1 Introductory Observations of Classical Chinese

Classical Chinese is a written language based on Old Chinese, or Chinese as it was spoken circa 500-200BCE. From that time to the early 20th century, Classical Chinese continued as China’s language of education, elite culture, and government. In this Classical Chinese resembles some other “dead” languages, such as Latin, Old Church Slavonic, and Sanskrit, which likewise have survived in a learned circle long after they stopped being the vernacular of the people. But China’s logogaphic script has caused Classical Chinese to survive in a peculiarly lopsided way, favoring sense over sound. Chinese script, little changed from Han times (2nd century BCE), has served the speech of every era and region by tying itself to the pronunciation of none. The educated speaker of Mandarin, other dialects, or for that matter Japanese or Korean, can read off or quote the classics, just as he can read any other texts, in his own accents, and from this beginning the classics are especially accessible to him; but unless he is a specialist in historical phonology, he cannot begin to pronounce them in the accents of Confucius. As a result, classical vocabulary, idioms, and citations permeate the contemporary East Asian languages to an unusual degree, but not classical sounds.

One thing we know, though, about Old Chinese, and also Middle Chinese, the language of Tang poetry, is that they had sound systems much richer in distinctions than are those modern dialects, especially Mandarin. With well over twice as many phonologically distinct syllables in use, and thus far fewer homonyms, the older stages of Chinese managed to be far more strictly monosyllabic without foundering in ambiguity. Mandarin Chinese is monosyllabic in the special sense that most of its morphemes (smallest meaningful units) are monosyllables, while words are commonly disyllables, compounds of two morphemes. But in Old Chinese, and this in Classical Chinese at its beginnings, most every syllable made up a free-standing morpheme, a monosyllabic word.

There are exceptions. To begin with, Classical Chinese contains s few hundred onomatopoeic and other” descriptive” disyllables, which often cannot be split into separately meaningful morphemes, although we can see how they were put together, namely by a full or partial reduplication of sounds. For instance:

Full duplication: xiāoxiāo   蕭蕭 (imitation of the wind’s whistling or horses neighing)
Initial reduplication: kāngkǎi 慷慨 displaying generosity, ardor, sincerity


Final reduplication: páihuái  徘徊 linger and waver, silly-shally (rhyme)

Special caution is needed when a Classical Chinese compound is made up of the same elements as a Mandarin compound. For example, qīzǐ 妻子, which in Mandarin means “wife” (with meaningless noun suffix 子 zǐ) in Classical Chinese means “wife and children” – both syllables retain full meaning. A complex example is 長短 chuángduǎn literally “long / short”. In Classical Chinese this retains the full sense of both syllables: it applies especially to long-and-short poems, poems including both longer and shorter lines. But in Mandarin長短 chuángduǎn generalizes to mean “length”. In a figurative sense長短 chuángduǎn in Classical Chinese means a person’s “strong points and shortcomings.” In Mandarin this again generalizes to mean something like “human characteristics as a subject of conversation.”

The lesson, here, is that Classical Chinese is a very pithy language, a language of few words, each with much meaning. To quote Judith Zeitlin:

“Every word counts in Classical Chinese. You may not always be able to translate every word into English, but you must be able to account for its presence in the sentence. This means that you must read very slowly and precisely, much more so than in modem Chinese or English.”

Classical Chinese is not only monosyllabic but uninflected. Again, there are exceptions: there are a good many relics of a no-longer-active system of word formation (or word-family-formation), as in 王 wáng “king”, wàng “to rule over”; 食 shí “food, to eat”, sì “to feed”. But in general Classical Chinese does not inflect for such features as case, tense, person, number, voice or mood.

This produced two interesting results. First, since words are unmarked for part of speech, they slip readily from one part-of speech role to another: for example, dōng 東 “east” can also mean “go east” or (as in Lesson 1) it can serve adverbially to mean, “eastwards”. Second, and even more immediately needful of the student’s attention, is the fact that, in the absence of grammatical markers such as case endings, the role of relating word to each other in a determinate manner falls, by default, to WORD ORDER. In Classical Chinese, then, word order is supremely important and substantially fixed. In English, almost as uninflected as Classical Chinese, word order is almost, but not quite, as important, and not quite so fixed.

In English the favored (but hardly universal) word orders are modifier-modified and subject-verb-object. Chinese, rather more regularly than English, favors the modifier modified word order, and subject-verb-object, too, is highly normal in Chinese, although we will see it as but one variant of a universal topic-comment order. (The first three words in Lesson 1 perfectly exemplify subject-verb-object word order in Chinese). Later we will talk about ellipsis, or the omission of words- while you can not transpose words in Classical Chinese without changing the construction and meaning, you can, very often, omit them. A hint for understanding Lesson 1: when sentences are strung together without words to make explicit the relation between them, the likeliest guess at that relationship is” If X then Y”, or some elaboration of this pattern, such as ” If not then … “.

Nothing else in Classical Chinese is so important as word order, except for particles (or grammatical or function or “empty” words). Lesson I contains one of the most important particles in the second occurrence of zhī 之 which subordinates that precedes it to what follows.



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Introduction to Classical Chinese Copyright © 2024 by Andrew Schonebaum; Anthony George; David Lattimore; Hu Hsiao-chen; Judith Zeitlin; Kong Mei; Liu Lening; Margaret Baptist Wan; Patrick Hanan; Paul Rouzer; Regina Llamas; Shang Wei; and Xiaofei Tian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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