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Resources for Literary Chinese (wenyan)

Mark Yong

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I would like to enquire about resources for reading and writing Literary Chinese (wenyan), both in printed matter and online.

1. What are the good books available for learning to read (and write) Literary Chinese? I have recently ordered Yuan Naiying et al's "Classical Chinese - A Reader in 3 Volumes" from Amazon, currently on the way, and I also own Michael A. Fuller's "An Introduction to Literary Chinese" - are there any good books in Chinese?

2. I already own a set of books covering the Four Books (四書) and Five Classics (五經), plus several other classical books, e.g. Sun Zi's Art of War (孫子兵法). I am actually looking for other later Literary Chinese literature to complement my reading list.

3. In addition to texts and poetry, I am also interested in reading old letters and correspondences (both formal and informal) written in Literary Chinese. I am given to understand that in the old days, letter-writing itself was an art form.

(In my occasional writing and correspondences, I tend to prefer writing in the old style, rather than 白話文. :) )

Note that I have been referring to Literary Chinese, and not Classical Chinese. Both are not the same. Classical Chinese is a specific form of Literary Chinese of the Confucian period. Literary Chinese stretches all the way to the late 19th century.

Thanks & regards,


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Your idea about literary Chinese is quite interesting!

The books you mentioned like four books and five classics are written during the period about more than 2,500 years which are too complex for me to undterstand...

It was really a horrible thing to memorize the sentences in them....and this is the assignment I must do when I was a child.As a suggestion, the articles whose authors were living in the times that is not very far from today is better,and very important, their

meaning is easier to understand and usually they have a much more interest story or viewpoint than Four Books...

Actually, I do not believe there are many native mandarin speakers in China know more about the Literary Chinese than you. Keep on studying it and you will get more useful experience! Good Luck!

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I’m not sure if I understand your need. If you’re interested in the following books, we can take photos for you to look inside, except the last one, which is not in our stock now.

The Core of Chinese Classical Fiction (Chinese-English)


USD 7.00


Selections from Records of the Historian


USD 2.25


Selected Romances


USD 2.5


Selected Satires


USD 2.25


Literary Sketches from the Past


USD 1.88


LIBRARY OF CHINESE CLASSICS: Apotheosize Historical Novel (Volume 1 to 4)


USD 32.5


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I am assuming you don't have a Chinese language bookstore near you, for this would be the first place to go. Only problem there is you might have to deal with 简体字。 Someone on this site provided this linkhttp://bbs.guoxue.com/, maybe it can be of use. I have all those books you mention in 元文/白话释义 versions. Too bad their sitting on the bookshelf accumulating dust :-?

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You'll definitely want 古文观止, a collection of all types of prose works through the ages edited during the Qing.

For later literary Chinese, you can't really go wrong with the western-influenced scholars and reformers of the late Qing. Read 梁启超 on government and progress, or 王国维 on literary criticism, or 林纾's translations. 苏曼殊 is good classical fiction (断鸿零雁记 is tops, though for a real treat, you'll need to read either his poetry or his baihua translation of Les Miserables), 徐枕亚 as well (玉梨魂 is a masterpiece of parallel prose).

Lu Xun's 中国小说史略 is good literary prose, despite being written around 1930 (and it's much more interesting than government memorials). Any of the collected works of these writers would include some of their correspondence; except for much of Lu Xun's letters, everything's in wenyan.

And I'll second guoxue.com as a valuable resource for texts.

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  • 1 month later...
Mark Yong

Hi, all,

Thanks to all of you for the concerted responses!

Actually, there are quite a number of Chinese bookstores in the vicinity of my home. I just needed some help to point me towards the correct books to read in order to develop my skills in Literary Chinese outside the standard canon of 四書五經, 莊子, 韓非子 and 戰國策 - especially later works closer to our time.

The editions of the classics that I own are mostly published in Taiwan by 智揚出版社. I have actually been trying to find their website on the Internet, in order to obtain their full book catalogue, but have not been successful.

On a similar note - does anyone know if the 禮記 is available in print? I am given to understand that this is the one 經 that did not survive to the present day in complete form.

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The 礼记 should be in your copy of the 四书五经: 大学、中庸、论语、孟子、周易、书经、诗经、礼记、春秋. It's online here and tons of other places, too. It's only "lost" in the sense that the current text is a recreation of a document that didn't survive the Qin, and is usually said to be considerably smaller than the original.

It's the 乐经 that sometimes is called the "lost sixth classic."

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  • 7 months later...

I am given to understand that although 白話文 Mandarin officially superceded 文言文 Literary Chinese as the written standard following the 4th May 1919 Movement, it was not an immediate change; in reality, there was a transition period. And one of the areas of literature where 文言文 Literary Chinese remained the style of writing for quite a few years after the 4th May 1919 Movement was the newspapers. Is this true? Are there samples of such newspaper articles written in 文言文 Literary Chinese still extant? If so, it might be the most recent examples of 文言文 Literary Chinese from the 20th century.

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I have no idea where you live, but if there is a university with a decent asian languages collection in the library they might have bound facsimiles of may fourth periodicals.

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ZHWJ wrote: You'll definitely want 古文观止, a collection of all types of prose works through the ages edited during the Qing.


Thanks for recommending 古文觀止. I visited the local 學林書局 in my hometown of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and found a copy of it, published by 北京中華書局. It's a great edition to own because it is printed in 繁體字 Traditional Characters, using the old-type printing font complete with the original commentaries embedded within the text (I believe it could be a facsimile of a classic edition!). And unlike the other editions I found, it includes the original preface written during 康熙's reign.

Of course, given that it is an 'original' edition, meaning there are no modern glossaries (注譯) and translations (語譯) accompanying it, I had to purchase a separate edition by 台灣三民書局 to assist me with my reading (this was the only other edition I could find that uses 繁體字 Traditional Characters). This one does not have the original preface, which is a pity. But no matter, I still like the 中華書局 one better!

ZHWJ wrote: Lu Xun's 中国小说史略 is good literary prose, despite being written around 1930

I have not found a copy of 中國小說史略 yet, but I intend to do so soon. However, I noticed that most of the fictional works I saw by 魯迅 Lu Xun is written in 白話文 baihuawen. Does this mean that 中國小說史略 is an exceptional case of 魯迅 Lu Xun using 文言文 wenyanwen? I recall that 魯迅 Lu Xun was a supporter of the 白話文 baihuawen Movement.

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The 中华书局 edition of 古文观止 is not a photostat, I believe, but rather a newly-typeset edition based on an earlier punctuated edition - or at least that's what the editor's introduction says in my 1963 copy.

Lu Xun compiled 中国小说史略 out of a set of lecture notes, which he then couldn't be bothered to rewrite before having them formally printed three years later. As for why they were in wenyan to begin with - it saves on labor for the copyist! From the preface:

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You'll definitely want 古文观止, a collection of all types of prose works through the ages edited during the Qing.

It's true that 古文观止 is an ideal book for wenyan studying, plus 山海经. I ve no idea where you live in China and how profound the book you need, but it's not a bad idea to read some wenyanwen in Chinese textbooks for Chinese senior school students. Classic examples of wenyanwen are embodied such as 前后出师表 by 诸葛亮; 兰亭集序 by 王羲之, etc.

I recommend 资治通鉴 and 史记 in addition. 三国志 by 陈寿 is also worth reading. :wink:

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Hi, Luoluo,

Thanks for your recommendations!

I've no idea where you live in China...

Actually, I live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But we have an excellent Chinese-language bookstore here called 學林書局, which imports a wide range of books, and on all sorts of topics, from China. It was also in this bookstore that I purchased an excellent 2-volume text on the abacus 珠算 (published by 北京出版社).

...and how profound the book you need

Actually, the degree of profundity is not too much of a concern for me, but variety is. :)

What I am really trying to do is collect and read a wide range of 文言文 texts, and not just limit myself to the standard 四書五經, 莊子, 唐詩, 史記, etc. and other miscellaneous "pre-modern China educational material" texts - which are often limited to the period spanning the 周 Zhou to 唐 Tang eras only.

So, this means that I would like to read not just a variety of subjects (this can take the form of literary criticisms, letters & correspondences, government documents, and even fiction), but also spanning the entire period when 文言文 was used as the written language of the Far East (i.e. from 周 Zhou all the way to the early-20th century). Also, the writers need not necessarily be the notable ones, they can also be obscure individuals, too (which means even a letter written by a son to his parents in 文言文 would be of interest to me!).

This will (hopefully) allow me to appreciate how 文言文 functioned as a living and practical written language for over two and a half millenia, and also to observe how the the style of writing gradually evolved over time (thus, the often-overlooked subtle difference between 古文 Classical Chinese and 文言文 Literary Chinese), even while the spoken language gradually evolved into the various dialects.

Any maybe, just maybe, I might eventually develop some skill at writing in 文言文, too! :wink:

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You might be interested in this classical Chinese software package. It's basically reader with many texts and a built-in dictionary.

I have the trial-version installed. Though it's expired, it seems to be still fully functional.

Simplified character version


Traditional character version



"Chinese Classical Literature"


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  • 10 months later...
zhwj wrote:

Read 梁启超 on government and progress...

I did some research on 梁啟超's works, and found that the 飲冰室合集 is referred to several times as his representative work. Is this one of his works that you recommend me to read? I notice the entire text totals 12 volumes, so it may be quite a big commitment (money and time-wise) to start off with that! :lol: Of course, I note that there is also a single-volume 精選 (selections) version of it, so I may start off with that and see how I progress with it.

A friend of mine also mentioned his other work called 少年中國說 (she said Chinese high-school students have to memorise chunks of it!), but I am not sure if it is in 文言 wenyan... which, as you know, is what I am looking for! :)

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少年中国说 is short; read it for yourself here.

Liang Qichao wrote lots of stuff - I only mentioned government and progress since that's one of the main reasons people read him these days. Something like 古文观止 is nice for a selection of "great works," but for most authors, I find that it's nice to read with a sense of purpose - to understand their views or their place in history rather than merely appreciating their prose style.

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  • 2 years later...

Reviving this old thread...

Since the last post, I have managed to collect the following late-Qing books written in Literary Chinese:


1. 梁啟超文集

2. 飲冰室文集精選

3. 中國歷史研究法


1. 大同書 (unfortunately only available in Simplified Chinese)


1. 仁學


1. 中國小說史略

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The guy from Beijing


《古文观止》吴楚材(It's a collection of articles in wenyan)


《庄子》、《墨子》、《韩非子》(You've got the books of the Ru sect, now try reading the Tao's, Mo's and Law sect, personally I like these better)

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I'll be in Taipei aat the end of the year, keen to fill my luggage allotment with Classical Chinese texts. Could anyone recommend good bookstores in the Taipei area?

Many thanks in advance! I'm looking for good editions, the more generously glossed the better, of the major classics- Lieh Tzu, Chan Kuo Ts'e, etc.

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