Classical Chinese

Information, links, and learning materials for classical and literary Chinese

What Is Classical Chinese?

“Classical Chinese” is a general term that actually refers to two distinct categories of Chinese: the language of the ancient Chinese classics, such as the Tao Te Ching (Dàodéjīng), and the formal written language of high Chinese literature modeled on those texts, which is often specifically referred to as “literary Chinese.” In Mandarin, the former is called gǔwén; the latter is called wényán or wényánwén. Many formal texts like newspaper articles and legal documents make at least some use of wényán. Wényán can include modern elements and is not restricted to the vocabulary of ancient Chinese.

The language of modern Chinese as it is commonly spoken is called báihuà. While báihuà has the virtues of directness and clarity, it is generally considered to lack the loftiness and gravitas of wényán.

Categories of Chinese

古文Gǔwén, the written language of the ancient classics

文言: Wényán, “literary Chinese”; includes both gǔwén and modern writings with classical grammar and syntax

白话: Báihuà, the “clear” or “plain” language of modern spoken Chinese

The Elegance of Classical Chinese

One of the qualities that distinguishes Classical Chinese from modern Chinese is extreme economy of language. Much can be said with very few words. Thus, Classical Chinese texts are deeply poetic, with pithy and profound lines that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Consider the mystical opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, which have inspired philosophical commentary for thousands of years:

道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。
Dào kě dào, fēi cháng Dào. Míng kě míng, fēi cháng Míng.

The way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way. The Names that can be named are not the constant Names.
(as translated by Jeanette Faurot)

These lines are striking and memorable because of the simplicity and parallelism that Classical Chinese grammar makes possible. Note that the first line also contains an interesting play on the word 道, which can mean both “way” or “path” and “to speak.”

However, Classical Chinese can also be extremely difficult to understand because it is so abstract and imprecise. Even fluent speakers of modern Chinese often read classical texts with notes and a translation into modern Chinese. But the rewards of being able to directly engage with the vast literary wealth of China’s long history are immense. The language is fascinating and worth learning for its own sake, but experience with Classical Chinese is also tremendously helpful to students of modern Chinese.

For more on the value of learning Classical Chinese, as well as some specific recommendations that go beyond what I have included on this page, see this blog post by Professor Tom Mazanec, who teaches Classical Chinese at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Gateway to the Chinese Classics

When I took a Classical Chinese course at Trinity University, the primary text we used was an early version of Jeannette Faurot’s Gateway to the Chinese Classics: A Practical Guide To Literary Chinese. The text was later revised and is still available. I recommend it as a basic text for students who already have some experience with modern Chinese. Its clear explanations and well-chosen examples from classical texts make it a very effective introductory course.

These lists on Quizlet include all of the introductory vocabulary from Gateway to the Chinese Classics. Whether you’re using this text or not, knowing these characters is a great starting point since they are quite common in both Classical Chinese and modern Chinese.

See my Quizlet page (TheChinaGuru) for additional vocabulary lists from the book, as well as other vocabulary lists on a wide variety of topics. As time allows, I will continue posting lists for the rest of the book.

Basic Vocabulary

The definitions given here are simplified definitions that reflect the words’ primary meanings in classical Chinese texts.

Things in the Human World
Things in the Natural World
People | Time and Seasons
Directions | Colors | Numbers
Qualities | Adverbs | Verbs