Classical Chinese

Mencius (As Envisioned by One Later Artist)

Classical Chinese is a language, though no longer a spoken language. Like any other language, past and present, it has a grammar: a way of organizing words into statements. As in many languages, the basic sentence building blocks are things recognizable as nouns and verbs. The order of elements in the usual sentence is Subject-Verb-Object, or SVO. All this is so much like English that some English-speaking persons have been lured into the notion that Chinese has no grammar at all. This is not correct. It is apparently true that the first lectures on classical Chinese grammar, as such, were delivered by George Kennedy during a Fulbright year in Peking. But that just means that traditional Chinese scholarship has been slow to operate with categories of understanding which arose earlier in the European tradition. It doesn't tell us anything about the classical Chinese language.

The Written Character For An1 "Peace"

A great bar to the understanding of classical Chinese is the Chinese character writing system. For example, the usual student mnemonic for an1 "peace" is that the character for that word is written with an element usually signifying "roof" on top, and an element usually signifying "woman" on the bottom. "A woman under a roof [your basic domestic scene] equals peace," or so it is helpful to say when first learning how to write the character. That happens not to be etymologically correct, but it is an undeniably handy memnonic for the beginning student. The large point is that for understanding the Chinese language, the characters are simply a distraction. If Chinese were an unwritten language, the picturesque details of the writing system would not exist, but the way the language makes words into sentences would still be there. Make up any mnemonics you like, just don't start believing them. And don't believe anybody else's, either. We recommend this precaution for practical life: Whenever you encounter an argument about China which has no basis other than a statement about a Chinese character, that argument is entirely unsupported.

So much for that, and now here are some possibly useful guides and mnemonics:


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6 Jan 2014 / Contact The Project / Exit to Project Home Page