So you’re learning Chinese, and you can’t wait to be able to read the Analects of Confucius (論語/论语 Lúnyǔ), right? Or maybe it’s Tang Dynasty poetry for you, or you want to read essays by Su Shi 蘇軾, or read historical documents or other pre-20th century writing. Or maybe you just want to improve your modern Chinese, and you’ve heard (or maybe you haven’t!) that learning Classical Chinese will also help your modern Chinese. Well, this article’s for you, whatever your situation!
In this article, I’m going to talk about who should learn Classical Chinese and why, what Classical Chinese is (not to mention what Literary Chinese is), and then I’ll talk about how to learn it, whatever your goal is. We’re going to cover a lot of ground, so strap yourself in!
This is a guest article written by John Renfroe, the co-founder of Outlier Linguistics, creators of the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters (see my review here), along with courses on how to learn Chinese characters, pronunciation, and (now) Classical Chinese. Before Outlier, he studied Linguistics and Paleography in the Graduate Institute of Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. He co-founded and later ran the Taipei Classical Chinese Reading Group, a weekly reading group consisting mostly of graduate Sinology students from western universities. He also taught classical Chinese to members of the group who had no previous instruction in the language.
Table of contents
- Who should learn Classical Chinese, and why?
- What is Classical Chinese? Literary Chinese?
- So, how do I learn Classical Chinese? Can I learn it on my own?
- Wrap-up: Classical Chinese is for everyone
- Recommended books for learning Classical Chinese
Quick note before we begin: I’m mostly going to use “Classical Chinese” interchangeably with “Literary Chinese” in this article, although strictly speaking they’re different beasts. I’ll talk about the distinction in Section 2.
I. Who should learn Classical Chinese, and why?
So, who would you say is the most obvious group of people who want to learn Classical Chinese? People who want to read the classics, you say? Well…duh!
But let’s start with a less obvious group: people who have no interest in the classics, but only want to improve their modern Chinese. Believe it or not, learning some Classical Chinese will help your modern Chinese tremendously. Modern formal writing, whether it’s newspapers, academic writing, or legal and business documents, borrows heavily from the classical language. In fact, the more formal the register, the more it resembles—you guessed it—Classical Chinese!
The Chinese language has a rich literary history spanning thousands of years. Some of the world’s most well-known books are written in Classical Chinese. The Analects of Confucius, for example, or The Records of the Grand Historian. The business world has long found inspiration from Sun Tzu’s (or Sūnzǐ 孫子/孙子) The Art of War (孫子兵法/孙子兵法). The Tao Te Ching (or Dàodéjīng 道德經/道德经) and the Classic of Changes (Yìjīng 易經/易经) are foundational texts of Daoism, a philosophy that has spread throughout the world.
Now, it may seem obvious, but just because you’ve learned Chinese doesn’t mean you can read The Art of War (or any other classic work) in Chinese! It’s not written in Modern Standard Chinese, after all!
Classical Chinese is the wellspring of the Chinese literary tradition, and anyone who wants to read these texts in the original needs to learn Classical Chinese. No more explanation needed!
Perhaps less obvious is that if you’re into Chinese poetry (especially pre-20th century), you need Classical Chinese! Tang and Song poetry are some of the world’s most precious literary treasures, and they’re very difficult to understand through the lens of modern Chinese alone. In fact, it even helps to learn a little bit about Middle Chinese (basically, the pronunciation of Chinese from the 4th through the 12th century, CE), because the meter and rhyme patterns in Tang and Song poetry will make more sense if you know about Middle Chinese tones. That’s a topic for a different article though!
Really, if you’re into pre-20th century literature of any kind, you’ll need to know some classical Chinese. For example, even though the “Four Great Novels” (sì dà míng zhù 四大名著) are written in the vernacular of their time rather than in Classical (or actually Literary) Chinese, they borrow heavily from Classical Chinese and are often written in a sort of half-classical, half-vernacular (bàn wén bàn bái 半文半白) style. So if you want to read Journey to the West (Xīyóujì 西遊記/西游记) or Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Yǎnyì 三國演義/三国演义), Classical Chinese will help _a lot_.
And even if all that stuff isn’t your bag, there’s still tons of fun stuff to read. The sheer volume of stuff written in Classical and Literary Chinese is astounding. From history and philosophy to poetry and even zombie stories (yes, seriously!), there really is something for everyone.
So it’s really for everyone who wants to reach a high level in Chinese, wherever your interests lie.
II. What is Classical Chinese? Literary Chinese?
The Chinese language has been around for thousands of years. The earliest records we have are written on turtle plastrons and ox scapulae, and date to about 1350 BCE. So is that “Classical Chinese?” No, not really.
Linguists basically divide the history of the Chinese language into four periods:
- Old Chinese: 13th century BCE to 3rd century CE
- Middle Chinese: 4th to 12th century CE
- Early Modern Chinese: 12th to 19th century CE
- Modern Chinese: 20th century and after
But where’s “Classical Chinese?” Well, strictly speaking, it’s a style of writing that flourished during a specific part of the Old Chinese period. Below, the periods are based upon styles of writing, so they don’t match up exactly with the above phonological stages proposed by linguists.
1. Pre-Classical Chinese: 13th to 5th century BCE
This is the language of the oracle bone inscriptions and Shang and Western Zhou bronze inscriptions. It’s also the language of the earliest parts of the classics: parts of the Book of Odes (Shījīng 詩經/诗经), the Book of Documents (Shàngshū 尚書/尚书 or Shūjīng 書經/书经), the Book of Changes (Yìjīng 易經/易经), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chūnqiū 春秋) come from this period.
2. Classical Chinese proper: 4th to 1st century BCE
At this time, the proliferation of bamboo and wooden strips as writing material led to an explosion of new texts. Dozens of texts survive from this period, including most of what’s thought of as “the classics” of the Chinese tradition. Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and other thinkers constituted the “hundred schools of thought” of the classical period, and form the basis of much of later Chinese thought.
Interestingly, by this time period, the texts from the pre-Classical period were already very difficult to read without extensive commentary. Evidence shows that writing during the classical period was very close to the spoken language of the time (and even dialectal vocabulary is present in the classical texts), and is much different from the writing style of the pre-classical period, which seems much more terse to a modern reader.
3. Post-Classical Chinese: 1st to 3rd century CE
During this period, simplifications of the Chinese syllable led to significant changes in the Chinese language as a whole. Features of Old Chinese such as suffixes were in the process of evolving into the tones of Middle Chinese (which in turn became the tones of modern Chinese), multi-syllable vocabulary became much more common, and new ways of phrasing and syntactical constructions were introduced. The written language gradually began to separate from the spoken language, and even diversified into genre-specific styles (poetry, history, etc.).
4. Literary Chinese: post-3rd century CE
This was the beginning of what we call Literary Chinese. “Literary,” because it’s separate from the spoken, or vernacular language. So strictly speaking, Literary Chinese refers to non-vernacular Chinese after the 3rd century CE.
So Literary Chinese is the writing style of the vast majority of the Chinese literary tradition. It was the primary form of writing until the early 20th century, and is even still used today by some people (one of my professors, for example, writes his emails primarily in Literary Chinese). However, even if you mainly want to read Literary Chinese, it’s best to start with Classical Chinese, since that’s what later usage is based on. It will give you the best foundation to read the stuff you want to read.
III. So, how do I learn Classical Chinese? Can I learn it on my own?
Well, sure you can!
Of course, the traditional way is to learn it in school. If you’re a Chinese major, you probably had to take a semester or two of Classical Chinese as part of your degree. Or if you’re at a language school in China or Taiwan, you might get the chance to take a course on it. And of course, if you grew up in China or Taiwan, you probably took it in school and aren’t reading this article!
But what about the rest of us? If we don’t have access to a school that offers Classical Chinese classes, are we just out of luck?
I remember the odd mixture of horror and amusement when I told my Chinese teacher that I was “teaching myself” Classical Chinese. “That’s not possible!” she said. When I showed her my textbook, she pointed out a few phrases and asked me to translate them into modern Chinese. I managed to do it (I was at a low intermediate level in Mandarin at the time, so I wasn’t exactly eloquent), and convinced her that it was actually possible to do it without a teacher.
So how did I do it? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m going to lay out a recommended path of study for a non-native speaker to learn Classical Chinese, from beginner to expert, including which books I used along the way, along with other books that I didn’t use myself, but own and can recommend.
Note that while it is possible to learn on your own, it’s definitely easier if you have a teacher. John is teaching an online course starting March 1 called Introduction to Classical/Literary Chinese, so please check it out if you’re interested! By signing up, you’ll leran more about Classical Chinese and help support Hacking Chinese too!
When you’re first starting out with learning Classical Chinese, you’ll need a textbook, a grammar guide, and a dictionary. You’ll want to go through the textbook and complete as many exercises as possible. Don’t be tempted to skip the exercises just because you’re able to read the main text for the lesson! The exercises will prepare you to deal with the more challenging things you’ll encounter in subsequent lessons.
Most textbooks assume that you already know a few hundred characters in a modern CJKV language—usually Chinese, but Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese will do too. However, I’ll also recommend one textbook meant for people with zero background in a CJKV language. The textbooks will define all the characters you’re learning as you go (and will give you the definition you need when you need it, rather than dumping a bunch of different definitions on you all at once), so there’s no need to worry about looking the characters up in a “normal” dictionary of modern Chinese, for example. Keep in mind that some characters will have different meanings in Classical Chinese than what you’re familiar with. 說/说 shuō, for example, usually means “explain” in Classical Chinese, rather than “to speak, say.” These meanings are often closer to the original meaning of the characters that we list in the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters, so it may also help to cross-reference our dictionary.
The dictionary will serve you well throughout your journey. I’ll recommend one with definitions in English, and one that’s in Chinese only, but is still great for beginners to Classical Chinese. At some point, you’ll want to upgrade to something more comprehensive, but in the beginning, it’s important to have something that isn’t too overwhelming.
These are the books I used myself at the beginner level, and I can wholeheartedly recommend them. After that, I’ll recommend other textbooks for beginners that I personally own and can highly recommend, if you find you prefer them over the textbook I used. It’s best if you already know a few hundred Chinese characters (simplified or traditional—although most of these books are in traditional, some of them have simplified texts in the appendices) before you start, but in the “Other books” section, I’ll also recommend one textbook designed for people who don’t know any Chinese yet.
Michael Fuller, An Introduction to Literary Chinese
At the beginning, I used Michael Fuller’s excellent textbook, An Introduction to Literary Chinese. This book starts out by covering the basic syntax of Classical Chinese, then guides you through progressively more challenging “intermediate” texts.
Along the way, you get experience with using dictionaries of Classical Chinese, as well as classical commentary and other resources. After that, you read more difficult texts, progressing from classical texts like Mencius (Mèngzǐ 孟子) to Tang and Song writing by Hán Yù 韓愈/韩愈 and Sū Shì 蘇軾/苏轼. It’s a wonderful textbook, and it’s very popular, so if you get stuck, you can ask for help online (there’s a fairly active Classical Chinese subreddit, for example).
The book is full of exercises beyond just the reading selections, and I highly recommend completing the exercises as much as possible. Some of the exercises require access to a library, so they may not be practical unless you’re near a library with a reasonable Chinese collection, but most of them should be doable.
This is also the textbook we’ll be using in our Introduction to Classical/Literary Chinese course—the first cohort starts in March 2022, but we’ll be doing more in the future.
Edwin G. Pulleyblank, Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar
Probably the most popular reference on Classical Chinese grammar in English, this book is written in a clear, easy-to-understand style and will help you when you run into unfamiliar usage in Classical Chinese. One point to note is that Dr. Pulleyblank’s work on grammar isn’t widely used or cited among native speaking scholars, but I personally found the book very useful from a practical standpoint.
Note: blue cover for traditional, green cover for simplified.
This is a thin, very portable, and very affordable dictionary of Classical Chinese usage. It’s all in Chinese, but the definitions are often easy enough to read if you’re at the intermediate level in modern Chinese. A super useful feature of this dictionary (and the other Chinese-language ones I’ll mention later) is that it provides examples of characters being used in Classical texts that correspond to the definition given. Often, you’ll find that the exact passage you’re struggling with is cited, which is super helpful because then you’ll know pretty definitively what the character means in that particular context. Highly recommended for all students.
Paul W. Kroll, A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese
This is the first dictionary of Classical Chinese published in English in over 70 years, and it’s very good. Of particular note are two features: 1) it contains the Middle Chinese for each character, and 2) it points out potential translation pitfalls, such as the fact that chái 豺 should be “dhole” rather than “jackal” (which was a more common, but erroneous translation for a long time). One huge selling point for this dictionary is that it’s available as an add-on to Pleco, so I highly recommend this one for any non-native speakers learning Classical Chinese.
Other Textbooks for Beginners
By no means is Fuller’s textbook the only one, or even the only good one! It’s just my personal favorite, but that’s probably at least partially because it’s the one I used myself. There are many other excellent books available, and I’d like to mention a few here. The Rouzer and Vogelsang books, like the Fuller book, are best suited for people with at least a few hundred characters in a CJKV language. The book by Prof. van Norden, however, is meant for people starting completely from zero. So if that describes you, van Norden is the book for you!
Paul Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese
Prof. Rouzer’s book is another in a similar vein to Fuller’s. It makes frequent references to Pulleyblank’s Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar mentioned above, and it also contains Sino-Japanese (onyomi 音読み) and Sino-Korean pronunciations for all characters in an appendix. That makes it particularly useful for students who don’t have a background in Mandarin. Its selection of texts is a bit more narrow than Fuller’s, but you also get to read more excerpts from each text. Note that the texts in Rouzer come only from the classical period, rather than drawing from both Classical and Literary Chinese texts like Fuller does.
Kai Vogelsang, Introduction to Classical Chinese
Just published in late 2021, this is the most recent book on this list by far. It’s also a very comprehensive introduction to Classical Chinese, with a particular emphasis on the grammar. One possible drawback, depending on your preferences, is that the first half of the book is focused on explaining grammar points rather than reading actual texts, though it does provide lots of examples from classical works to demonstrate the grammar in use. This book may even make a good followup to Fuller or Rouzer (even though it’s a “beginner’s” textbook) for those who want a more thorough explanation of the grammar of Classical Chinese. Note again that the texts in Vogelsang come only from the classical period, rather than drawing from both Classical and Literary Chinese texts like Fuller does.
Bryan van Norden, Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners
Prof. van Norden’s book is aimed at people who have zero background in Chinese whatsoever. I haven’t used it personally (though I’ve ordered it and it’s on the way!), but I’ve heard universally excellent reviews from people, and from the little I’ve read via Amazon’s preview feature, it does look very good. So, if you’re a bit nervous about dipping your toe in, or if you don’t know much Chinese yet, this may be the book for you.
After going through an introductory textbook, you’re ready to start reading other texts for yourself. Actually, at this stage, I co-founded a Classical Chinese reading group in Taipei in order to get more practice reading Classical Chinese, and that helped tremendously even though I felt like I was in a little over my head. As it turned out though, I wasn’t! I did just fine, although the first few readings were a bit of a challenge.
However, if you’re like I was after finishing Fuller, diving into full texts might still seem a little bit daunting. If that’s the case, I have a recommendation!
Harold Shadick, A First Course in Literary Chinese, Vol. 1
Note: also in print with a yellow cover.
Yes, this textbook is also meant for beginners. However, all of the grammar explanations and vocabulary glosses are in Volumes 2 and 3, which are now out of print. That makes this a perfect next step after finishing Fuller or another beginner textbook. With Shadick Vol. 1 by itself, you get a selection of texts curated for non-native learners, but without the hand-holding that you got with Fuller. Since it doesn’t contain any explanations, I personally used this book as a reader and worked through it with a dictionary and Pulleyblank, occasionally referring to commentary when I got stuck.
The book contains selections of poetry, prose, and even dictionaries, from the classical period up through the early 20th century, so you’ll get exposure to a wide range of writing styles from different periods. I did this alongside the Classical Chinese reading group, and it helped a lot. Armed with Pulleyblank’s grammar and a dictionary or two, you can work through this book on your own, and it will greatly improve your reading ability in Classical and Literary Chinese.
Much like the other textbooks mentioned above, this book is meant for people who already have some knowledge of a CJKV language. You’ll be fine to start on it as long as you know a few hundred characters, though it progresses in difficulty quite a bit by the end, so don’t neglect your modern Chinese along the way! The rest of the books I’ll be mentioning, however, require a more advanced level of modern Chinese.
Vivian Ling (淩志韞) et al, Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners 進階文言文讀本
Another option at this level, especially if your modern Chinese is up to the task of reading explanations and vocabulary glosses in Chinese, is this excellent book by Vivian Ling and ICLP. Again, it covers a wide range of texts from the classical period up through the Qing Dynasty, and using this book is a great way to improve your modern Chinese at the same time as your Classical Chinese. Keep in mind though, that you’ll need to be at a fairly advanced level in modern Chinese in order to use this book effectively.
At the intermediate level, you may be ready to start using more comprehensive dictionaries. 王力《古代漢語常用字字典》 recommended above will take you a long way, but if you start encountering definitions that aren’t quite adequate, you can upgrade to this one, its big brother. 《古漢語字典》 is quite a bit thicker than 《古代漢語常用字字典》, so when I was studying in Taiwan, I’d keep 《古代漢語常用字字典》 in my backpack and its big brother at home on my desk.
Another excellent option once you’re ready to upgrade your dictionary game is this comprehensive dictionary of Classical and Literary Chinese. Also published under the name 《古代漢語大詞典》 by Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House (上海辭書出版社). The really great thing about this dictionary is that it’s also available as an add-on in Pleco, so I highly recommend it once you’re at this stage! Even if you’re only intermediate in modern Chinese, Pleco’s tap-to-lookup functionality means that you can look up unfamiliar words in the definitions whenever you get stuck.
If your only goal with Classical Chinese is to improve your modern Chinese and you’re not really interested in reading any pre-modern Chinese, then the Beginning and Intermediate sections are probably plenty for you. However, if you want to keep going, I have some recommendations for you at this stage, too.
As you may have noticed, we’re basically running out of options in English. So at this stage, it’s time to transition over to materials meant for native speakers. That means you’ll need to be fairly advanced in modern Chinese in order to use the books I mention from here on out. There’s a ton of great stuff available, so I’ll just mention a few here.
High School Readers
Two readers for Taiwanese high school students that I really enjoyed were 《文言文40篇大探索》 and 《高中國文綜合全譯本要覽》. Both books have dozens of readings spanning from the Classical period through the Qing Dynasty, together with copious notes, annotations, and other information. But any of these types of readers should be similar, so shop around a bit and see what you can find. There are also similar books meant for university students who aren’t necessarily majoring in Chinese literature (we’ll cover some books for native speakers studying Chinese literature in the next section).
This is a collection of classical writing from the Warring States period (~475–221 BCE) through the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE), so it spans over 2000 years. It was published early in the Qing Dynasty (in 1695), and it remains an extremely popular book to this day. There are many editions available, most of which have extensive notes and commentary. It contains over 200 works, so it’s sure to keep you busy for a long time.
A quick note: I’ve noticed that when non-native speakers ask how to learn Classical Chinese online, native speakers often recommend this book. But of course, it isn’t possible for a non-native speaker to just dive into something like this if they don’t have previous knowledge of Classical Chinese. If you run into this kind of advice (or the other popular one, “Just get a copy of 300 Tang Poems 《唐詩三百首》), just keep in mind that they probably aren’t aware of the differences between native and non-native speakers looking to improve their Classical Chinese. Their advice works for native speakers, who read a ton of Classical Chinese while they’re in school, but non-native speakers have to approach things very differently, which is why this book is in the “Advanced” category.
Anything else you want to read!
If you’ve made it to the “Advanced” stage, you can really start diving into whatever you’re interested in. The high school readers and 《古文觀止》 mentioned above are great if you still want to use curated material, but if you want to just dive into the Four Books (四書, consisting of 大學、中庸、論語、孟子) or Tang poetry or Buddhist sutras, you can do so at this point (or really, even before this point if you want). You may need to find resources to help you understand specific types of literature, but at this point you’re ready to tackle whatever it is you want to read. That’s not to say it will necessarily be easy per se, but you now have the skills and tools you need to dive in and start working through the texts you’re really interested in.
There’s one series of books I want to mention specifically, by Sanmin Book Co. (三民書局) in Taiwan. They publish a ton of Classical and Literary Chinese books with extensive notes and commentary written by modern experts on the book in question. This series is recognizable by its distinctive teal covers and right-to-left (vertical-style) covers. 《古文觀止》 above belongs to this series, as does the copy of 《左傳讀本》shown here.
If you want to go even further, and possibly use Classical and Literary Chinese professionally or in an academic capacity, there are textbooks intended for native speakers at the university level. These are much more challenging and in-depth, and are probably overkill for most people, but if you want to really reach a high level of proficiency in Classical Chinese, they’re indispensable.
This has been a widely-used textbook for university students in China majoring in Chinese literature and related fields for decades, and for a reason. You may have noticed that Wáng Lì (王力) has been mentioned several times in this article, and that’s because he did so much excellent work on so many areas of pre-modern Chinese. This textbook series is no exception. Consisting of 4 volumes, it’s dense and chock-full of information, not to mention extensive excerpts from Classical and Literary Chinese of all periods. There’s also a two-volume study guide for the series called 《王力古代漢語同步輔導與練習》, which will be really helpful if you decide to go through these books.
This two-volume set is less comprehensive than Wáng Lì’s textbooks above, but they’re more up-to-date (published in 2002, vs 1962-64 for Wáng Lì’s books), so they make use of more recent research on the language. I went through these myself, and they’re excellent.
IV. Wrap-up: Learning Classical Chinese is for everyone
Phew! That’s a lot of information, and I commend you for making it this far. I hope this article has convinced you that Classical Chinese really is for everyone, including you! I also hope it’s shown you that learning Classical Chinese really isn’t nearly as daunting as you might have thought. There are a ton of resources to get you started as a non-native learner of Chinese, and this article really only scratches the surface of what’s out there for native speakers.
So, what are you waiting for? Time to hit the books!
Thank you for sharing your experience and resources, John! I have learnt some classical Chinese myself, mainly by studying Chinese textbooks for junior and senior high school in Taiwan, by studying a book covering 論語/论语 in class many years ago, and by memorising most of 道德經/道德经 just to see if I could do it. In addition to that, Classical Chinese creeps into modern, formal Chinese quite a lot, so it’s not really possible to reach an advanced reading ability without being familiar with Classical Chinese. However, I have never studied the subject explicitly beyond this, so I’ll take John’s course this spring and share my thoughts about it in a review later. To check out more of John’s and Outlier Linguistic’s work, please visit their website
Fuller, Michael Anthony. An Introduction to Literary Chinese / Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.
Kroll, Paul W. et al. A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. Boston, MA: Brill, 2017.
Ling, Vivian et al. Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners. Taipei: SMC Publishing, 1997.
Pulleyblank, Edwin G. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003.
Rouzer, Paul. A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.
Shadick, Harold. A First Course in Literary Chinese. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968.
van Norden, Bryan W. Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2019.
Vogelsang, Kai. Introduction to Classical Chinese. Oxford University Press, 2021.
Vogelsang, Kai. Introduction to Classical Chinese. Oxford University Press, 2021.
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