However, once you’ve spent some time learning the basics, next comes reading articles, writing short in-class essays, and even perhaps the ability to understand TV shows and movies.
But once you’re fairly comfortable in these areas, you might take your Chinese even further and dive into the ever obscure Classic Chinese.
Truthfully, it’s not really that bad, but it often differs significantly from the Mandarin that is used in everyday life.
If you’re not familiar with Classical Chinese, here’s a quick example of a famous line attributed to Confucius.
Classical Chinese Simplified: 有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎?
Classical Chinese Traditional: 有朋自遠方來，不亦樂乎?
Pinyin: Yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bù yì lè hū?
Modern Chinese Simplified: 有朋友从远方来，不也快乐吗？
Modern Chinese Traditional: 有朋友從遠方來，不也快樂嗎？
Pinyin: Yǒu péngyǒu cóng yuǎnfāng lái, bù yě kuàilè ma?
English: Is it not a delight to have friends come from afar?
Some of the most noticeable differences are in the following words:
朋 (péng) vs. 朋友 (péng yǒu) – friend
自 (zì) vs. 从 (cóng) – from
乐 (lè) vs. 快乐 (kuài lè) – happiness, a delight
乎 (hū) vs. 吗 (ma) – question particle.
You may notice that Classical Chinese often uses only one character where modern Chinese might use two or more. This is okay though, because Classical Chinese is primarily a written language, so if you know what a string of single characters mean, that’s often good enough to understand the sentence (unless the characters have more than one meaning, which they might; the characters might have also meant something different in Classical Chinese than they do in modern Chinese, so there’s also that to watch out for).
One very interesting and famous Classical Chinese poem that I’ve marveled at for some time is that of the “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” or 施氏食狮史 (shī shì shí shī shǐ).
You may have already realized that each character in the title is pronounced “shi,” and indeed, every character in the whole poem is also pronounced this way! This is possible because, although a character may have the same sound as another character, it can have a different tone and can be written with a different character, and so this kind of craziness is possible in Chinese. Remember how I said that you only need to know the meaning of a single character in a string of single characters to understand (more or less) Classical Chinese? This is the case here. If you know the meaning of each character in the poem, even though it’s more of a tongue twister than a verse, you’ll be able to understand it. Here’s the poem below:
« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »
In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.
If you got all the way through the poem without crying, good for you! You’ve probably got some awesome Chinese skills! However, if you want to challenge yourself, you can go on over to Wikipedia’s page about this poem to see how it would be pronounced in other Chinese languages, such as Cantonese, Hakka, Taiwanese, or even the original Classical Chinese pronunciation. They also show you how this poem would be read in the vernacular Mandarin used today; you can read that here. If you’re not totally scared off by Classical Chinese yet, that’s great. I personally think it’s a very interesting written language, full of such interesting gems as the poem just shown above. If you want to dive deeper into it, you can start out by going here, here, or here. So the next time your Chinese friends come from afar, you can delight them with your knowledge of this little poem. They’ll probably agree that it was worth coming just to hear you try and say it.
Latest posts by Aaron Posehn (see all)
- How to Read a Chinese Poem with Only One Sound - October 25, 2014
- Self-Service Buffets: How to get a cheap healthy meal in Asia - October 20, 2014
- A Typical Breakfast in Taiwan - October 4, 2014