This is turning into a real series. Now, bear in mind that I’m far from being an expert in this area, or in anything I’ve been rambling about on this blog, so take this article as the opinion of someone who’s still very much in the beginning stages of studying 文言文.

A reader asked me:

If I had to buy one 文言文 book, what would you suggest? I’d like to get started on that. Thanks.

Well, that’s hard to say. It depends what your current level is in modern Chinese, what you goal is with learning 文言文 (whether to improve your reading ability in modern Chinese or because you want to be able to read the classics or whatever), and all kinds of things. However, I don’t think anyone can go wrong with Michael Fuller’s An Introduction to Literary Chinese. There are other textbooks in English out there, even some good ones, but I’ve seen this one recommended time and again by both professors and learners as the best book for beginners in Literary Chinese. I should also mention Paul Rouzer’s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, which I left at home in the States because I like Fuller’s book better. Rouzer’s is a bit newer, and also comes highly recommended by those who know, but I personally prefer the way Fuller’s book is structured, not to mention that Fuller’s book is designed specifically with Pulleyblank’s Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar in mind.

Fuller starts out with a brief “sketch” of Literary Chinese in which he discusses the basic structure of the language, pronunciation in Old and Middle Chinese, periodization of the language, etc. After that comes Part One, Texts to Introduce Basic Grammar, which contains eight lessons. Each lesson introduces you to a different aspect of syntax, and the texts for each lesson are pulled from Classical sources, so from the beginning you’re reading selections from 論語, 韓非子, 戰國策, 孟子, etc. The lessons introduce concepts like nominal and verbal sentences, parts of speech, coordinate verbs, nominalized verbs, auxiliary verbs, embedded sentences, etc. There’s also a very basic introduction to reading classical commentary.

Part Two is Intermediate Texts, consisting of 16 lessons (9-24). Again, these are pulled from texts like 說苑, 新序, 莊子, 史記, etc. The texts gradually increase in length and difficulty, until in Lesson 24 you read a nearly 700-character biography of 淳于髡 from 史記.

Part Three, Advanced Texts, has five selections from 孟子, 莊子, 史記, 王羲之, and 陶潛. The passages are quite a bit longer than any of the intermediate texts. For instance, while the passage in Lesson 24 takes up about a page and a half, the selection for Lesson 25 takes up nearly 6 pages altogether.

Up until the end of the Advanced Texts (Lesson 29), the format is designed to hold your hand. You have explanations of the context of what you’re reading, glosses of every new word you encounter, helpful notes about syntax and style, questions to help you think further about the meaning or syntax of the text, sentence patterns, and bibliographic exercises (one of the best features of the book, IMO). The Advanced Texts cut away a good portion of this, but you still have glosses for new words, introductions to the texts, and suggestions for further reading.

In the last section of the book, however, there is no more hand-holding. Lessons 30-35 are selections from various Tang and Song Dynasty works, and there are no glosses, no notes, no anything other than the text itself. Thankfully, there is still punctuation. The idea is that at this stage, if you’ve been studious and have been doing your bibliographic exercises, you’ve developed the skills to be able to tackle these last texts yourself. Get yourself to the library and dig in.

And that, in my opinion, is the beauty of this book. The goal is to get you reading Literary Chinese texts on your own. By the end, you’ve learned to use big scholarly dictionaries, atlases, etc. to find what you need to know. You’ve gotten some practice with reading and interpreting classical commentaries. These are things you need to be able to do if it is your goal to truly be competent in reading Literary Chinese.

Fuller gives suggestions for further reading, references to Pulleyblank’s outstanding Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar, and such throughout the book. This is excellent stuff for the would-be scholar or for someone who really wants to master Literary Chinese. It may be a bit much for someone who is learning Literary Chinese mainly to improve his modern Chinese reading comprehension. Not that such a person wouldn’t benefit from such things, it’s just that I feel like most people who have no interest in or use for Literary Chinese in and of itself would think this is overkill. I’m not sure which book to recommend for such a person.

However, if your Chinese is at a high enough level that you can get through books and articles in Chinese (with a dictionary) and could probably take a university course taught in Chinese, there may be a book for you. Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners (進階文言文讀本) is published by SMC Publishing here in Taiwan, and was written by faculty at ICLP. The preface of the book describes its intended audience like this:

Such students can be considered relatively “advanced” in modern Chinese, in the sense that they are near the threshold of functionality in academic Chinese, but are “beginners” in literary Chinese….Another level where this textbook can be profitably used is between an English-based literary Chinese primer such as Harold Shadick’s A First Course in Literary Chinese and a standard literary Chinese textbook designed for native Chinese students.

It consists of 20 selections in roughly chronological order from the pre-Qin to late-Qing era, plus two unglossed early-Republican period texts. None of the texts overlap with 古文觀止 or Shadick’s book, though some do overlap with Fuller’s book. Nevertheless, it seems to be a great book for the two types of students mentioned above. Bear in mind the book contains only the text and glosses for vocab, all of which is in Chinese. No notes, etc. It also contains a glossary of vocabulary and a glossary of grammatical function words. So again, you really need to be at a pretty high level in modern Chinese, or have a good handle on literary Chinese, to utilize this book.

One thing I like is that it includes selections from all periods of Chinese history, while Fuller’s book is weighted heavily toward Zhou-Han Dynasty texts. This is another thing that I think would make these two books a good pair: you build a foundation with classical-era texts, and then move on to read stuff from later periods as well, allowing you to see how the language developed over time.

So there it is: two choices for a first Literary Chinese textbook (although I suspect Rouzer’s book can also be a good choice). Most people will probably do better starting with Fuller’s book first, but if your Chinese is already at a high level, or you’ve already studied Fuller or another introductory book, Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners is another option. Of course, it goes without saying that if you can purchase more than one book, you should. Get a few. Definitely get Pulleyblank’s Outline. Get a few dictionaries (you’ll need them).

Happy reading!