7 June 2018

An Exercise in Literary Chinese - Part 1

Zhanguo Ce (Strategies of the Warring States), chapter 1.
It looks intimidating, but trust me, it's not so bad.
Instead of talking about manga, current events, or books I've read, I'm going to do something very different in these posts. You see, I once listened to a particularly inspiring presentation in which the lecturer did a combined history lecture/primary source analysis/language lesson on a passage from Shiji to an audience that largely knew neither Mandarin nor literary Chinese. So today, I'll attempt my own version of this. I'm going to assume you know little to nothing about Mandarin, literary Chinese, nor ancient China in general. And I'm going to decode that wall-of-text you see in the image above, line by line, while giving necessary background info and interesting historical tidbits. I've only actually started self-studying literary Chinese myself with no Mandarin background so I know I'm not the best teacher. Still, I hope this will be a fun post for anyone curious about ancient China or who ever wondered what kind of language literary Chinese is.

This will be a multi-parter, since it's too damn long to fit in one post.

To be fair, if it weren't for China being unified politically, it wouldn't loom so big
in this figure of world languages and the numbers of native speakers.
First off, "Why should I care about some useless dead language instead of learning Mandarin? After all, isn't Mandarin a much more useful language to learn, what with the almost 1 billion speakers and China's economic rise?"

Don't fall for the Mandarin-meme, kids. Unless you're actually interested in working with Chinese people and/or living in China, there's really no point. Not only is it a difficult language for Westerners to learn, but even if you did learn it, any rise in your job prospects created by your Mandarin-skills will be nullified by millions of Chinese natives or immigrants who probably speak better Mandarin and English than you. Real niggas know if you're gonna spend time learning a language, you damn well better be already interested in that language's associated cultural output, like watching Japanese anime or reading Mein Kampf in its glorious original language. As a big fan of history, literary Chinese and Latin are two languages I've always wanted to learn one day. I've shelved Latin for the time being (probably due to bad memories of learning French in high school), so literary Chinese, here I come.

So what exactly is literary ChineseAlso known as classical Chinese, this is the written form of Old Chinese that was spoken for most of 1st millenium BC. Initially, the gap between literary Chinese and vernacular Old Chinese was probably not huge (we'll never really know though), but as the vernacular changed more and more throughout the centuries, there developed a huge gulf between the vernacular and written forms. Now, most elite literati around the world often disdained writing in the vernacular (never go full-pleb, as they say), but Chinese is a little different. For instance, Latin or classical Arabic are phonetic languages, meaning that the written form should reflect how it's spoken. But spoken languages change. Vowels shift, consonants are added or lost, and for tonal languages, tones may be simplified or entirely lost! And when these changing vernacular are put down in writing, you suddenly have a new form of written language. Chinese, however, is logographic (technically logosyllabic) so people simply didn't feel a need to reflect changes in the vernacular in written language as in phonetic languages. In fact, because literary Chinese was only a written language and thus changed so little, it also helped hide just how much the vernacular could change in a few centuries. For instance, some pre-modern Chinese literati scratched their heads at why some famous Chinese poems sounded ugly (poor cadence or no rhyme) before one of them realized that maybe the poems did rhyme at one point and it was their pronunciations that had changed throughout the centuries.
No offence to Vietnamese people, but if the Latin alphabet were a person, I'd want to put it out of its misery. I just don't think the Latin alphabet was meant to handle complex-tone languages.
Today, you often see whiners on the internet complaining why China (and to a lesser extent, Japan) doesn't just do away with their archaic logosyllabic characters and write with the Latin alphabet like Turkey or Vietnam did. But one of the remarkable aspects of literary Chinese is that it arguably contributed to the political unity of this huge mass of land known as China. As the old joke goes, a language is a dialect with an army. Or to borrow Jenner's more scholarly expression from The Tyranny of History, "The script, identical through space and time, permanent and absolute, inhibits the development of local linguistically defined loyalties because they cannot be written down." And it wasn't just within the area known as China that the unchanging uniformity of literary Chinese made its presence felt. Even in neighbouring Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the prestige of literary Chinese and Chinese culture in general was so high that prior to the modern era, it was the dominant literary language. Compare this to the decline of Latin in books with the invention of Gutenberg's printing press and the increasing taste for publishing in the vernacular in early modern Europe. 
In fact, there's a point about this long-lived popularity of literary Chinese and Chinese culture that segues nicely into the nature of literary Chinese grammar. Compared to languages like Greek, Latin, or Sanskrit, literary Chinese seems to give zero fucks about grammar. That's not to say there aren't grammatical rules, but if I had to describe literary Chinese with one adjective, it'd be "flexible" or "simple." Syntax is highly variable, subjects and verbs are often dropped and only implied, and you'd probably make a 3rd century BC Chinese scholar laugh or cry if you were to tell him there were languages in which you needed to conjugate verbs and inflect nouns according to their gender. It's almost no surprise that you don't really have a Panini (the grammarian, not the delicious sandwich) or a Dionysius Thrax in ancient China. In fact, Chinese terms like 動詞 (verb) or 形容詞  (adjective) were only created in the modern era after encountering how Westerners systematized the study of their languages. If I recall correctly, it was Japanese scholars trying to translate Western grammatical terms that coined words like 動詞 (verb) and 形容詞 (adj.), similar to the coining of words like 自動車 (automobile) or 帝國 (empire) as I previously talked aboutSo if there weren't formally written rules on grammar, how did pre-modern East Asians learn literary Chinese? They kind of learned it like how you learned your native language. Thank god for that, really, because who the hell can keep track of terms like subjunctive, dative, or appositive? In any case, since literary Chinese is a purely written language, learning by total immersion basically meant reading the established classics over and over again. By classics, I'm talking about stuff like the Book of Changes, Analects, or the insaaaaanely long Zizhi Tongjian. So in a way, simply learning how to read literary Chinese inculcated a person with Chinese philosophy, history, moral values, and other cultural trappings. Is it then any surprise that the prestige of literary Chinese and Chinese culture was dominant for so long in pre-modern East Asia?
When you consider the hellish nature of the imperial Chinese examination and the sheer
amount of memorization of classics involved, it's hard to blame guys like Hong Xiuquan.
I, too, felt like causing the deaths of 20~30 million after fucking up my organic chemistry exams.
In any case, this method of learning by reading a variety of passages selected from texts is still the only real way of learning literary Chinese. It's not like other languages like German or Japanese where once you understand all the important grammatical rules, the only thing that's really holding you back from fluency is how much vocabulary you know. The deceptive simplicity of literary Chinese grammar (comparatively speaking) lends to a lot of ambiguity. For instance, a given character "X" could be used as a noun, adverb, or verb. If used as a verb, it could be used to mean in the past tense, the present tense, or even the subjunctive. And as I mentioned before, since there really aren't any conjugations or inflections, all of them simply look like "X"!!! So it's only through sheer experience accumulated from reading the classics that you begin to internalize how certain characters are used when and where. And while I said before literary Chinese didn't change throughout the centuries, that's a white lie. Different periods had slight differences in the norms governing the unspoken rules of literary Chinese, as did different fields (literary Chinese used in religious texts is not quite the same as that in historical texts). 

But that's enough for now. In Part 2, I'll explain the historical context for the Zhanguo Ce and perhaps actually get to translating the passage from chapter 1.


  1. I don't read every manga you translate but I do read every one of your posts about other stuff. They're always interesting which I feel is because they're about subjects that I never ever encounter anywhere else in my personal bubble of sites I visit. I came originally just for the scanlations and now I'm coming also to learn about ancient Chinese writing, among other things.

    1. Thanks a lot! Don't forget to like and subscribe... Oh wait.

  2. "Mein Kampf in it's glorious original language."

    Lol, I thought I couldn't admire you more. God bless Hox. I like everything you post on ancient China, this was a pleasant surprise in lieu of Shiji.

    1. One of its poorest (literally and normativelly) uses tho. But I liked the joke as well

    2. Teacher: Choose one text from all of German literature.

      Hox: (without skipping a beat) Mein Kampf.