Classical Chinese

Classical Chinese
Characters: 古文
Pinyin: gǔwn
Literal Meaning: "ancient written language"
Literary Chinese
Characters: 文言文
Pinyin: wnynwn
Literal Meaning: "literary language"

Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese using grammar and vocabulary very different from any modern spoken form of Chinese. Classical Chinese was used for almost all formal correspondence before the 20th century, not only in China but also in Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Among Chinese speakers, classical Chinese has been largely replaced by Vernacular Chinese (baihua), a style of writing that is much closer to modern spoken Chinese, while speakers of non-Chinese languages have largely abandoned Classical Chinese in favor of local vernaculars.

Literary Chinese written for a Japanese audience is known as Kanbun.



While it is common to construe Classical and Literary as the same thing, this is not strictly accurate. Sinologists generally agree that they are in fact different things. By most academic definitions, Classical Chinese (古文, Pinyin Gŭwn, "Ancient Writing"; or more literally 古典漢語 py Gŭdǐan Hnyŭ "Classical Chinese") refers to the written language of China from the Zhou Dynasty, and especially the Spring and Autumn Period, through the end of the Han Dynasty. Classical Chinese is therefore the language used in many of China's most influential books, such as the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Daodejing, etc.

Literary Chinese (文言文, py Wnynwn, "Literary Writing", or more colloquially just 文言 Wnyn) is the form of written Chinese used from the end of the Han to pre-modernity and the replacement by vernacular written Chinese. Literary Chinese diverged from Classical as the languages of China became more and more disparate and as the Classical written language became less and less representative of the spoken language. At the same time, Literary is based largely upon Classical, and writers frequently borrow Classical language into their Literary writings. Literary Chinese therefore shows a great deal of similarity to Classical, even though the similarity decreases over the centuries.

Nonetheless, many users do not distinguish between Literary and Classical, believing there is no difference.

This situation can be compared to the coexistence of the Latin language and the Latin-derived Romance languages in Europe. The Romance languages continued to evolve, while Latin stayed relatively fixed. Relatively, but not entirely -- modern church Latin, for example, includes many usages that the Romans would be baffled by. (The coexistence of Classical Chinese and the native languages of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam can be compared to the use of Latin in countries that natively speak non-Latin-derived Germanic languages or Slavic languages.) This also corresponds to the position of Classical Arabic relative to the various regional vernaculars.


Chinese characters are not alphabetic and do not reflect sound changes, and the actual pronunciation of Old Chinese can only be tentatively reconstructed and is unknown outside linguistic circles. As a result, Classical Chinese has no universally fixed way of pronunciation. When reading wenyan, the Chinese characters are generally read with the pronunciations of the reader's own variety of Chinese, such as modern Mandarin or Cantonese. Other varieties of Chinese, such as Southern Min, have a special set of pronunciation used for Classical Chinese or vocabulary and usage borrowed from Classical Chinese. Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese readers of Classical Chinese use systems of pronunciation specific to their own languages. For example, Japanese speakers use On'yomi and (more rarely) Kunyomi, which are the ways kanji, or Chinese characters, are read when they are used to write in Japanese. Kunten, a system that aids Japanese speakers with Classical Chinese word order, was also used.

Since the pronunciation of Old Chinese or other forms of historical Chinese (such as Middle Chinese) have long been lost, characters which once rhymed in poetry often no longer do, or vice versa. Poetry and other rhyme-based writing thus becomes less coherent than the original reading must have been. However, some other modern Chinese dialects adhere more closely to the original pronunciations, as evident by the preservation of rhyme structures. Some Chinese speakers thus believe wenyan literature, especially poetry, sounds better when read with a southern dialect such as Cantonese or Southern Min.

Another phenomenon that is common in reading Classical Chinese is homophony, or words that sound the same. More than 2500 years of sound change separates Classical Chinese from any modern language or dialect, so when reading Classical Chinese in any modern variety of Chinese (especially Mandarin) or in Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese, many characters which originally had different pronunciations have become homonyms, making it impossible to orally communicate using Classical Chinese. There is a famous Classical Chinese essay written in the early 20th-century by linguist Y. R. Chao called the Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den which illustrates this. It is perfectly comprehensible when read, but contains only words that are now pronounced "shi" in Mandarin. In addition, literary Chinese, by its very nature as a written language employing an logographic writing system, can often get away with the use of homophones that even in oral Old Chinese would not have been distinguishable in any way.

The situation is analogous with some English words that sound the same, such as "meet" and "meat". These two words were pronounced and (akin to modern "mate" and "met") respectively during the time of Chaucer, as evident by spelling. Today they sound the same, but are distinguished by spelling. English spelling is only a few centuries old and was in its original form a sound-based system, so such examples are not very common; the Chinese writing system is, by contrast, several thousand years old and logographic, so such examples are commonplace and exist for nearly all characters.

Grammar and Lexicon

Wenyan is distinguished from baihua by the use of different lexical items (i.e., vocabulary) and a style that appears extremely concise and compact to modern Chinese speakers. For example, wenyan rarely uses words composed of two Chinese characters; nearly all words are of one syllable only. This stands directly in contrast with modern Chinese dialects where two-syllable words are normal and very common. There is also a greater amount of pronouns present relative to the modern vernacular. In particular, whereas Mandarin has one general character to refer to the first-person pronoun ("I"/"me"), Literary Chinese has several, many of which are used as part of 客套语 (honorific language), and several of which have different grammatical uses (first-person collective, first-person possessive, etc.).

This phenomenon exists because two-syllable words evolved in Chinese to compensate for sound change: as sound changes occurred, words that originally sounded different begin to be pronounced in the same way, and thus have to be distinguished by other means. (Compare "pen"/"pin", identical in the American South, and distinguished only by saying "ink pen" and "safety pin".) Since wenyan is an imitation of Old Chinese, it has almost none of the two-syllable words present in modern Chinese languages. For the same reason, wenyan is much more ready to drop subjects, verbs, objects, etc. when their meaning is understood or readily inferred; wenyan did not develop a subject inanimate pronoun ("it" used as a subject) until quite late. As a result, a sentence that may take 20 characters in baihua can often be rendered in wenyan in four or five.

There are also differences in lexicon, especially in grammatical particles, as well as in syntax.

In addition to grammar and vocabulary differences, wenyan can be distinguished by literary and cultural differences: an effort to maintain parallelism and rhythm, even in prose works, and its extensive use of cultural allusions often unfamiliar to modern readers, thereby also contribute to the brief style.

Classical Chinese grammar and lexicon is also significantly different from that of Literary Chinese. For example, increasing use of 是 (Modern Mandarin sh) as a copula ("to be") rather than as a near demonstrative ("this"), and the appearance of 這 (Modern Mandarin zh) taking its place as such, is a hallmark of Literary Chinese. Literary also tends to use far more two-character combinations than Classical.

Teaching and Use

Wenyan was the primary form used in Chinese literary works until the May Fourth Movement, and was also heavily used in Japan and Korea. Ironically, Classical Chinese was used to write the Hunmin Jeongeum in which the modern Korean alphabet (Hangul) was promulgated and the essay by Hu Shi in which he argued against using Classical Chinese and in favor of baihua. Exceptions to the use of wenyan were vernacular novels such as The Dream of the Red Chamber, which was considered low class at the time.

Today, pure wenyan is occasionally used in formal or ceremonial occasions. The National Anthem of the Republic of China on Taiwan (中華民國國歌, pinyin: zhōngha mngo gogē), for example, is in wenyan. In practice there is a socially accepted continuum between baihua and wenyan. A person writing a letter that is otherwise in baihua might include wenyan expressions and phrases to express that the matter being discussed is formal or serious and important. A letter written completely in wenyan would be considered quaint and old-fashioned, but hardly wrong and/or incorrect.

Most Chinese people with at least a middle school education are able to read basic wenyan, because the ability to read (but not write) wenyan is part of the Chinese middle school and high school curricula and is part of the college entrance examination. Wenyan is taught primarily by presenting a classical Chinese work and including a baihua gloss that explains the meaning of phrases. Tests on classical Chinese are often essentially translation exercises that ask the student to express the meaning of a paragraph in baihua, using multiple choice.

In addition, many works of literature in wenyan (such as Tang poetry) have major cultural influences. However, even with knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, wenyan can be extremely difficult to decipher, even by educated native speakers of Chinese, because of its heavy use of literary references and allusions as well as its extremely abbreviated style.

Chinese: spoken varieties

Mandarin | Jin | Wu | Hui | Xiang | Gan | Hakka | Yue | Pinghua | Min
Danzhouhua | Shaozhou Tuhua | Xianghua

Subcategories of Min: Min Dong | Min Bei | Min Zhong | Pu Xian | Min Nan | Qiong Wen | Shao Jiang
Note: The above is only one classification scheme among many.
Comprehensive list of Chinese dialects
Official spoken varieties: Standard Mandarin | Standard Cantonese
Historical phonology: Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Proto-Min | Proto-Mandarin | Haner
Chinese: written varieties
Official written varieties: Classical Chinese | Vernacular Chinese
Other varieties: Written Cantonese

ja:漢文 sv:Klassisk kinesiska zh:文言文


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools