13 Lesson 12- 吳王欲伐荊

吳王欲伐荊  (《說苑》)

Wú Wáng yù fá jīng (shuō yuàn)

吳王欲伐荊,告其左右曰:“ 有敢諫者死。”  舍人有少孺子 者,欲諫不敢,則懷丸操彈,遊於後園,露沾其衣,如是者三旦,吳王曰: “子來 ! 何苦沾衣如此?”  對曰:“ 園中有樹,其上有蟬,蟬高居悲鳴飲露,不知螳螂在其後也 ;  螳螂委身曲附取蟬,而不知黃雀在其傍也 ; 黃雀延頸欲啄螳螂,而不知彈丸在其下也!此三者皆務欲得其前利,而不顧其後之有患也。”  吳王曰: “善哉!” 乃罷其兵。

吴王欲伐荆,告其左右曰:“ 有敢谏者死。”  舍人有少孺子 者,欲谏不敢,则怀丸操弹,游于后园,露沾其衣,如是者三旦,吴王曰: “子来 ! 何苦沾衣如此?”  对曰:“ 园中有树,其上有蝉,蝉高居悲鸣饮露,不知螳螂在其后也 ;  螳螂委身曲附取蝉,而不知黄雀在其傍也 ; 黄雀延颈欲啄螳螂,而不知弹丸在其下也!此三者皆务欲得其前利,而不顾其后之有患也。”  吴王曰: “善哉!” 乃罢其兵。


Lesson 12 vocabulary

(name of a state)
wáng King
jīng (place, here stands for the state of Chu)
gào to tell
左右 zuǒ yòu courtiers; attendants
shào young [c.f. shao3, few]
孺子 rú zǐ boy
懷 (怀) huái bosom, to put in pocket
wán pellet
cāo to take; to take in hand
彈(弹) dàn slingshot
園 (园) yuán garden; park
zhān to wet
to be like
何苦 hé kǔ Why bother, Why trouble?
樹 (树) shù tree
shàng top
蟬(蝉) chán cicada
gāo high
to live, to stay
螳螂 táng láng  mentis
wěi to twist
曲附 qū fù to crouch
huáng yellow
黃雀 huáng  què sparrow
páng side ( “傍”通“旁”)
yán to stretch
zhuó to peck
xià below
務 (务) to concentrate on
qián front
profit, advantage
顧(顾) to look back at; to regard
huàn worry, trouble
shàn good

Commentary on lesson 12:

1.1: 左右, like 舍人, is a term for “retainer”; it gets its name from the idea that retainers were stationed to the right and left of their lord. “Courtier” is another typical translation, especially with kings or emperors.

者 is used often to emphasize or point out for singular consideration an action, thing, or person. 舍人有少孺子者 translates as “among his retainers there was a certain boy”. In the following line, 者 in the phrase 如是者三旦, serves to isolate the boy’s actions as exceptional.

l.2: Note the use of 也 at the end of each of the boy’s sentences; this is a good example of 也 as an explanatory particle.

Grammar Note 11

Topic (主題 zhǔ tí) and comment (解釋 jiě shì)


As the linguist (and philosopher) Christoph Harbsmeier observed (see Grammar Note 8), we know a lot less about Classical Chinese grammar than we do, for example, about Latin grammar; and our construing of Classical Chinese sentences is correspondingly shaky.

Traditionally, grammar is the study of language in units of a sentence or less. Some obvious primary questions are: What are the main parts of a sentence? How do they work together? What is it most informative to call them?

In Classical Chinese as in other languages we usually divide the sentence into a subject  (zhǔ yǔ) and predicate (wèi yǔ), and we will continue to use these terms. The trouble (for us) is that Classical Chinese just does not seem to employ its subject and predicates as we do in Western languages. First, as we’ve seen (Grammar Note 4) there’s an astonishing freedom in Classical Chinese to omit the subject altogether. Second, the subject (if any) and predicate, as such, don’t seem to mean what they do in Western languages.

In English we take “actor-action” as the grammatical meaning of subject-predicate (dog bites man). Most sentences narrate an action by an actor; those that don’t logically reduce to actor-action are nevertheless phrased as if they did:

the man was bitten by the dog

the dog was a mutt

the mutt was rabid

– with the verb “to be”, in such sentences, giving a quasi actor-action form to the passive, to expressions that categorize or equate, and to those that impute a quality by means of a predicative adjective. In English, every sentence ( excepting those that provide casual answers to questions, etc.) has a subject; if necessary, in the absence of a logical subject, a dummy subject is provided, as in “it’s raining” or “it’ s an odd fact”. Grammatically if not logically, every subject acts, i.e. is the source, not the receiver of an action. It is this grammatical, as distinct from logical or psychological, uniformity that allows us in English to define subject-predicate as ‘ actor-action’.

In Classical Chinese it is of course possible too that a subject and predicate carry the meaning , actor-action’:

梟   逢    鳩 owl meet dove
xiāo féng jiū
虎  求  百  獸 tiger seek all kinds of animals
hǔ qiú bǎi shòu

and in simple narratives such as we have been reading, many sentences are of this type.  Others, however, are not. Certainly sentences which aren’t logically the narration of an action are under constraint to appear as if they were, adopting the form of a merely ” grammatical action”;[1] nor does Classical Chinese possess a true copula (like English “to be” or Mandarin 是 shì) that would help realize this. The subject may be either the actor or receiver of an action, if indeed it is involved in an action at all. It may be the first term of an equation, stated by mere juxtaposition, without a verb to be:

南冥者天池也 The Southern Ocean [is] the pool of heaven.
Nán míng zhě tiān chí yě

noun, the subject may be a verb, or an entire independent clause, equivalent to a sentence, incorporating its own subject and predicate. As for predicates, they exhibit the same variety of  forms as do subjects. Subjects and predicates are nevertheless definable entities in Classical Chinese. We define them as meaning, not actor and action, but TOPIC and COMMENT. The topic (if any) supplies us, for orientation, with some bit of old information or context; when this starting-point is unneeded it may be omitted. To this old information the comment adds new information.Let’s look at some of variety of topics and comments we’ve seen so far:

(semantically, the topic) (semantically, the comment)
   其狗 吠之  (lesson 5)
    qí gǒu fèi zhī
    His dog barked [at] him
    actor action (verb-object)
杨朱之弟 曰布
Yáng Zhū zhī dì yuē Bù
Yang Zhu’s younger brother was called Bu
receiver of action action (verb-object)
子攫人之金 何  (lesson 3)
Zǐ jué rén zhī jīn
Your snatching people’s gold IS what (= why)
sentence interrogative pronoun
temporal subject:
清旦 衣冠而之市   (lesson 4)
Qīng dàn yì guàn ěr zhī shì
At dawn [he] clothed and capped himself and went to market
time expression
天雨, 解素衣   (lesson 4)
Tiān yù jiě sù yī
[When] sky rained [he] took off his plain silk clothes
time expression (sentence)

NOTE: in the above two sentences the predicate is itself a sentence including subject (unnamed) and predicate.


We’ll look at more kinds of topic-comment relations in the next Grammar Note.

[1] Chao, A Grammar of Spoken Chinese, p. 70




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

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