Chinese Notes

Notes on Literary Chinese

Alex Amies


  1. Introduction
    1. Historical Background
    2. Language Background
    3. Pronunciation
    4. Characters
    5. Basic Grammatical Principles
  2. Nouns and Nominal Phrases
    1. Nominal Phrases
    2. Text: Analects 16.9
    3. Text: Analects 6.13
    4. Questions
    5. Pronouns and Particles
  3. Verbs and Verbal Phrases
    1. Verbal Phrases
    2. Text: A Rich Person in the Song Kingdom (Han Feizi)
    3. Coordinate Verbs
    4. Text: Guarding a Tree Stump Waiting for a Rabbit (Han Feizi)
    5. Active and Passive Constructions
    6. Verbs of Motion and Location
    7. The Modifier Suo
    8. Nominalization of Verbs
    9. Text: A notch on the Side of a Boat to Find a Dropped Sword
    10. Coverbs
    11. Negatives
    12. Text: Spear and Shield (Han Feizi)
    13. Pivot Verbs
    14. Auxiliary Verbs
    15. Text: Yang Bu (Lie Zi)
    16. Text: The Fox Borrows the Tiger's Prestige (Strategies of the Warring States)
  4. Compound Sentences
    1. Embedded Sentences
    2. Pulling up Seedlings (Mencius)
  5. Stories by Liu Xiang
    1. Duke Ping of Jin asks Shi Kuang (Garden of Stories)
    2. A Two Headed Snake (New Prefaces)
    3. Zhao Jianzi Asks Zi Gong (Garden of Stories)
    4. Zhao Jianzi Raises an Army to Attack Qi (Garden of Stories)
    5. The King of Wu Desires to Attack Chu
  6. Stratagems of the Warring States
    1. Zeng Shen Kills a Person
  7. Zhuang Zi
    1. A Fabulous Bird
    2. Dragging One's Tail in the Mud
    3. The Skull
  8. Records of the Historian
    1. Shi She
    2. Yan Zi's Charioteer
    3. Han Gao Zu
    4. Chunyu Kun
  9. Han Feizi
    1. The He Clan's Jade Disk
  10. Mencius
    1. Benevolent Government
    2. Bear Claws
  11. References


When learning modern Chinese there is good motivation for studying some of the basics of literary Chinese. The similarities are surprising and the differences interesting as well. Native English speakers may wonder about the relevance of this when making an analogy of modern English to Old English or perhaps modern Italian to Latin. Perhaps because written Chinese can be read independently of pronunciation it has survived in such a recognizable form for so long and been used over a very broad geographic area, including all of East Asia. In fact, literary Chinese is far more commonly encountered in China than Old English or Latin is encountered in the West since it is used commonly in idioms, quotes, and place names. Due to the common set of characters, literary Chinese can be embedded in modern Chinese as needed.

When studying Chinese history, literature, and philosophy it is common to study original texts, of which are many and, in contrast to Old English and Latin, have a continuous tradition from the beginning of writing in China until the transition from classical Chinese to modern Chinese. Idioms are much more commonly encountered in modern Chinese than modern English and these mostly have their roots in classical Chinese. The many calligraphic works decorating Chinese buildings are invariably classical poems. Literary Chinese is encountered in Buddhist texts, whose original translations from Sanskrit are still in wide use today in the Chinese Buddhist community.

This series of web pages was written to be a gentle introduction for learners with minimal background in modern Chinese or even none at all. You can mouse over any of the Chinese text to find the English and Pinyin for the Chinese and follow a hyperlink to additional details. Where there are multiple definitions for a given word the mouseover and link will be for the right alternative for the given context, especially where the classical use differs from the modern use.

For more information on the development of Classical Chinese and its Grammar see Fuller (Fuller, 2004) and Pulleyblank (Pulleyblank, 1995) and the additional references listed in the References section.

Historical Background

The first known forms of Chinese writings were written on animal bones in a style known as oracle bone script 甲骨文 in the Shang Dynasty (1700 to 1045 BCE). In the Zhou Dynasty (1045—221 BCE) there were inscriptions on bronze vessels. The very early Chinese classics The Book of Changes or I Ching 易經, Book of History 書經, and Book of Songs 詩經 also date from the Zhou Dynasty. These texts are in a very early style referred to as Old Chinese 上古漢語 (Norman, 1988, p. 23).

The terms Classical Chinese (古文) and Literary Chinese (文言文 or 文言) are often loosely used interchangably. Classical Chinese more properly refers to written Chinese from the end of the Spring and Autumn period through to the end of the Han Dynasty. (Norman, 1988, p. 83) This include the time of Confucius 孔子 (c. 551—479 BCE), continues through the Warring States Period 戰國時代 (475—221 BCE) to the Qin Dynasty , when China was first unified in 221 BCE. This was the period of the great philosphers, including the founders of the schools of Confucianism 儒家, Taoism 道家, Legalism 法家, and Mohism 墨家. After the unification of China in the Qin there was convergence in the written language. However, as time went on the written form 文言 literary Chinese diverged from the spoken form. Literary Chinese refers to the style of written Chinese commonly used right through to the end of the Qing Dynasty .

There are considerable regional differences between the styles of writing during the classical period, including (1) the continuation of a more archaic style, including Zuozhuan 左傳 and Book of Historical Narrative 國語; (2) a Lu style, including The Analects of Confucius 論語 and Mencius 孟子; (3) a Chu style, including Sorrow at Parting 離騷 in Songs of Chu 楚辭; and (4) a style found in Zhuang Zi 莊子, Han Feizi 韓非子, and Xun Zi 荀子 that leads towards a common standard.

Buddhist texts were brought to China from India and translated from Sanskrit and Pali over a period of many hundred years, starting in the Han (221 BCE—220 CE), continuing through to the Tang (618—907 CE). Some of these translations are still popular today, for example The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings 佛說八大人覺經 (Nhất Hạnh, 1987) translated by the Buddhist monk An Shi Gao 安世高 in the Later Han and Heart Sutra 心經 translated by the Chinese monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (602—664 CE) in the Tang. (Yifa et al., 2006)

These notes focus on the classical period.

Language Background

Modern Chinese is considered a polysyllabic language because most of the words in the language have two characters. Literary Chinese is considered basically a monosyllabic language. That is most words consist of a single character. There are a number of notable exceptions to this, however:

  1. Bound compounds whose meanings cannot be deduced from either character alone. For example, 君子 'nobleman'
  2. Pollysyllabic loan words from foreign languages, especially many Buddhist terms from Sanskrit, for example, a Buddhist monk 沙門 and a Buddhist nun 比丘尼
  3. Binomes, which are an intensifying expression that joins together two words with similar pronuncation. For example, 崢嶸, which describes the lofty nature of tall mountains was pronounced dzaeng-yuaeng in Middle Chinese.
  4. Polar binomes, which are a form where writers use an opposite or similar pair of words to refer to a set or range. For example, 草木 'grasses and trees' refers to all vegetation.
  5. Reduplication of certain words can expand the meaning of the word on its own. For example, (year) when reduplicated 年年 means year after year. The word (person / people) when reduplicated 人人 means everybody.

Modern Chinese has a number of affixes and particles, such as . However, compared with European languages it has relatively few affixes. Classical Chinese has even fewer affixes than modern Chinese. Two plural forms that were commonly used from the Warring States Period on are and .


Spoken Chinese has varied over its history and geographic areas and sounds used in previous times can only be reconstructed from fragmentary evidence. It is generally divided into three periods: Old Chinese (Shang and Zhou to Western Han 西漢), Middle Chinese (Eastern Han 東漢 to Early Tang 初唐), and Mandarin (Tang to Qing ).

Much of the knowledge of Old Chinese comes from analysis of rhymes in The Book of Songs 詩經 and Erya 爾雅, the first Chinese dictionary, dating to about the third century BCE. In addition, comparisons with other languages and loan words from Indo-European languages have been used to understand pronunciation of Old Chinese. In addition, many radicals are related to the pronunciation of characters. Also, the dictionary, Shuo Wen Jie Zi 說文解字 appeared in the Han Dynasty.

Knowledge of Middle Chinese is more complete than Old Chinese because Chinese scholars of the time compiled rhyming dictionaries, including Qieyun 切韻 compiled by Lu Fayan 陸法言 in about 600 CE. The the fan qie 反切 system used in dictionaries, such as Qieyun, each entry consisted of two characters to represent the sound of a word. The first character had the same initial sound and the second character had the same final sound. Qieyun formed the basis of Guangyun dictionary 广韵 in around 1011 CE after many revisions and additions. The fan qie system was also used in the Kangxi Dictionary 康熙字典 (1716) considered the first modern Chinese dictionary.

Middle Chinese had four tones but there were different from modern Chinese. The were level , rising , falling , and entering . Entering tones ended with a p, t, or k. The tones were first documented by Shen Yue 沈約 in the fifth century CE. In the Qieyun dictionaries the tones were represented by small circles at the four corners of the characters.

When we think about the diversity of the modern dialects of Chinese we can appreciate the difficulty of understanding pronunciation from the various regions of China thoughout the past 2,400 years or so. Nevertheless, classical Chinese is commonly read aloud in modern Mandarin, for example in Buddhist chanting. There are eight major modern dialects that can be divided into three groups.

  1. Mandarin宮話 (divided into Northern Mandarin, Northwest Mandarin, Southern Mandarin, and Southwest Mandarin)

  2. Gàn
  3. Mǐn
    Kèjiā (Hakka) 客家
    Yuè (Cantonese)
    Huīzhōu 徽州


Shuo Wen Jie Zi 說文解字 was the first etymological dictionary, attributed to Xu Shen 許慎 in the second century CE. Shuowen Jiezi had six methods for forming Chinese characters 六書:

  1. ideograms 指事, indicating an idea — for example up
  2. pictograms 象形, derived from a picture — for example, moon
  3. phonogram 形聲, derived from a radical indicating meaning plus phonetic part — for example, river that combines water and with the modern sound ke
  4. combined ideogram 會意 that combines the meanings of existing elements — for example, to chirp, that combines mouth () and bird ()
  5. transfer character 轉註, with meanings influenced by other words — for example, old to to examine
  6. loan character 假借, acquiring meanings by phonetic association — for example, peace to the same character for use as an interogative pronoun

Basic Grammatical Principles

The general rules of word order are

  1. subject precedes predicate
  2. a modifier precedes the word it modifies
  3. a verb precedes its object

Words can shift grammatical function in classical Chinese within certain patterns. Here are a few constant rules to help distinguish grammatical function.

  1. Nouns are negated by .

    For example,

    。 Even jewels have no use. 左思三部賦序》 (From Zuo Si, Three Part Poetic Essay)

    何以? Without clothes or hemp, how will we pass the years? 《詩經》 (From the Book of Songs)

    Verbs are negated by

    However, direct objects can be placed after a negating word and before the verb, which can make this rule less obvious to recognize.

    The topic is often omitted when it is understood.

  2. A verbal construction must follow .
  3. is often used to mark subordination. Placing it between the subject and verb of a subject-predicate phrase turns it into a nominal phrase.
  4. Most words that we think of as adjectives in English can act as static verbs. That is verbs that describe state.

There are five types of grammatical relationships: topic-comment, verb-object, coordination, subordination, and number complement.

  1. Topic-Comment

    This is a variation of the subject-predicate relation but a little more broad. The topic is the focus of the phrase and most often is placed first. The comment is a statement about the topic. The simplest type of topic-comment phrase is a nominal sentence that identifies one noun with another. Nominal sentences with the pattern A B most frequently mean A is a B or A is a type of B. A B (A is like B) is another form of nominal sentence.

    Topicalization is the transfer of the usual order of a sentence to change the element that is being stressed. This is an important tool in classical Chinese rhetoric. For example, from Zhuang Zi 莊子,

    What I, your servant, like is The Way.

    Topicalization is one type of a broader movement of sentence elements to the front called exposure. Exposure is often used for rhetorical emphasis or to mark a contrast.

  2. Verb-Object

    The simplest case of a verb-object is a verb and a direct object. For example, (to drink wine). Sometimes the object of a verb is another verb. For example, 使 (to cause to return).

    Time and place information usually expressed through prepositional phrases in English and modern Chinese are expressed using verb-object relations in classical Chinese. The time and place words are locative objects of verbs. For example, (to live in the mountains). Sometimes the locative particle will be used. However, some references classify as a preposition in the context of literary Chinese.

    Auxiliary verbs are used in a similar way to modern Chinese. Frequently used auxiliary verbs are . For example, (should return).

  3. Coordinate Relationships

    In a coordinate relationship two terms of the same type are used together. The elements may be nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or phrases. The conjunctions , and are frequently used to join terms in a coordinate relationship. However, conjunctions are also often omitted.

  4. Subordinate Relations

    In a subordinate relation the first element modifies the second. The first element is the modifier and the second element is called the head. For example, green (modifier ) grass (head). The elements of a subordinate relation can be nouns, verbs, or phrases.

    is a marker for explicit subordination to a noun. It turns a verbal phrase into a nominal phrase. For example, 日出 (the sun at sunrise, from 說苑 Garden of Stories).

  5. Number Complements

    A number complement relation has the form (number) + (measure). Here the measure is a noun that is a measure of some kind of quantity. For example, (two people). Measure words, as found in modern Chinese, originated from this form.

Punctuation in classical Chinese has mostly been added at a later date to make reading easier. In particular, question marks, quotation marks, and semi-colons were not used at all in literary Chinese. Some literary Chinese text used no punctation at all, making it very difficult for modern readers. Some texts used periods in place of both periods and modern commas. This web page uses basic periods and commas in order to make text a little more readable but avoids more modern additions like question marks, quotation marks, and semi-colons.

Copyright Fo Guang Shan Nan Tien Institute 佛光山南天大學 2013-2015, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. See About. Please send comments to

This page was last updated on September 19, 2015.