If you’re like me (you poor thing) and are planning on doing China-related research, you’ll most likely need to learn Classical/Literary Chinese. And if you’re like me, you want to get started on it ASAP because hey, it’s interesting stuff. Or at least because you know you need to master it and had better get on with it. And if you’re even more like me, you’re probably frustrated that your school hardly offers any relevant classes due to lack of student interest (there must not be many people like me after all).

Fortunately, there are some pretty good options out there for people who want to self-study Literary Chinese. But first, let’s talk about that term. Is it Literary Chinese or Classical Chinese? Well, the two terms are usually interchangeable, but if you want to be precise with it, Classical Chinese (古文) refers to the Chinese of the Classical period, beginning in the Warring States period and lasting through the end of the Han dynasty. Literary Chinese (文言文) starts from the Han dynasty and continues up through the early 20th century, when it was officially replaced by 白話, or Vernacular Chinese, though some people did continue to use Literary Chinese after this point. But for the purposes of this article, I will just use the term Literary Chinese for both.

Now that that’s out of the way, how does one go about learning this language? Well, if your Chinese is good enough to read books for native speakers, you can’t go wrong with Wang Li’s Gudai Hanyu (王力古代漢語). But if you’re not to that level yet, you’ll want to use something in English.

In language schools in Taiwan, it seems there are a few books used for this. The most common is Harold Shadick’s A First Course in Literary Chinese. It’s been around forever (since 1968), and I guess most schools don’t see a reason to change. I suppose when it came out it was probably the best thing out there, since it was the first (or one of the first) books to attempt to teach a rigorous grammatical analysis of the language. Before that, I guess you were expected to learn via osmosis, just getting a good “feel” for the language. For anyone who has studied Latin, this is like the Wheelock’s of Literary Chinese. It’s a dinosaur, but it’s still used because teachers feel like they can get away with sticking with what’s comfortable when there are so few students studying it. But there’s better stuff available now.

The best thing out there from what I’ve gathered is Michael Fuller’s An Introduction to Literary Chinese. It’s much newer (1999, revised 2004), and takes into account recent scholarship into the grammar of Classical Chinese (“Classical” in its true sense, since most of the book’s materials come from that period). It makes frequent references to Edwin Pulleyblank’s Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar, so you may want to pick up a copy of that too for reference. There are other, more recent books than Fuller’s, but from what I’ve seen none of them are of quite the same caliber.

Fuller starts out with 8 Lessons teaching the basic structure of the language. He also includes a little about reading classical commentary and resources to use when you have questions, such as large scholarly dictionaries. The second part, Intermediate Texts, consists of 16 lessons. They are all, like the Beginning Texts, from classical sources like Confucius, Strategies of the Warring States, Mencius, etc. The Advanced Texts section consists of longer readings from classical and Jin dynasty authors. The fourth part is selections of Tang and Song dynasty prose and poetry. He gradually gives you more work to do as the book goes on, including bibliographic exercises (verify what work X means by using dictionary Y; find country A on the map in atlas B, etc.) and further reading. The book is excellent, and really makes you think about why each phrase means what it does, from both grammatical and contextual points of view.

After this point, you could theoretically move on to reading whatever strikes you, though I think it would be difficult. Fortunately, there’s a book that seems to be pretty good (my level isn’t there yet, but it looks good after a flip through) for advanced beginners. It’s called Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners (convenient, right?), and it’s by the Inter-University Board for Chinese Language Studies. It contains readings from the classical period up through the Republican period, and is intended for students who have already completed a beginner’s textbook. The textbook it mentions specifically is Shadick’s (surprised?), but according to chrix at Chinese-forums it’s an appropriate book for someone who has finished Fuller, and preferably Pulleyblank’s Outline as well. The aim of the book is to take the student from such a level to being able to read the 古文觀止, and as such, contains nothing that’s in the 古文觀止 so as to avoid repetition.

So what’s the 古文觀止? It’s a book compiled during the Qing dynasty that sought to bring together more than 200 of the most exemplary prose writings from the Warring States period through the Ming dynasty, a span of around 2000 years. It’s something like a Norton’s Anthology for Chinese literature, and in fact it’s often called “A Survey of Classical Chinese” in English. Taiwanese students often study this in preparation for their college entry exams (and Taiwanese adults tend to groan when I mention it). It’s about the closest thing to a broad overview of Chinese literature as there is.

But it isn’t enough. There’s no poetry here, and Chinese poetry is, for many, the prime motivation for learning to read Literary Chinese. Even if it isn’t your main reason, you still ought to read some. The most famous poems are from the Tang and Song dynasties, although the (reputedly quite difficult) Classic of Poetry 詩經 is also worth looking at. There is a collection of 300 Tang poems compiled during the Qing (they like to compile stuff during the Qing) called 唐詩三百首, and a similar compilation of Song poems compiled in the 20th century called 宋詞三百首. However, there are more than 50,000 poems extant from the Tang dynasty alone, so rest assured that there is plenty for you from all periods, no matter what your poetic interests are.

You’ll likely want to read the Four Books and Five Classics 四書五經, which form the basis of Confucian thought and were read by pretty much every scholar for two millennia. The classics of Daoism, like the Dao De Jing 道德經, Zhuangzi 莊子, or Liezi 列子 may also pique your interest.

Also of interest are historical texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian 史記 and the Dynastic Histories. The latter consists of 3213 volumes and over 40 million words, according to Wikipedia, so rest assured you will never run out of reading material.

Of course there is plenty of other stuff to read. If your interests lean toward the religious, Chinese has a rich history of Buddhist texts. If you like strange stories, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊齋志異 may be for you. If you like novels, the Four Great Classical Novels 四大名著 await. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義, Water Margin 水滸傳, Journey to the West 西遊記, and Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 (which replaced The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅 on the list) are some of the longest and oldest novels in the world. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has nearly 1000 characters and is nearly 1 million characters long. Again, you won’t soon run out of reading material here.

That’s something that strikes me over and over about Chinese – the sheer overwhelming vastness of it. Everything is so exaggeratedly huge. Take the Four Treasuries 四庫全書, for example. Compiled in the Qing dynasty (again with the compiling), Wikipedia says (although without a source) that it “is the largest collection of books in Chinese history and was probably the most ambitious editorial enterprise in the history of the world”. Even without a source, that probably isn’t much of a stretch. The Four Treasuries is a collection of books containing most of the major works from the Zhou to the Qing, and covers “all domains of academia”. It was published in 36,381 volumes, comprised of 2.3 million pages, and contains over 800 million characters. There were nearly 4000 scribes working on the project. It remains an important resource for anyone doing research on imperial China today.

But none of this matters if you don’t get started studying now. Buy Fuller and Pulleyblank, and then move on to Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners. After that move on to 古文觀止, Tang and Song Poetry, The Four Books and Five Classics, etc. And onward and upward to whatever ignites your fire. This is a huge project, and it will take years to get a good overview of what’s out there, so get started!

Note: If you’re in Taiwan, you can buy the excellent 三民 edition of many of the works I mentioned here. These generally include Bopomofo annotation (learn to at least read it if you haven’t, it’s a useful tool that takes little investment), commentary, and a translation into modern Chinese. They’re excellent, and you can find good, clean, used copies at secondhand bookstores all over Taipei at a good discount. You can find Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners at the Lucky Bookstore on Heping E. Road across from MTC, or at SMC’s bookstore off of Roosevelt Road.