CLASSICAL CHINESE, also known as LITERARY CHINESE, is the language
of the classic literature from the end of the Spring and Autumn period
through to the end of the
Han Dynasty , a written form of Old Chinese
Classical Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese that
evolved from the classical language, making it different from any
modern spoken form of Chinese . Literary Chinese was used for almost
all formal writing in
China until the early 20th century, and also,
during various periods, in
Vietnam . Among Chinese
speakers, Literary Chinese has been largely replaced by written
vernacular Chinese , a style of writing that is similar to modern
Mandarin Chinese , while speakers of non-Chinese languages have
largely abandoned Literary Chinese in favor of local vernaculars.
Literary Chinese is known as kanbun (漢文) in Japanese, hanmun in
Korean (but see also gugyeol ), and cổ văn (古文) or văn ngôn
(文言) in Vietnamese.
* 1 Definitions
* 2 Pronunciation
* 3 Grammar and lexicon
* 4 Modern use
* 5 See also
* 6 Notes
* 7 References
* 7.1 Footnotes
* 7.2 Works cited
* 8 External links
Classical Chinese refers to the written language
of the classical period of Chinese literature, from the end of the
Spring and Autumn period
Spring and Autumn period (early 5th century BC) to the end of the Han
Dynasty (220 AD), while Literary Chinese is the form of written
Chinese used from the end of the
Han Dynasty to the early 20th
century, when it was replaced by vernacular written Chinese. It is
often also referred to as "Classical Chinese", but sinologists
generally distinguish it from the language of the early period. During
this period the dialects of
China became more and more disparate and
thus the Classical written language became less and less
representative of the varieties of Chinese (cf.
Classical Latin ,
which was contemporary to the Han Dynasty, and the Romance languages
of Europe). Although authors sought to write in the style of the
Classics, the similarity decreased over the centuries due to their
imperfect understanding of the older language, the influence of their
own speech, and the addition of new words.
This situation, the use of Literary Chinese throughout the Chinese
cultural sphere despite the existence of disparate regional
vernaculars, is called diglossia . It can be compared to the position
Classical Arabic relative to the various regional vernaculars in
Arab lands, or of
Latin in medieval Europe. The Romance languages
continued to evolve, influencing
Latin texts of the same period, so
that by the
Middle Ages , Medieval
Latin included many usages that
would have baffled the Romans . The coexistence of Classical Chinese
and the native languages of Japan,
Vietnam can be compared
to the use of
Latin in nations that natively speak non-Latin-derived
Germanic languages or
Slavic languages , to the position of Arabic in
Persia or the position of the Indic language,
Sanskrit , in South
India and Southeast Asia. However, the non-phonetic Chinese writing
system causes a unique situation where the modern pronunciation of the
classical language is far more divergent (and heterogeneous, depending
on the native – not necessarily Chinese – tongue of the reader)
than in analogous cases, complicating understanding and study of
Classical Chinese further compared to other classical languages.
Christian missionaries coined the term Wen-li (Chinese : 文理;
pinyin : wénlǐ;
Wade–Giles : wen-li) for Literary Chinese. Though
composed from Chinese roots, this term was never used in that sense in
Chinese, and was rejected by non-missionary sinologues.
Old Chinese phonology and
The shape of the
Oracle bone script character for "person" may have
influenced that for "harvest" (which later came to mean "year").
Today, they are pronounced rén and nián in Mandarin, but their
hypothesized pronunciations in
Old Chinese were very similar, which
may explain the resemblance. For example, in the recent Baxter-Sagart
construction, they were /niŋ/ and /nˤiŋ/, respectively, becoming
/nʲin/ and /nin/ in Early
Middle Chinese .
Chinese characters are not alphabetic and only palely reflect sound
changes . The tentative reconstruction of
Old Chinese is an endeavor
only a few centuries old. As a result,
Classical Chinese is not read
with a reconstruction of
Old Chinese pronunciation; instead, it is
always read with the pronunciations of characters categorized and
listed in the Phonology Dictionary (韻書; pinyin : yùnshū, "rhyme
book ") officially published by the Governments, originally based upon
Middle Chinese pronunciation of
Luoyang in the 2nd to 4th
centuries. With the progress of time, every dynasty has updated and
modified the official Phonology Dictionary. By the time of the Yuan
Ming Dynasty , the Phonology Dictionary was based on early
Mandarin. But since the
Imperial Examination required the composition
of Shi genre, in non-Mandarin speaking parts of
China such as Zhejiang
Fujian , pronunciation is either based on everyday
speech as in
Cantonese ; or, in some varieties of Chinese (e.g.
Southern Min ), with a special set of pronunciations used for
Classical Chinese or "formal" vocabulary and usage borrowed from
Classical Chinese usage. In practice, all varieties of Chinese combine
these two extremes. Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, also have
words that are pronounced one way in colloquial usage and another way
when used in
Classical Chinese or in specialized terms coming from
Classical Chinese, though the system is not as extensive as that of
Southern Min or Wu . (See Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese
Japanese , Korean , or Vietnamese readers of
Classical Chinese use
systems of pronunciation specific to their own languages. For example,
Japanese speakers use On'yomi pronunciation when reading the kanji of
words of Chinese origin such as 銀行 (ginkō) or the name for the
city of Tōkyō (東京), but use Kun'yomi when the kanji represents a
native word such as the reading of 行 in 行く (iku) or the reading
of both characters in the name for the city of Ōsaka (大阪), and a
system that aids Japanese speakers with
Classical Chinese word order.
Since the pronunciation of all modern varieties of Chinese is
Old Chinese or other forms of historical Chinese (such
Middle Chinese ), characters that once rhymed in poetry may not
rhyme any longer, or vice versa, which may still rhyme in Min or
Cantonese. Poetry and other rhyme-based writing thus becomes less
coherent than the original reading must have been. However, some
modern Chinese varieties have certain phonological characteristics
that are closer to the older pronunciations than others, as shown by
the preservation of certain rhyme structures. Some believe Classical
Chinese literature, especially poetry, sounds better when read in
certain varieties that are believed to be closer to older
pronunciations, such as
Cantonese or Southern Min, because the rhyming
is often lost due to sound shifts in Mandarin .
Another phenomenon that is common in reading
Classical Chinese is
homophony (words that sound the same). More than 2,500 years of sound
Classical Chinese from any modern variety, so when
Classical Chinese in any modern variety of Chinese (especially
Mandarin) or in Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese, many characters which
originally had different pronunciations have become homonyms . There
is a famous
Classical Chinese poem written in the early 20th century
by the linguist
Chao Yuen Ren called the Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone
Den , which contains only words that are now pronounced , , , and
in Mandarin . It was written to show how
Classical Chinese has become
an impractical language for speakers of modern Chinese because
Classical Chinese when spoken aloud is largely incomprehensible.
However the poem is perfectly comprehensible when read silently
because Literary Chinese, by its very nature as a written language
using a logographic writing system, can often get away with using
homophones that even in spoken
Old Chinese would not have been
distinguishable in any way.
The situation is analogous to that of some English words that are
spelled differently but sound the same, such as "meet" and "meat",
which were pronounced and respectively during the time of
as shown by their spelling. However, such homophones are far more
common in Literary Chinese than in English. For example, the following
Old Chinese words are now all pronounced yì in Mandarin:
*ŋjajs 議 "discuss", *ŋjət 仡 "powerful", *ʔjup 邑 "city",
*ʔjək 億 "100,000,000", *ʔjəks 意 "thought", *ʔjek 益
"increase", *ʔjik 抑 "press down", *jak 弈 "Chinese chess", *ljit
逸 "flee", *ljək 翼 "wing", *ljek 易 "change", *ljeks 易 "easy"
and *slek 蜴 "lizard".
Romanizations have been devised giving distinct spellings for the
words of Classical Chinese, together with rules for pronunciation in
various modern varieties. The earliest was the Romanisation
Interdialectique (1931–2) of French Jesuit missionaries Henri
Lamasse and Ernest Jasmin, based on
Middle Chinese , followed by
linguist Wang Li 's wényán luómǎzì (1940) based on
Old Chinese ,
General Chinese Romanization (1975). However none of these
systems has seen extensive use.
GRAMMAR AND LEXICON
Classical Chinese grammar
Classical Chinese is distinguished from written vernacular Chinese in
its style, which appears extremely concise and compact to modern
Chinese speakers, and to some extent in the use of different lexical
items (vocabulary). An essay in Classical Chinese, for example, might
use half as many
Chinese characters as in vernacular Chinese to relate
the same content.
In terms of conciseness and compactness,
Classical Chinese rarely
uses words composed of two Chinese characters; nearly all words are of
one syllable only. This stands directly in contrast with modern
Northern Chinese varieties including Mandarin, in which two-syllable,
three-syllable, and four-syllable words are extremely common, whilst
although two-syllable words are also quite common within modern
Southern Chinese varieties, they are still more archaic in that they
use more one-syllable words than Northern Chinese varieties. This
phenomenon exists, in part, because polysyllabic words evolved in
Chinese to disambiguate homophones that result from sound changes.
This is similar to such phenomena in English as the pen–pin merger
of many dialects in the American south: because the words "pin" and
"pen" sound alike in such dialects of English, a certain degree of
confusion can occur unless one adds qualifiers like "ink pen" and
"stick pin." Similarly, Chinese has acquired many polysyllabic words
in order to disambiguate monosyllabic words that sounded different in
earlier forms of Chinese but identical in one region or another during
later periods. Because
Classical Chinese is based on the literary
examples of ancient Chinese literature, it has almost none of the
two-syllable words present in modern Chinese varieties.
Classical Chinese has more pronouns compared to the modern
vernacular. In particular, whereas Mandarin has one general character
to refer to the first-person pronoun ("I"/"me"), Literary Chinese has
several, many of which are used as part of honorific language (see
Chinese honorifics ).
In syntax ,
Classical Chinese is always ready to drop subjects and
objects when a reference to them is understood (pragmatically
inferable ). Also, words are not restrictively categorized into parts
of speech : nouns are commonly used as verbs, adjectives as nouns, and
so on. There is no copula in Classical Chinese, "是" (pinyin : shì)
is a copula in modern Chinese but in old Chinese it was originally a
near demonstrative ("this"); the modern Chinese for "this" is "這"
(pinyin : zhè).
Beyond grammar and vocabulary differences,
Classical Chinese can be
distinguished by literary and cultural differences: an effort to
maintain parallelism and rhythm, even in prose works, and extensive
use of literary and cultural allusions, thereby also contributing to
Many final particles (歇語字 xiēyǔzì) and interrogative
particles are found in Literary Chinese.
Classical Chinese was used in international communication
Mongol Empire and
Japan . This letter, dated 1266, was
Khubilai Khan to the "King of Japan" (日本國王) before
the Mongol invasions of
Japan ; it was written in Classical Chinese.
Now stored in
Tōdai-ji , Nara ,
Classical Chinese was the main form used in Chinese literary works
May Fourth Movement
May Fourth Movement , and was also used extensively in
Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Classical Chinese was used to write the
Hunmin Jeongeum proclamation in which the modern Korean alphabet
(hangul ) was promulgated and the essay by
Hu Shi in which he argued
Classical Chinese and in favor of written vernacular
Chinese . (The latter parallels the essay written by
which he expounded the virtues of the vernacular Italian.) Exceptions
to the use of
Classical Chinese were vernacular novels such as Dream
of the Red Chamber , which was considered "vulgar" at the time.
Most government documents in the Republic of
China were written in
Classical Chinese until reforms in the 1970s, in a reform movement
spearheaded by President
Yen Chia-kan to shift the written style to
vernacular Chinese .
Classical Chinese is occasionally used in formal or
ceremonial occasions. The National Anthem of the Republic of China
(中華民國國歌), for example, is in Classical Chinese. Buddhist
texts, or sutras , are still preserved in
Classical Chinese from the
time they were composed or translated from
Sanskrit sources. In
practice there is a socially accepted continuum between vernacular
Chinese and Classical Chinese. For example, most official notices and
formal letters are written with a number of stock Classical Chinese
expressions (e.g. salutation, closing). Personal letters, on the other
hand, are mostly written in vernacular, but with some Classical
phrases, depending on the subject matter, the writer's level of
education, etc. With the exception of professional scholars and
enthusiasts, most people today cannot write in full Classical Chinese
Most Chinese people with at least a middle school education are able
to read basic Classical Chinese, because the ability to read (but not
Classical Chinese is part of the Chinese middle school and high
school curricula and is part of the college entrance examination.
Classical Chinese is taught primarily by presenting a classical
Chinese work and including a vernacular gloss that explains the
meaning of phrases. Tests on classical Chinese usually ask the student
to express the meaning of a paragraph in vernacular Chinese, using
multiple choice. They often take the form of comprehension questions.
The contemporary use of
Classical Chinese in
Japan is mainly in the
field of education and the study of literature.
Classical Chinese is
part of the high school curriculum in Japan.
Classical Chinese is not a part of middle school and high school
curricula in the
Korean peninsula and
Vietnam nowadays. The use of
Classical Chinese in these regions is limited and is mainly in the
Classical studies .
In addition, many works of literature in
Classical Chinese (such as
Tang poetry ) have been major cultural influences. However, even with
knowledge of grammar and vocabulary,
Classical Chinese can be
difficult to understand by native speakers of modern Chinese, because
of its heavy use of literary references and allusions as well as its
extremely abbreviated style.
* Languages portal
CLASSICAL CHINESE EDITION of , the free encyclopedia
Classical Chinese grammar
Classical Chinese poetry
Classical Chinese writers
* Literary Chinese in
* ^ Some sources distinguish between
Classical Chinese as strictly
the language of the ancient classics and Literary Chinese as the
classical style of writing used throughout Chinese history prior to
May Fourth Movement
May Fourth Movement (see "Definitions" )
* ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank,
Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Literary Chinese".
Glottolog 2.7 . Jena: Max
Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
* ^ A B Nguyễn, Tri Tài (2002). Giáo trình tiếng Hán. Tập
I: Cơ sở. Nhà xuất bản Đại học Quốc gia Thành phố
Hồ Chí Minh. p. 5.
* ^ Jerry Norman (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press. pp.
xi, 83. ISBN 0-521-29653-6 .
* ^ Norman (1988), pp. 83–84, 108–109.
* ^ Chao, Yuen Ren (1976). Aspects of Chinese sociolinguistics:
essays by Yuen Ren Chao. Stanford University Press. p. 25. ISBN
* ^ Jost Oliver Zetzsche (1999). The Bible in China: the history of
the Union Version or the culmination of protestant missionary Bible
translation in China. Monumenta Serica Institute. p. 161. ISBN
3-8050-0433-8 . The term "Wenli" (文理) was "an English word derived
from Chinese roots but never used by the Chinese" (Yuen 1976, 25). The
original meaning is "principles of literature (or: writing)," but by
the missionaries of the last century it was coined to stand for
classical Chinese. For sinologues outside the missionary circle, the
term "wenli" was not acceptable ("... what the missionaries persist in
calling wen li, meaning thereby the book language as opposed to the
colloquial"— Giles 1881/82, 151).
* ^ Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of
Old Chinese Phonology.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 802–803. ISBN 978-3-11-012324-1 .
* ^ Branner, David Prager (2006). "Some composite phonological
systems in Chinese". In Branner, David Prager. The Chinese rime
tables: linguistic philosophy and historical-comparative phonology.
Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. 271. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Publishing Company. pp. 209–232. ISBN 978-90-272-4785-8 .
* ^ Chen, Ping (1999). Modern Chinese: history and
sociolinguistics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 173–174. ISBN
* ^ J. J. Brandt (1936). Introduction to Literary Chinese (2nd
ed.). H. Vetch. p. 169. Retrieved 10 February 2012. PART III
GRAMMATICAL SECTION THE FINAL PARTICLES (歇語字 hsieh1-yü3-tzu4)
The Wenli-style abounds with so called final particles.
* ^ J. J. Brandt (1936). Introduction to Literary Chinese (2nd
ed.). H. Vetch. p. 184. Retrieved 10 February 2012. PART III
GRAMMATICAL SECTION THE INTERROGATIVE PARTICLES The Wen-li style
particularly abounds with the interrogative particles.
* ^ Tsao, Feng-fu (2000). "The language planning situation in
Taiwan". In Baldauf, Richard B.; Kaplan, Robert B. Language planning
in Nepal, Taiwan, and Sweden. 115. Multilingual Matters. pp. 60–106.
ISBN 978-1-85359-483-0 . pages 75–76.
* ^ Cheong, Ching (2001). Will Taiwan break away: the rise of
Taiwanese nationalism. World Scientific. p. 187. ISBN
* ^ 文部省 (1951). "第七章
国語科における漢文の学習指導". 中学校 高等学校
* Frederick William Baller (1912). Lessons in elementary Wen-li.
China Inland Mission. Retrieved 2011-05-15.
* J. J. Brandt (1936). Introduction to Literary Chinese (2nd ed.).
* J. J. Brandt (1973). Wenli particles. Vetch and Lee.
* Herrlee Glessner Creel, ed. (1952). Literary Chinese by the
inductive method, Volume 2. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved
* Raymond Stanley Dawson (1984). A new introduction to classical
Chinese (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-815460-0 .
* Evan Morgan (1931). A guide to Wenli styles and Chinese ideals:
essays, edicts, proclamations, memorials, letters, documents,
inscriptions, commercial papers, Chinese text with English translation
and notes (2nd ed.). Christian
Literature Society of China. Retrieved
1 March 2012.
* Abel Rémusat (1822). Élémens de la grammaire chinoise, ou,
Principes généraux du kou-wen ou style antique: et du kouan-hoa
c\'est-à-dire, de la langue commune généralement usitée dans
l\'Empire chinois. PARIS: Imprimerie Royale. Retrieved 2011-05-15.
Wikibooks has more on the topic of: CLASSICAL CHINESE
Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: ZH:文言
Classical Chinese for Everybody,
Bryan W. Van Norden , 2004
* Chinese Notes: Introduction to Classical Chinese, Alex Amies, 2013
* Chinese Texts: A Classical