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Literary Chinese at Cambridge

Literary Chinese (wenyan 文言at Cambridge



1. What is Literary Chinese?

Literary Chinese, or wenyan 文言, refers to various forms of the written language used in China from the earliest periods down to the present day (the word ‘literary’ in this context means ‘written’ rather than ‘pertaining to literature’). Literary Chinese was the main language of written communication across East Asia from antiquity until the early twentieth century. ‘Classical’ Chinese strictly speaking refers to the language of the Chinese Classics but you will hear students and teachers often refer to all formal ways of writing in Chinese prior to the early 20th century as ‘classical’. (In China it is referred to as gudai hanyu 古代漢語 ‘ancient/pre-modern Chinese’). Literary Chinese was the principal vehicle of culture in China and East Asia for many centuries. It was the ‘lingua franca’ (a universal literary and administrative language) among the educated classes. Its impact and reach therefore can be compared to that of Latin and French during large parts of European history or indeed English today. The ability to write and read texts written in literary Chinese continues to be a defining feature of the educated person in Chinese societies.

Note that wenyan is not fundamentally spoken, albeit that reciting, memorising and quoting from famous texts was, and still is, common practice. Modern Mandarin, in both spoken and written form, is peppered with a vast amount of vocabulary, proverbs, analogies and anecdotal references borrowed from literary Chinese. At least from our modern point of view today, literary Chinese is a language that is primarily to be seen and read and not be heard (with poetry as a possible exception). Therefore spoken Mandarin and literary Chinese are two different linguistic media, and it is essential to master both in order to plumb below the surface level of your encounter with Chinese civilisation. Literary Chinese is much more than a simplified or ‘essential’ transcription of speech. In fact you will find that you will be able to read about topics, ideas, and themes in the literary language much earlier and at a more advanced level than you will be able to do in Modern Mandarin. 


2. What will you learn in the course?

At Cambridge we teach literary Chinese as a required part of the core curriculum in each of the four years you spend with us (including the year abroad). In the first year, after you have had a term of intensive modern Mandarin, we start with excerpts from China’s most famous philosophers from the classical period (including thinkers such as Confucius 孔子, Mencius 孟子, and Zhuangzi 莊子). We add to these stories and anecdotes from the same period, as they provide the best way into the basic grammar of how the language works. With the philosophers under the belt, you will then learn how to read traditional Chinese poetry in the second year with highlights from the Han 漢 and Tang 唐 periods. You will also learn in your second year to read ‘fiction’ in literary Chinese, ranging from medieval tales of the fantastic to a late imperial diary, and indeed, a spot of Sherlock Holmes! You will continue honing your literary-Chinese skills while doing the year-abroad in China, covering a range of texts including chapters from the most famous novels of the Ming 明 and Qing 清 dynasties (e.g. 紅樓夢 The Dream of the Red Chamber). In the fourth year, when you return from your year abroad, you will have all tools to tackle a selection of writings that represent the incredibly vast corpus of genres in the literary language that China has produced. On the menu will be a selection that includes passages from a medical treatise, Buddhist stories, a military treatise, Song dynasty literary genres and travel literature.

Classes in literary Chinese combine language learning and an engagement with the content and context in which the texts were produced. We read authentic texts in the original language but also talk about their historical and social background. Thus literary Chinese classes are just as much about the language as about traditional Chinese culture and society. 


3. How is Literary Chinese used today?

Literary Chinese is by no means a ‘dead’ language (like Latin or ancient Greek). Despite attempts by the New Culture Movement during the May Fourth period (ca. 1915-1921) to abolish its official use in favour of a more vernacular Chinese, the literary language continues to permeate the Chinese language and Chinese culture at large. In fact, as we speak, China is witnessing the most rigorous revival in its own pre-modern tradition and in contrast with the previous decades this tradition is now a source of national pride and increasingly part of modern cultural identity. In short, literary Chinese has left and continues to leave a DNA imprint on Chinese culture at various levels. Modern Mandarin is replete with idioms, allusions, and analogies that derive from traditional culture written in wenyan. Chinese art and calligraphy are only the most obvious media where literary Chinese continues to be used on a daily basis, but classical references—often cited directly in the original language—are often used in speeches delivered by diplomats, politicians and other public figures. 


4. Why is Literary Chinese a required course at Cambridge?

While not all university courses in Chinese Studies expose students to literary Chinese, most full-time Chinese Studies programs in the UK and Europe will train students in literary Chinese as part of their regular curriculum. At Cambridge we believe that training in literary Chinese is as essential to the aspiring China specialist as calculus is to a mathematician, Shakespeare to a student of English, or anatomy to a student of medicine. Literary Chinese permeates every aspect of traditional Chinese culture, as well as the modern language. Without it, not only would you not be able to read any document produced prior to the early 20th century but, even more importantly, you would not be able to detect its impact on literary and everyday expressions today. Whether you are interested in literature, art, poetry, linguistics, history, law, philosophy or simply wish to read newspapers, decipher traffic signs and restaurant menus, party slogans, TV subtitles or advertising billboards,  you will need literary Chinese.

By learning wenyan you will have the linguistic tools necessary to connect with the past and appreciate the richness of the written tradition that to a large extent defines modern Chinese identity. Even when speaking or reading modern Chinese, you will be able to recognise allusions and references that otherwise would remain hidden from you, and to detect the subtleties of irony, humour or sarcasm they meant to convey. By studying literary Chinese, you will enable yourself to understand modern Chinese speech or writing at a deeper level, and you will get a proper feel of how to write in Chinese beyond reproducing colloquial Chinese.

The past is never completely gone. It lives on as a cultural tradition that determines the identity of a people today. Language is part of this tradition and is thus an essential component of modern culture. This is especially the case in Chinese where written sources from former time periods have been the backbone of literary education for the past two millennia and continue to be so today as soon as children begin learning to read and write. 


5. What other benefits do you gain from learning literary Chinese?

On a most immediate level, learning literary Chinese will enable you to engage with an extremely diverse range of material, including administrative documents, historiographical works, religious scriptures, novels and other literary genres, letters, medical and divination treatises, books on military strategy, personal diaries, official correspondence, gazetteers and early newspapers. The ability to read the language gives you access to a vast body of sources, only a fraction of which is available in translation (in modern Chinese or Western languages).

On a daily level, you will be able to fully understand historical films and novels which increasingly rely on literary Chinese to convey a sense of historical authenticity and to connect with the elite culture of the past. You will notice the implicit connections with the past and understand what is implied by those connections. When learning quotes and proverbs commonly used in modern speech, you will be able to understand what they mean exactly, rather than having to memorise random strings of syllables.

In sum, learning literary Chinese is an essential tool for tapping into deeper layers of Chinese culture and is simply indispensable for a thorough understanding of China, regardless of whether you are studying pre-modern or modern China, or whether you are interested in the future transformations of this ever-changing yet resolutely tradition-minded civilisation!