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Classical Chinese

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Classical Chinese
Literary Chinese
古文 or 文言
RegionThe Sinosphere:
  • Originally written c. 5th century BCE – c. 2nd century CE
  • Widely used as a literary language until the 20th century
Chinese characters
Language codes
ISO 639-3lzh
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Classical Chinese
Chinese name
Literal meaningliterary language writing
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet
  • Hán văn
  • cổ văn
  • văn ngôn
Chữ Hán
  • 漢文
  • 古文
  • 文言
Korean name
Japanese name

Classical Chinese[a] is the language in which the classics of Chinese literature were written, from c. the 5th century BCE.[2] For millennia thereafter, the written Chinese used in these works was imitated and iterated upon by scholars in a form now called Literary Chinese, which was used for almost all formal writing in China until the early 20th century. When writing, each Chinese character generally corresponds to a word in the language, with words almost always being one syllable in length. As a result, the characteristic style of the language is comparatively terse.

Starting in the 2nd century CE, use of Literary Chinese spread to the countries surrounding China, including Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and the Ryukyu Islands, where it represented the only known form of writing. Literary Chinese was adopted as the language of civil administration in these countries, creating what is known as the Sinosphere. Each additionally developed systems of readings and annotations that enabled non-Chinese speakers to interpret Literary Chinese texts in terms of the local vernacular.

While not static throughout its history, its evolution has traditionally been guided by a conservative impulse: many later changes in the varieties of Chinese are not reflected in the literary form. Due to millennia of this evolution, Literary Chinese is only partially intelligible when read or spoken aloud for someone only familiar with modern vernacular forms. Literary Chinese has largely been replaced by written vernacular Chinese among Chinese speakers; speakers of non-Chinese languages have similarly abandoned Literary Chinese in favour of their own local vernaculars. Although varieties of Chinese have diverged in various directions from the Old Chinese words in the Classical lexicon, many cognates can be still be found.


Pages of a copy of the 詩經; Shījīng; "Classic of Poetry"
The Classic of Poetry, a collection of 305 literary works authored between the 11th and 7th centuries BCE in what is generally termed "pre-Classical Chinese"

There is no universal agreement on the definition of "Classical Chinese". At its core, the term refers to the language used by the classics of Chinese literature roughly from the 5th century BCE until the end of the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE). The form of Chinese attested in works written before the 4th century BCE, like the Five Classics, is distinct from that found in later works. The term "pre-Classical Chinese" is used to refer to this earlier form—which did not inspire later imitation to a comparable degree despite the works' equal importance in the canon—as to distinguish it from Classical Chinese proper.[3]

After the Han dynasty, the divergence of spoken language from the literary form became increasingly apparent.[4] The term "Literary Chinese" has been coined to refer to the forms of written Chinese in conscious imitation of the classics, characterized by the gradual addition of new vocabulary, as well as the erosion of certain points of Classical grammar and syntax as their functions were forgotten. Literary Chinese was used in almost all formal and personal writing in China from the end of the Han dynasty until the early 20th century, when it was largely replaced by written vernacular Chinese.[5] A distinct, narrower definition of the Classical period begins with the time of Confucius (551–479 BCE) and ends with the founding of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.[6][7]

Sinologists generally emphasize the distinctions between Classical Chinese and the imitative Literary forms that followed. After the 2nd century CE, the Chinese spoken in various areas began to diverge, and Literary Chinese became less representative of ordinary speech. While authors sought to imitate the style of the classics, the likeness decreased over the centuries due to an imperfect understanding of older conventions, as well as influence from the writer's own dialect.[8]


The adoption of Chinese literary culture in the Sinosphere despite the existence of various regional vernaculars is an example of diglossia. The coexistence of Literary Chinese and native languages throughout China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam can be compared to the historical literary use of Latin in Europe, that of Arabic in Persia, or that of Sanskrit in South and Southeast Asia. However, unlike these examples, written Chinese uses a logography of Chinese characters that are not directly tied to their pronunciation. This lack of a fixed correspondence between writing and reading created a situation where later readings of classical Chinese texts were able to diverge much further from their originals than occurred in the other literary traditions, adding a unique dimension to the study of Literary Chinese.

Literary Chinese was adopted in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature argues that this adoption came mainly from diplomatic and cultural ties with China, while conquest, colonization, and migration played smaller roles.[9] Unlike Latin and Sanskrit, historical Chinese language theory consisted almost exclusively of lexicography, as opposed to the study of grammar and syntax. Such approaches largely arrived with Europeans beginning in the 17th century. Christian missionaries later coined the term 文理 (wénlǐ; 'principles of literature', 'bookish language') to describe Classical Chinese; this term never became widely used among domestic speakers.[10][11]

Transmission of texts

According to the traditional "burning of books and burying of scholars" account, in 213 BCE Qin Shi Huang ordered the historical records of all non-Qin states to be burned, along with any literature associated with the Hundred Schools of Thought. The imperial library was destroyed shortly thereafter upon the dynasty's collapse in 206 BCE, resulting in a potentially even greater loss. Even those works from the Classical period that have survived catastrophes of this kind are not known to exist in their original forms; they are attested only in manuscripts copied centuries after their original authorship. The "Yiwenzhi" section of the Book of Han is the oldest extant bibliography of Classical Chinese, compiled c. 90 CE—of its 653 listed works, only 6% are known to exist in a complete form, with another 6% existing only in fragments.[12]

Grammar and lexicon

Classical Chinese is distinguished from written vernacular Chinese in its style, which appears extremely concise and compact to modern Chinese speakers, and to some extent in the use of different vocabulary. Classical Chinese rarely uses words of two or more characters. This stands directly in contrast with modern northern Chinese varieties including Mandarin, in which words two to four characters in length are extremely common. Disyllabic words are also common within southern varieties, but distinctly less so than in northern varieties. Over time, varieties acquired many polysyllabic words in order to disambiguate monosyllabic words with distinct pronunciations that had since converged in a given locale, becoming homophones. An essay written in Classical Chinese might be half the length of one in vernacular Chinese that relates the same ideas, but may use a much larger number of distinct characters.

Classical Chinese can be described as a pro-drop language: its syntax often allows either subjects or objects to be dropped when their reference is understood. Additionally, words are generally not restricted to use as certain parts of speech: many characters may function as either a noun, verb, or adjective. There is no copula in Classical Chinese: (shì) serves this function in modern Standard Chinese, but in Old Chinese it was a near demonstrative ('this').

Classical Chinese has more pronouns compared to the modern vernacular. In particular, whereas modern Standard Chinese has one character generally used as a first-person pronoun, Classical Chinese has several—many of which are used as part of a system of honorifics. Many final and interrogative particles are found in Classical Chinese.[13]

Beyond differences in grammar and vocabulary, Classical Chinese can be distinguished by its literary qualities: an effort to maintain parallelism and rhythm is typical, even in prose works. Works also make extensive use of literary techniques such as allusion, which contributes to the language's brevity.

Modern use

A Literary Chinese letter written in 1266, addressed to the "King of Japan" (日本國王) on behalf of Kublai Khan, prior to the Mongol invasions of Japan. Notes explaining points of grammar have been added to the text, intended to aid Japanese-speaking readers.

Prior to the literary revolution in China that began with the 1919 May Fourth Movement, prominent examples of vernacular Chinese literature include the 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Most government documents in the Republic of China were written in Literary Chinese until reforms spearheaded by President Yen Chia-kan in the 1970s to shift to written vernacular Chinese.[14][15] However, most of the laws of Taiwan are still written in a subset of Literary Chinese. As a result, it is necessary for modern Taiwanese lawyers to learn at least a subset of the literary language.

Many works of literature in Classical and Literary Chinese have been highly influential in Chinese culture, such as the canon of Tang poetry. However, even with knowledge of its grammar and vocabulary, works in Literary Chinese can be difficult for native vernacular speakers to understand, due to its frequent allusions and references to other historical literature, as well as the extremely laconic style. Presently, pure Literary Chinese is occasionally used in formal or ceremonial contexts. For example, the National Anthem of the Republic of China is in Literary Chinese. Buddhist texts in Literary Chinese are still preserved from the time they were composed or translated from Sanskrit. In practice there is a socially accepted continuum between vernacular and Literary Chinese. For example, most official notices and formal letters use stock literary expressions within vernacular prose.

Personal use of Classical phrases depends on factors such as the subject matter and the level of education of the writer. Excepting professional scholars and enthusiasts, most modern writers cannot easily write in Literary Chinese. Even so, most Chinese people with at least a middle school education are able to read basic Literary Chinese, because this ability is part of the Chinese middle school and high school curricula, and is a component of the college entrance examination. Literary Chinese in the school curriculum is taught primarily by presenting a literary work and including a vernacular gloss that explains the meaning of phrases. The examinations usually require the student to read a paragraph in Literary Chinese and then explain its meaning in the vernacular.

Contemporary use of Literary Chinese in Japan is mainly in the field of education and the study of literature. Learning kanbun, the Japanese readings of Literary Chinese, is part of the high school curriculum in Japan.[16] Japan is the only country that maintains the tradition of creating Classical Chinese poetry based on Tang-era tone patterns.


The shape of the character 'person' in oracle bone script may have influenced the character 'harvest', which later acquired the additional meaning of 'year'[b]

Chinese characters are not phonetic and rarely reflect later sound changes in words. Efforts to reconstruct Old Chinese pronunciation began relatively recently. Classical Chinese is not read with a reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation; instead, it is read with the pronunciations as categorized and listed in a rime dictionary originally based upon the Middle Chinese pronunciation in Luoyang during the 2nd–4th centuries. Over time, each dynasty updated and modified the official rime dictionary: by the time of the Yuan and Ming dynasties, its phonology reflected that of early Mandarin. Since the imperial examination required the candidate to compose poetry in the shi genre, pronunciation in non-Mandarin speaking parts of China such as Zhejiang, Guangdong and Fujian is either based on everyday speech, such as in Standard Cantonese, or is based on a special set of pronunciations borrowed from Classical Chinese, such as in Southern Min. In practice, all varieties of Chinese combine the two extremes of pronunciation: that according to a prescribed system, versus that based on everyday speech. Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, also have words that are pronounced one way in colloquial usage and another way when used in Classical Chinese or in specialized terms coming from Classical Chinese, though the system is not as extensive as that of Min or Wu.

Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese readers of Classical Chinese each use distinct systems of pronunciation specific to their own languages. Japanese speakers have readings of Chinese origin called on'yomi for many words, such as for "ginko" (銀行) or "Tokyo" (東京), but use kun'yomi when the kanji represents a native word such as the reading of in 行く (iku) or the reading of both characters in "Osaka" (大阪), as well as a system that aids Japanese speakers with a Classical word order.

Since pronunciation in modern varieties is different from Old Chinese or other historical forms such as Middle Chinese, characters that once rhymed may not any longer, or vice versa. Poetry and other rhyme-based writing thus becomes less coherent than the original reading must have been. However, some modern Chinese varieties have certain phonological characteristics that are closer to the older pronunciations than others, as shown by the preservation of certain rhyme structures.

Another particular characteristic of Literary Chinese is its present homophony. Reading Classical texts with character pronunciations from modern languages results in many homophonous characters that originally had distinct Old Chinese pronunciations, but have since merged to varying degrees. This phenomenon is far more common in Chinese languages than in English: for example, each of the following Old Chinese words originally had distinct pronunciations, but are now all pronounced [î] in Mandarin:

*ŋjajs ; 'discuss' *ŋjət ; 'powerful'
*ʔjup ; 'city' *ʔjək ; '100 million'
*ʔjəks ; 'thought' *ʔjek ; 'increase'
*ʔjik ; 'press down' *jak ; 'Go'
*ljit ; 'flee' *ljək ; 'wing'
*ljek ; 'change' *ljeks ; 'easy'
*slek ; 'lizard'.[18]

The poem Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den was written during the 1930s by the linguist Yuen Ren Chao to demonstrate this: it contains only words pronounced shi [ʂɻ̩] with various tones in modern Standard Chinese. The poem underlines how the classical language had become impractical for modern speakers: when spoken aloud, Classical Chinese is largely incomprehensible. However, the poem is perfectly comprehensible when read, and also uses homophones that were present even in Old Chinese.

Romanizations have been devised to provide distinct spellings for Classical Chinese words, together with pronunciation rules for various modern varieties. The earliest was the Romanisation Interdialectique by French missionaries Henri Lamasse [fr] of the Paris Foreign Missions Society and Ernest Jasmin, based on Middle Chinese, followed by linguist Wang Li's Wényán luómǎzì based on Old Chinese in 1940, and then by Chao's General Chinese romanization in 1975. However, none of these systems have seen extensive use.[19][20]

See also


  1. ^ Chinese language terms include 古文; gǔwén; 'ancient writing' and 文言; wényán; 'literary language', as well as 文言文; wényánwén; "literary language writing" in written vernacular Chinese. The term is read as kanbun in Japanese, hanmun in Korean, and văn ngôn[1] or Hán văn in Vietnamese.
  2. ^ Today, they are pronounced rén and nián in Mandarin, but their hypothesized pronunciations in Old Chinese were very similar, which may explain the resemblance. For example, in the 2014 reconstruction by Baxter and Sagart, they were /niŋ/ and /nˤiŋ/ respectively, and then became /nʲin/ and /nin/ in Early Middle Chinese.[17]



  1. ^ Nguyễn, Tri Tài (2002). Giáo trình tiếng Hán. Tập I: Cơ sở (in Vietnamese). Nhà xuất bản Đại học Quốc gia Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. p. 5.
  2. ^ Vogelsang 2021, pp. xvii–xix.
  3. ^ Norman 1988, pp. xi, 83.
  4. ^ Li 2020, p. 41.
  5. ^ Li 2020, p. 40.
  6. ^ Peyraube, Alain (2008). "Ancient Chinese". In Woodard, Roger (ed.). The Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-68494-1. The Classical period proper begins with Confucius (551―479 BC), and ends around the founding of the Qin Empire in 221 BC. The attested language of the period was probably not very different from cultured speech. The gap between the written and the spoken language began to develop in the Han dynasty (206 BC―AD 220) and increased naturally with time.
  7. ^ Pulleyblank 1995, p. 3, "The classical period proper begins with Confucius 孔子 (-551 to -479) and continues through the Warring States period to the unification and founding of the empire by Qin in -221. This was the period of the major philosophers and also of the first works of narrative history.".
  8. ^ Norman 1988, pp. 83–84, 108–109.
  9. ^ Denecke; Nguyen (2017). Denecke, Wiebke; Li, Wai-Yee; Tian, Xiaofei (eds.). Shared Literary Heritage in the East Asian Sinographic Sphere (PDF). doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199356591.013.33. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-03-03.
  10. ^ Chao, Yuen Ren (1976). Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics: Essays by Yuen Ren Chao. Stanford University Press. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-804-70909-5 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Zetzsche, Jost Oliver (1999). The Bible in China: The History of the Union Version or the Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China. Monumenta Serica. p. 161. ISBN 3-805-00433-8 – via Google Books. The term "Wenli" (文理) was "an English word derived from Chinese roots but never used by the Chinese" (Yuen 1976, 25). The original meaning is "principles of literature (or: writing)," but by the missionaries of the last century it was coined to stand for Classical Chinese. For sinologues outside the missionary circle, the term "wenli" was not acceptable ("... what the missionaries persist in calling wen li, meaning thereby the book language as opposed to the colloquial"— Giles 1881/82, 151).
  12. ^ Vogelsang 2021, p. 262.
  13. ^ Brandt 1936, pp. 169, 184.
  14. ^ Tsao, Feng-fu (2000). "The Language Planning Situation in Taiwan". In Baldauf, Richard B.; Kaplan, Robert B. (eds.). Language Planning in Nepal, Taiwan, and Sweden. Vol. 115. Multilingual Matters. pp. 75–76. ISBN 978-1-853-59483-0.
  15. ^ Cheong, Ching (2001). Will Taiwan Break Away: The Rise of Taiwanese Nationalism. World Scientific. p. 187. ISBN 978-9-810-24486-6.
  16. ^ 文部省 (1951). 第七章 国語科における漢文の学習指導. 中学校 高等学校 学習指導要領 国語科編(試案) (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 2009-12-15.
  17. ^ Baxter & Sagart 2014, p. 239.
  18. ^ Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 802–803. ISBN 978-3-110-12324-1.
  19. ^ Branner, David Prager (2006). "Some composite phonological systems in Chinese". In Branner, David Prager (ed.). The Chinese Rime Tables: Linguistic Philosophy and Historical-Comparative Phonology. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. Vol. 271. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 209–232. ISBN 978-9-027-24785-8.
  20. ^ Chen, Ping (1999). Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 173–174. ISBN 978-0-521-64572-0.

Works cited

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Classical Chinese
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