Introduction to Classical Chinese

Introduction to Classical Chinese (Wenyan): Syntax, Grammar, and Vocabulary

Welcome to the first lesson in our series designed for English speakers with a background in Mandarin. This lesson will delve into the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary of Classical Chinese (Wenyan), providing you with a foundation to start your journey.

1. Syntax and Structure

Unlike the subject-verb-object (SVO) structure prevalent in both English and Modern Mandarin, Classical Chinese often employs a subject-object-verb (SOV) order. However, due to its compact and context-reliant nature, sentences can appear in varied orders depending on their literary style and emphasis.


  • Modern Mandarin: 我给你书。 (Wǒ gěi nǐ shū.) - I give you the book.
  • Classical Chinese: 我书给汝。 (Wǒ shū gěi rǔ.) - I, the book, to you give.

Notice the shift in structure and the classical term for “you” ( rǔ), which is commonly used in Classical Chinese.

2. Grammar Highlights

Classical Chinese grammar is characterized by its lack of inflection; words do not change form based on tense, number, or case. Instead, the meaning is derived from context, word order, and the use of specific particles.

Key Particles:

  • 之 (zhī): A particle that can indicate possession, similar to ‘of’, or to replace a noun or verb.

    Example: 天之道 (Tiān zhī dào) - The way of heaven.

  • 也 (yě): Often used to end a statement, adding emphasis or indicating a matter-of-fact tone, not always translatable into English.

    Example: 是也 (Shì yě) - It is so.

  • 者 (zhě): Indicates the subject or topic of a sentence, similar to “the one who” or “the thing which”.

    Example: 学者 (Xué zhě) - The learner, or one who studies.

3. Vocabulary Enhancement

Classical Chinese vocabulary can be rich and varied, often with words carrying multiple meanings depending on context.

Common Terms:

  • (jūn): Lord, gentleman.
  • (zǐ): Son, master, teacher.
  • (rén): Person, man, people.

Examples in Sentences:

  • Classical Chinese: 君子乐水,小人乐山。 (Jūnzǐ lè shuǐ, xiǎorén lè shān.)

    Translation: The gentleman delights in water; the small-minded man delights in mountains.

  • Classical Chinese: 学不厌,诲人不倦。 (Xué bù yàn, huì rén bù juàn.)

    Translation: Never tire of learning; never tire of teaching.

4. Reading Classical Texts

Understanding Classical Chinese opens the door to a rich heritage of literature. Let’s examine a simple yet profound line from a classical text:

  • From Tao Te Ching (道德经 Dàodéjīng): 道可道,非常道。 (Dào kě dào, fēi cháng dào.)Translation: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

This illustrates the use of repetition and the philosophical depth found in Classical Chinese works.

5. Practice with Poetry

Now, let’s look at a poem by Li Bai, one of China’s most celebrated poets, to apply what we’ve learned:

静夜思 (Jìng Yè Sī) - Quiet Night Thoughts

床前明月光, 疑是地上霜。
举头望明月, 低头思故乡。

In front of my bed, the moonlight shines so bright,
It appears like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head, I gaze at the bright moon,
Lowering my head, I think of my hometown.


  1. Identify and translate the particles used in this poem.
  2. Rewrite the poem in Modern Mandarin.
  3. Explain the phrase “疑是地上霜“ using what you know about Classical Chinese syntax and vocabulary.

I hope this introduction piques your interest and lays a solid foundation for your journey into the world of Classical Chinese. Happy learning!

Classical Chinese Vocabulary Table

Below is a table containing 30 common words found in Classical Chinese literature, along with their equivalents in Modern Mandarin, Pinyin transliteration, and English translation.

Classical Chinese Modern Mandarin Pinyin English Translation
先生 jūn Gentleman
You (formal)
rén Person
tiān Heaven/Sky
xiǎo Small
生活 shēng Life/Live
lái Come
jiàn See
wén Hear
知道 zhī Know
ài Love
hèn Hate
hǎo Good
è Bad/Evil
美丽 měi Beautiful
丑陋 chǒu Ugly
gāo High/Tall
duō Many/Much
shǎo Few/Little
shì Is/Yes
不是 fēi Not/No
yǒu Have/Exist
没有 Not have/Nonexistent

This table serves as a basic foundation for understanding some of the most frequent terms encountered in Classical Chinese literature.

Good luck with that!