How to teach Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese

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The first thing we have to take into consideration is that Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC) is a dead language, i.e., a book / written language (shūmiànyǔ 書面語).  Nobody has spoken it for the purpose of spontaneous, unrehearsed conversation for thousands of years.  So we cannot and should not use pedagogical methods designed for living languages to teach LS/CC.

The next question is whether we should require a Mandarin prerequisite to take LS/CC.  I am strongly opposed to requiring Mandarin as a precondition for the study of LS/CC.  I know of many schools that require two, three, or even four years of Mandarin for students who wish to enroll in an introductory LS/CC course.  I think that is absolutely ridiculous.  I don't even think that we should require one year of Mandarin for students to take LS/CC.  I may be the only professor in the USA, perhaps in the whole world, with this outlook.  If there are others, they would only amount to a tiny handful of iconoclastic rebels.  I often have engaged in strenuous argle-bargle with colleagues who demand years of Mandarin before allowing students into their LS/CC courses.

I have studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hindi, Italian, French, etc., and I'm certain that Mandarin is further removed from LS/CC than Italian is from Latin, than Modern Greek is from Classical Greek, or Hindi is from Sanskrit, yet we do not demand that students of Latin first become proficient in Italian, that students of Classical Greek first become proficient in Modern Greek, or that students of Sanskrit first become proficient in Hindi or Bengali, etc.  Similarly, it makes no sense at all to me that, before allowing a student to learn the language of Confucius, Mencius, Sima Qian and other ancient Chinese writers, they first have to learn how to say things like:

Nǐ chīfàn le ma 你吃饭了吗? (lit., “Have you eaten?”, i.e., “How’s it going?” or “How are you?”)

Tā de bízi qì wāi le 的鼻子气歪了。(lit., "Her nose is crooked with anger”, i.e., "Her nose is out of joint.")

As for the language of instruction, Mandarin would not be a good choice, not only for the reasons outlined above, but also because students who learn LS/CC tend to mix up the two languages and become very sloppy in the precise parsing and explication of the literary / classical language.  Furthermore, it means that students whose primary, or only, East Asian language is Japanese, Korean, etc. cannot participate.  I welcome students in my Introduction to LS/CC course to recite the texts in Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and so forth.  I have even had students with a background in Sanskrit, Greek, and Sogdian (yes!) and do very well without vocalizing the hanzi / kanji / hanja at all.

This semester I have a dozen students in my class.  Nine are native speakers of Mandarin from mainland China (all have good to excellent English) and three are Americans, one of whom is advanced in Mandarin, another who is advanced in Japanese, and one who is at intermediate level in Korean and knows only Hangul, no Chinese characters.  Guess what?  All three Americans are doing quite well, and I dare say — judging from past experience — that they will end up at or near the top of the class.

William Hung (Hóng Yè 洪業), the editor of the renowned Harvard-Yenching Institute Sinological Index Series, when he was professor and dean at Yenching University in Peking during the 1920s, used to have his students translate LS/CC into English to make sure that they understood the texts they were reading.

E Bruce Brooks, co-author (with A. Taeko Brooks) of the pathbreaking The Original Analects (Columbia 1998), wrote his textbook cum grammar of LS/CC utilizing Middle Sinitic reconstructions, which made a lot more sense for speakers of Japanese, Korean, etc. than would Mandarin.

By the way, after one year of hard work in my introduction to LS/CC course, students — no matter what their background — can make their way through practically any literary or classical Chinese text they encounter (naturally, some will be harder than others, but at least they can get a good idea of what is going on in a wide variety of premodern texts, from the latter part of the first millennium BC to the May 4th Movement (1919), when LS/CC ceased to be the official written medium of the Republic of China.  The same cannot always be said of students who view LS/CC through the lens of Mandarin.


"Which is harder: Western classical languages or Chinese?" (3/6/16)

"Chinese, Greek, and Latin" (8/8/17)

"Philology and Sinology" (4/20/14)


  1. Bathrobe said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 8:33 pm

    What a pity that your courses are only being offered in the US! I have long harboured the desire to learn Classical Chinese (for linguistic reasons) but have been discouraged by the choice of "portals" of entry (MSM? English? Japanese?).

    It's my (half-remembered) experience that MSM translations of Classical Chinese are either so close to the original that you need to know Classical Chinese to understand them, or, on the other hand, are discursive and explanatory, taking advantage of a reader's pre-existing knowledge of characters, etc., to fill in vague gaps, thus failing to fully explain Classical Chinese on its own terms. This is possibly the inherent pitfall in approaching Classical Chinese from MSM — the misconception that you are half working within the same language.

    I remember studying a fairly elementary level of Classical Japanese many years ago. I could never get the hang of it because I was approaching it from modern Japanese, for instance doing sloppy mapping of modern Japanese past-tense endings to the multiple equivalents in Classical Japanese. An very rough-and-ready approach. But unlike modern Japanese, you can't actually get spoken fluency in it!

  2. Carl said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 8:39 pm

    I took Kambun with Sasha Vovin at UH with only Japanese under my belt. It was quite hard, but I learned a lot at the cost of embarrassing myself quite a few times.

    I do think it’s silly that most English books on Confucianism and Danish tend to use pinyin instead of reconstructed pronunciations but I understand why it’s so.

  3. Carl said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

    * Thanks autocorrect for teaching us about Laozi’s favorite pastry…

  4. E Bruce Brooks said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    Victor indirectly mentioned my Chinese C course, taught at Harvard from 1968-1974. It had no Mandarin prerequisite. This was desirable, not only to allow Korean and Japanese majors to satisfy their Chinese language requirement in a way meaningful to them, but also because it avoided the false friend problem. Pronunciation was in a slightly antiqued Mandarin, restoring final p, t, k, and m, plus initial ng. This of course made pronunciation closer to the Japanese and Korean readings of the same characters, another convenience. I am no friend of "living language," but students were required to recite out loud in class, and to memorize one poem or short prose passage per week, and repeat it to me. The only texts you know are the ones you know from memory. This of course was another traditional aspect of the course. Texts were not artificial, but all were real. They were chosen in order to permit vocabulary to be acquired in roughly frequency order (that is, order of value for susequent use), which required a previous full analysis of character frequency in classical Chinese. This was later printed, but is no longer available. Less common characters in the reading selections were glossed (pronunciation and meaning(), but were not required to be memorized for quizzes. This permitted use of real texts from the outset.

    The course was successful, growing each year from its inception. 8 students is about ideal for that particular format; 14 perhaps top. Students who began Chinese in that course could by the end of the year read a prepared Shr Ji text at about the rate of a page a day. Those who went on to the intermediate course, not taught by myself, together with students who had come up by the Mandarin track, were performing at a comparable level by the end of the second year.

    Chinese C attracted other students also, and was offered one year as a Freshman Seminar, those students being in the same class as the others. This worked well. Of course the students were specially selected.

    I would say that this experience established the viability, and indeed the desirability, of starting Classical Chinese cold. Of course the limit for students of any background is character acquisition, and those with prior experience of characters, whether in Mandarin or Korean, have an advantage over others. That advantage is not absolute, as shown by the success of the students with no prior characters at all.


  5. Rudolf Wagner said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 4:27 am

    Perhaps there is too much essentializing in this notion of Classical Chinese. While I agree that to have modern Mandarin as a prerequisite does not make sense (the difficulty of Mandarin speakers with an accurate understanding of classical texts are notorious), I would stil suggest a graded approach. Take Latin. Instead of starting with tomb inscriptions of the pre-Republican period (which is my experience), I thin it is best to start with medieval Latin with its vernacularized grammar, and work one's way back from there. In this manner, the attitude is one of reading rather than deciphering with three pots of coffee and two dictionaries. In the case of CC, I would suggest to start with late Qing texts of the Shenbao or Liang Qichao type (all largely without complex allusions and references), and punctuation plus translation exercises. From there one can work backwards to more complex forms of articulation. Even on those, I think it is useful to use at least some forms of structured teaching. I have done this in Heidelberg with interlocking parallel style and within two or three sessions of pattern drills (you read right, pattern drills), the students had a very positive experience of finding themselves capable to spot such structures, punctuare them correctly, find the interlocking connections, and translate them. I am quite sure there are other such simple devices to segmentally improve reading and translating skills. I ave been thinking to package those drills into a small segment that other might want to insert into their courses, but have yet to find the time for it. One experience that has been upsetting for me was to see a student in an examination translate a story from the Soushen ji. The translation missed the point of the story and then bumbled about to stay vague enough to avoid making definable mistakes. I then checked the available English translations into English and Mandarin and was amazed at the willingness of the professorial translators to let stand a translation that made no sense, assuming that the problem must be the author's rather than their's. I confess I was quite afterwards quite helpless in evaluating the examination translation of the student. Best Rudolf Wagner

  6. David Marjanović said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 5:59 am

    I'm certain that Mandarin is further removed from LS/CC than Italian is from Latin

    Yeah, it's more like French and Latin – French without all the archaisms that are carried around in spelling but mostly haven't been pronounced for centuries.

  7. Jayarava said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 6:07 am

    This is heartening to read.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 6:10 am

    @David Marjanović:

    The difference between Mandarin and LS/CC is not just a matter of pronunciation — far from it.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 6:48 am

    @Rudolf Wagner:

    What exactly do you mean by "essentializing" in the first sentence of your comment? How does it relate to what you say later in the paragraph?

    For the last few decades, whenever I come across essays supposedly premised on the notion of "essentialization" (ditto for "reification"), my abracadabra antennae go up.

    Harold Shadick, author of the marvelous 3 vol. A First Course in Literary Chinese, which I still use in my LS/CC course, even though it has been out of print for many years, ends his roughly chronological sequence of texts with Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, and Sun Yat-sen. I totally agree with him in that choice, because what they write is a kind of bànwén bànbái 半文半白 ("semi-literary semi-vernacular") transitional style, even adulterated with Westernisms, that presents particular challenges to understanding and is highly atypical of the traditional literary / classical styles that preceded it for the previous three millennia.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 6:52 am


    Thank you very much for your kind, approbatory comment.

    Ditto for the very first sentence in this thread by Bathrobe.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 7:16 am

    From Christoph Harbsmeier:

    What makes Greek/Latin seem so much easier by comparison is the extraordinary quality of the primers, grammars, critical editions, dictionaries, handbooks like Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric (and indeed of all kinds), and – for example – Pauly's Realenzyklopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (76 fat volumes fine print). Moreover, of course, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, especially, and to a much lesser extent the inordinately ambitious Thesaurus Linguae Latinae which after more than 100 years of work has got no further than the letter T.

    [[[[[On which my son Theodor had the honour to collaborate for several wonderful years in Munich, by the way,, providing the definitive accounts (in Latin, of course) of the rhubarb on the one hand, and also on the nose (which pretty well defines the time he was working at the Academy of Sciences in Munich… I do think you have met him, Victor.]]]]]

  12. Bathrobe said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 7:32 am

    Pattern drills are very much out of style now, unfairly I think. When they were popular they seem to have been a product of behaviourist / structuralist ideas about language learning, but they actually fit in equally well with modern construction grammar (which holds that meaning inheres in structures). Although they tend to be boring and repetitive, there is something reassuring about being able to produce ready-made structures reflexively without leaning too heavily on cognitive skills. In the rush to embrace newer and newer approaches to language learning, pattern drills seem to have been thrown out with the bathwater.

  13. Tom said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 10:48 am

    Paul van Els at Leiden is on the same page as you, Victor. His Dutch-Classical Chinese textbook, Van orakelbot tot weblog, Lesboek Klassiek Chinees, presupposes no knowledge of Mandarin.

    UC Santa Barbara, where I teach, currently has a two-year Mandarin prerequisite for LS/CC, but I hope to abolish that in the near future. I've designed my own introductory course to presuppose some familiarity with Sinitic graphs but not Mandarin necessarily. I also hope to integrate recitations in an earlier form of pronunciation, à la Bruce Brooks's curriculum.

    I completely agree with you on almost everything you write here, but I do notice the haziness of your final paragraph: after one year, students "can make their way through practically any literary or classical Chinese text they encounter." What do you mean by "make your way" through a text? In my experience, it takes a considerable amount of time to become comfortable with LS/CC, and, as soon as you think you've gotten it, you start reading a different genre or era and feel like a beginner again. The tradition is so vast and so long that you never really cease learning.

  14. Rick said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

    St. John's College in Santa Fe offers an MA in Eastern Classics: a one year program reading the "great books" of India, China and Japan. Students are required to study either Classical Chinese or Sanskrit. I took the Classical Chinese option. There is no expectation of preparation in Chinese. In my cohort there was a student who knew Mandarin, and one who knew Japanese. They both had a leg up on familiarity with characters, but that was about it. There are a number of professors at St. John's who teach this class, and they all go about it in different ways. I took the course from Michael Bybee, who used his own materials for the first semester, which took a pragmatic approach, teaching a set of characters and minimal grammatical content, with sentence drills, leading up to an original passage from a CC text. The second semester, we read exerpts from Confucius and Mencius, translated the entirety of the Tao Te Ching, and finished up with a section on poetry. We moved very quickly, and gave very short shrift to pronunciation and did not "drill" characters; the focus was squarely on getting the meaning out of a text. While I cannot pick up a CC text and "just read it", we covered so much that I'm confident that with patience and a good dictionary, I can work through any CC text I might want to. A great experience.

    I know the next year, a different instructor used Barnes' Chinese Through Poetry. Last year yet another instructor took a more "classical" approach emphasizing grammar (and memorizing radicals, which we did not do), but also working through the I Ching in the first semester. It's a hot bed of pedagogical experimentation down there!

  15. David Marjanović said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 5:10 pm

    The difference between Mandarin and LS/CC is not just a matter of pronunciation — far from it.

    Of course! I should have taken more time to explain what I meant. The vocabulary and grammar of French and Latin differ a lot as well, and the orthography makes the grammar of French look more like Latin than it is, which is why I mentioned it – even though the grammar of French-as-spelled already differs more from that of Latin than that of Italian does, which is already a considerable difference itself.

  16. Eidolon said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 7:27 pm

    It depends on the structure of the class. If students are expected to write or electronically reproduce Chinese characters within the first months, then prior experience with Chinese characters – not Mandarin – is likely necessary. If students are only expected to parse texts into English, then no prior experience of any sort is necessary. Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit have the benefit of being alphabetic languages whose writing systems are relatively easy to learn, or already familiar via English. The logographic writing system underlying Classical Chinese is much more difficult.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 8:31 pm

    What is the purpose of LS/CC courses? Think about it.

    Are we teaching people to write in LS/CC?

  18. Eidolon said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 8:48 pm

    I was thinking more about whether they would be required to reproduce any snippet of Classical Chinese text – ie a phrase, a sentence, a word – in their essays and exams, or read any Classical Chinese text without the benefit of Romanization. Just as a quick example, I pulled up the syllabus for Introduction to Classical Chinese from the University of Hawaii:, where Chinese characters are embedded directly in the syllabus without any pinyin annotation, and the first assignment to memorize a Classical Chinese poem is given solely in Chinese characters; this would presumably render Chinese classes a prerequisite, since I don't think it's reasonable to expect students to pick up the Chinese writing system within a few weeks.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 11:02 pm


    Please go back and reread my post. You missed the whole point of it.

  20. Thomas Dongsob Ahn said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 4:58 am

    You may say you are a dreamer ("I may be the only professor in the USA, perhaps in the whole world, with this outlook.").
    But you are not the only one.

    Most Korean learners of LS/CC learn it without any knowledge of Mandarin. It was not until I could recite the whole of Analects that I attended a basic Mandarin course.

    Funny thing is, finishing that basic course made me only a basic Mandarin speaker, but, combined with my LS/CC, I could read some of the most difficult Mandarin books (Mou Zongsan, for instance) without much difficulty.

    This explains, I guess, why not many Korean sinologists are fluent Mandarin speaker. There simply is not much incentive there…

  21. Siva Kalyan said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 5:44 am

    Where can I find Brooks’s “textbook cum grammar of LS/CC”? I assume you’re not referring to “The Original Analects”—but I can’t find any other book by him that fits the description.

  22. Thaomas said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 6:59 am

    I have no expertise in learning much less teaching LS/CC but this makes sense to me. Would one require years of study of Spanish or French before allowing someone to study Latin?

  23. Eidolon said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 7:04 am

    No, I agree that it's possible to teach Classical Chinese without a prerequisite, but that it requires a very specific structure to the class. For instance, you mention that students are "welcome … to recite the texts in Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and so forth" and that "students … do very well without vocalizing the hanzi / kanji / hanja at all." The former presupposes familiarity with pronouncing characters in a different language, while the latter simply avoids intoning them altogether, so I guess in class they would just refer to the texts by line number. You didn't mention whether students have to be able to write any characters – I assume they don't at all – but memorizing the characters without any internal vocalization could also be challenging, so using Romanization as an aid seemed logical.

    Is it possible to run a class like this? Of course. But the structure sounds very different from what is typical, especially with respect to how students are expected to read and interact in discussions.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 7:28 am

    "It depends on the structure of the class."

    "…it's possible to teach Classical Chinese without a prerequisite, but that it requires a very specific structure to the class."

    "…the structure sounds very different from what is typical, especially with respect to how students are expected to read and interact in discussions."

    What you're saying is fatuous and tautological. You keep repeating about how the class is structured and what is typical. You're not telling us anything we didn't already know. The o.p. recognizes that the vast majority of LS/CC courses require prior knowledge of Mandarin and characters. My four decades of teaching LS/CC at Penn show that neither is necessary.

    Students who take my LS/CC class have an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating experience, and they do learn the language very well, well enough that they are able to become professors of Buddhism, Asian religions, Chinese / Japanese / Korean history, Chinese / Japanese / Korean art history, Chinese / Japanese / Korean literature, etc. in outstanding colleges and universities all over the world.

  25. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 7:35 am

    Rudolf Wagner wrote:
    Instead of starting with tomb inscriptions of the pre-Republican period (which is my experience)

    Is that typical? When I took Latin, the first "real" Latin text we encountered was a line by Horace, and I don't think we ever worked with anything outside the Late Republican – Early Imperial period; apart, of course, for modern texts constructed specifically for teaching purposes.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 7:35 am

    @Siva Kalyan:

    Unfortunately, like many other excellent scholarly materials produced by Bruce Brooks, his “textbook cum grammar of LS/CC” was never published. It was only reproduced mechanically for use in his classes.

  27. E Bruce Brooks said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 8:47 am

    To Siva Kalyan: Our textbook for Classical Chinese (called by us Literary Chinese, since it includes texts from the Analects through Tang poetry) existed only in class handouts, which changed every year of the course, and since the course was ultimately dropped by Harvard, was never published in another form. Some students still have, and as they tell me, cherish, their copies. But the core of the work for that course, and the core of any rational approach to teaching that language, is the frequency lists which we first compiled, to supplement and replace George Kennedy's earlier pamphlet. Those lists include ideal sequences for both literary and modern, plus a third list which is a compromise between the two, for students needing to learn both. Those lists were in fact published (in mimeo form), and a distributor was found, but sale had to be suppressed due to some funny stuff at Harvard. The lists are useful for anyone trying to design a course or a curriculum, and for anyone else trying to cope with existing courses and curricula. I have several copies, and as a courtesy to yourself and the subject, which remains an important one, I would be willing to act (for a moment) as my own distributor, and send one to you. If you have a US address, write it out, put it in an envelope with a ten dollar bill, and mail it to me at 39 Hillside Road, Northampton MA 01060. If your address is outside the US, make it an international postal money order for fifteen dollars, and mail it to me together with your own preferred mailing address.

    PS: In the interest of completeness, I mention that some of the course material, namely its reading selections (in translation, not with characters), including matter from the Analects and the Shr through the Shr Ji and Six Dynasties tales of the supernatural to poetry from Han through Ywaen (much of it from Tang), complete with a reader's guide, IS slated for publication, and may see the light in a year or two. Details of our present and soon forthcoming publications are on our web site,

    See in particular the Order Page at the bottom.

    Best wishes, Bruce

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

    I believe Rudolf Wagner must have meant 'pre-classical' rather than 'pre-Republican', at least in my understanding of the latter term. No Latin but the infamous Praenestine Fibula is truly pre-Republican; and pre-classical Latin is restricted to a few tomb inscriptions and such (authors such as Cato the Elder have certainly been modernised in copying somewhere along the way).

    Indeed even classical Latin is unfortunately quite restricted in the amount that survives; the vast majority of all the Latin we have is from the late medieval to early modern period, and it's not all too technical or formulaic to be usable as reading. It's not easy to understand why Latin instruction has so uniformly focused on reading the small, closed corpus we have from classical times – but I realise that I'm hijacking this thread. It's just some stuff I've wanted to say for a long time.

    k_over_hbarc at

  29. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 11:22 pm

    Classical Chinese Primer
    A Little Horatian Satire

    By E. Bruce Brooks



    The dominance of modern-Chinese based curricula may be inevitable in the present political climate, but it is objectively strange all the same. In practice, it prevents the classical language from being acquired by anyone who does not have a use for the usual prerequisite: two or three years of the modern language. The comparative philosophers and historians, the students of ancient technology, and those moved by mere intellectual and literary curiosity, are thus excluded at the outset. Is it healthy for the field, to have nobody to talk to in these neighboring disciplines? And what of the future Chinese classicists themselves, whose linguistic antennae are being tuned, by arduous toil, to a point 2,000 years later than the texts of primary interest to them?

    What if the Mediterranean Classicists did as the Sinological Classicists do? An American college freshman with perfect SAT's and a burning desire to investigate the metrics of Horace walks into the Classics program advisor's office and announces her goal. She expects a welcome, and a fast-track Latin class. Instead, she gets the following:



    Here follows a most dispiriting dialogue between an American college freshman and her adviser.

    Highly recommended.

    Click on this link:

  30. Geoff said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 3:26 am

    Do we know what Classical Chinese sounded like, in the same way that we know pretty well what Cicero sounded like? Is that taught?
    Agree that it's silly to suggest Italian should be a prerequisite for Latin, but I would still favour teaching students to speak Latin authentically ( for the classical period, assuming that's the focus). Not least because that's necessary to appreciate the poetry.
    Is the analogy relevant to Classical Chinese?

  31. James said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 7:45 am

    Would that the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae had begun "t"! Work continues on "n" and "r".

    If I remember correctly, in perhaps only one semester (or none?) of the two introductory years of Literary Chinese at Harvard (I took these in 2016–18) were Mandarin-focused students a majority. Student had backgrounds that were specialized variously in Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Sanskrit, and Greek and Latin, though most of these had at least some knowledge of Mandarin too. That was useful for modern commentaries and resources, but not necessary.

  32. James said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 7:47 am

    P. S. A reading knowledge of French was very valuable too, to access the riches of the Grand Ricci, etc.

  33. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 8:00 am

    Is that typical? When I took Latin, the first "real" Latin text we encountered was a line by Horace, and I don't think we ever worked with anything outside the Late Republican – Early Imperial period; apart, of course, for modern texts constructed specifically for teaching purposes.

    In what setting did you learn Latin? I had it from the 6th to the 12th year of school. The method was rather traditional: just grammar, vocabulary and constructed texts in the first two years (the textbook for the second year had something by Cornelius Nepos in the back, but we didn't get around to reading it), then the Gaulish War, then mostly poetry to the end, all of it strictly Classical.

    It's not easy to understand why Latin instruction has so uniformly focused on reading the small, closed corpus we have from classical times –

    Prescriptivism: everything not from classical times is Bad™ and Wrong™ or at best Fake™.

    Do we know what Classical Chinese sounded like, in the same way that we know pretty well what Cicero sounded like?

    The trick here is that "Classical Chinese" covers a much, much greater timespan than the very narrowly defined Classical Latin – and for much of this timespan, evidence is scarce. The first "rhyme books" that codified the pronunciation of the prestige dialect of a particular time are about a thousand years younger than the Analects, for example.

  34. Chris Button said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 9:20 am

    @ Geoff

    If you're looking for an actual resource, I'd recommend Axel Schuessler's "Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa".

    Although it is based on what is in my opinion a misunderstanding of how rhyming actually worked (the line between underlying phonology and surface phonetics is blurred following earlier scholars), it is nonetheless a great piece of work and certainly sufficient for the non-specialist to give an approximation of how things might have sounded.

  35. Moa said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 10:37 am

    I get your point to a certain extent, but as I am from Sweden I'm quite used to any university courses requiring a foreign language, namely English. To study Mandarin Chinese, or Classical Chinese, or Chemistry or Business or whatever, you need the English language. It's of course not necessary to know English to be able to learn anything else, but it is necessary in order to access the textbooks, articles and other materials. This is extra true in higher levels where the students are expected to familiarize themself with current research in the subject.

    Which language(s) is/are necessary to access the textbook and articles and other material on Classical Chinese?

  36. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 10:39 am


    Chris has given you good advice. I would also recommend ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese by the same author (Axel Schuessler), which is even easier to use and provides a lot of valuable etymological information.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 11:28 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    Along with the issues you mentioned in your post, non-native speakers of Mandarin, even with a few years learning experience, are not necessarily prepared to engage in sufficiently nuanced discussions of the meanings of terms in Literary Chinese, which often contain subtle differences with the modern language. They can also learn something about historical phonology by listening to their classmates recite in Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, etc.

  38. Chris Kern said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

    One important consideration is the quality of materials available. Presumably one goal of a LC/CC class is to get the students at least started on the road to reading it on their own. This may limit the way you teach the class — for instance, under normal circumstances classical Japanese cannot be learned without knowing modern Japanese because there simply aren't enough materials available that don't require modern Japanese to use.

    LC is different; there's a huge amount of material available in Japanese, and it's certainly possible to read LC through Japanese with no mandarin knowledge (I have some Mandarin, but not enough to use Chinese editions of LC texts.)

    Now if the purpose of the class is just to give students a basic appreciation of LC that may not matter, but can a student who knows only English become an independent reader of LC with the materials available?

  39. E Bruce Brooks said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

    What is the goal? Those planning to become scholars with a focus on classical China absolutely need modern Chinese (a reading knowledge, not necessary spoken fluency, which is a much more costly proposition) and modern written Japanese, in order to read the scholarship. Even here, it would be better to start with classical/literary Chinese, in order to avoid the false friend problem, but all three are needed (besides the obvious written, not necessarily spoken, French and German).

    But there are other perfectly reasonable reasons for making contact with early Chinese texts in their own language, including mere curiosity, or a gesture at reducing monolingual parochialism (not a problem in Europe). I think the minimal case would be students in an undergraduate acquaintance course, reading Chinese texts in translation, but taking one text in the original, just to see what it feels like. We are looking at a one-day teaching module. For this purpose Tang poems are ideal, since they require less acculturation than older material, and they come in small packages.

    I have been repeatedly challenged on this: it's not possible, etcetera. So I once arranged a demonstration, using as a test group not four students (they learn too fast), and nor four faculty (they know too much), but four administrators, including the president of that institution. In exactly one hour, I taught this unlikely group to read, and write, and say aloud, and understand grammatically, the usual Li Bwo quatrain. The audience cheered them to the echo.

    That any of them became professors of Early Chinese, I have not heard, and do not care. It was not the point. The whole audience learned something, about Chinese and also about teaching. Good enough for an hour of work on my part.


  40. Deven M. Patel said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    A slightly different situation exists for Sanskrit pedagogy. The near absence of oral and aural training often leads to stunted outcomes in the development of a solid Sanskrit education. Many students, after one year, are able to read Sanskrit mechanically and even successfully move from genre to genre. However, when combined with some training to form sentences, hear the language recited, and to memorize and recite prose and verse, students can have more of a "feel" for genres like belles-lettres, drama, and even more prosaic story collections and commentary literature (philosophy or otherwise).

    That being said, the same problem that Victor has laid out to inaugurate this thread holds true for Sanskrit: merely learning to speak it or to associate it with any number of related modern Indian languages creates a lot of frustration and difficulties for beginning students.

    Many also mistakenly feel that because they can identify words and some syntactic or idiomatic structures in Sanskrit through their fluency in other languages, they can claim competence in Sanskrit which, of course, is not true.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

    @Chris Kern

    "can a student who knows only English become an independent reader of LC with the materials available?"


    If they are also able to consult materials in French and perhaps German or Russian, it will be all the more doable. But there are plenty enough reliable materials in English to be able to learn how to read LS/CC without knowing Mandarin.

  42. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 12:43 am

    David Marjanović wrote:
    In what setting did you learn Latin?

    "Learn" may be a somewhat optimistic way of putting it, but I took a course at university. It was one of those courses open to "everyone" – quite a few of the other students were part-time students taking it alongside full-time jobs – but in practice of course required spoken Swedish (the medium of instruction) and written English (the language of the textbook).

    Said Horace line turned up quite early, but constructed texts predominated during the whole course.

  43. Eidolon said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    "What you're saying is fatuous and tautological. You keep repeating about how the class is structured and what is typical. You're not telling us anything we didn't already know. The o.p. recognizes that the vast majority of LS/CC courses require prior knowledge of Mandarin and characters. My four decades of teaching LS/CC at Penn show that neither is necessary."

    The o.p. argues for removing Mandarin as a requirement and as the language of instruction in introductory LS/CC classes, but it doesn't include any details about how LS/CC courses should be changed to fulfill this goal. It could be interpreted to mean that the "vast majority of LS/CC courses" could just ditch their Mandarin requirements as long as they refrain from using it in instruction. But even when taught in English, most LS/CC classes make assumptions about students' familiarity with Chinese characters. I gave several examples of how this comes up, including cases independent of Mandarin instruction.

    It sounds like you were speaking to an audience that is already familiar with the way you teach LS/CC at Penn, and thus my comments are fatuous because they ignore obvious practice. But since this background knowledge isn't available to everyone, and the typical LS/CC class is run very differently, I think it would be helpful to share more details, instead of having us hypothesize about what changes would be needed to teach LS/CC this way.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 8:52 pm


    If you will kindly and carefully read the o.p. and the comments and stop repeating yourself, you will learn how I run the course.

  45. E Bruce Brooks said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 9:11 pm

    Doesn't the original posting deserve a second look? Or maybe a second statement? I am in much sympathy with not requiring Mandarin (or Lain, or French) for those beginning Literary Chinese, but there are students and students. Some of them have in view a future in scholarship, and they will need to know Mandarin (and Japanese, besides the usual European ones), not necessarily at the level of spoken fluency, which is an expensive proposition, but good enough for rapid and competent reading of the relevant secondary literature. Their situation is entirely different from those who merely want a sense of what Chinese literature is like "up close," for whom a very brief dip into original texts might well suffice. And with many stages and purposes in between.

    I would say that Literary Chinese is not a dead language, any more than Church Latin is a dead language: it is the medium of preservation and contact for an important literature, which still has all kinds of relevance and appeal for people today. To speak it is a stunt (there are neologisms in Church Latin for :motorcycle"), which to me merely obscures the zone it which it is "living" in a literary sense.

    Of pedagogical importance, it seems to me, is that it is also not one language. It is many languages. The Chinese of Han-shan is not the same as the Chinese of Du Fu, not only in style and expression, but in the very different worlds of thought and aspiration that lie behind them; their different audiences and purposes.

    As one reads along in Literary Chinese, following (as I have suggested) a frequency-aware order of character acquisition (always the limiting factor), one sooner or later comes to a point where the words it is most efficient to learn depend on what one intends to read next; general vocabulary frequency no longer serves as a sole guideline. In my experience with college and graduate students, there can be a two-year curriculum designed around the character frequency tables, but in the third year and beyond, most depends on the specific material, and very little on the language in general. The text of choice becomes the textbook of necessity.

    This is what they call "articulation," and since all this happens in an institutional context, those considerations have their place too. No?

  46. Eidolon said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

    @E Bruce Brooks

    If what you're suggesting is that there should be separate tracks for students with scholarly ambitions, and students from the general audience, I like it. I think it's important that students know what they're getting in, as well as what they're getting out. But if recitation – and more importantly, evaluation of that recitation – is a pedagogical goal, a choice of pronunciation cannot be avoided. In retrospect, would you still recommend "slightly antiqued Mandarin"? Or would you recommend period-accurate reconstructions of Sinitic, or even modern Mandarin? How would this change between professional and general tracks?

  47. E Bruce Brooks said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 2:46 am

    There are no accurate period reconstructions, and if there were, one would need a dozen of them, an almost self-defeating proposition.

    For nearly everyone, there will have to be some contact with Mandarin, hence the utility of "slightly antiqued" Mandarin. It has, so to speak, utility both backwards and sideways. Some pronunciation medium is necessary (one cannot do it solely by eye, though the present world has almost lost its oral capacity), and I have not found a realistic substitute. The minimum is to make the "entering tone" physically real to the learners.

    There are as many tracks as there are people. When some of the tracks more or less coincide for a certain distance, you have a curriculum.

    How did the people in the old says, who moved with assurance and ownership among these texts, do it? By intensive memorization, beginning in early childhood. Each modern Chinese scholar I know of thus commands their portion of the literature in their own native dialect – Anhwei or Shandung or whatever. The local languages of childhood.

    The problem with all language learning is that it rots the critical faculty: the language is always right, and you are always wrong. There thus needs to be something in parallel where the students use their minds for something other than imprinting. One way is collateral reading about the period, and discussion. A requisite too seldom provided is a physical place where students can get together with each other and talk about what they learn, swap their own poems, or whatever. The classic Oxford tutorial had something of that character – much to everyone's benefit. Of course with nonresident faculty, that sort of thing rarely happens. Another way the present world has lost it.

  48. AJJ said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 4:41 am

    Who's to say it cannot be done solely by eye? Sure, it's quite nice to have a meaningless string of letters to transcribe a name, but you could just as well translate the literal meaning of the name.

    Why, you could even read them with English pronunciations if you were radical enough. It's an idea fairly close to, albeit less refined than, Kanbun.

    學Learn 而and 時timely 習study 之it。不Not 亦also [a] 説pleasure 乎is it?

  49. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 7:12 am



    My friend, Apollo Wu*, long ago told me about people using English to input Chinese, but I never saw this method in action with my own eyes until a 2014 encounter in a Hong Kong Starbucks chronicled in this post:

    "Language notes from Macao and Hong Kong" (6/22/14)

    My next experience with Chinese in computers in Hong Kong was when I observed a woman at a Starbucks that I frequented writing characters on the glass of her cell phone. I noticed that she was flailing away at the screen in a way similar to what I have earlier described** (though not quite so demonstratively), and that after each frantic flailing at the screen, she would pause to pick — from a list of characters that the program suggested she was trying to write — the one that she really wanted. This was something that I witnessed several times in Hong Kong during this visit. The people who seemed to be fairly good at this method of entering characters attacked the glass with less vehemence and tended to spend less time pausing between characters entered.

    After watching the woman for several minutes, I asked her if she sometimes used other methods for writing on her cell phone. She said, "Oh, yes. There are this handwriting method, Cangjie (character components), bopomofo (Mandarin phonetic symbols), Hanyu Pinyin (official PRC Romanization), and several others, and I use them all depending upon circumstances." When I asked her which method she preferred above all others, her response floored me, "English," she said, without the slightest hesitation.

    "What?" I asked incredulously, since she was clearly a local Hong Konger who had been speaking fluent Cantonese on her phone and writing in Cantonese with her handwriting and other methods. "You prefer to use English over all those Chinese methods?"

    "Yes," she said matter-of-factly.

    "Why?" I asked.

    "Simple," she replied. "It's faster and easier; takes less effort."

    This from a woman whose mother tongue is Cantonese and who received her elementary through college education in writing through Zhongwen (i.e., written Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]).

    For a discussion of "Zhongwen", see this post*** and the comments thereto.

    That exchange in Starbucks, breathtaking though it was, substantiated much that I have suspected (especially concerning the inroads of English in electronic information processing in Chinese environments) during the last three decades and more.

    *A note on Apollo's name in Mandarin and Cantonese from his daughter, Linda:

    "His Chinese name is 吴文超 … I think it used to be Man-chiu but I’m pretty sure the last decades, he has used Wenchao. However, in Cantonese, his name is pronounced ‘Ng Mun Chiu’"




    Chad Hansen, professor of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, used ruby English annotations for Chinese terms in many of his works. I've seen others do this in their publications and more casual writing as well.

  50. Chris Button said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 11:10 am

    @ E Bruce Brooks

    There are no accurate period reconstructions, and if there were, one would need a dozen of them, an almost self-defeating proposition.

    Surely Schuessler's "Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese" mentioned above is adequate for most purposes in that regard? I mean language doesn't change that fast and it doesn't take much linguistic nous to figure out what might have been going on during the transitionary period. Granted it's not without the usual issues (not least the major one I mentioned above) and I should probably add that once we reach Middle Chinese I would far sooner turn to Pulleyblank's "Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation".

  51. melboiko said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 1:25 am

    I've observed several Japanese speakers use English loans to disambiguate Sinitic morphemes, e.g. "sen [戦] as in batoru [battle]", rather than native Japanese (ikusa) as I'd expect. Made me feel less guilty about mentally glossing characters in English.

    In some cases English readings for characters appear to be slowly becoming entrenched, as in 超=sūpā (super) or 頁=pējī (page).

  52. Bathrobe said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 7:20 am

    An old one is シビアー shibiaa for 厳しい kibishii. The problem is that 'severe' and kibishii don't have a good overlap. If you say that a deadline is shibiaa ('severe') in Japanese, it makes no sense when transferred back into English. Kibishii works fine, but in this case the English equivalent would be 'tough' or 'tight', not 'severe'.

  53. Rick said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:54 pm


    This looks very much like how I learned to read CC at St. John's. It feels really weird, because it sometimes seems more like you're "decoding" than reading, but as I said above, this lets you skip a lot of effort (character drills, pronunciation) to get quickly to the *meaning* of the text. Really, we learned the minimum you *must* know to be able to do this, but that does indicate that students are often required to learn a great deal that isn't absolutely necessary to be able to access a text. It makes the barrier to entry much lower.

  54. Rick said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

    And since this was just in the paper this week, I'm going to pump St. John's one more time while I'm here:

  55. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    Thanks, Rick.

    I gave a series of lectures at St. John's about ten years ago. It's an amazing place with wonderful students and outstanding teachers. I was happy to come face to face with the St. John's way of teaching the classics, which was very intensive and profound.

  56. A-gu said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 7:32 pm

    Interesting distinction here, my teacher always split written Chinese into three frames: 文言文 (LS/CC), 白話文 (colloquial writing) and third was 書面語 (which she though of as residing in the middle, sort of like the preference of newspapers in 1980s and 1990s Taiwan, with more or less LC/CC sentence structure but with otherwise colloquial vocabulary choice.

  57. Bathrobe said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

    I think I noticed at one stage that Beijing newspapers (especially popular ones) seem closer to the vernacular than southern ones (e.g., Shanghai). I put it down to putonghua being the native language in Beijing whereas it is an imposed variety in the south.

  58. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    "argle-bargle" — In British English, "argie-bargie". I had to look at the text several times before I was sure that this was not what was written.

  59. Y said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 11:53 pm

    Are there any parts of the core CC canon which rely on some knowledge of the pronunciation? Say, works rich in puns, or some poetic devices?

  60. David Marjanović said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 3:35 am

    I recommend this comment on Languagehat. Also, that thread will probably remain open forever, so the discussion can continue there when the thread here will be closed.

    Say, works rich in puns, or some poetic devices?

    Rhyme in poetry. That's in fact one of the most important sources that are used to reconstruct Old Chinese pronunciation.

  61. January First-of-May said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 6:48 am

    Here follows a most dispiriting dialogue between an American college freshman and her adviser.

    Perhaps my favorite scene| Oh no, not at all; in Latin, of course. Pronounced in the best French national style…

    I can totally imagine that: Jaille est onge divise en parts trois, quer une incueulent Belge, aille Aquitain… (Yes, I know that's not Horace, but it works as an example; quote sourced from commenter @minus273 on LH.)

    And yes, pronouncing Classical Chinese as if it was modern Mandarin is, if anything, probably farther from reality. (Admittedly, the reality seems to be Caucasian-style horrible consonant clusters…)

    (Unrelated complaint: when, and more importantly why, did Language Log stop showing comment previews? A lack of editing plus a lack of comment preview = very easy to get a misformatted comment, even ignoring the whole "typo" thing.)

  62. Eidolon said,

    September 18, 2018 @ 10:05 pm


    Beijing Mandarin, the native dialect of Beijing, isn't the same as Standard Mandarin, aka Putonghua. The latter incorporates more syntax and vocabulary from Literary Chinese, while also decreasing the use of Beijing specific colloquial expressions. If Beijing newspapers are incorporating Beijing Mandarin into their writing, that could explain the vernacular "feel" compared to newspapers written solely in Standard Mandarin, which is significantly more literary and formal.

  63. David Marjanović said,

    September 19, 2018 @ 5:06 am

    There's already a particularly informative comment in the Languagehat thread here.

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