Welcome to the Wikibook of Classical Chinese (Chinese: 文言). This book teaches the Classical Chinese language, which must be expressed in traditional Chinese.
Knowledge of some basic Chinese characters before starting this course is assumed. You do not have to know a lot of characters, but you should already have an overall understanding of them, such as structure, radicals, and how to use a dictionary. Knowledge of Pinyin, Vernacular Chinese and Japanese could be beneficial, but is not required.
For background knowledge, such as what Classical Chinese is, the history of the language, etc., please read the Wikipedia article on Classical Chinese.
Organization of the book[edit | edit source]
The Chinese language, especially Classical Chinese, does not have strict grammatical rules, unlike the English language. Although it still does follow some elementary rules, they are not as strict as in English. Here we teach you Classical Chinese by using multiple texts as examples, and explain each of them.
Introduction[edit | edit source]
Classical Chinese was widely used across East Asia before the 20th century by speakers of different native languages. The role classical Chinese plays in East Asia is something like that of Latin language in Europe. Like Latin in Europe now and centuries ago, Classical Chinese was not a language that a group of people spoke in their daily lives. Instead, it was a formal language that only intellectuals used and was essential for being educated in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and some other countries. Today, although these countries have adopted their native languages as their official languages (for China, it is Mandarin, which is one of the modern Sinitic languages) and classical Chinese is no longer used so widely, this language is still taught at high school in China, Taiwan and Japan.
Since classical Chinese was not a language that a group of people actually spoke in their daily lives, it does not have a standard pronunciation and therefore is only a written language. When reading aloud, Chinese and Japanese people usually use the pronunciation system of their own native languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Hakka, Hokkien, Japanese, etc. (These languages are all sinitic languages except Japanese.) It does not matter if you speak none of these languages.
Classical Chinese is a poetic and sophisticated language, and might be one of the most compact languages in the world. That means, for expressing the same idea, fewer characters (or 'words') are needed than would be the case in modern Chinese or most other languages. (This holds true only for topics (ideas) that were known and could be expressed by ancient Chinese - there are no terms corresponding to 'Quantum Theory' or 'Psychoanalysis' in Classical Chinese, because these topics, as one would expect, were unknown at the time.)
Traditionally, Classical Chinese employs no punctuation at all. However, books published nowadays usually come with punctuation to aid reading. The technique of recognizing each word or sentence from a piece of text is called "句讀". It is one of the most important parts of learning this language. This course will teach you this language in a traditional way, but we will also introduce a limited amount of punctuation, and use spaces to split sentences to help learning.
Traditionally, the Chinese language is read from top to bottom, right to left.