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Notes on Literary Chinese

Nouns and Noun Phrases

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Nouns and Nominal Phrases

In a topic-comment sentence there are two types of comments: nominal and verbal. A nominal sentence has a nominal (noun-like) phrase as its comment. Usually this means that a nominal phrase forms the predicate of the sentence. In contrast, a verbal sentence has a verbal (verb-like) phrase as its comment.

Nominal Phrases

A nominal sentence has the form A B , which is a statement that A is a type of B. For example,

Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men.

from The Analects of Confucius 论语 (see below). The topic of this sentence is .

In nominal sentences in classical Chinese, depending on the period and author, there is often no copula, like 'is' in Enlgish or in modern Chinese. The copula is nearly entirely missing in early classical Chinese texts and more commonly encountered in later texts. In later texts as a final particle also becomes less common.

The negative form for this type of sentence is usually A B . For example,

I did not have the courage to lag behind

also from the Analects (see below). The unstated but implied subject in this example is I.

Text Analects 16.9



Confucius said,
'Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men.
Those who learn, and so, readily, get possession of knowledge, are the next.
Those who are have difficulty and yet overcome that in learning, are another class next to these.
As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn are the lowest of the people.'

The Analects are the sayings of Confucius recorded by his disciples (c. 479 BCE—221 BCE) and is a model of an early classical Chinese writing.

Text Analects 6.13



The Master said,
'Meng Zhifan does not boast of his merit.
Being in the rear on an occasion of flight, when they were about to enter the gate, he whipped up his horse,
saying, "It is not that I dare to be last. My horse would not advance."'


In very early classical texts, such as Zuozhuan 左传 the interrogative particle was added after to form questions. Later, the combination was replaced by or . For example,

Are we not all somebody's son?

from Mencius 孟子 and

Is this its true color?

from Zhuang Zi 庄子.

The final particle means is it not? and is used in a similar way to the modern particle . For example,

Thus I have arrived at this eventuality. Is it not fate?

from Zhuang Zi 庄子.

Pronouns and Particles

A pronoun can be substituted for a noun when using a nominal predicate. Commonly encountered pronouns are , , and . For example,

This was King Wen's bravery.

This is also running away.

both from Mencius. In high classical Chinese was a pronoun rather than a verb as it is in modern Chinese. It aquired this function in the Han Dynasty.

The pronoun is used when the subject is plural. For example,

all five skandhas are empty

from the Heart Sutra.

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