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Teaching yourself some classical Chinese: Advice?


thechamp
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One of the reasons I was initially interested in Chinese was Ezra Pound's classical Chinese translations but I've never really been introduced to much classical Chinese since I started studying. I've now gone through some poems translating character by character and memorizing the poems for fun, but how could I at least try and get to a point where I could see a poem and actually read and understand it without a translation? It strikes me that there probably is a certain logic that you learn when you've read a few. How long does this take? Are there any textbooks I could get and use? I want one specifically for poetry as I'm not so interested in the kongzi and mengzi stuff. Although if learning that would help me I'd be interested too.

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Yeah, also the Cathay poems are often two poems that he's squeezed together into one - he took huge liberties with translation etc and couldn't really read Chinese at all. Clearly a lot wrong with him politically too - but a good ear for writing.

Thanks for the recommendations I'll get and read them. Previously I've just been finding poems with a translation online and then going through each character looking up the dictionary meaning. It's has been fairly unrewarding and sometimes a bit confusing! Are there any online resources for studying classical Chinese? Aside from the chapter above?

I'm at the Boya intermediate level of Chinese, so I can read enough to have short explanations of words or lines if someone could point me towards a Chinese website that would also be ok, but not if it were extremely technical. Something aimed at Chinese schoolchildren maybe!?

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if someone could point me towards a Chinese website that would also be ok, but not if it were extremely technical. Something aimed at Chinese schoolchildren maybe!?

I did a search for "古诗" and found a few sites. This one seems pretty complete: http://www.gushiwen.org/

Here's a poem from the 小学古诗 section that has the translated text (in Chinese) and a video:

http://www.gushiwen....a00acbb60a.aspx

You might also want to try this site as well:

http://yw.eywedu.com/

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Thank you, thechamp, for starting this thread as I have been in a Chinese learning rut recently. Reading the thread, i recalled with fondness the 诗经 poems (translated in English, of course) that got me enamored with Chinese and, a few years ago, the poem sessions with a Chinese friend in California.

Thank you, realmayo, for the books you suggested. I just ordered Chinese through Poetry" by Barnes. Both books are available at Amazon for $32. Hope you don't mind that i bought a book for myself instead of making a donation to a Hope School ;)

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thechamp, by chance, can you read French? If you can, I suggest: "Lettre à une jeune fille qui voudrait partir en Chine", by Jacques Pimpaneau. The title doesn't say it, but the book consists mainly in an introduction to classical Chinese through poetry, with analyses of a number of Tang poems. It's a rather inexpensive paperback book, so enjoy.

The book: http://www.amazon.fr/Lettre-jeune-fille-voudrait-partir/dp/2877300366

More info here: http://textespretextes.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2009/03/23/partir-en-chine.html

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Haha animal world :), hope you enjoy the book. Just skimming through it now (I stopped half-way through a few years ago as I concentrated on language classes) I'm reminded how cool the book is: he really tries to provide us with the tools to read all that stuff. Below is a little excerpt.

PS Hope the book helps you find a suitable line of verse for your new tattoo! :wink:

All this means that the perfect translation of Chinese poetry is well-nigh impossible. Without a detailed commentary giving the sources and contexts of echoes and allusions, the reader is going to miss a great deal, perhaps even the essentials of a poem; but who in the West wants to plough through commentaries? We feel that a poem should speak directly heart to heart within our own shared codes, but if we are going to explore Chinese poetry seriously we must be prepared to immerse ourselves in the great sea of words that extends over the last three thousand years, ever discovering new echoes and resonances. In the course of such an exploration we should not expect to find startlingly new ideas, just subtle and surprising variations on age-old themes, a more rarefied pleasure than being yelled at or mystified in modern European languages.
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Haha that video is awesome. But when I said 'explanation' I kind of meant more of a commentary than a translation. Something like realmayo's guy is saying is boring. I don't know I just kind of want to read a classical poem and understand why they're so highly regarded than just be able to understand what it's saying. Perhaps it's an unfeasible goal if I'm only spending a couple of hours a week? Do you really 'have' to understand all the allusions and stuff to appreciate it?

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Actually I don't think Barnes is saying that stuff is boring, he's saying that's a common view from the West.

Do you really 'have' to understand all the allusions and stuff to appreciate it?

If you don't know that Spring can be associated with new life and youth, and that Autumn can be associated with age and decline then you'd miss something. However those associations are intuitive and guessable. But knowing that a couple of mandarin ducks often symbolise marriage and faithfulness is probably something you have to either know or discover; any poet who mentioned those ducks would assume all his readers immediately knew what they symbolise.

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Ok then. Given that my time is spent working out what something says in Chinese, or in a ball underneath my desk crying with frustration, it's probably not a good idea trying to learn what classical poets are not saying. What you mean about Pound specifically then is stuff like he was looking at Chinese poetry and talking about 'Imagisme' he was wrong because essentially it's actually what's not said but implied that's important.

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Kind of, but I'm not sure about "it's actually what's not said but implied that's important": my understanding is that for contemporary readers of that poetry they would know all these allusions so well that it's almost gone beyond implication to actually being quite explicit. A little bit like a reference in a poem to, say, "Sichuan flavour": a Chinese writer assumes that people will think about spicy food -- but does that count as being implied? -- while someone with no knowledge of Chinese food wouldn't get the spicy reference at all.

But as for Pound: although he must have realised there was some of this stuff going on in the background his basic idea was, exactly as you say, that those old poems were pure image ... but in fact they have lots of embedded meaning.

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Sorry, 'implied' was a bad choice of words. Do you think it's unfeasible though? To learn some Chinese poems and get to a point where, for example, I could look at a classical chinese poem, translate each character, and have gotten used to the common allusions/strange grammar to the point that I could actually 'read' it? How long would this take? Eg the 300 tang poems...could I maybe get a commentary and this collection, and slowly work through it and by halfway I could actually 'read' them without resorting to an English translation? Having some extremely frustrating times with Chinese and want to remember the kinds of things that got me interested in the first place.

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In case you are interested, 全息本唐诗三百首 is a fully-annotated version of 300 Tang poems, with definitions of more obscure words, background info for each poem, and translation into modern Chinese.

http://www.amazon.cn...33551727&sr=8-2

全息本唐诗三百首 [平装]

唐诗三百首全解 is also very similar.

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=20356991

唐诗三百首全解

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To learn some Chinese poems and get to a point where, for example, I could look at a classical chinese poem, translate each character, and have gotten used to the common allusions/strange grammar to the point that I could actually 'read' it? How long would this take?

I'm not saying the Archie Barnes book is the answer to everything. But I reckon if you worked steadily through that I think you'd accumulate a knowledge of the background allusions/connotations, a familiarity with some of the very famous poems, and hopefully an ability to:

.. go at least half-way towards meeting the poet. He will not spoon- feed you; in fact, at times you may feel he’s doing his best to baffle you! You will not get much out of Chinese poetry unless you are prepared to visualize the scenery and its physical implications of location, shape, colour, sounds and sensations, filling in the gaps yourself, and also to empathize with the poet, to enter not just his physical world but also the world of his feelings, since that after all is the whole point of poetry as distinct from prose.

I don't want to overdo it with positive comments for this book: it is quirky and its way of notating grammar is hard work, but it could be what you're looking for. It's possible I might be able to dig out an old pdf of some of the middle chapters if you wanted more of a taster.

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Do you think it's unfeasible though? To learn some Chinese poems and get to a point where, for example, I could look at a classical chinese poem, translate each character, and have gotten used to the common allusions/strange grammar to the point that I could actually 'read' it?

My goal is not to be able to "read" those poems but to FEEL them. I may not understand every little detail but if i can get the overall rich emotion of the poem i will feel rewarded well for the effort that needs to be applied to get to that point of appreciation. .

But it is not all that different from poetry in English really. Sure, in English we know all the words but do we know/understand the deeper meaning behind all the words?.One of my favorite poems is the Ninth Elegy by Rilke. He wrote the Duino Elegies in German but I'm used to the English translation. I have no idea what the poet means by "the ropemaker in Rome or the potter on the Nile." But so be it because i am already so enriched by this poem. Here's a link, just case in you're curious.

http://bittergrace.wordpress.com/2007/09/16/70-favorite-poems-47-the-ninth-elegy-by-rainer-maria-rilke/

I have similar experiences (but even more imperfect) with some Chinese poems (mostly Li Bai). I have an emotion about these poems thanks to a variety of source, someone tells me something, a book explains a few things, something that i look up in a dictionary or look up online. Then, the more i look at such a poem, the more i can embrace it. Now, that I am going to read a book or two about poems, my appreciation of a number of poems will improve but It will probably always remain an "imperfect" result because I am not Chinese and never will be. So, i just have to be grateful with what i can get out of a poem.

Now that i have typed this sermon, it's probably what you meant by "read." Sorry :)

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There is one book you may want to reference - ironically, it is not of ethnic Chinese origin, although it is written in Classical Chinese. 征婦吟曲 by 鄧陳琨 (a Vietnamese poet) is a wealth of Classical Chinese poetic devices and allusions. You will read allusions about everything from solitary geese to pairs of mandarin ducks, yellow clouds, etc.

The whole text is here online:

http://nomna.org/du-an-nom/van-ban-chu-nom/Chinh-Phu-Ngam-Khuc/35-Noi_dung_tac_pham_Chinh_Phu_Ngam_Khuc

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Reading Chinese poetry, especially that of the Tang, takes years to even begin to understand, and that's with a good professor guiding you. I can't imagine how it would work teaching yourself. Chinese poetry is intertextual, poets make references to other poets who were quoting other poets, and this line of influence is constantly accumulating (an interesting book to apply to Chinese poetry is Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence). So understanding the basic meaning of the word is not understanding the poem in its fullest. When you come upon an allusion, the characters that allude to it unpack an entire history of quoting that particular story as well as all the images associated with it. For example, a common allusion is to the Luoshen fu 洛神賦 or the 高唐賦, that allusion may be a reference to any part of these two rapsodic poems in entirety, i.e. you need to have read these two fu before understanding that Li Bai or Li Shangyin poem. This is just one aspect of understanding poetry, you also have regulated poems appearing in the Tang and slightly before. That involves parallelism, tonal variance and pattern (平仄) and a general form or shape of the poem (起承轉合).

I disagree with Archie Barnes' approach to Chinese poetry: "First, the student is given confidence by learning to read complete, self-contained texts with a minimum of vocabulary. Second, the contents are mainly words used in their original concrete meanings rather than in the abstract extended meanings more common in prose. Third, the vividness, colour and emotional content of the poems should assist vocabulary absorption in memorable contexts." My above explanation already gets rid of the first two points: the texts of Chinese poems are not self-contained due to intertextuality or restrained in vocabulary. Second, the characters used in poetry, especially of the Tang, have a wide variety of meanings, and treating them all with their most original or basic meaning is going to skew the entire essence of the poem. Third, you need to have a strong background and acquaintance with Chinese characters, history, and culture before even being able to appreciate the vividness, colour, and emotional content. Otherwise, his textbook may or may not reflect these problems, as I haven't used it. Can anyone say so?

In any case, I would stick to the other textbook How to Read Chinese Poetry edited by Zong-qi Cai. Especially worth reading are the entries by my previous professors Robert Ashmore and Paula Varsano. Ashmore really gets to the pith of the complexity of Tang regulated poetry and rightly points out that Chinese poetry was "built" to be difficult, and made even more obtuse by the poets intentionally making them difficult as in Li He and Li Shangyin.

Another thing is that without a professor to guide you, you won't be able to evaluate the difficulty of the poems before you start learning. In general its good to start with Wang Wei, and Lu Zhaolin and work your way through the easier Du Fu and Li Bai poems, then Bai Juyi and Du Mu I think, lastlyl Li He and Li Shangyin, my favorite.

Sorry to be so long winded, but I love talking about this subject. Once I started reading Chinese poetry, Western (English) poetry bored me to tears. Except Shakespeare, of course. :P

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