Classical Chinese for Everyone

Looking for a fun book? Look no further! Bryan Van Norden’s
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners is it.

This is a book for anyone who would like to learn a bit of Classical Chinese. Although the standard assumption is that if you are studying Classical Chinese you already have a few years of Modern Chinese this is not really necessary. If you look at the reviews of classical Chinese textbooks on Amazon you will see that there is a sizable group of people who are not planning on careers as Sinologists but would like to learn some Classical Chinese. This book is for them.1

One nice thing about the book is that it does not exist in a vacuum. He gives you references to all the other books out there and electronic resources like Pleco and C-text. He even admits that if you want a quick but good explanation of Kanbun the place to go is Wikipedia. While this is a book for beginners, it gives you all the tools you need to keep going. You don’t need to know about reading pronunciations 讀音, or the sexagenary cycle 六十干支, but Van Norden explains these and leaves you hungry to learn more. He is a philosophy teacher, and he is teaching Classical Chinese as a way of getting students into philosophy, so there is a good deal of philosophical content in here.2 Have you really been introduced to Analects if you have never read one of Zhu Xi’s commentaries? Not for Van Norden.

The other nice thing about the book is that it is a lot of fun. Van Norden has actually printed a lot of his classroom jokes here, and they are pretty good.

James R. Ware was the first person to receive a PhD in “Chinese Studies” from Harvard University (1932), but today he is best known for his translation of Analects 2.12: “The Gentleman is not a robot.” I would give you the original Chinese text of that passage, but it wouldn’t help.3

He also includes a few bits where he gives you various English translations of things so you can try to work out how different people tried to work out a translation. Or you can just gaze in wonder at Boodberg’s translation of 道德經 1

If you, or one of your students, or someone on your holiday gift list are interested in a career as a Sinologist, or would like to learn just enough Classical Chinese to say you know a bit, or just like learning interesting things from a good teacher you should get this book. It is by far the most fun language textbook I have ever read.

  1. Van Norden uses Rouzer’s textbook for his students with some background in Modern Chinese. I have used that as well, on the few occasions I have taught classical, but this seems a better introductory book.  

  2. That is probably unavoidable, since so many of the early texts are “philosophy”, but he frequently steps away from the language lessons to specifically explain the ideas in the text.  

  3. I will give it to you though, 子曰君子不器  


  1. I haven’t actually studied Chinese, except for a bit of Sino-Japanese training in grad school, but this might be useful in my next project, which will take me further down that road…

  2. This and the Rouzer should get you started. There are a lot more on-line resources now (C-text will give you mouse-over bad translations of a lot of the classical stuff, and this makes it a lot easier to get going.) What is the new project?

  3. Rai Sanyo’s _Nihon Gaishi_ [“A Secret History of Japan”], which was basically the mid-19c Japanese equivalent of Zinn’s “People’s History of the US” for activist reformers: apparently everyone who’s anyone in the Bakumatsu/early Meiji read it. Never been properly translated, or even written about in a substantial way, in English. I kept hoping that someone else would, but noone else did, and I have a sabbatical semester coming up.

  4. Thanks so much for making me aware of this book. All kids in Taiwan wrestle with classical Chinese in lit class, and my daughters are no exception. I read modern Chinese with moderate facility- but outside of a few Tang poems that I’ve read the 白話文解釋 for, 文言文 largely remains threateningly opaque.

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