Classical Chinese/Lesson 1

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論語 (Analects) by Confucius and his disciples.


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  • : "The master says" or "The master said".
    • : (zǐ) pronoun used to address to a teacher or master. 子 is a respectful form of address to a man, here used to address (Confucius). Other similar uses include (mèng zǐ) for Mencius and (sūn zǐ) for Sun Tzu. In this case, it is assumed by the author that the learned reader will know who spoke the following quote, so it is not necessary to give the exact identity of the speaker.
    • : (yuē) verb to say. 曰 is one of the frequently used words for the verb "to say" in Classical Chinese. However, 曰 is not the only frequently used word for "say". It is not to be confused with , meaning "sun".
  • : Learn and practice often [what you have learnt]
    • : (xué) verb to learn.
    • : (ér) connective and
    • : (shí) often; sometimes
    • : (xí) verb to practise.
    • : (zhī) pronoun third person, meaning it or them.
  • : Isn't it pleasant?
    • : (bū) not
    • : (yì) also (but in this sentence it is meaningless)
    • : (yuè) adj. pleasant. This is a tongjia (interchangeable character) or an original form for .
    • : (hū) (question marker)
  • : Friends have come from distant places. (Or: A friend has come from a distant place.)
    • : (yǒu) to have, there be
    • : (péng) noun friend
    • : (zì) preposition from
    • : (yuǎn) adj. far, distant
    • : (fāng) noun place (literally,"direction")
    • : (lái) verb come
  • : Isn't it enjoyable?
    • : (bú) not
    • : (yì) also (meaningless)
    • : (lè) adj. enjoyable
    • : (hū) (question marker)
  • : [When] other people don't understand [him], but [he] is not angry
    • : (rén) noun people, person.That here means exactly "other person" or "someone".
    • : (bù) not
    • : (zhī) verb know, understand
    • : (ér) but
    • : (bú) not
    • : (yùn) verb to be/get angry
  • : Isn't that (also) how a gentleman should act?
    • : (bú) not
    • : (yì) also (meaningless)
    • : (jūn zǐ) adj. gentlemanly, like a gentleman should act
    • : (hū) (question marker)


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The grammar of Classical Chinese, in many aspects, is close to English:

  • The subject precedes the verb: (péng lái) 'friend(s) come'
  • The object comes after the verb: (xí zhī) 'practice it'
  • Adjectives used attributively precede nouns: : (yuǎn fāng) distant place

However, there are notable differences:

  • Chinese does not inflect for tense or number. In this example,
    • has no explicit tense: it could be 'Confucius says' or 'Confucius said'
    • has no explicit number: it could be 'Friends have come from distant places' or 'A friend has come from a distant place'
  • Questions are formed by adding a marker at the end (usually it's (), but other markers also exist)
  • No linking verb is used with adjectives: (yuè hū) 'is it pleasant?'; (yuǎn fāng) 'distant place'
    • In fact, Chinese adjectives are close to verbs ( (yuè) 'pleasant, (yuǎn) 'distant'). As you'll see, adjectives and verbs share many similar features, including the fact that they both can be negated with (), unlike nouns.

If you looked up words in the dictionary, you may have noticed that sometimes part of speech marked there doesn't match that in the dictionary:

  • (jūn zǐ) is given as the noun ('gentleman'), not as an adjective ('gentlemanly', 'like a gentleman should act')

It is because of a process called conversion: one part of speech can become another one. This process can also occur in English: "I love her" (a verb) versus "my love" (a noun).