Classical Chinese grammar

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Classical Chinese grammar is the grammar of Classical Chinese, a term that first and foremost refers to the written language of the classical period of Chinese literature, from the end of the Spring and Autumn period (early 5th century BC) to the end of the Han Dynasty (220 AD). The term "Classical Chinese" is also often used for the higher language register used in writing during most of the following centuries (a register generally referred to by sinologists as "Literary Chinese"); however, this article focuses on the grammar used in the classical period.

The present article uses modern Mandarin character readings following common practice among scholars, even though it is also possible to read Classical Chinese using the literary readings of other modern Chinese varieties (as commonly done in Hong Kong, where Cantonese readings are generally used), or even using a reconstruction of character readings belonging to centuries past.

Compared to the written vernacular Chinese of today, the most notable difference is that Classical Chinese rarely uses words composed of two Chinese characters; nearly all words are written with one character only. This stands directly in contrast with vernacular Chinese, in which two-character words are extremely common. This phenomenon exists, in part, because as sound changes created homophones among words, compounding was used to resolve ambiguities.

Typological overview[edit]

Classical Chinese has long been noted for the absence of inflectional morphology: nouns and adjectives do not inflect for case, definiteness, gender, specificity or number; neither do verbs inflect for person, number, tense, aspect, telicity, valency, evidentiality or voice. However, in terms of derivational morphology, it makes use of compounding, reduplication and perhaps affixation, although not in a productive way.[1] There is also an extensive use of zero-derivation.

The basic constituent order of Classical Chinese is subject-verb-object (SVO),[1] but is not fully consistent: there are particular situations where the VS and OV word orders appear. Topic-and-comment constructions are often used. Neither a topic, nor the subject nor objects are mandatory, being often dropped when their meaning is understood (pragmatically inferable), and copular sentences often do not have a verb.

Within a noun phrase, demonstratives, quantifying determiners, adjectives, possessors and relative clauses precede the head noun, while cardinal numbers can appear before or after the noun they modify. Within a verb phrase, adverbs usually appear before a verb. The language, as analyzed in this article, uses coverbs (in a serial verb construction) and postpositions. Classical Chinese makes heavy use of parataxis where English would use a dependent clause;[2] however, there are means to form dependent clauses, some of which appear before the main clause while others appear after. There are also a number of sentence-final particles.

Two simple coordinated nouns can be joined with a conjunction, but this is not always the case. This, combined with the fact that two nouns in a possessor-possessed construction are not always marked for their functions either, can lead to ambiguity: 山林 shān lín (literally: "mountain forest") could mean either "mountains and forests" or "the forest of a mountain".[3]

With the absence of inflectional morphology, Classical Chinese is largely a zero-marking language, except that possessors and relative clauses are usually dependent-marked with a grammatical particle.

Negation is achieved by placing a negative particle before the verb. Yes-no questions are marked with a sentence-final particle, while wh-questions are marked with in-situ interrogative pronouns. There are a number of passive constructions, but passives are sometimes not marked differently from active constructions, at least when written.[4]

The lexicon of Classical Chinese has been traditionally divided into two large categories: content words (實字 shí zì, literally: "substantial words") and function words (虛字 xū zì, literally: "empty words").[1] Scholars of Classical Chinese grammar notably disagree on how to further divide these two categories exactly, but a classification using word classes similar to those of Latin (noun, adjective, verb, pronoun, etc.) has been common.[5]

Word class flexibility[edit]

  • noun used as verb: 順流而 shùnliú ér dōng yě; lit: "along the river (to) the east", i.e. "boating along the river to row to the east"
  • noun used as adverbial: 坐於前 quǎn zuò yú qián; lit: "a dog is sitting here", i.e. "(a wolf) is sitting here like a dog"
  • verb used as noun (rare case): 御風 chéng bēn yùfēng; lit: "take ride(v.) or take the wind", i.e. "take a runaway horse or take the wind"
  • verb used as adverbial (rare case): 割地 zhēng gēdì; lit: "fight to cede territory", i.e. "cede territory akin to a race"
  • adjective used as noun: 益聖 shèng yì shèng; lit: "wise become wiser", i.e. "the wise person becomes wiser"
  • adjective used as verb: 勝地不 shèngdì bù cháng; lit: "a good place not long", i.e. "a good place does not last forever"
  • adjective used as adverbial: báifèi; lit: "vain cost", i.e. "cost... in vain"

Verbs[clarification needed][edit]

While an English sentence can be divided into active voice or passive voice depending on the form of the verb within the sentence, the verbs in classical Chinese have several usages based on the relationship between the verb and the object. These are separated into yìdòng usage (Chinese: 意動; original meaning), shǐdòng usage (Chinese: 使動), wèidòng usage (Chinese: 為動), and bèidòng (Chinese: 被動; "passive") usage. Moreover, a verb does not change its form at different situations, with the exception of the beidong usage of verbs. Within the following examples, the translated words located within brackets do not appear in the original Chinese sentence.

Yidong usage

In classical Chinese, it is common for a noun or adjective to be used as a verb or an adjective, and most of these cases involve a yidong usage of verbs. One peculiarity is that a word that is originally a verb does not share the usage. In addition, there is a slight difference in meaning between the noun and the adjective in this usage.

For a noun, it means "consider... as + (the noun)".







其 然 也

qí rán yě

the thing



(that he be invited)

{} 父 {其 然 也}

{} fù {qí rán yě}

(Zhongyong's) father profit {the thing}

The father considered the thing beneficial.

For an adjective, it means "consider... + (the adjective)".









the thing



(that there was a beautiful land)

漁 人 甚

yú rén shèn zhī

fish man very strange {the thing}

The fisherman considers the thing very strange.

Shidong usage

In this case, nouns, verbs and adjectives share the usage, with different meanings.

For a noun, it means "make... + (the noun)". For instance:




咸 陽

Xián Yáng




先 破 秦 入 {咸 陽} 者

xiān pò qín rù {Xián Yáng} zhě wáng zhī

Literal translation: (Fulfilling the agreement that) the person who defeated Qin Dynasty and entered Xianyang first would king him
Semantic translation: (Fulfilling the agreement that) the person who defeated the Qin Dynasty and entered Xianyang would be made a king.
(Note: Such scenarios are rare, however historical cases exist in ancient China. The translation of the sentence is rather controversial; the interpretation provided above represents the most widespread consensus.)

For a verb, it could mean "make... + do/done/to do", depending on the sentence. For instance:

  • 孤舟之嫠婦

Literal translation: (The music was so sad that) cry the widow in a lonely boat
Semantic translation: (The music was so sad that it) made the widow in a lonely boat cry.

For an adjective, it means "make... + (the adjective)". For instance:

  • 既來之,則

Literal translation: Since you have been here, then calm yourself here
Semantic translation: Since you have been here, make yourself calm here.

Weidong usage

The following examples demonstrate weidong usage of verbs. Such usage may occur:

  • to express a motion that is based on a purpose. For instance:
Literal translation: It's equally death (delay for work and protest the rule of the Qin Dynasty), is die country an option?
Semantic translation: It's death in any case, is dying for the country an option?
  • to express a motion that due to a particular reason. For instance:
Literal translation: He hardship cough
Semantic translation: He suffered because of a cough.
  • to help the object do something. For instance:
Literal translation: He himself introduction his own poem
Semantic translation: He wrote the introduction to his poem himself.
  • to execute a motion to the object. For instance:
Literal translation: Cry it for three days
Semantic translation: Mourn over it for three days.


Pronouns can be separated into the following groups:

  • Personal, e.g. 汝 'you'
  • Demonstrative: 此 , 斯 , 兹 'this, these'; 彼 , 夫 'that, those'; 是 shì '(anaphoric) this, that'
  • Reciprocal: 彼此 bǐcǐ 'each other'
  • Reflexive: 己
  • Interrogative: 誰 sheí 'who'; 孰 shú 'who, which'; 何 'what; why, how'; 曷 'when; what'; 奚 , 胡 'where, how, why'; 盍 'why not'; 安 ān, 焉 yān 'where, how'.
Personal pronouns
1st person , 我 , 余 , 予
2nd person ěr, 汝/女 , 而 ér, 若 ruò
3rd person zhī (accusative), 其 (genitive)

Classical Chinese did not distinguish number in some of its pronouns, for example, 我 could mean either 'I, me' or 'we, us'. The language did not have a special 3rd-person personal pronoun that could be used in subject position, but the distal demonstrative 彼 'that, those' and the anaphoric demonstrative 是 shì frequently take that role.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Peyraube, Alain (2008). "Ancient Chinese". In Woodard, Roger (ed.). The Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521684941.
  2. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin (1995). Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 0774805056.
  3. ^ Barnes, Archie; Starr, Don; Ormerod, Graham (2009). Du's Handbook of Classical Chinese Grammar. Great Britain: Alcuin Academics. ISBN 978-1904623748.
  4. ^ Aldridge, Edith (2013). Battistella, Edwin; Schilling, Natalie (eds.). "Chinese Historical Syntax: Pre-Archaic and Archaic Chinese" (PDF). Language and Linguistics Compass: Historical Linguistics. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. 7 (1): 58–77. doi:10.1111/lnc3.12007. Retrieved January 30, 2016.
  5. ^ Zádrapa, Lukáš (2011). Word Class Flexibility in Classical Chinese. Leiden and Boston: Brill. ISBN 9789004206311.

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