Classical Chinese, also known as Literary Chinese,[a] 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 Japan,
Korea and Vietnam. Among Chinese
speakers, Literary Chinese has been largely replaced by written
vernacular Chinese, a style of writing that is similar to modern
spoken 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.
3 Grammar and lexicon
4 Modern use
5 See also
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 (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 Middle Chinese
The shape of the
Oracle bone script
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
reconstruction, they were /niŋ/ and /nˤiŋ/, respectively,
becoming /nʲin/ and /nin/ in Early Middle Chinese.
Chinese characters are not alphabetic and only rarely 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
Dynasty and 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
Guangdong and 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
as 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
Classical Chinese poem written in the early 20th century by
Chao Yuen Ren
Chao Yuen Ren called the Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone
Den, which contains only words that are now pronounced [ʂɨ́],
[ʂɨ̌], [ʂɨ̀], and [ʂɨ̂] in Mandarin. It was written to show
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 [meːt] and [mɛːt] respectively during the
time of Chaucer, as shown by their spelling. However, such homophones
are far more common in Literary Chinese than in English. For example,
the following distinct
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
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"
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 between the
Mongol Empire and Japan. This letter, dated 1266, was sent from
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, Japan. There are some grammar notes on it, which were
to help Japanese speakers better understand it.
Classical Chinese was the main form used in Chinese literary works
until the 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 against using
Classical Chinese and in favor of written vernacular Chinese. (The
latter parallels the essay written by
Latin in which he
expounded the virtues of the vernacular Italian.) Exceptions to the
Classical Chinese were vernacular novels such as Dream of the
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
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. Learning the Japanese
way of decoding
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
field of 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.
Classical Chinese edition of, the free encyclopedia
Classical Chinese grammar
Classical Chinese poetry
Classical Chinese writers
Literary Chinese in Vietnam
^ 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 the May
Fourth Movement (see "Definitions")
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
(2017). "Literary Chinese".
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Institute for the Science of Human History.
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by Yuen Ren Chao. Stanford University Press. p. 25.
^ Jost Oliver Zetzsche (1999). The Bible in China: the history of the
Union Version or the culmination of protestant missionary Bible
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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.
^ Branner, David Prager (2006). "Some composite phonological systems
in Chinese". In Branner, David Prager. The Chinese rime tables:
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^ Chen, Ping (1999). Modern Chinese: history and sociolinguistics.
Cambridge University Press. pp. 173–174.
^ 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.
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学習指導要領 国語科編（試案）. Archived from the
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Frederick William Baller (1912). Lessons in elementary Wen-li. China
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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
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Abel Rémusat (1822). Élémens de la grammaire chinoise, ou,
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c'est-à-dire, de la langue commune généralement usitée dans
l'Empire chinois. PARIS: Imprimerie Royale. Retrieved
Wikibooks has more on the topic of: Classical Chinese
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