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Learning Classical Chinese with no prior experience


cook ding

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cook ding

Hello everyone, I have a question which I hope is not too naive and presumptuous. I have been learning about Chinese philosophy as part of my Phd degree in philosophy, and I am at the point where if I want to continue studying Chinese philosophy, then I can no longer just read texts in translation. The issue is that I haven't yet taken any courses in Chinese language, my prior language study having been focused elsewhere. Reading about Chinese philosophy has familiarized me with some relevant characters, to the point that I can at least recognize them. I've also looked (albeit briefly, since I've been studying other languages) at the first few lessons in Rouzer's Primer of Literary Chinese; using online dictionaries and some of the grammar explanations of that book, I can crudely translate and figure out some basic sentences in texts (a la Searle's Chinese Room). I understand that this is nowhere close to actually understanding the language, and so I want to ask all of you whether it is feasible to try learning Classical Chinese with no prior background in Chinese language in general. Or, just how much background in Mandarin is necessary for learning Classical? I realize that most colleges require three or four years of Mandarin before starting Classical, but at this point, I am not all that interested in learning Mandarin for its own sake, except insofar as it helps to read Classical texts. I know that this is far from ideal, and maybe totally wrongheaded. I am not at all opposed to learning Mandarin, but my concern is that I would like to start learning Classical sooner rather than later. I won't be able to take any introductory Mandarin courses this spring, so I would like to dedicate this summer to learning enough Chinese so that I can jump in with the Introduction to Classical course next fall (I would just take it pass/fail if I can). I know there is another thread dedicated to summer programs in Chinese, but I was wondering whether there are any specific summer programs (in the US) that are best suited for students with no previous Chinese experience, and whether there is any kind of program that is geared towards an introduction to Classical. Its hard for me to teach myself with the Rouzer book when I have other commitments and I don't have a tutor. Does anyone have any other suggestions for what I can be doing to learn Classical in the meantime? Would any Chinese tutor find it presumptuous that I would want to jump straight to Classical? What are some of the issues in learning Classical without knowing Mandarin, anyway? I thank all of you for your thoughts and help.

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Pretty difficult, I would say, but don't let that stop you from trying. It would be a lot like learning Latin For someone who did not know any European languages.

I think of modern Chinese as a subset of classical Chinese, though that's not strictly true. In terms of characters, you would need to know almost of all the characters you need for modern Chinese plus characters that are solely used on classical Chinese. In term of vocabulary (i.e. words), while there is a good amount of overlap in vocabulary between the two, the vocabulary that is unique to each is much larger. Classical Chinese grammar shares some traits with modern Chinese, but there is a lot more "overloading" (to use a programming terminology) -- the same word has multiple grammar usages -- which makes reading more difficult.

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anonymoose

Theoretically I don't see why you couldn't, but the question is, do you have enough teaching resources in English to learn it? The advantage of knowing Mandarin would be that you could also use Chinese resources for learning classical Chinese.

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My home university's Department of Chinese Studies requires students majoring in Chinese Studies to take classical Chinese from their second semester onwards, so it would be fair to say I learnt most of the basics of classical Chinese without having much of a grasp of Mandarin. I would say therefore it is certainly possible to start learning classical Chinese without knowing Mandarin, but with an important caveat: the higher your level gets, the more you'd eventually get out of knowing Mandarin as well.

Let me just briefly sketch how I learnt classical Chinese. In my first semester of classical Chinese, we had a Dutch-language textbook that introduced grammatical structures and key vocabulary. There were four hours a week of classroom instruction, and after three months, we were gradually expected to be able to translate easy texts picked and annotated by the instructor. Then, in my second semester, we were told to figure it out with a dictionary and the annotations provided in the course material. The dictionary we used was the Far East Dictionary, which contains English translations of a great many classical Chinese words, but the problem is it does not distinguish between modern and classical meanings. This proved so frustrating for me I ended up switching to the 古代漢語常用字字典, the Dictionary of Frequently Used Classical Chinese Characters, which contains translations into Mandarin, which I then looked up in a Mandarin - English dictionary.

This is where you might start to feel you would benefit from being able to read Mandarin, since there are as yet no Classical Chinese - English dictionaries. However, if you read French, you could perhaps rely on the Dictionnaire classique de la langue chinoise by F.S. Couvreur SJ. I haven't used this work much myself, but it certainly enjoys a pretty good reputation.

Now, after my third semester of Classical Chinese, I find most English-language textbooks are just a bit too easy for me, and I'm beginning to use textbooks and dictionaries designed for native speakers of Mandarin. So the bottom line is, I suppose, that there is a wealth of English-language material available for beginning students, but the more advanced your level gets, the more necessary being able to read Mandarin becomes. There's quite a bit to learn before you reach that level though, with such textbooks available as:

- An Introduction to Literary Chinese (Fuller)

- A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese (Rouzer)

- Classical Chinese Primer (Wang et al)

- Classical Chinese - A Reader in Three Volumes (Yuan Naiying et al)

A very useful reference grammar is Pulleyblank's Outline of Classical Chinese, which is a true gem.

Its hard for me to teach myself with the Rouzer book when I have other commitments and I don't have a tutor. Does anyone have any other suggestions for what I can be doing to learn Classical in the meantime? Would any Chinese tutor find it presumptuous that I would want to jump straight to Classical?

Since you have no background in Chinese, you would need to acquire at least a basic level of knowledge on the language, and especially its writing system. I'm not sure what you already know, but you would have to cover characters, components, radicals, how to look up characters in dictionaries, and pinyin (the romanisation system used for Mandarin Chinese). I'm not sure what would be a good book for this. Perhaps someone else would have an idea? I was thinking about Jerry Norman's Chinese, but that might be a bit too detailed.

Then, specifically as to classical Chinese, I would suggest working through Rouzer's book with the following things in mind:

- pay close attention to the grammatical structures (no guessing as to what sentences mean, but actually parsing them)

- learn (most of) the vocabulary by heart, since it's mostly basic stuff that you're going to see everywhere

- force yourself to translate all excerpts into English, as this will help you see problems in your understanding of the text

- make careful notes of the parts you don't understand (and I dare say that if there aren't any, you haven't understood it properly) and ask someone else for help

Now, as to this someone else, I'm not sure whether normal tutors in the US would be qualified to answer questions about Classical Chinese, although I suppose most educated speakers should be able to cover at least the basics. But you could always try to find one, and if you can't, there's always this forum where we're happy to help with all the questions you might have :)

Hope this helps...and that the level of detail didn't overwhelm you :wink:

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OneEye

Rouzer's book assumes some level of familiarity with the characters (usually through familiarity with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese), but doesn't specifically require any knowledge of Mandarin. I read a syllabus of his (can't seem to find it now), and he requires only one year of university-level C/J/K/V before taking his Classical Chinese class, which isn't much. I'd think if you were to learn maybe a few hundred characters and pinyin, you'd be able to use Rouzer just fine.

I've started a study thread here for the book, if you want to join.

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Daan already gave a great deal of explanation, so let me just add very short comments:

I think it is quite similar to learning Latin. Some people just look at the Latin words and then more or less guess the meaning of the text. But in order to understand a text accurately, this is not enough, you have to understand Latin vocabulary and grammar. Of course knowing Romance languages helps a great deal, but it is not everything.

So I'd say it's the same the Classical Chinese. So Pulleyblank is good, and you'd need a good dictionary. And this is very the trouble starts, I actually don't know if there are any good dictionaries from Classical Chinese to English. I think Daan once mentioned a French dictionary. You could also try the bigger dictionaries, but you need to make sure they make clear what is Classical and what is Modern usage (and what is inbetween), because a lot of the characters have undergone considerable semantic change.

Also, you need to start learning characters, but you wouldn't need to bother with Modern Chinese textbooks, because a lot of the highly frequent characters do not appear in Classical texts. I would go through textbooks and the examples in Pulleyblank and extract all the characters used there and learn those. Also, in Wang Li's four volume textbook, he lists 1086 frequent words, and presumably this is ordered by frequency. However, since his textbook is written in Mandarin, you might need assistance in extracting those words, but I think starting with the first hundred words from his list might be a good start.

Actually, Daan, this might be a great subproject for our Classical Chinese forum, create some kind of basic dictionary based on his word list, that would be something, wouldn't it :mrgreen:

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Actually, Daan, this might be a great subproject for our Classical Chinese forum, create some kind of basic dictionary based on his word list, that would be something, wouldn't it

I think most introductory textbooks would also cover those, so I'm not sure if this would be of added value to many learners, but we could try adopting something similar to Wang Li's approach in giving a lot of examples for words that have different meanings. Perhaps we could tie this together with the idea that I've been toying with of posting some easier texts for those who would like to read a bit of classical Chinese for fun. Ask me again in two weeks' time, though :wink:

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I think, with a bit of digging, one should be able to find Wang Li's list online somewhere, maybe even in a "flashcardable" format :mrgreen: I'm not sure if many textbooks cover basic vocabulary that well (at least not 1086 word well), but concentrating on his "辯" sections might be a good idea, combined of course with your beginners' lessons...

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OneEye
I think, with a bit of digging, one should be able to find Wang Li's list online somewhere, maybe even in a "flashcardable" format I'm not sure if many textbooks cover basic vocabulary that well (at least not 1086 word well), but concentrating on his "辯" sections might be a good idea, combined of course with your beginners' lessons...

Rouzer covers 1374 characters, and a good number of multi-character words. He only numbers the character listings, with the multi-character words being listed under the number corresponding to the first 字 in the word (so 鵷 is 1365, 鶵 is 1366, and 鵷鶵 is 1365a), but I'd guess there are around 1500 entries or a little more. This may be easier for the OP since the explanations would be in English.

For a quick and dirty flashcard deck, you could enter the characters into this online dictionary. It only handles single characters, but it spits them out in tab-separated format with readings, composition, variants, and references for several dictionaries. You can click on any given character for much more in-depth information, but if you just copy-paste the whole list into a spreadsheet and save it as a CSV, you should be able to import it into any flashcard program.

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Yes, but I suppose a great deal of those 1374 are also quite rarely used ones, aren't they? What Wang Li does is not giving all the characters from the lessons, which would be infeasible since he only uses real texts, but he gives a list of explicitly chosen "most basic" words. I think the OP would stand to benefit more from this.

Edited by chrix
1374, not 1386
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OneEye

Ah, yes. You're right about that. Rouzer does list the characters according to frequency but it looks like especially toward the end the characters get less and less "frequent."

That 王力 list would be good to have! :mrgreen:

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Well, but if Rouzer does list the words by frequency, that's also a great place to start for the OP, at least with the first couple of hundred words.

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geminni88

Hello:

There have been a number of famous scholars who did not know modern Mandarin well (no I do not have citations); however, they are probably all dead now. I believe that most Universities require you to take modern Mandarin and move on to Classical. However with that being said, I would not be discouraged. In reality, the Chinese language has gone through numerous transformations in the past 3000 years, and is, in pronunciation and to some extent in regards to Grammar, as unalike as modern English is to Old Saxon. However, you have a problem. You cannot learn words without speaking them (in Classical Chinese most characters are words where in modern Chinese most characters are morphemes – usually two characters make a word). That is just the way the mind works. There are a lot of tools on the web to learn Chinese pronunciation. If you have a Chinese friend they can help a lot or take a one semester class. You basically have to learn 412 non-tone syllables and four tones for them (not every syllable uses all four tones so you only have about 1200 plus morphemes to master). Then you need to find a text book and a teacher to help you learn Mandarine. I used “A First course in Literary Chinese” by Harold Schadick. However, there are a number of more modern text books that you can look into. Learning pronunciation for the characters and the grammar of Classical Chinese is actually the easy part. The hard part is working your way through the large amounts of texts to truly understand Chinese Philosophy and how these forerunners thought.

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anonymoose

You cannot learn words without speaking them (in Classical Chinese most characters are words where in modern Chinese most characters are morphemes – usually two characters make a word). That is just the way the mind works.

I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I learnt to read and write (basic) Chinese before I knew how to pronounce the characters.

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There have been a number of famous scholars who did not know modern Mandarin well (no I do not have citations); however, they are probably all dead now.

They still exist - most of them are Japanese or Korean, and they can read and understand the Chinese classics better than most Chinese can, because that is what they concentrate on learning.

I believe that most Universities require you to take modern Mandarin and move on to Classical.

An unfortunate trend, since Classical Chinese is the common heritage of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as well as China.

However, you have a problem. You cannot learn words without speaking them (in Classical Chinese most characters are words where in modern Chinese most characters are morphemes – usually two characters make a word). That is just the way the mind works. There are a lot of tools on the web to learn Chinese pronunciation. If you have a Chinese friend they can help a lot or take a one semester class. You basically have to learn 412 non-tone syllables and four tones for them (not every syllable uses all four tones so you only have about 1200 plus morphemes to master).

If you only want to read then you don't have to bother with tones or perfect pronunciation. Classical Chinese was written and read by Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese who spoke no Mandarin or any other Chinese language for centuries, and the present-day standard pronunciation of characters was fixed less than a century ago. Modern Mandarin pronunciation is useful for looking words up in a dictionary, and I do agree that it is important to attach a sound to characters for mnomonic purposes, but if you are learning the classical language, mastering the written character and knowing how to use the K'ang-hsi (Kangxi) radical system to look up characters in a dictionary is far more important.

Also check out the free textbooks of Chinese online, like "Progressive Exercises in the Chinese Written Language". They are old, but deisnged for people who wanted to go straight to the heart of what the ancient Chinese (or Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese!) were writing without having to bother to learn how to ask for cups of coffee in modern Mandarin. Of course, learning to ask for cups of coffee is important too, but not if you just want to read the Classics,

For reading, Herbert Gile's translation and commentary on the Three Character Classic - San Tzu Ching (Sanzijing) 三字經 - is excellent this was the first text that all Chinese children memorised as their first introduction to written Chinese. Gilese explains the meaning and structure of every character in the text.

After that a good cheap resource is James Legge's translation of Mencius published by Dover, it has the original text on each page, plus notes and a dictionary of all the words used in the text (in K'ang-hsi radical order), with the meanings they have in the text.

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  • 5 months later...
An unfortunate trend, since Classical Chinese is the common heritage of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as well as China.

What's so "unfortunate" about this? The requirement of Modern Chinese is detrimental to our understanding of the common heritage that is Classical Chinese?

I do agree with anonymoose: a decent knowledge of the modern language will open the doors to the classical language, because the modern one is the language of tuition used by most scholars of Chinese classics. And the paucity of Classical Chinese textbooks written in the English language means you simply cannot circumvent the modern language.

It's the same problem I had when I tried to study ancient Greek when I still had trouble reading English and French; I rummaged through an entire university library and found only one reliable Chinese book on the subject, which wouldn't get me very far.

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