Readings in Ancient Chinese Poetry

Recently a comment on Sinosplice brought to my attention the fact there are many different videos of poems read in ancient Chinese (古代汉语) [more information on Wikipedia’s classical Chinese entry].

In case you’re not familiar with the concept, every language is slowly changing over time. So not only would the vocabulary and grammar of a language be different if you were able to go back in time and observe, but so would the actual pronunciation. The farther back you go, the bigger the change. As you can imagine, it’s difficult work piecing together the ancient pronunciation of a language when there are no audio records.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these videos (I don’t know much about ancient Chinese poetry), but they’re certainly interesting. Try showing them to a Chinese friend and see what kind of response you get. (It’s my impression that while the Chinese are well schooled in ancient poetry, they are often pretty clueless how different the ancient pronunciation of that poetry actually was. It’s not just a tone here or there!)


李白 靜夜思 中古漢語朗讀

The second one is by a Chinese guy who goes by the name of biopolyhedron. He’s got a bunch of videos on both YouTube and on Youku. If you’re interested in this stuff, definitely check out his videos!


John Pasden

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


  1. The Old Chinese pronunciation system used in the Guan Ju video is based on 鄭張商芳 (Zhèngzhāng Shàngfāng) research. The /gr-/ cluster was first proposed by 李方桂 (Lǐ Fāngguì) in the 1970s and is well attested, not only within internal Chinese evidence, but also in comparisons with the languages of Tibet. (Chinese and Tibet make up the Sino-Tibetan language family.) See 李方桂 (1980[2003])《上古音研究》for a good introduction to the Old Chinese. After that, 鄭張商芳’s work (《上古音系》)will be more accessible. A good book on the topic in English is Baxter’s “The Handbook of Old Chinese”. Here’s a good introduction online:;hitNum=1#page-594

  2. David Moser Says: April 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Yes, Bill Baxter (my mentor and thesis advisor from U of Michigan) has the best book out on this, as uw.zhrui says. But don’t be TOO confident that studying these examples will enable you to communicate with the natives at the time (assuming your time machine worked correctly). Very often these reconstructions involve a phonetic CLASS (e.g. “some kind of voiced labiodental fricative”)which can only get you in the ball park. Still, amazing you can do this kind of reconstruction at all.

  3. These are really interesting. It’s amazing how they sound a lot like languages surrounding China. The last one sound especially like Vietnamese. I had a professor (also at U of M, ironically) read a Chinese poem in class, I can’t remember which one but one of the more famous ones, using 客家话 which he said was more similar to the speech of that time as compared to modern day mandarin. Even though the poem was a relatively well known poem, it had a completely different feel to it when read using 客家话. It is also surprising that with all the changes in pronunciation, they still sound good when read with modern day mandarin. My dad has this book that briefly explained the rhythm poetry (the 平平仄仄平 stuff), I’m surprised that does not change over time with the change in speech. I wonder how that works.

  4. Timothy Bender Says: April 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    There’s a milder version of this – when reading older poetry, you can purposefully revert to ‘older’ pronunciation of certain words to preserve rhyme. This is something people definitely do in the academic community here in the States, and most educated Chinese are aware of it (though its more hit or miss as to whether they do it themselves). A classic example is that 车 goes from che1 to ju1, but other words can change as needed to fit, like 斜 xie2 can become xia2. A similar attempt to go back to older pronunciation leads many older academics to pronounce 李白 Li Bai’s name as Li Bo.

    Although, this is probably less a matter of reverting to older pronunciations, and more a matter of causing characters whose pronunciation broke off from others in its group at some point in the past 1000 years to join back up with them. The changes in pronunciation seemed to largely drift in groups, partly caused by character components that tended to anchor characters together (白,伯,柏, though at some point recently the 1st and 3rd drifted away from the 2nd to a bai sound, which retained the bo sound), and the tendency of tones to move together (ie certain endings tended to become certain tones, and the tones of the Tang mostly moved in orderly fashion into the the modern ones, though some classes did get their characters split up into different modern groups).

    At any rate, reconstructing old pronunciations is an interesting academic exercise, but for appreciating poetry modern Chinese is definitely far superior, perhaps supplemented by minimal pronunciation changes to preserve rhyme. The meaning is rather important, and having the sounds register as understandable language is part of appreciating it. But definitely cool to look at to appreciate how language has changed.

    • I wouldn’t characterize the reading of 車 chē as jū or similar examples a reversion to “older pronunciation” or subject to change as necessary, though indeed one of the pronunciations tends to be more phonetically conservative (aka, older, as you say).

      Rather, I believe this is the difference between the ‘venacular reading’ (白話文念音, often abv. in dictionaries 白) versus the ‘literary reading’ (文言文念音, often abv. 文). This distinction continues to exist in the more conservative southern dialects as well. Many examples from Cantonese or Southern Min abound, such as 人 rén being read both lâng and jîn/lîn based on the context.

      But I resist calling one of them “older pronunciation” because I don’t feel they have gone out of use. They are living readings of the character depending on context.

  5. I really love the simplicity of Chinese poetry. It is much more meditative than most American verse. Also, I like its closeness to nature.

  6. @Timothy Bender — the practice you described is called xiéyùn 協韻 ‘harmonizing rhymes’. This practice has some technical problems,though:

    “In this way east can be pronounced west, south can be pronounced north, up can be pronounced down, front can be pronounced back; characters have no correct reading, and the Odes have no correct characters.” (A translation of Tong T’onghe from Baxter’s book, p. 154)

    If you are interested in this, chapter 4 of Baxter’s “The Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology” is a good starting place.

  7. I have to say the trills in the first video throw me off. However, I am most definitely not in the “expert” category. Are there Sinitic languages with trills in them, or any evidence that trills could have existed?

  8. Gizzle Says: May 2, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    The first video is just … yeah. I can’t really imagine it being even close at all.

    On the other hand, the second video (and all the videos done by “biopolyhedron”) is top stuff and should be required watching for those interested in hearing a fairly solid reconstruction, albeit given the obvious constraints, of Middle Chinese pronunciation and intonation.

  9. Zhongtianjiao Says: February 17, 2014 at 12:38 am

    The 1st video speaker’s pronounciation and accent is AWFUL!!! The guy clearly sounds like a Germanic (English or German speaker) language speaker, it has a heavy European accent, the pronounciations are awful and too literal and overly stressed. The second video was MUCH better; a modern dialect speaker could make out many words just be listening and yet appreciate the different pronounciation. It sounds so much like Vietnamese, really cool.

    One those God-forsaken ‘foreign’ Qing (Jurchen, Manchurian primitive) Emperors really damaged Mandarin 普通话 when he ordered the removal of most consonant finals and stops from the language (because the semi-literate idiot couldn’t understand his Southern Ministers and governors). Thank God the Qing were finally sent to the dustbin of history.

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