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What is the copula or "to be" in Classical Chinese 古文?

Xi'Er Dun

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Xi'Er Dun


If the copula or "to be" in Modern Mandarin 普通话 is shi4 是, what is its equivalent in Classical Chinese 古文? Some dictionaries of han4zi4 汉字 (漢字) Chinese Characters with their archaic forms and meanings say it is er2 而 In Japanese, this character is believed to have the English meaning of a "rake" or even a "beard". In Modern Mandarin, I believe it has a meaning of among the lines or "but" or "yet", as in er2shi4 而是.

A comparison of the Copula "to be" can be made with the Japanese language. The Copula of Modern Japanese is "desu" です in polite form and "da" だ in plain form ........

If Modern Mandarin 普通话 has shi4 是 as its Copula, which this character I believe once meant "yes" or "positive" with as it is read with it's On 音読みreading in Japanese as "ze" ゼ , it's similar meaning today too as well as the copula in Modern Mandarin 普通话. So.... What is the Copula "to be"in Classical Chinese 古文?

Cheers from 澳洲 Australia from Xi'Er Dun 希尔顿 :roll: :roll:

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Mark Yong

This is a question that I actually posted on this Forum (and another one) some time back, but unfortunately I did not get any replies.

My best three answers to this are:

1. 乃 - The Classical Chinese equivalent of 這是 is 此乃.

2. 然 - Somewhere in Mencius 孟子, he uses that single character 然 to mean '是的' ('yes, this is so').

3. 諾 - This is not exactly 'yes' per se, but rather is a mark that the listener acknowledges what the speaker has just said.

Ironically, it is much easier for me to list out the 'negatives' in Classical Chinese, i.e. 不, 無, 非, 莫, 勿, 弗, 免, 未. Guess we're all a pessimistic lot! :lol:

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Classical Chinese mostly omits the verb "to be."

It commonly uses what's called the 判断句 (declarative sentence) to make a statement about something. You would say, for example "Xier Dun,好学生也" instead of "Xier Dun是个好学生“. 好学生, of course, is modern Chinese, but you get the idea.

‘为’ is sometimes used to mean "to be", but it also means "to do", "to become."

See these two opening sentences from 史记 about the poet 屈原 for an example.



书名:史记 作者:司马迁


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Classical Chinese mostly omits the verb "to be."

Yes, that's right. The most standard sentence pattern which express 'to be' is the so-called '判断句'.

The complete form should be

'夫......者, .....也'


classical Chinese:夫A者, B也。

modern Chinese: A是B。

English: A is B.

Usually, '夫' is omitted. And sometimes '者' can be omitted also, but that's rare.But '也' as the mark of 'to be' can't be omitted. I remember so.

Other marks, or rather verbs, to express 'to be' include "乃" which Mark Yong had mentioned. Besides, “为”,“即”and“唯(惟)”also express 'to be'. But except “为”,“即” and “乃, whether '唯' is definitely corresponded to 'to be' in English is still in argument. And as gato mentioned, '为' also means "to do", "to become". So do "即", "乃"and "唯", which have other meanings.


扶桑国贡品者也。This is tributes from Fusang (the name to designate ancient Japan).

温故而知新,可以师矣。 ——《论语.为政》 If a man keeps cherishing his old knowledge, so as continually to be acquiring new, he may be a teacher of others.

吕公女吕后也。 ——《汉书.高帝纪上》 The daughter of the old Lv was The Queen Lv.

周虽旧邦,其命新。 ——《大学》 Although Zhou was an ancient state the ordinance which lighted on it was new.

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Among the characters that have been mentioned, 為 seems to be particularly common as a copula when there is a modal auxiliary that requires a verb, as in 可以為 "can be". In these cases, a verb is needed, and so the 也 construction is not appropriate. This is confirmed by Pulleyblank's "Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar" (p. 20):

Wéi 為 is used instead of the verbless construction if the aspect particle 矣 or certain verbal auxiliaries are required.

Againstwind's sentence [...] 可以为师矣 is a good example. Here 為 can be translated as "become", but I think this is because of the 矣 particle at the end (= modern 了) rather than 為 itself.

I think a simple and effective rule of thumb for writing classical Chinese would be to use the 也 construction for straightforward sentences in the present, and 為 in those cases where some modal auxiliary or particle appears. This is not very different from languages like Arabic or Russian, where no copula is needed for simple declarative sentences in the present ("A is B"), but a verb "to be" crops up in more complex cases ("A was B", "A should be B", and so on).

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If Modern Mandarin 普通话 has shi4 是 as its Copula, which this character I believe once meant "yes" or "positive" [...]

是 is usually a demonstrative pronoun ("this", "that") in Classical Chinese, as in this example from the Mencius: 是亦走也 "this was also running away", cited by Pulleyblank (p. 17).

This meaning is still to be found in fossilised form in some modern expressions like 於是 ("consequently", literally: "upon this"). A likely explanation of how a demonstrative became a copula is given by Pulleyblank, who suggests its use in the second part of declarative sentences to refer back to the subject may have brought about this change. This would be similar to the dialectal English grammar in non-standard sentences like "my friend he's good" or "the men they came". Such a repetition of a subject for emphasis may have eventually led to 是 being interpreted as a copula rather than an anaphoric demonstrative.

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  • 2 years later...

This is an old thread, but I thought I would add what Pulleyblank has to say about this, he devotes an entire chapter, "III. Noun Predication", pp.16-22, to it.

1. Verbless Noun predication

Normally, there is no copula, the rule being that in such cases the sentence ends in the final particle 也 yě.

非我也, 兵也. It was not I, it was the weapon (Mencius)

A. In questions, the final particles used are different in each text:

  • early texts such as Zuozhuan add 乎 hū to 也 yě, giving 也乎
  • in Lunyu/Mencius and other Lu texts, 也乎 becomes fused to 與/歟, both yú.
  • sometimes Lunyu also has 也與 yě yú
  • other Warring States texts from a later period 也乎 is fused to 邪 yé.

Another final particle, 夫 fū, may be a fusion of 不乎 bù hū and is equivalent to modern 吧 ba

其正色邪. Is this its true colour? (Zhuangzi)

然而至此極者, 命也夫. That nonetheless I have reached this extremity, is fate, is it not? (Zhuangzi)

B. Pronouns and particles

The subject of a noun predicate is often resumed by a demonstrative pronoun, such as 是 shì, 此 cǐ, 斯 sī.

是亦走也. This is also running away. (Mencius)

The frequent use of 是 in such a position led to its reanalysis as a copula, a process that already occurred in the colloquial language of the Han era.

For plural subjects, 皆 jiē is often used to resume them.

皆古聖人也. They were all sages of old (Mencius)

The particles 乃 nǎi and 即 jí add emphasis to a noun predication (in the sense of "then, thereupon), but are not copulas:

是乃仁術也. This indeed is the technique of (=used by) rén. (Mencius)

即 jí is comparatively uncommon in texts of the classical period:

即不忍其觳觫, 若無罪而就死地, 故以羊易之也. It was indeed that I could not bear its trembling, like an innocent person going to the place of execution, and so changed it for a sheep.

Other particles that can co-occur with this kind of verbless noun predication include:

必 bì "necessarily", 誠 chéng "truly, really", 固 gù "definitely, certainly", 殆 dài "almost, probably", 亦 yì "also", 又 yòu "again, also".

固所願也. It is certainly what I want. (Mencius)

C. verbless comparisons with 猶 yóu

This particle means "still, yet" with verbal predicates and means "like" with verbless nominal ones:

今之樂猶古之樂也. The music of today is like the music of old (Mencius)

D. Omission of 也

Sentences of this kind are rare and according to Pulleyblank the circumstances under which they do occur are still unclear.

萬乘之國, 弒其君者, 必千乘之家. The one who murders the ruler of a country of ten thousand chariots will certainly be (the head of) a family of a thousand chariots (Mencius)

E. the aspect particle 已 yǐ after verbless noun predicates

The perfect aspect particle, 矣 yǐ is restricted to verbal predicates, it never occurs after 也 yě. However 已 yǐ does occur, sometimes in the form of 也已 yě yǐ 也已矣 yě yǐ yǐ.

是亂國已. One can tell that this is a disordered country. (Xunzi)

Like final 了 in Mandarin, here it does not indicate a change in state, but more a change in knowledge about it.

2. Copula verb 為 wéi

為 primarily means "make, do", so just like Mandarin 作 it indicates a temporary role:

孟子為卿於齊. Mencius was a minister of state in Qi. (Mencius)

A formal difference between 為 as a verb and as a copula is that an interrogative pronoun must precede the verb as an object, while as a copula, the interrogative pronoun follows it as its copula complement.

子為誰? Who are you? (Lunyu)

為 is used when 矣 or other verbal particles that require a verbal predicate are used:

人皆可以為堯舜. Men can all be a Yao or Shun. (Mencius)

Pulleyblank remarks that much more study is required to determine the exact usage difference between 為 predicates and 也 constructions.

3. 曰 copula

曰 yuē, which means "say", can be used as a copula, in the sense of "be called".

老而無妻曰鰥. To be old and without a wife is called 'guan' ". (Mencius)

4. The preclassical copula wéi

In preclassical language, wéi (written 唯 隹, 惟, 維) was used as a copula, as the 也 construction did not occur. According to Pulleyblank this word is totally unrelated to 為 wéi, but speculates about a relation to 也. In the classical language, it survives only with the specialised meaning "only", while it retains vestiges of its preclassical syntax, i.e. occurring without final 也:

所臨唯信. What they (the spirits) attend is only good faith. (Zuozhuan)

In Mencius, however, it is common to have 也 as well.

非 fēi, the negator of nouns, is probably a fusion of 不唯 bù wéi. Other related words include 唯 wěi "yes" and 雖 suī "although"

Edited by chrix
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Wow, good summary there, chrix. One question: what exactly is Pulleyblank's definition of classical again? I don't have a copy handy. 左傳 is almost preclassical to me, but reading this:

In preclassical language, wéi (written 唯 隹, 惟, 維) was used as a copula, as the 也 construction did not occur

made me uncertain, since there's a lot of examples from the 左傳 that contain this construction, e.g. 制, 巖邑也 and 國之害也.

Edited by Daan
never trust your IME
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"To be" in Ancient Chinese: There's NOT 1 specific word for it in Ancient Chinese, but several depending on the context in which it is to be used, mostly, either 乃 or 然 most of the time. But other characters could still be used depending on the situation.

非我也, 兵也. It was not I, it was the weapon (Mencius)

Wrong. 兵 DOES NOT mean "weapon", in Ancient Chinese or Modern Chinese. 兵 = soldier. In Ancient Chinese, 我 only has one meaning: ME, not I. In Ancient Chinese 吾 = "I" or "my". 非我也, 兵也 = It wasn't me. It was the soldier. 戈, halberd & 槍, spear are the weapons used mostly in Ancient China, but those aren't just the ones. Each of those are efficient to express "weapon" in Ancient Chinese, but NOT 兵!

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On what do you base your claims? What you're saying goes against the entire body of scholarly works available on Classical Chinese...

1. In Classical Chinese, 兵 can mean both "weapon" and "soldier". In the above quote, it does mean "weapon", not "soldier". If you check your Mencius, you'll see that the quote is form this part:


He's talking about someone being stabbed by a knife, and saying that the one who killed him was not me, but the weapon. There's no third person in this context, so in this paragraph it CANNOT mean "soldier".

2. "I" and "me": it's not useful using English grammar to discuss the grammar of a completely different language such as Classical Chinese. Questions of English stylistics aside, there are some differences in usage between 吾 and 我, but it can by no means be likened to "me" and "I" in English. E.g. read Puleyblank p.76-7 for more details...

Edited by chrix
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I agree with chrix on the 兵. For further support, please see the relevant entry from 王力's 古代漢語常用字字典, with quotations omitted:

兵 bīng 1: 武器,兵器. 2: 軍事,戰爭. 3. 軍隊, (又) 兵士.

With regards to your assertion that 我 can only be used as an object in Classical Chinese (which is what I think you meant), I would just like to point out that this rule is by no means absolute. It depends a lot on the dialect in which the text was written. Have a look at this passage, for example:


Now, you cannot possibly argue that 我 functions as an object here, can you? Yet this is from the 論語, and I think we all agree that's a pretty standard text :)

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You're probably right. What makes matters more complicated here, is that this is not a "normal" transitive clause, but a verbless nominal clause.

But even if it were a "normal" transitive clause, I haven't been able to find such a rule in any of my sources, I'm quite curious to know where this is coming from? Was this some kind of rule in post-classical Literary Chinese?

Anyway, each of the three persons has an interesting variation in "true" personal pronouns, this really warrants its own post :mrgreen:

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