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Notes on Literary Chinese

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Verbs and Verbal Phrases

Verbal Phrases

In verbal sentences the comment has a verb. Verbs may be transitive or intransitive. Transitive verbs take an object. For example, (knew it). Intransitive do not take an object. For example, (the thief fled).

An adjective describes a quality or continuing state of an object and are sometimes classified as stative verbs because they can form predicates. For example, (The mountain is tall). However, adjectives are more commonly found in front of nouns as modifiers. For example, 富人 (a rich person).

Adjectives can also be made into transitive verbs by moving the subject to the object position. For example

I plead with Your Majesty to make it large

Text: A Rich Person in the Song Kingdom (Han Feizi)


There was a rich person in the Song Kingdom whose wall broke after some rain.
The person said,"I will not rebuild it. There will inevitably be a thief."
His neighbor's father also agreed.
The sun set and, as a result, he lost a huge amount of his wealth. So that evening a thief plundered his home.
Other families who knew him suspected his neighbor's father.

The author, Han Feizi (c. 280-233 BC), was pre-Han dynasty philosopher.

This passage demonstrates a number of adjectives and verbs. In the first line the adjective (rich) modifies the noun (person). The very common transitive verb (to have) indicates that the state of Song has a rich man. The object of is 富人 (the rich man). The intransitve verb (to flee) is used in line 4. It was (the bandit) that fled.

Coordinate Verbs

Coordinate verbs can be used to form a sequence of actions. Verb coordination in classical Chinese usually implies that the first verb is an antecedent condition for the verb that follows. For example,

A rabbit walked by and bumped into the tree stump.

If the rabbit was not walking () it would not have bumped () into the tree stump. Here is another example,

The rabbit broke its neck and died.

The rabbit died () because it broke () its neck.

Text: Guarding a Tree Stump Waiting for a Rabbit (Han Feizi)



A farmer plowing his field in the state of Song when a rabbit bumped into a tree stump and broke its neck and died.
He was reluctant to use his plow, preferring to guard the tree stump and wait for the next rabbit.
Of course, he did not catch a rabbit after that but did become the laughing stock of the state of Song.
Today, we desire to rule like the former kings did in their age but we still have many people who are watching the tree stump waiting for a rabbit.

This passage demonstrates the coverbs discussed above.

Active and Passive Constructions

In an active construction an agent of an action is in the subject position and followed by a transitive verb and another noun in the object position. For example, from the passage above

The man from Song caught a rabbit.

In this example (the man from Song) is the subject, (to obtain) is the verb, and (rabbit) is the object. In a passive construction the object of the verb is placed before the verb. For example, from Mencius

The host proceded and provisions were eaten.

Here the object (provisions) appears before the verb (to eat). An active verb can be changed into a passive construction to change the emphasis of a sentence. For example, from the Han Feizi text above:

and that person became the laughing stock of the state of Song

Here the term is used to create the passive construction. It placed emphasis on that person () rather than simply saying that the people in the state of Song laughed at him. The verb in this sentence is (to laugh). The object (person) appears before the subject (the state of Song). is called a copula, similar to is in English.

The use of can also create a passive construction. In the construction

Of course, he never caught another rabbit

is used to emphasize the fact that another rabbit could not possibly be caught that way rather than just saying that he the farmer did not catch any more rabbits. Here (rabbit) is the object for the verb (to obtain). The coverb can also be used in an analogous way to create a passive construction. For example, from Mencius,

Those who do manual labor are governed by other people.

In this example the verb is (to govern), which acts on the object (those who do manual labor). The subject (other people) appears last in the sentence.

Verbs of Motion and Location

Commonly encountered verbs to express motion are (to come), (to go), (to walk or to travel), and (to stop). These verbs do not need a destination. For example,

The King of Wu said, “Sir, please come [here].” (刘向Liu Xiang, 79—8 BCE)

The location 'here' is implied but not stated. Some verbs describing movement are transitive and take a location as their object. The transitive verb (to go) is used in this way. For example,

When the prince, afterwards duke Wen of Teng, had to go to Chu, he went by way of Song, and visited Mencius. (Mencius)

In this example, (the state of Chu) is the object of the verb .

The particle is often associated with verbs of motion to refer to a destination.

(to reside) and (to be at) are commonly encountered verbs of location. The object of these transitive verbs indicates the location. For example

... does not know that there is a praying mantis behind him

(behind him) is the object of the verb .

The Modifier

The term can be used as a tool to change the emphasis in sentence constructions. allows the writer to refer to a set of objects selected for their role as objects of verbs. For example, in the phrase

represents the place where it fell into the water. Although Fuller [FUL] refers to this use of as a modifier and the character can play a variety of grammatical functions other sources refer to this particular use of as a pronoun.

Nominalization of Verbs

Nominalization of a verb allows a writer to refer to the action of a verb as an object in itself. The most direct way to nominalize a verb is to make it the topic of a sentence. Another way is to make it the object of another verb. A third way is to use the nominalizing function word . For example, in the phrase

there was a river crossing

is used to nominalize (to cross the river) so that (a river crossing) becomes the object of the verb (there was).

Text: A notch on the Side of a Boat to Find a Dropped Sword (Mr Lu's Annals)


There was a person from the state of Chu who crossed a river.
His sword fell out of the boat into the water.
He quickly made a mark in boat and said, 'This is where my sword fell.'
When the boat stopped moving, he went into the water to look for his sword at the place where he had marked the boat.
The boat had moved but the sword had not.
Is this not a very foolish way to look for a sword?

The passage was written by 吕不韦 Lu Buwei (-235 BC), a merchant and politician in the state of Qin. The title 刻舟求剑 has now become a modern idiom meaning an action made pointless by changed circumstances.


A coverb describes an antecedent condition. ,and are common coverbs. For example,

fell from the boat

(to come from) acts as the coverb and (to fall) is the main verb. The object of the coverb is (the boat).

Coverbs play the same role that prepositions do in modern Chinese and English. However, coverbs are different from prepositions. They are a kind of transitive verb. Coverbs take objects and can be modified by certain adverbs, such as . They describe an antecedent action, which is something to bring about the actions of the main verb. Some common coverbs are

  1. to follow
  2. to act as
  3. to grasp / to use

    A common pattern is A B [to take A to be B]

  4. to rely on

    can take an object but is sometimes used without an object at the beginning of a sentence. In this case the implication is that the situation described in the preceding text is relied upon.

  5. to follow along
  6. to give / to accompany
  7. to come from

can be used to change the location of the object of the coverb, as described above.


There are a number of different terms for negation in classical Chinese:

  1. negates verbs. If a noun follows it is modified to act as a verb. For example, in Han Feizi's story from below

    My spears are so sharp that there is nothing they cannot pierce through.

  2. indicates that an action has not yet occurred, although it still may occur at some time in the future.
  3. is a verb that indicates something does not exist. is the opposite of . For example,

    My spears are so sharp that there is nothing they cannot pierce through.

    This example demonstrates that the different types of negation can come in handy with double negatives.

  4. negates the identity, i.e. A is not a B. acts on nouns. For example, from the Analects 6.13 text above

    Not having the courage to lag behind

  5. is a fusion character that combines and For example,

    The person could not respond.

  6. is a negative imperative — do not ...
  7. is a negative distributive, similar to neither, nothing, or none. is the opposite of . For example, again from Han Feizi's story about the shield and spear below

    My shields are so hard that nothing can pierce through them.

Text: Spear and Shield (Han Feizi)



There was a man of the state of Chu who sold shields and spears. He bragged about his shields saying: “My shields are so hard that nothing can pierce through them.”
He also bragged about his spears saying: “My spears are so sharp that there is nothing they cannot pierce through.”
Someone said: “Sir, what would happen if people were to use your spears to pierce through your shields?’”
The person could not respond.
Obviously, shields that cannot be pierced by anything and spears that can pierce through anything cannot both exist at the same time.

Pivot Verbs

A pivotal construction is one where a pivot joins two verbs by being the object of the first verb and the subject responsible for the action of the second verb. Certain verbs, including (to lead to), 使 (to cause), and (to urge) are often found in these constructions. For example,

Turning to face him caused the dog to go away from him with white and towards him with black. How could you not blame it?

Here 使 [to cause] is the pivot verb and [him, the dog] is the pivot.

Auxiliary Verbs

An auxiliary verb changes the sense of another verb, in particular, the possibility, probability, or desirability. For example,

How can you not blame it?

which uses the auxiliary verb (can). The most frequenty encounterd auxiliary verbs are

  1. can / able to
  2. can
  3. 可以 can
  4. must
  5. ought to
  6. agree to
  7. dare to
  8. hard to

An auxiliary verb accepts a main verb as its object. However, sometimes the main verb is omitted if it is obvious from the context.

Text: Yang Bu (Lie Zi)



Yang Zhu's younger brother declared that he would go out wearing undyed white clothes.
[Interpretation of the Classics says that clothes in “wear white clothes” is used for the sound. In the text below “wear black clothes” is the same. The text “White clothes” relies on this character.]
A rain shower cuts through the plain white clothes. The clothes become black instead.
The dog does not know any better but to greet him by barking.
Yang Bu angrily beats the it the dog.
Yang Zhu says to the master please do not beat the dog. It appears that the master will listen.
Turning to face him caused the dog to go away from him with white and towards him with black. How could you not blame it?

Text: The Fox Borrows the Tiger's Prestige (Strategies of the Warring States)



The tiger chases after all kinds of animals to eat and so happened to catch a fox.
The fox said, “Sir, you would not be so brave as to eat me.”
The Heavenly Emperor let me raise all types of animals. If Master eats me now you will be rebelling againts the order of the Emperor.
If you do not believe me, I will walk first and you follow behind. Observe how all animals see me and run away.
The tiger did as he said and walked with him. In each case, the animals fled.
The tiger di not know that the animals were afraid of himself but, instead thought that they were afraid of the fox.

The title of this section 狐假虎威 has become a modern Chinese idiom meaning to use powerful connections to intimidate people.

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