When learning modern Chinese there is good motivation for studying some of the basics of classical 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, classical Chinese is far more commonly encountered in China than Old English or Latin is encountered in the West.
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. My main motivation in studying classical Chinese is to read 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.
The first known forms of Chinese writings were written on animal bones in a style known as 甲骨文 oracle bone script in the 商 Shang Dynasty (1700 to 1045 BCE). In the 周 Zhou Dynasty (1045—221 BCE) there were inscriptions on bronze vessels. The very early Chinese classics 易经 The Book of Changes or I Ching, 书经 Book of History, and 诗经 Book of Songs also date from the Zhou Dynasty. These texts are in a very early style called preclassical.
The terms classical Chinese (古文) and literary Chinese (文言文 or 文言) are often used interchangably. Pullyblank [PULL] characterizes the classical period is starting with the time of 孔子 Confucius (551—479 BCE), continues through 战国时代 the Warring States Period (475—221 BCE) to the 秦 Qin Dynasty, when China was first unified in 221 BCE. I will call this the high classical period to differentiate it from later periods that differ in style This was the period of the great philosphers, including the founders of the schools of 儒家 Confucianism, 道家 Taoism, 法家 Legalism, and 墨家 Mohism. After unification of China there was also more 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 清 Qing Dynasty.
There is considerable regional differences between the styles of writing during the high classical period, including (1) the continuation of a more archaic style, including 左传 Zuozhuan and 国语 Book of Historical Narrative; (2) a 鲁 Lu style, including 论语 The Analects of Confucius and 孟子 Mencius; (3) a 楚 Chu style, including 离骚 Sorrow at Parting in 楚辞 Songs of Chu; and (4) a style found in 庄子 Zhuang Zi, 韩非子 Han Feizi, and 荀子 Xun Zi 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 汉 Han (221 BCE—220 CE), continuing through to the 唐 Tang (618—907 CE). Thich Naht Hanh [HANH] notes that the origin of the Chinese version of 佛说八大人觉经 The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings is the the Buddhist monk 安世高 An Shi Gao, a Parthian prince who travelled to China and stayed in 洛阳 around 140—171 CE in the later Han. However, for many years during this early period the texts were incomplete and many inconsistent versions existed. This prompted the Chinese monk 玄奘 Xuanzang (602—664 CE)to travel to India on his legendary Journey to the West to collect the sutras in the Tang Dynasty. The version of 心经 The Heart Sutra used by Venerable Yifa [YIFA] was translated to Chinese by Xuanzang.
Given the great amount of time covered by literary Chinese I focus in this text on the high classical period since that has the greatest difference from modern Chinese. However, I make some comments on differences with later periods at some points in the text.
Classical Chinese has its origins in the spoken language of the Warring States Period (403—255 B.C.). Classical Chinese is uninflected. That is the verbs do not have forms that indicate past, present, and future tense. Whereas inflection is largely missing in modern Chinese it is largely missing in classical Chinese.
Modern Chinese is considered a polysyllabic language because most of the words in the language have two characters. Classical 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:
Modern Chinese has a number of affixes and particles, such as 了、过、者、们、得. 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 诸 and 等.
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 ( 商 Shang and 周 Zhou to 西汉 Western Han), Middle Chinese (东汉 Eastern Han to 初唐 Early Tang), and Mandarin (唐 Tang to 清 Qing).
Much of the knowledge of Old Chinese comes from analysis of rhymes in 诗经 The Book of Songs and 尔雅 Erya, 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, 说文解字 Shuo Wen Jie Zi 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 切韵 Qieyun compiled by 陆法言 in about 600 CE. The the 反切 fan qie 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 广韵 Guangyun dictionary in around 1011 CE after many revisions and additions. The fan qie system was also used in 康熙字典 the Kangxi Dictionary (1716) considered the first modern Chinese dictionary.
Middle Chinese had four tones but there were different from modern Chinese. The were 平 level, 上 rising, 去 falling, and 入 entering. Entering tones ended with a p, t, or k. The tones were first documented by 沈约 Shen Yue 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 2400 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.
The general rules of word order are
Words can shift grammatical function in classical Chinese within certain patterns. Here are a few constant rules to help distinguish grammatical function.
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.
There are five types of grammatical relationships: topic-comment, verb-object, coordination, subordination, and number complement.
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 也 most frequently mean A is a B or A is a type of B. A 犹 B 也 (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 庄子 Zhuang Zi,
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.
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, 居山中 (to live in the mountains). Sometimes the locative particle 于 will be used. However, some references classify 于 as a preposition in the context of classical Chinese.
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 与， 且， 而， 或， and 将 are frequently used to join terms in a coordinate relationship. For example, 我与尔 (you and I). However, conjunctions are also often omitted.
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, 青草 green (modifier ) grass (head). The elements of a subordinate relation can be nouns, verbs, or phrases.
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, 二人 (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 classical Chinese. Some classical 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 article 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.
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