10 Lesson 9 -燕人

燕人  (《列子》)

Yānrén  (Lièzǐ)

燕人生於燕,長於楚,及老而還本國。過晉國,同行者誑之,指城曰: “此燕國之城。” 其人愀然變容。指社曰: “此若里之社。” 乃喟然而嘆。指舍曰: “此若先人之廬。” 乃涓然而泣。指壟曰: “此若先人之冢。” 其人哭不自禁。同行者啞然大笑曰:“予昔紿若。此晉國耳!”  其人大慚。及至燕,真見燕國之城社,真見先人之廬冢,悲心更微。

燕人生于燕,长于楚,及老而还本国。过晋国,同行者诳之,指城曰: “此燕国之城。” 其人愀然变容。指社曰:“此若里之社。” 乃喟然而叹。指舍曰: “此若先人之庐。” 乃涓然而泣。指垄曰:“此若先人之冢。” 其人哭不自禁。同行者哑然大笑曰: “予昔绐若。此晋国耳!”  其人大惭。及至燕,真见燕国之城社,真见先人之庐冢,悲心更微。


Lesson 9 vocabulary

Yān (name of a state)
shēng to be born
lǎo old
還 (还) huán to return
běn original
過 (过) guò to pass through
Jìn (name of a state)
誑 (诳) kuáng to deceive
zhǐ to point to
chéng city wall
this, these
愀然 qiǎo rán sad; sadly
變 (变) biàn to change
róng facial expression
shè alter to god of soil
ruò you; your
喟然 kuì rán deeply (of sigh)
歎(叹) tàn to sigh
shè house, dwelling
先人 xiān rén ancestors
廬 (庐) hut
涓 然 juān rán in a stream
lǒng grave mound
 冢 zhǒng grave mound
to wail, to sob
jìn to stop (cannot) help
啞(哑)然 è rán loudly (of laughter); hoarse [c.f. yā  mute ]
紿(绐) dài to cheat
ěr simply, only [fusion of the following]
而已 ěr yǐ simply, only
cán to be ashamed
zhì to arrive at, to reach
zhēn really
bēi sad; sadness
xīn heart; feelings
gēng change; comparatively; instead
wēi small, slight

Commentary on lesson 9:

It may be easier to understand this text if you keep in mind that revisiting one’s homeland – especially the burial ground of one’s ancestors would be an extremely emotional event for a traditional Chinese person.

1.1: 然 is often used as a suffix to an adjective and means “in an X-manner.”

1.2: 耳 is a “fusion word” – a word that replaces two words that appeared together so frequently that they eventually fused in speech and formed a single syllable. Here, 耳 is a fusion of 而已, which means “and that is all” or “and that’s that.” Translate as the adverb “only.”

This text is a good example of how the subject of a verb may change without any explicit indication. Pay careful attention to who says what.

Grammar Note 8 

Some caveats (courtesy of Prof. Zeitlin)

  1. To the Western student, what is most interesting about Chinese word formation is not so much what there is of it, since there is so little, but instead what is not there. For example, unlike nouns in English and other European languages, a Chinese noun is not required to carry an overt mark to show whether it is singular or plural, or whether it is the subject or object of a verb. Nor does a Chinese verb indicate person, tense, mood, etc. The meanings expressed by obligatory endings on nouns and verbs in the extraordinary complicated morphological systems of such languages as Latin and Greek are in Chinese optionally, indeed rarely, expressed by an occasional pronoun, adjective, or an adverb. When it is said that Chinese has no grammar, what is meant is that Chinese lacks this sort of noun or verb morphology. This lack of a developed morphology is one of the reasons why the definition of parts of speech is difficult in Chinese … .Instead, Chinese grammar is easier to describe in terms of the meaning of words and in terms of their syntax.[1]


  1. [One might] assume that having first studied some textbooks and then having read around in Ancient Chinese literature one has simply learned Classical Chinese just as one might learn Classical Greek by studying standard Greek or Latin grammars, assuming that dictionaries equip one quite adequately to read ordinary Greek or Latin texts. Anyone who, for example, is constantly forced to look things up in cribs and commentaries when he reads De bello gallico [Caesar’s Gallic Wars] in Latin will be taken for a raw beginner. Likewise, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that our knowledge of Ancient Chinese is in many respects still at the stage that corresponds to that of the student of Latin who reads De bello gallico with a crib hidden under his desk. It is not just that we do not have an adequate theory of Ancient Chinese grammar (that we could live with). No, half of the time we do not really know for sure what exactly Ancient Chinese sentences mean , even when we feel sure what an Ancient Chinese sentences mean, we are still often uncertain how it comes to mean what apparently it does mean .[2]


  1. [The fondness for brevity has remained one of the outstanding characteristics of Classical Chinese.] Words that could presumably be supplied by a thoughtful reader on the basis of context were often left unexpressed, so that the student of Classical Chinese is sometimes led to conclude, despairingly, that even in the later centuries of the language, he is still dealing not with a medium for communication of new ideas but a mnemonic device for calling to mind old ones. Is it too much to ask that the writer indicate at least the subject of the sentence? he may ask. In the case of Classical Chinese the answer is usually, yes.[3]

[1] H. Stimpson, 55 Tang Poems, p. 55

[2] C Harbsmeier, Aspects of Classical Chinese Syntax, p. 6

[3] B. Watson, Early Chinese Literature, p. 12



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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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