Which is harder: Western classical languages or Chinese?

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Joseph Manning kindly called my attention to this post by Kathleen Coleman on the blog of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS):  "Nondum Arabes Seresque rogant: Classics Looks East" (2/2/16).  The Latin quotation is from a poem written by Statius to mark the inauguration of Domitian’s seventeenth consulship in AD 95.  It means "nor yet do the Arabs and Chinese file petitions", something that the Romans hoped they would one day submit.

Before proceeding, I would like to point out that the Society for Classical Studies (currently based at the University of Pennsylvania) was founded in 1869 as the American Philological Association, and that the name was changed to its present one in 2013.  I believe that the shift from "philology" to "Classical Studies" reflects a profound difference in approach, outlook, and goals between those who are currently engaged in research on our Greco-Roman heritage and the methods and aims of the Society a century and a half ago.  This transformation was highlighted in a conference on "The Language of the Past and the Future of Ancient Studies" that was held at Penn on October 16 and 17, 2015.

Mark Liberman and I both participated in the conference, and I can say for myself that I detected no little anxiety about the state of the field among the participants on the whole, which is not to say that it wasn't an excellent meeting of minds.  Indeed, the papers and the discussions were of high quality and stimulating in nature.  Still, those in attendance were wondering where Classical Studies would be ten or twenty years from now (or even whether it would be).  That is to say, they were concerned about the health of what used to be called "philology" but, for one reason or another, is now called "Classical Studies".

For some personal reflections on this vital issue, see "Philology and Sinology" (4/20/14).

This same sense of uneasiness about the future of philology / Classical Studies is clearly reflected in Coleman's post, which was originally delivered as part of "The Future of Classical Education: A Dialogue", a panel at the 147th annual meeting of the SCS in San Francisco (1/8/16).

The essay is divided into four main sections:

Contact and Comparison

Rome and China

The Study of the Greco-Roman Classics in Asia

The Problem of Languages

Naturally, I am intensely interested in the last section, from which I shall quote the first two paragraphs:

I would now like to return to the issue that recurred in so many of my conversations with the scholars I met in Beijing—the difficulty of mastering the ancient languages—and set it beside the difficulty for western scholars trying to learn the oriental languages. To do so, I asked one of our graduate students, James Zainaldin, who started Chinese this past summer and is now in the intermediate course, to describe his experience. His goal in learning Chinese is twofold, mapping directly on to the two halves of my enquiry in this paper. One goal is the comparative purpose, working directly with Chinese texts to test which features of the discourse and development of Greco-Roman knowledge traditions are uniquely related to the political, social, and intellectual conditions of the Mediterranean world, and which are, rather, universal and, thus, of wider “anthropological” significance. The other goal is that James wants to be able to establish contacts and communicate with scholars of the western classics who work in China, and to be able to contribute to the development of that international community.

In a nutshell, James pointed out to me that Chinese is easier than the classical languages in that there are no verb conjugations; no noun declensions; no singular and plural forms of nouns; no noun genders; no inflection of adjectives; in sum, no requirements for inflected agreement between nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Sentence order is typically very strict. But Chinese is much harder in respect of the difficult tonal system in speaking; a variety of difficult consonants and vowels; challenging and sometimes idiomatic use of grammatical particles in lieu of inflected forms; a character-based writing system with a large number of intricate characters, many of which are different in simplified and traditional forms. In James’s estimation, the most challenging aspect of learning Chinese is the fact that its unique difficulties—the tones and characters—do not admit of methodical solutions. While students learn ways of mitigating the inflectional and grammatical complexity of Greek and Latin through analyzing the form and grammatical function of individual words, clauses, and sentences, when it comes to learning Chinese characters, on the other hand, there is no comparable “method” except constant revision and rewriting. Visually, the characters often seem very similar, and there are few clues to the precise meaning or pronunciation of a character simply from its appearance, although familiarity with “radicals,” the strokes that are the building blocks of characters, affords some small help. Similar difficulties apply to the tones. And, as if that weren’t enough, the language of pre-modern and archaic Chinese texts behaves differently from modern Chinese and comes with its own difficulties, entailing the necessity for students to pursue a dedicated reading course (offered at some elite institutions) alongside a traditional Chinese language course. The investment of time becomes simply overwhelming.

It is evident from the description of the language that James is learning and his goal in learning it that he is studying modern Chinese, most likely Mandarin.  If James were my student (in Greco-Roman Classical Studies), I would have him study Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC), not Mandarin.  Nevertheless, what he says about the easy and difficult aspects of "Chinese" (i.e., Mandarin) are right on the mark.  Now, if James were studying LS / CC, the difficulties would be vastly compounded, because it has all of the difficulties of modern Chinese languages (primarily the extremely refractory characters) plus a terseness, allusiveness, and opacity that can be quite staggering, if not maddening.

At Harvard, where Coleman teaches, Steve Owen tells me that, in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, there is no strict Mandarin requirement for LS / CC:

Some years ago–for both intellectual and institutional reasons–we made Classical an "East Asian Language" rather than purely Chinese. Japanese students can read it out as kambun; Korean, Vietnamese–and for that matter Cantonese–students can read it out in the local way…. One has to have a certain number of characters, but we require no Mandarin. Usually students from the Chinese track have a couple of years.

Similarly, Shengli Feng, who was formerly in charge of the Chinese Language Program at Harvard, related:

As far as I remember, there were no requirements for taking beginning Classical Chinese because it was taught in English and the beginners would learn the characters and the words together without knowing Mandarin.  So, there was no Mandarin prerequisite for students who wanted to learn beginning Classical Chinese.

At Penn, we do not have a Mandarin prerequisite, so students can, if they wish, dive right into LS / CC (I've even had students from Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin take my Introduction to LS / CC, and it is routine for students to come in directly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea not knowing Mandarin; I once had a student whose main languages were English, German, and Sogdian!).  Our first-year LS / CC at Penn runs for two semesters (a whole year), so the students are pretty far along now.

On Thursday we had our Spring mid-term examination.  I always test the students on a seen portion and an unseen passage.  Because we go over the text in class together so very carefully, they usually do well on the seen passage, but often the unseen passage — for which I try to pick a text that is at about the same level of difficulty as the stage we're at in class at the time — completely throws the students for a loop.  This time it happened that the students (2 from China, 2 with a Japanese background, 2 from the United States, 1 from Hong Kong, 1 from Vietnam, and 1 from Ghana) were stymied by the unseen passage that I gave them.  They could understand all of the characters singly, and I even gave them additional vocabulary notes and explanations.  But they just couldn't make sense of the passage as a whole nor even of its constituent sentences.  Among the 9 students, only 2 could roughly figure out what was happening in the unseen passage.  Of course, this is terribly frustrating for the students, but it is also good practice to push them to their limits to see what they can do unaided (like letting a child try to ride a bike without training wheels after a period of using them).  In cases like what happened on Thursday, I tell the students that I will be lenient, so I'll add on 20 or 30 points to their grade because I fully realize how hard the test is.  If they can get any part of it, I'm proud of them.

The unseen passage for Thursday was about language learning, so I'll give it here:

Téng Wén gōng xià 滕文公下 (Duke Wen of Teng, B), 11:

Mèngzǐ wèi Dài Bùshèng yuē:`Zi yù zǐ zhī wáng zhī shàn yǔ?  Wǒ míng gào zi. Yǒu Chǔ dàfū yú cǐ, yù qí zǐ zhī Qí yǔ yě, zé shǐ Qí rén fù zhū?  Shǐ Chǔ rén fù zhū?'


Mencius said to Dai Bu Sheng, 'I see that you are desiring your king to be virtuous, and will plainly tell you how he may be made so. Suppose that there is a great officer of Chu here, who wishes his son to learn the speech of Qi. Will he in that case employ a man of Qi as his tutor, or a man of Chu?'

Yuē:`Shǐ Qí rén fù zhī.'


'He will employ a man of Qi to teach him,' said Bu Sheng.

Yuē:`Yī Qí rén fù zhī, zhòng Chǔ rén xiū zhī, suī rì tà ér qiú qí Qí yě, bùkě dé yǐ; yǐn ér zhì zhī Zhuāng Yuè zhī jiān shù nián, suī rì tà ér qiú qí Chǔ, yì bùkě dé yǐ. Zi wèi Xuē Jūzhōu, shàn shì yě. Shǐ zhī jū yú wáng suǒ. Zài yú wáng suǒ zhě, zhǎngyòu bēizūn, jiē Xuē Jūzhōu yě, wáng shuí yǔ wéi bùshàn? Zài wáng suǒ zhě, zhǎngyòu bēizūn, jiē fēi Xuē Jūzhōu yě, wáng shuí yǔ wéi shàn? Yī Xuē Jūzhōu, dú rú Sòng wáng hé?'

曰:「一齊人傅之,眾楚人咻之,雖日撻而求其齊也,不可得矣;引而置之莊嶽之間數年,雖日撻而求其楚,亦不可得矣。子謂薛居州,善士也。使之居於 王所。在於王所者,長幼卑尊,皆薛居州也,王誰與為不善?在王所者,長幼卑尊,皆非薛居州也,王誰與為善?一薛居州,獨如宋王何?」

Mencius went on, 'If but one man of Qi be teaching him, and there be a multitude of men of Chu continually shouting out about him, although his father beat him every day, wishing him to learn the speech of Qi, it will be impossible for him to do so. But in the same way, if he were to be taken and placed for several years in Zhuangyue*, though his father should beat him, wishing him to speak the language of Chu, it would be impossible for him to do so. You supposed that Xue Juzhou was a scholar of virtue, and you have got him placed in attendance on the king. Suppose that all in attendance on the king, old and young, high and low, were Xue Juzhous, whom would the king have to do evil with? And suppose that all in attendance on the king, old and young, high and low, are not Xue Juzhous, whom will the king gave to do good with?  What can one Xue Juzhou do alone for the king of Song?'

*Name of a district in the heart of the capital of Qi.

The text I gave to my students had far less punctuation than this one, which comes from the Chinese Text Project.  So it would be more demanding than the text as it is given here, which has full punctuation.

Which is harder, Greek and Latin or LS / CC?  Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice.  For my money, LS / CC is a lot harder than Greek or Latin (or Sanskrit, for that matter), because the mastery of the former leaves so much up to informed intuition, which can only be gained by having read vast amounts of literature written in it — not to mention having to wrestle with the taxing characters day after day after day.


Purely by chance, I came across this quotation just before I was about to make this post:

Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow–it is a goldsmith's art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it enchant and entice us most, in the midst of an age of 'work,' that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book:–this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . .

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Preface (to the Second Edition, 1887)

My sentiments exactly.

[Thanks to Xiaofei Tian, Wai-yee Li, Peter K. Bol, and Thomas Bartlett]


  1. John said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    This selected passage brings back memories–we read this passage in junior high, the equivalent of eight grade, together with another selection of Mencius (the one that was the origin of 一暴十寒). It was definitely the most difficult classical Chinese passage we had encountered up to that point, and probably the most difficult prose in the entire junior high curriculum. The multiple shifting meanings of 之, as well as the very unintuitive 諸 = 之 + 乎, were two of the biggest sticking points.

    I'm shocked that I can still read the entire passage. Some things learned at certain ages just become burned into the memory, I suppose.

  2. julie lee said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    Professor Mair, Thank you for the post. You state that Classical Chinese is more difficult to learn than Classical Latin or Greek because understanding Classical Chinese depends heavily on "informed intuition".
    I have always marveled that Classical Chinese (and modern Chinese) seems much more terse than English. In the last paragraph of your quotation from Mencius, the Chinese is 4 lines, while the English translation is 12 lines, three times as long. The first line (below) in English is almost 4 times as long as the Chinese. My character-by-character literal translation (below) is 2 times as long as the Chinese. (The "(indeed)" in my literal translation stands for a grammatical particle.)
    Do you ascribe this terseness to Chinese being a language requiring "informed intuition" because it is not an inflected language?

    (First line of last paragraph of Mencius quote):

    1. (my character-by-character translation of the line):
    Say: " One Qi man teach it, multitude Chu man shout it, although say beat and wish his Qi (indeed), not can get (indeed). Draw and put it Zhuang Yue 's area several

    2. (VM's translation in good English of the line):
    Mencius went on, 'If but one man of Qi be teaching him, and there be a multitude of men of Chu continually shouting out about him, although his father beat him every day, wishing him to learn the speech of Qi, it will be impossible for him to do so. But in the same way, if he were to be taken and placed for several

  3. liuyao said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

    To be more precise, which is harder, an American student learning Greek and Latin or a Chinese (or Japanese) learning Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese? That is, take away the difficulties with the taxing characters, how does Classical Chinese fare in comparison with other ancient literatures?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 10:13 pm


    CC / LS is no easier for a speaker of Mandarin than Latin is for a speaker of Italian or Sanskrit is for a speaker of Hindi.

  5. liuyao said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    It would be hard to find someone (alive?) more qualified to make this assessment than Prof Mair. Thanks. I wonder what other philologists have said on this matter, if anyone comes across it.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 12:26 am

    From E. Bruce Brooks:

    Philology, the serious study of the nature of texts, what was sometimes called the Higher Criticism, has been in eclipse in all the humanistic fields for the last 50 years. In ominous parallel to the APA change of name, and thus of mission, there was the change in the mission statement of the Society of Biblical Literature, so as to eliminate the word “critical.” The result is the same: texts are to be taken as they are, and not analyzed for how they got to be that way. No text has a formation history, an Entstehungsgeschichte. All are direct from the Hand of God. Or Homer, who goes under the name of God in the Greek Isles.

    The result at SBL is that whole panels at their annual meeting have been given over to the “hermeneutics” of preachers rather than the analysis of scholars, and the field has become systematically unreceptive to proposals of interpolation or accretion – except in texts sufficiently far from the protected canon that normal philological procedures can come into play, in which case we get that now rare thing, a straightforward treatment on what the text is up to, and how it got that way.

    The situation is beyond serious. The decline, of which many were aware but regarded as gradual, went off a cliff and into free fall some ten years ago, with a conspicuous falling off in the quality of journal articles in those fields.

    M L West, in The Making of the Odyssey (2014), remarked “As in the Iliad book, I make more reference to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship, and less to more recent work, than is fashionable.” Exactly. There was a lot the oldtimers didn’t know, but what they did know, they did, and they left it in still usable condition. More recent stuff is fouled by postmodern presumptions and gimmicks masquerading as methodology.

    We have lost it, and there is no practicable way of getting it back.

  7. JR said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    Japanese can be hard to read, but kanji can't be worse than Sumerograms/Akkadograms.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    How many Sumerograms / Akkadograms are there? How many different pronunciations and attendant meanings does each Sumerogram / Akkadogram have?

  9. Anonsters said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    @Victor Mair (re: the Brooks quote 03/07 @ 12:26am):

    It's hard not to read that as mere griping about the way Biblical Studies has unfolded in the past twenty years. The SBL removed "critical" not because it suddenly decided that Uncritical Biblical Studies was the new norm, but because it recognized that its mission statement excluded vast swaths of scholarship that wouldn't qualify under the old text-critical-work-only paradigm.

    Anyway, you say: "For my money, LS / CC is a lot harder than Greek or Latin (or Sanskrit, for that matter), because the mastery of the former leaves so much up to informed intuition, which can only be gained by having read vast amounts of literature written in it. . . ." (I cut out the part about the characters. I grant you that.) That sounds like exactly the same situation as with the other classical languages you mention. Maybe the situation is somehow specifically different for LS/CC. But I know one of my ancient Greek professors (an Oxbridge oldie on the cusp of retirement) always used to claim that he still hadn't, and never would, "master" (ancient) Greek.

  10. Chris Coulouris said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:40 am

    Dear Professor Mair,
    Which textbooks do you use in your literary Chinese courses? There are quite a few good ones which I have seen by Paul Rouzer, Michael Fuller, and Edwin Pulleyblank.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:23 am

    @Chris Coulouris

    Thanks for your good question.

    I proudly and happily use Harold Shadick's A First Course in Literary Chinese for the following reasons:

    a. the linguistic apparatus, though a bit intimidating initially, is rigorous, precise, and integrally comprehensive

    b. very intelligent grading of the texts from super easy to super hard

    c. excellent selection of all sorts of texts: history, essays, poetry, philosophy, really everything you could want, including a couple of lessons on how to use traditional Chinese dictionaries

    d. complete apparatus: texts, commentaries, annotations, grammar, vocabularies, maps

    etc., etc.

    Annoyingly, it's still being advertised by Cornell University Press, about 20-25 years after they let it go out of print!


    They advertise vols. I and II, but I don't even think that those two volumes have been available for years. Anyway, to use the book properly, you need all three volumes.

    I started using Shadick about 35 years ago. For awhile I had to get it through an official reprint from Meiya (?) in Taiwan. Then there were struggles with Cornell University Press for a few years, when they kept telling me it was still in print but they could never supply it. Finally, I started reprinting it myself from the wonderful Campus Copy Center right next to the Penn campus. They are reliable and I've had no problem whatsoever for about a quarter of a century that I've been using them.

    BTW, the Shadick text uses Wade-Giles romanization, but I actually like that for two reasons:

    1. Wade-Giles is still important for serious Sinologists and Chinese Studies people, since a century of scholarship used it.

    2. Phonologically it is very intelligent, and is closest to IPA of all the major romanization systems.

    I just hand out a conversion chart (WG-Pinyin; Pinyin-WG) at the beginning of the semester and the students who are familiar with Pinyin rely on that for a few weeks until they get used to WG.

    All in all, Shadick's A First Course in Literary Chinese is a wonderful textbook, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has a serious interest in mastering learning LS / CC. It's even quite suitable for someone who can't enroll in a formal class but would like to learn the language on their own.

  12. leoboiko said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    we made Classical an "East Asian Language" rather than purely Chinese. Japanese students can read it out as kambun; Korean, Vietnamese–and for that matter Cantonese–students can read it out in the local way….

    As a non-native Japanese student, I still can't make my mind about how to go about properly learning how to read LS texts. Reading with kambun ondoku just sounds… bad, you know? So few possible syllables, no tones, no consistency between the various strata of Sinitic readings; it feels like I'm doing violence to the texts. When faced with LS, the Japanese I know just render it into kambun-Japanese via kundoku techniques (e.g. if I point to "花不礙路" and ask "how do I read this?", they say Hana ga Michi wo samatagenu—automatically arranging headness and case-marking into 花[が]路[を]礙不). This seems by far to be the easiest route to me, so I could internalize the standard syntax-switching operators and diacritics and pretend that the Shijing is Japanese; but Japanese "encoded" as LS isn't the same as Chinese LS, so again I feel like I'm straying too far from actual Chinese.

    I've learned the phonology of Mandarin abstractly, but it seems that I can't commit the readings to memory without fluency in the language, and I don't have the resources to acquire the spoken language in the near future. Of course, memorizing a historical reconstruction would be even harder. One could try Cantonese, Taiwanese or other Sinitic language reputed to be more "conservative" than Mandarin, but sadly, there's a lot less resources (dictionaries, software tools…) available for them.

  13. julie lee said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 3:58 pm


    If I am not mistaken, you are saying that Greek or Latin or other classical languages mentioned by Victor Mair in the post is just as hard as Classical Chinese.

    It is well-known how terse Classical Chinese is—how much information can be packed into much less space than in English (and I presume than in Latin or Greek), or rather, how much information can be packed into much fewer words. As my comment above shows, 4 lines of Classical Chinese translates into 12 lines of idiomatic English. Intuitively, one would think the extreme brevity of Classical Chinese makes it harder than Latin or Greek or English because one has to fill in oneself all the words that are missing/elided/presumed in Classical Chinese or to unpack all the units of meaning and all the allusions in the characters given.

    Is there any other classical language that is more terse than Classical Chinese—that packs as much information into as few words?

  14. Anonsters said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    @Julie Lee:

    No, I wasn't making any positive claims about one being harder than another. It wouldn't be hard to convince me that Chinese is harder, in fact. I took three years of Japanese (and got blank stares every time I mentioned that I wanted to look into the possibility of reading classical literary Japanese, since my interest was in the Buddhism of the Nara-Kamakura periods; I eventually switched over to Ye Olde Molderinge Classics), so I'm aware of some of the difficulties one faces in acquiring such a language. I was only saying that Dr. Mair's description in that bit I quoted from him as to why CC is harder than the Latins and ancient Greeks of the world could well be applied to the traditional classical languages, too. Consider it a plea for him to unpack further why by his lights CC "leav[ing] so much up to informed intuition, which can only be gained by having read vast amounts of literature written in it" differs in any substantial way from the kind of sensitivity one can only acquire from "having read vast amounts of literature written in", say, ancient Greek.

    I have no comment on your brevity or information-packing points. I have no idea how one would go about measuring such a thing (is there an information theorist in the house?) or if it's even possible. Lovers of other languages make similar claims for their beloveds, though, for what that's worth (I'm thinking in particular of how elliptical Qu'ranic Arabic can be, for example), and the Greeks loved their participles. So. Who knows. Not me!

  15. julie lee said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

    I studied Modern Mandarin and Classical Chinese (Literary Sinitic) as foreign languages as an adult. (Mandarin is a Chinese language, others being Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese, etc.)

    I found that Modern Mandarin was more difficult to learn than Classical Chinese. I mean that when both texts were explained, I found Classical Chinese easier to memorize. The reason is that CC is preponderantly monosyllabic, while Modern Mandarin (MM) is mostly polysyllabic. For instance,
    the word "sun" is "taiyang" in MM, but only one syllable in CC, "ri". Other examplles:
    "moon" , yueliang (MM), yue (CC)
    "today", jintian (MM), jin (CC)
    "or", huozhe (MM) , huo (CC)
    "time", shijian (MM), shi (CC)
    "happy" kuaile (MM) , le (CC)
    "garden" , huayuan (MM) , yuan (CC)
    and so forth

    However, if the Mandarin and the CC texts have not been explained to me, I find the CC text harder to figure out even if I have looked up all the characters in a dictionary.

  16. Sean M said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    Victor Mair: The traditional number of Akkadian cuneiform signs is "about six hundred" (Malbran-Labat's list numbers 598, more modern ones have more) of which one has to learn about 200 with up to half a dozen meanings for any given place and time and dialect. See Charpin's "Reading and Writing in Babylon" or the "Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture."

    If we did not have to learn paleography at the same time as we learned the script (versus reading Greek in a standardized modern hand), and figure out the meaning of some of the logograms which are missing from the ancient glossaries, I don't think that Akkadian cuneiform would be bad at all.

  17. Lisa A said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 12:20 am

    I've done my best to translate the passage into Latin: it's 147 words, vs 257 in the English and 139 in the Romanization of the Chinese.

    Mencius Daiō Bushengī dīxit, “videō tē rēgem velle honestum esse, ac tibi plānē dīcam quōmodo hoc fīerī possit. adsit praefectus magnus Chuōrum, quī velit fīlium linguam Quiōrum discere. Utrum Quium an Chuum praeceptōrem condūcet?”

    Buus: “Quium praeceptōrem condūcet.”

    Mencius: “sī Quius sōlus eum doceat, at turba Chuōrum circum eum semper clāmet, cum pater eum cōtīdiē verberet, quod eum linguam Quiōrum discere velit, nōn queat ille hoc efficere. sed similiter, abductus et complūrēs annōs Zhuangyueae positus, cum pater eum verberet, quod eum linguā Chuōrum loquī, nōn queat ille hoc efficere. putābās Xuem Juzhouem honestum esse et litterātus, et ut is rēgī appāreat cūrāvistī. sī omnēs quī rēgī appārērent, senēs iuvenēsque, nōbilēs humilēsque, Xuēs Juzhouēs essent, quem rēx habēret quōcum male faceret? at sī omnēs quī rēgī appārērent, senēs iuvenēsque, nōbilēs humilēsque, Xuēs Juzhouēs nōn essent, quem rēx habēret quōcum bene faceret? quid ūnus Xue Juzhou sōlus rēgī Songeae faciat?”

  18. Lisa A said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 12:21 am

    Sorry, make that 149 – I added a couple of words after I did the count.

  19. julie lee said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:50 pm


    Thank you very much for your comparisons. Yes, it looks like Literery Sinitic (Classical Chinese) and Latin are about the same in terseness.

  20. cr said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 1:27 am

    Your comparison is intriguing.
    This makes me wonder when the Ancient Romans started to consistently mark word boundaries, i.e. to write VIDEO·TE·REGEM·VELLE·HONESTVM·ESSE rather that VIDEOTEREGEMVELLEHONESTVMESSE.

  21. cr said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:25 am

    rather that → rather than

  22. Lisa A said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 3:53 am

    I'm afraid I don't know when that happened, but it certainly helps legibility.

    There are two points I should add. One, I made a grammatical error: litterātus should be litterātum. Connected to that, I feel I should point out for those not familiar with Latin that this is a pretty simple text: though it is a short passage compared to the English, each word carries information in its morphology that means that fewer words are actually necessary (and that word order is more flexible).

  23. Benjamin Geer said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    'when it comes to learning Chinese characters, on the other hand, there is no comparable “method” except constant revision and rewriting'

    What about James Heisig's method?

  24. cr said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    @Benjamin Geer

    What about Matteo Ricci's method of 1596?
    (see Lackner, Michael (1986), Das vergessene Gedächtnis. Die jesuitische mnemotechnische Abhandlung Xiguo Jifa. Übersetzung und Kommentar. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.)

    Numerous comparable methods have been devised over the centuries, but none of them was able relieve learners from the burden of constant revision and rewriting, I'm afraid, though "air writing" is possible, of course.

  25. julie lee said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

    One professor of ancient Chinese history, a native-speaker of Chinese, told me, "Classical Chinese is not difficult, it's the allusions that are difficult." What he meant is that one often doesn't know what the allusion is alluding to. The paragraphs from Mencius quoted in the above post can be understood without understanding the allusions, but often a passage cannot be understood without knowing the allusion, which can be a story. Victor Mair has also mentioned allusiveness as one reason Literary Sinirtic/Classical Chinese is difficult. Of course allusiveness also occurs in Latin, English (for example, "He met his Waterloo"), and other languages, but perhaps LS/CC is more allusive.

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