard. The people farm, live like those from outside, and dress in a similar manner. Their hair is white and they are content and happy.

An excellent textbook for learning Chinese poetry is called Chinese Through Poetry by Archie Barnes. It is aimed at English speakers who have no knowledge of Chinese at all, but it's still great for those of us who have studied Chinese before. I highly recommend this book, it improved my understanding of Chinese poems greatly.

How to Learn Classical Chinese: Part 2

Stay tuned for the next and final post in this short series.

1 Comments

Michael Cenkner
May 19, 2024, 2:19 p.m.

Nice! Nice this site dates from 2023, not from 623 BC! I'm (back) in Taiwan, going to read this site to bolster my knowledge of classical Chinese. I found your site by searching "coverbs yi wei zhi," and then to "classical Chinese for beginners." I'm not quite a beginner but hardly an expert either. Three things happened that got me back into CC. 1. I discovered the book by Pepper and Wang, Dao De Jing in Clear English: Including a Step by Step Translation. 2. I found a string-bound version of Sunzi with English on one side and (traditional) characters on the other side, wow! (For 10 bucks, wow! wow!). and 3. Discovered wengu.tartarie, wow-wow-wow!!! Gone are the days of counting strokes, for the most part! As we know the Internet changed (almost) everything. Anyway I'm going to study your site now I've found you. Thinking of doing videos of excerpts from the Tao Te Ching, just because it's so cool. But it's deep. Hao shen. Thanks

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