How to Read Classical Chinese

Reading classical Chinese can be one of the most daunting linguistic experiences a Chinese language learner, native speaker, or budding Sinologist can face. It is a fierce yet enchanting assimilation of syntax and history compiled into a singular linguistic form.

The greatest challenge that I have faced while reading classical Chinese is knowing how literal or figurative to be when translating a passage. This is because Classical Chinese contains many mysterious facets in meaning and interpretation. Many times I have found myself puzzled about how to best understand the meaning of a passage, especially when it is appropriate to be either figurative or literal in my final interpretation. My challenge has been to balance whether or not to translate a passage too literally or too figuratively, such that I sometimes end up losing sight of the original meaning that the author intended. Reading and translating classical Chinese is, all in all, a delicate balance of justifying how literal or figurative one can be while translating a passage.

Other challenges I faced when reading and translating classical Chinese is that there is no punctuation! None, whatsoever. The lack of punctuation marks can make reading a guessing game or even a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing.

So, despite the somewhat scary introduction about the challenges of reading classical Chinese, I want to prove some guides on how to read and interpret classical Chinese.

Step one: Familiarize yourself with classical Chinese grammar structures.

Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin G. Pulleyblank’s is a good source for this.

Step two: Understand the basic classical Chinese particles, specifically those that end a sentence. This will help you to punctuate an original classical Chinese text.

For example:

· The particle 也 (yě) is usually always used at the end of a sentence in classical Chinese.

· The particle 矣 (yĭ) is also used at the end of sentence to emphasize a completed action.

For more particles, check out this PDF from

You can also find a helpful online dictionary at

Step three: Choose a passage to practice reading and translating. Chapter 49, entitled “The Five Vermin,” from the Han Feizi (韓非子) is a fun passage to start with!

Optional: Immerse yourself into the history behind the passages you have chosen to get a gist of the era and events that occurred when it was written. This will help you to understand any hidden meaning and phrases within the passages.

Step four: Look for signs of parallelism within the text. Classical Chinese contains a repeated lexicon that can aid readers to place those long-lost (i.e., never recorded) punctuation marks.

Step five: Punctuate the text as best as you can by locating particles and parallel sentences.

Step six: Roughly and quickly translate the passage with what classical Chinese syntax and lexicon you have already learned. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Make sure to translate your first passage literally. Once you get the gist of the passage and the meaning of it, then rewrite your translation figuratively and expressively.

Step seven: Choose another passage and keep practicing until you can read a text without pause.

Optional: Read a translated version of your passage of interest to gain a better sense of how those characters were written and translated. Rewrite your translation using your evolving understanding of classical syntax and lexicon.

Remember that practice makes perfect!

Suggested Reading:

Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin G. Pulleyblank

A First Course in Literary Chinese by Harold Shadick

An Introduction to Literary Chinese by Michael A. Fuller

Classical Chinese: A Basic Reader in Three Volumes by Yan Naiying, Tang Haitao, and James Geiss.

Banner image by Chinese Calligraphy and Painting


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