How and Why to Learn Classical Chinese

“Study hard, improve daily,” written by Mao Zedong.
Recently, a friend asked me how to go about teaching himself classical Chinese. He works for the U.S. State Department and speaks Mandarin very well, but now he wants to go to the next level.


As a student and teacher of classical Chinese literature, I get this question fairly often, so I have decided to post an expanded version of my response to him below. I hope it will prove useful to curious amateurs.


Classical Chinese is an intrinsically interesting language. It refers to the written language of the premodern Chinese tradition and covers a period of some 2500 years (500 BCE~1920 CE).* It bears roughly the same relationship to modern Mandarin that Latin does to Italian, Sanskrit to Hindi, and classical Greek to modern Greek. It served as the shared language of the elites in premodern China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Knowledge of classical Chinese opens you up to new worlds. It represents the human experience of something like 1/5 of the people who ever walked the earth.


More practically speaking, knowledge of classical Chinese will also greatly improve your modern Chinese. The two are distinct languages (at least, by any meaningful definition of “language”),** but the modern Chinese languages grew out of their classical ancestor and still bear its imprint. Most of the set phrases (chengyu 成語) that mark one’s speech as refined in modern Chinese are summaries of or quotations from classical sources and therefore obey classical structures. Many of the puzzling usages in formal, written Mandarin (the kind used in newspapers) make perfect sense with a basic knowledge of classical Chinese.


Moreover, nearly every Chinese person, to this day, was made to memorize a few classical poems as a child. Learning something about the classical tradition is useful for Mandarin in the same way that knowing a few passages from the Bible or Shakespeare is useful for modern English. Even a cursory familiarity will greatly enrich your speech.


With that in mind, here’s a brief list of resources for learning classical Chinese, followed by a suggested course of study. This is aimed at a learner who already has a basic grasp of Chinese characters (Ch. Hanzi; Jp. Kanji 漢字). Some understanding of modern Mandarin is also very helpful for learning the classical language, but it is not an absolutely necessary prerequisite—those familiar with Chinese characters through Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, or another language will do just fine and will in fact have a better understanding of how classical Chinese sounded in premodern periods.


English-language sources

Free. If you want to get a start online without spending any money, the best option is this website created by Mark Edward Lewis (Stanford). It focuses mainly on philosophical and historical texts from the pre-medieval period.


Textbooks. The textbook I plan to use in the classroom is An Introduction to Literary Chinese by Michael Fuller. It is the most rigorous in terms of linguistics, and it has helpful exercises for building sentences.


The other standard textbook is A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese by Paul Rouzer. The grammatical explanations aren’t as thorough as Fuller’s, but it contains translations of all texts into English and pronunciation guides in Mandarin and Japanese, which makes it good for self-study. It also encourages memorization of certain phrases, which makes it more “immersive.”


Reference works. The best classical Chinese to English dictionary, by far, is A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese by Paul Kroll (with William Baxter, William Boltz, David Knechtges, Edmund Lien, Antje Richter, Matthias Richter, and Ding Xiang Warner), who was my first teacher of classical Chinese. You can also download it for Pleco, the essential Chinese dictionary app.


If you want to really understand the grammar of classical Chinese, the Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin Pulleyblank is required reading.


History of the language. While you’re learning classical Chinese, you may wish to learn something about the history of the language. One of the best out there is Chinese by Jerry Norman. Another good one, which dispels a lot of common myths about Chinese, is The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis.



Level-up: poetry. If you want to learn something about classical poetry and impress your Chinese friends, a really good place to start is A Little Primer of Tu Fu by David Hawkes, which has recently been reissued by New York Review Books.


There is also a textbook, How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology by Zong-qi Cai, which introduces a broader swath of the tradition. Soon, An Introduction to Chinese Poetry by Michael Fuller will be published and will likely be very useful. Fifty-five T’ang Poems by Hugh Stimson is another solid starter and has the added benefit of introducing you to how some of the best poetry actually sounded during its day.


Another technique, one that I used early on, is to read poems next to English-language translations. The translations in Stephen Owen’s The Poetry of Du Fu would be a good resource in this way because they’re free, abundant, and generally good. Red Pine’s Poems of the Masters would work well, too—they also contain the original Chinese and are a little more fun than Owen’s Du Fu. Anything written by Richard Mather, David Knechtges, or Paul Kroll will contain very precise translations with abundant explanatory notes.

Modern Chinese-language sources*** 

Intermediate. If you want to dig deeper, the best book is the four-volume Gudai Hanyu 古代汉语 by Wang Li 王力 (information on volume 1 can be found here). You can just skip around in it, read whatever seems interesting. The essays on classical grammar, usage, and rhetoric are really helpful.


Another approach is to pick up one of the readers published by Sanmin 三民 press. They have the original text, a transliteration into zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 (a.k.a. bopomofo), basic commentary, and a modern Chinese translation. Sanmin’s Sishu duben 四書讀本 will get you reading the most important texts to the classical tradition (the Great Learning 大學, Doctrine of the Mean 中庸, Analects 論語, and Mencius 孟子). However, their Zhuangzi duben 莊子讀本 will get you reading a more fun text.


Dictionaries. A small, convenient classical to Mandarin dictionary is Gu Hanyu changyongzi zidian 古汉语常用字字典 by Wang Li 王力. It is one of the few classical dictionaries that breaks down usage by time period. The most comprehensive classical to Mandarin dictionary is Hanyu dacidian 漢語大辭典, which you will need if you want to seriously understand the history and development of Chinese. You can download this for Pleco, too (but it costs money).


Beyond these, there are a million other sources, especially if you want to study something more specialized, like Buddhism or etymology.

My recommended course of study

  1. Read through either Rouzer or Fuller’s textbook, with Kroll’s dictionary and Pulleyblank’s grammar at hand. You only need to read about 2/3 of either textbook for it to be effective.
  2. Switch to Sishu duben 四書讀本 and read the Great Learning 大學, the first chapter of Mencius 孟子, and flip through the Analects 論語. Have Hanyu dacidian 漢語大辭典 at hand to help with difficult characters. Try to memorize the opening of the Great Learning and a few of the shorter Analects passages.
  3. Switch to Gudai Hanyu 古代汉语 and read some of the Shiji 史記 and a few poems by Du Fu 杜甫. Have A Little Primer of Tu Fu nearby for comparison. Try to memorize a couple of these poems.
  4. Keep reading! Read widely. Find good, annotated editions of classical texts (those published by Zhonghua shuju 中華書局 and Shanghai guji 上海古籍 are consistently of high quality) and read them, reference works in hand. Find unpunctuated editions of texts (such as here) and try to punctuate them properly.  The enormity of the classical Chinese tradition means that there will always be modes, genres, styles, and time periods that you will find difficult. It’s okay, just keep trying!


*Technically, the English term “classical Chinese” has two distinct meanings, corresponding to different terms in Chinese. The more narrow meaning (Gu Hanyu 古漢語) refers to the language of the Warring States to the end of the Han dynasty (481 BCE–220 CE). The broader meaning (wenyanwen 文言文) refers to the written premodern language. It is in this broader sense that I use the term here.


**Also a note about language vs. script. Script refers to the written form of characters. There are two main varieties nowadays:
  1. traditional (fantizi 繁體字), standardized right around when the Chinese empire was first unified in 221 BCE and still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and most places outside of mainland China;
  2. simplified (jiantizi 简体字), standardized in the 1950s and ’60s as part of the People’s Republic of China’s effort to promote literacy, currently used in mainland China.

Language, on the other hand, refers to grammar and vocabulary. You can write modern Chinese with traditional characters (as is done in Taiwan), and you can write classical Chinese with simplified characters (as many books in the mainland do).

***There are also many good resources for learning classical Chinese in other languages, such as Japanese or French or Dutch, but I’m focusing on modern Mandarin Chinese because that was the main avenue through which I learned classical.

Any language may be used to study any other language. There is no reason that you should be required to learn classical Chinese through modern Mandarin (as some schools would make you). You could learn classical Chinese via English, German, Spanish, Korean, Hebrew, Swahili, Esperanto, or any other language—it is only a matter of what sorts of resources are available in that language.

14 thoughts on “How and Why to Learn Classical Chinese

  1. Solid list and methodology.

    I would add Archie Barnes’ ‘Chinese Through Poetry’ as it provides a great basis for reading poetry.

    In French, offhand, I can suggest the two works ‘le mot vide dans la phrase chinoise classique’, et ‘les modèles de phrase en chinois classique’, by Fan Kehli.

    There are a good few older works now available in the public domain in English, but their value is debatable.

  2. Great article; thanks. I’d love to see more Chinese learning tips for “curious amateurs.” I’m learning classical Chinese in a non-academic/intuitional setting (hopefully, this will change in the future), and as such, always appreciate it when individuals in academic circles reach out to the larger public.

  3. Thank you to infinity for this. I’m going for my doctorate in Chinese medicine now and while I know rudimentary Mandarin and vocabulary from the field, my Chinese professors are on another level having been drilled in the classical language and reading old literature. I want to do that too!

  4. Nice compilation of advice and sources.
    Christoph Harbsmeier’s “Aspects of Classical Chinese Syntax” is also an excellent reference that provides outstanding examples.
    A scanned PDF of the text (122 MB) can be downloaded from the University of Oslo:

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