Middle Chinese

From Academic Kids

Middle Chinese (中古漢語, pinyin: zhōnggǔ Hnyǔ), or Ancient Chinese as used by linguist Bernhard Karlgren, refers to the Chinese language spoken during Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (6th century - 10th century). The term "Middle Chinese" is usually used in the context of historical Chinese phonology, which seeks to reconstruct the pronunciation of Chinese used during these times.

Middle Chinese can be divided into an early period, generally called Early Middle Chinese, and a later period, Late Middle Chinese. The transition point between Early and Later Middle Chinese is thought to be during the Mid-Tang Dynasty and is indicated by the phonological developments. For example, in the rime book Qieyun, bilabial initials [p pʰ b m] characters are shown, but there were no labiodental initials like f and v, but which could be found in Jiyun. This indicates that a sound change in the pronunciation of Chinese had occurred.


Chinese is not written using an alphabetic script, therefore, sounds cannot be derived directly from writing. The sounds of Middle Chinese must therefore be inferred from a number of sources:

  • Modern dialects. Just as Proto-Indo-European can be reconstructed from modern Indo-European languages, so can Middle Chinese be reconstructed (tentatively) from modern dialects.
  • Preserved pronunciation of Chinese characters in borrowed Chinese vocabulary surviving in non-Chinese languages such as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese
  • Classical Chinese poetry from the Middle Chinese period
  • Rime books. Ancient Chinese philologists devoted great amount of effort in summarizing the Chinese phonetic system through rime books.
  • Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words

The reconstruction between modern linguists may vary slightly, but they are minor differences, and fairly uncontroversial, so we could say the Middle Chinese phonology is fairly well understood and accepted.

Phonetic translations

Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words often provide clues. For example, "Dravida" was translated by religious scribes into a series of characters 達羅毗荼 that are now read in Mandarin as /ta35 lwo35 phi35 thu35/ (Pinyin: Dlupt). This suggests that Mandarin /wo/ (Pinyin -uo) is the modern reflexes of an ancient /a/-like sound, and that the Mandarin tone /35/ is a reflex of ancient voiced consonants. Both of these can in fact be confirmed through comparison among modern Chinese dialects.

Rime dictionaries

The profuse output of Chinese poetry during the Tang era with its rigid verse structures relies on the rhyming and tone of the end characters of a line of poetry. Middle Chinese as embodied in rime dictionaries (or rime books) were a primary aid to authors in composing rhyming poetry.

The 切韻 'Qieyun' rime dictionary (A.D. 601) (by Lu Fayan et al.) is our earliest fixed record of the phonology of Chinese pronunciation, albeit without the aid of phonetic letters, but entries that are indexed under a rigorous hierarchy of tone, rime, and onset. Only fragments or incomplete copies have survived until a chance discovery of a version of it from the Tang Dynasty in the caves of Dunhuang. Later expanded rime dictionaries such as the eleventh-century Song Dynasty 廣韻 'Guangyun' and 'Jiyun' rime dictionaries survive to the present day. The latter being essentially extended versions of Qieyun, and until the Dunhuang discovery, Guangyun was the base from which Middle Chinese was reconstructed.

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

zh:中古汉语 fr:chinois mdival


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