Classical Chinese through Chinese Texts

11 Oct 2013

I have to give a quick recommendation to the readers out there that have been toying with the idea of learning a little classical Chinese: Chinese Texts. It’s actually more fun than you might expect.

Via Sinoscism, which offers this introduction:

> This course is intended for people who would like to learn how to read classical Chinese philosophy and history as expeditiously as possible. The professor is a specialist in early Chinese history. He is not a linguist, and offers no more discussion of grammatical particles and structures than is strictly necessary.

This may be true, but I find many of the grammatical explanations rather linguisticky. I don’t mind (and I’m sure they could be a lot more abstruse). I like how supplementary grammar examples given are short, to the point, and interesting.

Here’s an example:

> 而 ér

> This is one of the most common words in classical Chinese. It links phrases, not nouns. “And” or “but” is often a satisfactory translation. However, often the phrase preceding 而 is subordinate, so it should be translated as a participle indicating modification. Thus, in the first sentence of the Mencius, the King of Liáng says 不遠千里而來 “[You] came, not considering a thousand miles too far.” In such cases the first phrase describes a condition or background to the second, as in the English sentence “Peter, fully knowing the danger, entered the room.” In other cases the two phrases are co-ordinate, and the second phrase simply narrates what follows (from) the first.

This is also one of those little bits of classical Chinese that will help sophisticate your modern Chinese. We cover 而 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki in a number of patterns.

Another great example of classical Chinese common in written Chinese:

> 以 yĭ

> This character was originally a verb meaning “to take, to take up, to grab onto.” Thus “X 以 noun verb” would mean “X takes or grasps the noun and verbs,” hence “X uses noun to verb.” Thus 以口言 “speaks with the mouth (口 kŏu),” or 以心知 “knows with the heart/mind (心 xīn).”

> 以 also precedes verbs, in which case it usually acts as a conjunction meaning “in order to.” Thus 出門以見日 “to go out the door in order to see (見 jiàn) the sun,” 溫古以習之 “to review ancient times in order to become familiar with them.”

> One of the most common uses of 以 is in the phrase 以為 “to take and make, take and use as, take and regard as.” This phrase can also be divided to form 以 A 為 B, “to take A and make it into B, use it as B, regard it as B.” As the translations suggest, this action can be either physical—to take some object or substance and make it into something—or mental—to regard something as being something else. Thus 以木為門 “to take wood (木 mù) and make a gate,” 王以天下為家 “The king regards the whole world (天下 tiān xià) as his household (家 jiā),” 孔子以國為小 “Confucius considered the state to be small (小 xiăo),” 吾以為子不知之 “I thought that you didn’t know it.” This use of 以為, both as a unit and as separate words, is still common in modern Chinese.

(You can find 以 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki as well, of course.)

I’m just starting this online course (my education in classical Chinese is still spotty and very incomplete), but it came highly recommended by a friend, and what I’ve read so far I’ve enjoyed a lot.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Those are very clear explanations!

    On the site, you can leave comments on each page/paragraph/title of the website’s text, which is a great feature I haven’t seen before on any other MOOC.

  2. Looks very interesting! Will definitely check it out. How much time do you think you will need in total to go through it all?

  3. Bookmarking this for future reference!

  4. Just started on this and it’s already explained and confirmed a couple of things that I was wondering about.

    Thanks!

  5. Tim Bender Says: October 15, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    There are of course times when online resources are more useful, but this doesn’t seem one of them. I would recomend starting with a good introductory book (for example, the first year text used at Harvard is Rouzer’s “A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese”, available for 30 dollars or so on amazon). The materials on that online site are more akin to the quality one expects from lecture notes, and still a ways off from the more comprehensive and integrated presentation one gets from a carefully composed text.

    If you are going to learn literary Chinese at even the most basic level treated in such introductory courses, you will be making a significant time investment – best to invest a few dollars financially to make sure you get the best effect out of your time.

  6. I took a classical Chinese class for a while at school.

    Two comments:

    1) I think it can be absurd and next to impossible some times to pin point the meaning of texts.
    2) I do however appreciate the compact, efficient, terse nature of it, truly a lot via a little.

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