As usual, I wrote this article all in one sitting without planning it out beforehand, and without going back to make sure I had said everything I wanted to. So while I was thinking about it today, I realized there were a few things I wanted to talk about that I forgot.
First, there are dictionaries. If you’re using a textbook, it will probably gloss all the words. However, if you ever want to read anything outside of your textbook (you do, right?), you’ll want a good dictionary. Not to mention, if you’re using Fuller’s book, he frequently gives “homework” that involves checking a large scholarly dictionary. Sometimes, however, a smaller dictionary will do just fine.
For learners, there are a few options. One of the most popular dictionaries is 古代漢語常用字字典 by 王力. It’s no coincidence that his name keeps popping up, by the way. He’s the man. This dictionary has something like 4500 of the most commonly used characters in Literary Chinese defined, with citations from the literature. 王力 also made another, bigger, dictionary, called 王力古漢語字典, which contains definitions, fanqie 反切 spellings, and citations for 10,000 characters. I’d recommend buying both. Keep the former in your backpack, and the latter on your desk.
These two will serve your purposes for the most part. For the times when you need something a little more heavy-duty, head to the library. The best thing out there is the 漢語大詞典, and its sister, the 漢語大字典. They are the most comprehensive dictionaries out there for Literary Chinese. If you can read Japanese, Morohashi Tetsuji’s 大漢和辞典 is also highly recommended.
Odds are, if you aren’t at a very high level in Chinese, you will have to use another dictionary to check your understanding of the above dictionaries. Pleco is great for this, because you can quickly write on the screen to look it up. Not to mention they will soon (hopefully) be releasing a Classical Chinese dictionary, 古漢語大詞典. It may be tempting to try to find a Chinese-English dictionary of Classical Chinese, like Mathews, but don’t! Mathews’ dictionary is no longer recommended by scholars because it not only mixes up usage from different periods, but it also has many outright errors. If you must have something and can read French, Couvreur’s Dictionnaire Classique De La Langue Chinoise is supposed to be decent, but I don’t have any personal experience with it. You’re much better off using a dictionary in Chinese.
Next, I’d like to address some confusion I’ve seen around the internet. There seems to be some idea out there that when you learn Literary Chinese, you have to learn the way it was pronounced. This can’t be further from the truth. You learn to read using modern Chinese pronunciation. Usually Mandarin, but of course it can be read in any Chinese language if you know the rules behind it. Sometimes you will encounter literary pronunciations of some characters, intended to be more conservative and represent the way the character should sound now based on its fanqie spelling. 他 is an example, as it is commonly pronounced tā in Mandarin, but its literary pronunciation is tuō. This practice seems to be more and more rare.
Some scholars do work on reconstructing the pronunciation of older incarnations of Chinese, but that’s a specialized field and is unnecessary unless you have specific interests in that subject. It does help to be familiar with some of the principles, because you will come across things like fanqie spellings and will need to understand how to deal with them, but don’t think that you need to be able to pronounce everything you read in Middle or Old Chinese. That’s simply not the case.
Another misconception I’ve seen is that in order to read Classical Chinese, you need to learn older forms of the characters. I don’t know if this stems from confusion over simplified and traditional characters or what, but it isn’t true. For some fields of research, an ability to read epigraphic materials using old forms (seal script, bronze script, etc.) is indispensable. However, most people will never need this, as interesting as it is. If this does interest you, I highly recommend this site.
For more information, I recommend taking a look at this site, specifically under “Dictionaries and reference works”. For more specialized dictionaries and information on other resources, Benjamin Elman’s page on Classical Historiography for Chinese History is excellent.
If you live in Taipei and are interested in this sort of stuff, drop me a line. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a Literary Chinese study/meetup group while I’m here for the next couple years, if there’s enough interest. I think it would be great to have a group of people to keep each other accountable and motivated, not to mention the benefits of different people having differing viewpoints and interests in sinology.
That’s all (I hope)! Good luck with your studies!