A glimpse of classical Chinese (1)

The Chinese language is widely recognized as one of the most difficult languages to learn. But how difficult is it? And why is it so difficult? Let’s try to answer the second question first, and we will limit the discussion to Mandarin and not worry about the local dialects used in the various provinces of China.

The inherent difficulty for an English-speaking learner arises from the fact that Mandarin and English do not share the same root and therefore sound and look totally different. On top of that, the current Mandarin language in circulation has retained many expressions and word usage of the classical Chinese used thousands of years ago. (Imaging reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.) It has also incorporated innumerable idioms that have evolved over the same time period from the collective wisdom of the largest group of people on earth. In addition, modern parlance includes new phrases coined by newscasters, advertisers, Internet users, etc., that, when taken out of context, even a Chinese may sometimes have trouble understanding.

Therefore, I would list the levels of difficulty of learning Mandarin in the following order:

Learning everyday conversational Mandarin, children’s songs, folksongs
Reading children’s books and the lyrics of folksongs and pop songs
Watching modern-day sitcoms
Typing Chinese characters
Writing Chinese characters
Watching historical movies
Reading Magazines and novels
Reading newspapers and listening to news
Reading/writing official documents containing classical cliches and technical jargons
Studying classical literature

Up to this point, we have focused our attention on spoken and written vernacular Chinese. However, we have inevitably encountered a few words that are borrowed from classical Chinese. It is time to point those out to you.

It is customary in classical writing to include the following words merely for the purpose of form or function:


The combination, 之乎者也 (zhīhūzhěyě), has become an expression that refers to pedantic terms. Nevertheless, the individual words are still employed in modern Mandarin in various ways.

As a particle after a descriptive word, (zhī) has been replaced by the modern word (de). For example, for “beautiful flowers”, you would say 美丽的花 (měilì de huā), and not 美丽之花 (měilì zhī huā). On placards and in magazine article titles, you will still see things like 巴黎之夜 (bālí zhī yè Nighttime in Paris).

之前 (zhīqián) means prior to a certain point in time.

之前, 他沒去過.
Zhīqián, tā méi qù guò.
He had not been there previously.

In classical Chinese, (zhī) is also used as a pronoun in the objective case. A number of canned phrases containing this word are used in modern Chinese, such as:

Bù kěyǐ děngxiánshìzhī.
One should not treat this as unimportant.

As an interrogative particle in classical Chinese, (hu) has been replaced by

(hu) has retained its use as a preposition, such as in 几乎 (jīhū close to being, nearly; practically) and 合乎 (héhū conform to or comply with).

When referring to a person, the classical word (zhě) is the equivalent of 的人 (de rén a person who …). For example, 爱好者 (àihàozhě) is a lover of art, reading, etc, or a sports fan, 读者 (dúzhě) are readers, and 新闻记者 (xīnwènjìzhě) are journalists.

(zhě) is also a particle that appears in the important word, 或者 (huòzhě or, perhaps).

Whereas in classical Chinese, (yě) is just an appendage, such as a “yeah” added to the end of a sentence, in modern parlance, it is an adverb that means “also” or “as well”.

Zhèyàng yěhǎo.
It’s fine this way, too. (It’s just as well.)

也许 (yěxǔ) and 或许 (huòxǔ) both mean “perhaps” or “maybe”.

Yěxǔ tā wàngdiào le.
Perhaps she has forgotten.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Grace
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 00:02:56

    I’d rate “Watching historical movies” to be the most difficult one if the language that is used in the movie is a mix of modern Chinese and classical Chinese. Even younger Chinese would often have difficulties understand some of the classical Chinese mixed in the conversation.

    It’s very much like the opening of the movie “Lord of the Ring” for a people that speaks English as the second language.


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