How to Learn Classical Chinese: Part 2

If you haven't read part one of this series yet, you can do so here: How to Learn Classical Chinese: Part 1

One of my motivations for learning Classical Chinese was to apply to graduate school at an Academy of Sinology in Wales. One of the requirements was to memorize a book. (I know!!!) The books varied in length; at least one was over a hundred pages long. I chose the shortest book possible, which was actually two short books.

The Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean

The texts I delved into were two of The Four Books: The Great Learning (大學) and Doctrine of the Mean (中庸). The Four Books are the most important books in Confucianism, the other two are Analects (論語) and Mencius (孟子). The Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean were originally chapters in Book of Rites (禮記).

The Great Learning consists of one main text attributed to Confucius and nine commentary chapters by a disciple of Confucius, Zengzi. Its opening text is quite well known:

大學之道,在明明德,在親民,在止於至善。知止而后有定,定而后能靜,靜而后能安,安而后能慮,慮而后能得。物有本末,事有終始,知所先後,則近道矣。(Dàxué zhī dào, zài míng míng dé, zài qīn mín, zài zhǐ yú zhì shàn. Zhī zhǐ ér hòu yǒu dìng, dìng ér hòu néng jìng, jìng ér hòu néng ān, ān ér hòu néng lǜ, lǜ ér hòu néng dé. Wù yǒu běnmò, shì yǒu zhōngshǐ, zhī suǒ xiānhòu, zé jìn dào yǐ.)

What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence. The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end. Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.

Doctrine of the Mean is believed to have been written by Confucius. It is about how to perfect oneself by following the course of the "mean," which represents moderation, sincerity, and a mind that is in a state of equilibrium. Below is the opening line of the book:

天命之謂性,率性之謂道,修道之謂教。道也者,不可須臾離也,可離非道也。(Tiānmìng zhī wèi xìng, shuài xìng zhī wèi dào, xiū dào zhī wèi jiào. Dào yě zhě, bù kě xūyú lí yě, kě lí fēi dào yě.)

What Heaven has conferred is called The Nature; an accordance with this nature is called The Path of duty; the regulation of this path is called Instruction. The path may not be left for an instant. If it could be left, it would not be the path.

One of my favorite lines is below.

好學近乎知,力行近乎仁,知恥近乎勇。知斯三者,則知所以修身;知所以修身,則知所以治人;知所以治人,則知所以治天下國家矣。(Hào xué jìn hū zhī, lì xíng jìn hū rén, zhī chǐ jìn hū yǒng. Zhī sī sān zhě, zé zhī suǒyǐ xiū shēn; zhī suǒyǐ xiū shēn, zé zhī suǒyǐ zhì rén; zhī suǒyǐ zhì rén, zé zhī suǒyǐ zhì tiānxià guójiā yǐ.)

To be fond of learning is to be near to knowledge. To practice with vigor is to be near to magnanimity. To possess the feeling of shame is to be near to energy. He who knows these three things knows how to cultivate his own character. Knowing how to cultivate his own character, he knows how to govern other men. Knowing how to govern other men, he knows how to govern the kingdom with all its states and families.

The Rules for Students

As part of my application to the Academy of Sinology, I needed to study one of seven "primers." I chose The Rules for Students (弟子規) because it was fairly short and I was already familiar with it. Master Chin Kung promotes it as the introduction to Confucianism and one of three basic books for learning traditional Chinese culture. It is from the Qing dynasty and emphasizes the basic requirements for being a good pupil and getting along with others. Although the book is directed at children, it applies to all people.

This is a great book to start learning Classical Chinese from because it is very simple. I have created a free video series that teaches it. Teacher Tsai Li Hsu's 40 lecture series is also excellent.

The outline of the book states:

弟子規,聖人訓,首孝弟,次謹信,汎愛眾,而親仁,有餘力,則學文。(Dì zǐ guī, shèng rén xùn, shǒu xiào tì, cì jǐn xìn, fàn ài zhòng, ér qīn rén, yǒu yú lì, zé xué wén.)

The Rules for Students contains the teachings of the saints. First, be good to parents and loving to siblings. Next, be cautious and trustworthy. Love all equally and become close to the compassionate. If there's energy left over, then study books.

A few of my favorite passages are below:

話說多,不如少。惟其是,勿佞巧。(Huà shuō duō, bù rú shǎo. Wéi qí shì, wù nìng qiǎo.)

Rather than talking too much, it is better to speak less. Only speak the truth, do not twist facts.

不力行,但學文。長浮華,成何人。但力行,不學文。任己見,昧理真。(Bù lìxíng, dàn xué wén. Zhǎng fúhuá, chéng hérén. Dàn lìxíng, bù xué wén. Rèn jǐjiàn, mèi lǐ zhēn.)

If one doesn’t work hard at conduct, but only studies books, then one attains superficial finery—what kind of person is that? If one only works hard at conduct, but does not study books, then one relies only on one’s own views, and remains ignorant of true reason.

Governing Principles of Ancient China

The Governing Principles of Ancient China (群書治要) is a compilation of the best texts on how to govern a country, bring harmony to families, and build character. It is from the Tang dynasty (618–907), a high point of Chinese civilization. The book was compiled at the decree of emperor Tang Taizong (598–649), the cofounder of the dynasty and one of China’s greatest emperors.

Master Chin Kung and his team extracted 360 passages, translated them into several languages, including English, and compiled the book in the link above. This is the primary material I used for my study of it. I also watched Venerable Wu Dao's video lecture series on it.

This book has so many awesome passages that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite's is below.

夫物速成則疾亡,晚就則善終。朝華之草,夕而零落;松柏之茂,隆寒不衰。是以大雅君子惡速成。(Fū wù sùchéng zé jí wáng, wǎn jiù zé shànzhōng. Cháo huá zhī cǎo, xī ér língluò; sōngbǎi zhī mào, lóng hán bù shuāi. Shì yǐ dàyǎ jūnzǐ è sùchéng.)

In general, anything that develops too fast will fall apart just as quickly, whereas a slow and steady development is more assured of yielding favorable results. Plants that unravel into full bloom in early morning may wither and fall by the evening, but the slow-growing pine trees will not wither even in the extreme winter cold. Hence, a superior person does not hasten to achieve results.

Studying a language is kind of like this. It takes a long time to really learn a language well. I also wrote a post that goes into this book in more depth.

Buddhist Sutras

Many Buddhist sutras were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese during the 7th century after the Chinese monk Xuanzang brought back over 657 texts back to China from India. Buddhist sutras are written in a slightly different form of Classical Chinese called bai hua wen (白話文) or Written Vernacular Chinese. This makes it easier to read than a lot of other Classical Chinese texts in my opinion.

Some common Buddhist terms that pop up again and again are below.

  • 佛 (fó) Buddha
  • 菩薩 (púsà) Bodhisattva
  • 造業 (zào yè) create karma
  • 善 (shàn) good conduct
  • 惡 (è) evil conduct
  • 故 (gù) reason, because
  • 是 (shì) this, these

Terra-Treasure Sutra

The first Buddhist sutra I studied was The Terra-Treasure Sutra (地藏經) translated by Venerable Cheng Kuan. I had previously helped with proofreading a comic book version of it, so I had prior knowledge as to what it was about before I tried reading it in Classical Chinese. Terra-Treasure is the name of a Bodhisattva (Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit) that the sutra is about.

Like many Buddhist sutras, it starts with the phrase 如是我聞 (Thus have i heard...) and begins with the Buddha preaching to an assembly. The first chapter follows the story of a woman who lived many kalpas ago (a kalpa is the span of time between the birth and death of a universe). Her mother died and because she had slandered Buddhism fell into one of the hells. The daughter makes offerings to and meditates on a Buddha of that time, and asks him where her mother has been reborn. He allows her to journey to this hell so that she might learn where her mother is. Once getting there she learns that her mother was recently released from hell and reborn into one of the heavens due to the offerings made by the daughter to the Buddha. The daughter then makes a great vow to help suffering beings throughout future kalpas to attain liberation and she thus becomes Terra-Treasure Bodhisattva. The book goes on to explain the vows of Terra-Treasure Bodhisattva and the rewards and punishments for different deeds.

I used the bilingual edition, so I could easily check the meaning of passages I didn't understand. I found this book much easier to read than The Great Learning or Doctrine of the Mean.

The Ten Wholesome Karmas Sutra

The second sutra I read was The Ten Wholesome Karmas Sutra (十善業道經). It is considered by Master Chin Kung as one of the three basic books for learning Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture. The Ten Wholesome Karmas are kind of like the Ten Commandments. They are: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no abusive speech, no slander, no enticing speech, no greed, no anger, and no ignorance. It explains the rewards for practicing the Ten Wholesome Karmas. For example,

離離間語而行施故。常富財寶無能侵奪,眷屬和睦,同一志樂,恆無乖諍。(Lí líjiàn yǔ ér xíng shī gù. Cháng fù cáibǎo wú néng qīnduó, juànshǔ hémù, tóngyī zhì lè, héng wú guāi zhèng.)

Those who give up speech that causes dissension and practice alms-giving, will always be wealthy and no one will be able to rob them. Their family members will live harmoniously with the same objectives and enjoyment and they will never have unreasonable disputes.

Like The Rules for Students, this is a very short book. It makes a great first Buddhist sutra to read.

The Infinite Life Sutra

The third Buddhist sutra I studied was the Infinite Life Sutra (無量壽經, Chinese version). This sutra is one of the three primary texts of Pure Land Buddhism. It is about a Buddhist monk who lived many kalpas ago named Dharmākara (法藏). He studied from the Buddha during that time and learned how to create a great Buddha land or "Pure Land" (淨土). The purpose of this land is to provide an ideal environment for practitioners to cultivate in order to become Buddhas, because cultivation on Earth is too difficult. The book describes in great detail what this land is like and how Dharmākara created it through making 48 great vows among other things. Eventually Dharmākara becomes Amitabha Buddha (阿彌陀佛), the Buddha of infinite life and light who is the primary Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism. Today Pure Land Buddhists seek rebirth in this land in order to reach Buddhahood and help all beings attain Buddhahood.

This book is over 100 pages long and I benefitted from having a good teacher whom I studied it with. There is no bilingual version that I could find, so I had to find a good English translation to use while studying (linked above).

One of the most important passages is the eighteenth of Dharmākara's 48 Great Vows:

我作佛時。十方眾生。聞我名號。至心信樂。所有善根。心心迴向。願生我國。乃至十念。若不生者。不取正覺。唯除五逆。誹謗正法。十八、十念必生願。(Wǒ zuò fú shí. Shí fāng zhòngshēng. Wén wǒ míng hào. Zhì xīn xìn lè. Suǒyǒu shàngēn. Xīnxīn huí xiàng. Yuàn shēng wǒguó. Nǎizhì shíniàn. Ruò bù shēng zhě. Bù qǔ zhèng jué. Wéi chú wǔ nì. Fěibàng zhèngfǎ. Shíbā, shíniàn bì shēng yuàn.)

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma.

Other Books and Resources

Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar

This book was so informative that I read it twice, back-to-back. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin Pulleyblank consists of 15 chapters that explain the grammar of Classical Chinese in an understandable way. If you are not familiar with grammatical terms, I found this video series on linguistics helpful and interesting. The book contains nearly 600 example sentences.

Moral Education Stories

Moral Education Stories (德育故事) are good beginner reading material. Each passage is usually no more than several sentences and has an accompanying translation in modern Mandarin. You will also learn a lot about Chinese culture through reading them. This one is about being good to parents (孝) and this one is about being good to siblings (悌).


Chinese by Jerry Norman is a solid book about Chinese languages and their evolution; it is a challenging read though and knowledge of linguistics and phonology will really help.

Pleco Dictionaries

One dictionary you can download as an add-on is the free Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms; another is the paid Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. One other dictionary tip is that the meaning of a character in a text is often found in the standard Pleco dictionary definition for that character several meanings down in the list.

Chinese Text Project

Chinese Text Project contains a lot of classical texts translated into English and is a useful study tool.

Classical Chinese Study Recommendations

For those interested, I strongly suggest exploring Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese will make your modern Chinese better; you can also use modern Chinese to study Classical Chinese, hence strengthening both languages at the same time. I recommend the below course of study in no particular order.

  1. Get A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese on Pleco.
  2. Work through an introductory textbook like A First Course in Literary Chinese or one listed here.
  3. Read Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin Pulleyblank.
  4. Start reading texts that interest you, focusing on those that are simpler at first and then diving into more complex texts as you go along.

If you have any questions or experience learning Classical Chinese, let me know if the comments.


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