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Modern usage of Classical Chinese

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Hi everyone!

I recently started wondering how Chinese (and non-Chinese) use Classical Chinese (or Literary Chinese) in modern times. Obviously they memorize tons of it at school (like Confucian phrases). But my biggest concern is, do they still write poems or books in this written language? What pieces of grammar are kept throughout the whole history of China? And especially what is the look at Classical Chinese grammar, has there been a lot of progress since Pulleyblank?

Does anyone know any good books or articles that cover these topics?

I'm sorry if it already is a topic somewhere here on the forum, but I couldn't find one.


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You often find that modern notes to classical poems and texts are also written in literary Chinese, or at least a very elliptical, literary-like style. Also, it's not like there's a very clear dividing line between classical / literary / modern. If you read a variety of texts from say Warring States through to Lu Xun, you can see a development that retains things from the earliest stages whilst expanding with new stuff.

Another place that a literary-like style crops up is in cards and other festive / commemorative material. I imagine that's because there are set forms for these kinds of text, just as there are in English, so it's easier for old forms to survive unchanged.

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People still write in Literary Chinese. For example, there's a Wikipedia in Literary Chinese (http://zh-classical.wikipedia.org), and there's also a couple of blogs that are written in Literary Chinese. Mao Zedong wrote quite a few poems and letters in Literary Chinese as well, and I'd be surprised if there were no intellectuals in China these days who still did that. Not all the time, of course, but certainly every now and then.

It's a bit more difficult to answer your question which bits of the grammar are "kept throughout the whole history of China". Let's not go into the issue of what exactly "the whole history of China" encompasses, as the language used on the oracle bones is clearly very different from the modern Chinese languages. And by very different I don't mean English and German, but rather English and Bengali. Anyway, if you want to talk about the historical developments in the grammar of written Chinese, it's best to start in the Warring States period. Quite a few language were spoken in China proper even then, but it's probably safe to say that Classical Chinese is a written language based on a spoken dialect of the 5th-3rd century BCE. Works such as the Analects and the Mencius were written in Classical Chinese.

As these works were admired and memorised in the centuries that followed, a "standardised" written language slowly emerged, based on the grammar of Classical Chinese. This written language is often called Literary Chinese, and it's this language that remains in use today on Wikipedia and elsewhere. Of course, it did undergo quite a few changes in the meantime, thanks to influence from the vernacular. This is clearly visible from Tang dynasty writing onward, and eventually another written language, based on vernacular dialects, emerges in the late imperial period. It's this written language, used e.g. in China's Four Great Novels, which eventually evolved into the written language that became the official written language of China after the May Fourth movement. This language, báihuà 白話, is still used in China these days in newspapers and novels.

Over the 2,000 years that have passed since Literary Chinese was first used, the grammar has changed a bit, but by and large it has remained the same. The more formally an author wants to write, the closer he'll go to the "original" grammar of Classical Chinese. It's not only the grammar that has changed, though - so has the lexicon. So if people imitate Classical Chinese, they use words which are no longer used. This can make such texts hard to read for all but those who've studied Classical Chinese. A good example is this:


Oh, and you also asked about whether any works had been published on Classical Chinese grammar since Pulleyblank's 1995 Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. I think the answer to that is, no, not really, but I'd be glad to be proven wrong :) But note that his work deals with the grammar of Classical Chinese, not Literary Chinese, although much of what he says is valid for Literary Chinese as well.

I hope this answers more questions than it raises, but if you still have any questions, feel free to ask! :)

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