Chinese Philosophical Texts

1. Classical Chinese

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 “Classical” Chinese refers to the written form of Chinese employed in the Warring States period and the Han dynasty (ca. 480 B.C. – A.D. 220).  It is called “classical” because it served as the highest model to writers of later ages, although the written language continued to evolve.  The classical language is not uniform in all texts of the Warring States and the Han, but it is sufficiently constant in its basic grammatical and lexical structure to be viewed as a single language for most purposes.  In this introductory course you will be studying only the classical language, but this will provide a foundation for reading texts from later periods.


3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 There are three levels of reading necessary to understand a passage of classical Chinese: 1) the meanings of individual characters, 2) the relationship of one character to another, i.e., the grammar, 3) broader rhetorical patterns, such as parallelism, antithesis, and recurring formulas.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I. CHARACTERS

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Classical Chinese can be regarded as monosyllabic, each character representing an independent word.  As in the modern standard language, words are not inflected.  Although characters can be assigned to word-classes, i.e., noun, verb, etc., their function in sentences is much freer than in English.  The same character can function as noun, verb, adjective or adverb.  These are, of course, Western grammatical categories and not necessarily the best way of making a rigorous, linguistic analysis of classical Chinese sentences. However, they are the terms most likely to be familiar to those who use this course, and they work sufficiently well for our purposes. To attempt to elaborate a grammatical system distinctive to Chinese, as some textbooks have done, simply imposes a major additional burden on students, and a new layer of unintelligibility between them and the Chinese text.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Which sentence function a character is assigned will depend entirely upon the context formed by the surrounding characters.  Thus, the character

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 食  shí  could be:

1) noun “that which is eaten, food”
2) adjective “edible”
3) verb (transitive) “to eat (it)”
4) verb (transitive) “to eat off of, to live off of,” e.g., 食十邑 (shí shí yì) “to live off the income of ten towns”
5) verb (factitive) “to make edible”
6) verb (putative) “to regard as edible”
7) verb (causative) “to cause to eat, to feed” (read )

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 遠  yuǎn could be:

1) noun “distance”
2) adjective “distant”
3) verb (intransitive) “to be distant, to become distant”
4) verb (factitive) “to make (it) distant, put (it) at a distance”
5) verb (putative) “to consider distant”
6) adverb “distantly, over a distance, to a distance”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 白  bái could be:

1) noun “the white [color]”
2) adjective “white”
3) verb (intransitive) “to be white, to become white”
4) verb (factitive) “to make white, to whiten”
5) verb (putative) “to consider white, to regard as white”
6) verb (transitive) “to make clear, to inform, to exonerate”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 The only characters that are not grammatically variable are the particles, the so-called “empty words” which have no independent meaning and serve to indicate how other characters are to be read and how they relate to one another.  The study of these particles constitutes the major task of mastering the grammar of classical Chinese.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In addition to playing a wide range of grammatical roles, characters in classical Chinese also have a large semantic range and hence many definitions in the dictionary.  However, a character usually has a core meaning from which most of the readings can be derived.  Thus the character 方 fāng has ten definitions in the New Practical Chinese-English Dictionary, but all are derived from the early meaning of “square.”  The sense of “honest” or “upright” parallels the English “foursquare.”  The sense of “region” derives from the early cosmological model in which the world was composed of five square regions, one in the center and one in each direction.  This same derivation accounts for the meaning of “direction,” “side,” and “root” (in mathematics).  The linked senses of “occultism” and “prescription, formula, method” also derive from the sense of “side” or “direction,” in that these occult arts were regarded as partial or “biased” elements of a greater whole, or characteristic of men from certain regions.  Most characters have such a core meaning from which the multiple definitions derived, and one must try to grasp this core and not get lost in lists of possible English translations.  (It is worth noting that words in English that native speakers accept as unproblematic also have multiple definitions.  The entry for the word “free” in the Oxford English Dictionary covers three and a half pages, with more than forty definitions.)

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 One final difficulty with assigning meaning to characters derives from their phonetic nature.  Since characters represented not only a meaning but also a sound, early Chinese texts often substituted homophones for one another.  These are called “loan characters” and the student must be aware of them; the glossaries that accompany your texts will note phonetic loans.  In addition, just as English phrases such as “do not” and “will not” run together in speech to form single words represented by “don’t” and “won’t,” certain Chinese phrases were run together in speech and depicted with a single character that approximated the conflated sound.  These are called “fusion words” and they will be noted where they occur.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 II. GRAMMAR

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 As Chinese has no inflectional morphology, the grammatical functions and relations of characters are determined solely by word order and by particles.  Particles will be learned on a case-by-case basis as they are encountered, so here I will deal only with word order.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Word order, i.e., the relationship of a character to those that precede and follow it, is of supreme importance and must be scrupulously observed.  人咬犬 (人 rén “man, person”; 咬 yăo “bites”; 犬 quăn “dog”) “man bites dog” is distinctly different from 犬咬人 “dog bites man.” 大人 (大 “big”) “the big man” is not the same as 人大 “the man is big.”  Notice that the distinctions between the pairs of phrases in these two examples can be determined only from word order; if the word order is changed the meaning changes.  This importance of word order is a fundamental characteristic of classical Chinese grammar; it serves to differentiate the functions of words (subject, verb, object, etc.) that are usually defined by case inflections in Indo-European languages.  Therefore, no matter whether you are reading prose or verse, word order is always of the greatest importance for understanding the meaning.  You cannot juggle the word order around without changing the meaning of the text.  Thus it is imperative that you FOLLOW THE WORD ORDER PRECISELY even though an ad hoc variation might seem to give a “better reading.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 There are two basic rules for classical Chinese word order: 1) the standard, frame sentence order is subject-verb-object (S-V-O), 2) modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, subordinate adjective or adverb phrases, e.g., “the boy who was singing as he walked down the road”) precede the words they modify, i.e., adjectives precede nouns, adverbs precede verbs, subordinate phrases precede the words they modify.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 While the standard, frame sentence in classical Chinese is S-V-O (as in the sentences about biting given above), it is not necessary that all these elements be present.  A minimal sentence could be simply a verb, as in the imperative sentence 來 lái “Come.”  Or it could be a noun functioning verbally, as in reply to the question “What is it?” one might say 鳥 niǎo “[It is a] bird.”  Frequently in classical Chinese the subject will not be explicitly stated where the context makes clear its identity, thus producing sentences like 咬人 “(It) bit(es) the man.”  Again, it is not uncommon to have sentences where a normally intransitive verb is followed by an object, in which case the verb usually takes on a causative sense, e.g., 來犬 “(Subject) causes the dog to come,” in contrast to 犬來  “The dog comes.”

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In the lists above, transitive verbs were divided into three categories: simple transitive, factitive, and putative.  In the first category, the verb acts on the object, without specifying whether the latter is changed, e.g., “dog bites man.”  The second category refers to verbs that indicate an actual change in the object imposed from the outside.  These could be a derivative use of a normally transitive verb (食 shí meaning “to make edible” rather than “to eat”) or of a normally intransitive verb (小 xiǎo meaning “to make smaller, to shrink,” rather than “to be small”).  The final category indicates a purely mental operation performed upon the object (小 meaning “to think something is small” rather than “to be small”).  Sometimes, when an ordinarily transitive verb lacks an object, it takes on a passive sense, e.g., 犬食 “The dog is eaten,” but such uses will usually be marked with a particle.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Another important grammatical type in classical Chinese is the pre-posed Topic-Comment sentence.  The topic is the logical subject of the sentence, but not the grammatical subject of the verb (as in the English sentence “Scotland, I’ve never been there,” where Scotland is the topic of the sentence, but the grammatical subject is “I”).  Sentences of this type can be analyzed as: “As for the Topic, Subject-Predicate.”  Thus, in a sentence from the Mencius, 里,仁為美 lĭ, rén wéi měi (“As for neighborhoods [里], humaneness [仁] constitutes [為] excellence [美]”), in the choice of a place to live, the humane character of the inhabitants is the crucial factor. In this sentence “neighborhood” is the topic, while “humaneness” is the grammatical subject. Sometimes the subject will be a “resuming pronoun” that simply restates the topic, as in the English “My brother, he is a doctor.”  Thus 富貴,此人之欲 (fù guì, cĭ rén zhī yù) “As for wealth and nobility, these are men’s desires.” Such topics are not routinely set off by commas by modern editors; there was no punctuation in early texts.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Another addition to the S-V-O frame is expressions indicating time and place.  A time expression indicating when an event takes place will precede the verb.   If it appears at the beginning of a sentence it has the entire sentence as its scope; if it appears after the subject and before the verb, it modifies the verbal phrase only.  In translation, the difference is often not significant.  今日犬死 (jīn rì quǎn sǐ) “The dog died today.”  子( 於)是日哭 (zǐ [yú] shì rì kū) “The master wept on this day.” Expressions of duration usually follow the verb 子來幾日 (zǐ lái jǐ rì) “How many days have you been here?” except in negative sentences 三日不食 (sān rì bù shí) “He didn’t eat for three days.”  Expressions indicating place usually follow the verb, in contrast with the modern standard language where they precede it.  The expressions will usually be marked by the standard preposition 於 , as in 子死於此樹之下 (zǐ sǐ yú cǐ shù zhī xià) “The master died beneath this tree.” However, this character can be omitted, and often was in the later classical period.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Thus a sentence can have all or some of the following elements:

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 TIME – TOPIC- SUBJECT – TIME -VERB – OBJECT – DURATION- 於 – PLACE

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The subject and object could be composed of: 1) noun, 2) noun1 + noun2, 3) noun’s noun, 4) adjective + noun, 5) subject + verb, 6) verb + object, 7) subordinate phrase + noun, 8) verb 於 place, etc.  The verb could be composed of: 1) verb, 2) verb1 + verb2, 3) adverb + verb, 4) negative + verb, 5) verb + complement (duration, extent, result, etc.).

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Basic grammatical functions such as negation, conjunction, modalities (want to, able to, have to) and indicating a question are performed by the particles.  These function words and their uses will be introduced as they appear in the text extracts studied in the course.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 III. PARALLELISM

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 A very common feature of Chinese prose and verse is grammatical and stylistic parallelism, in which the functions of the corresponding words in a pair of phrases are largely the same.  For example, in a pair of parallel phrases — A B C : D E F — A and D will have the same grammatical function, as will B and E, and also C and F.  Because word order is of such great importance in classical Chinese grammar, parallel phrasing should be viewed as more than a mere stylistic device, since it frequently helps a great deal in determining the grammatical structure of a text.  This is especially so when one line of a pair of parallel lines is difficult; its meaning can usually be determined by reference to the grammatical functions of the corresponding words in the other line.  In most cases the parallelism is direct: A B : A’ B’.  Occasionally the word order is inverted: A B : B’ A’.  Some Han examples have two parallel phrases of more than a dozen characters each, but for purposes of demonstration I will confine myself to the shortest possible parallel phrases, those of two characters each.  Such phrases can take the form of Subject Verb : Subject Verb 天大地小 (tiān dà dì xiǎo) “Heaven is great and Earth small”; Verb Object : Verb Object 上山入穴 (shàng shān rù xuè) “Ascend the mountain, enter the cave”; Adjective Noun : Adjective Noun 異路同歸 (yì lù tóng guī) “Different roads, same destination”; Adverb Verb : Adverb Verb 東跑西奔 (dōng păo xī bēn) “Running east, fleeing west,” etc.  Note that in parallel phrases matching words will often be semantic opposites, e.g., east vs. west, same vs. different, big vs. small, Heaven vs. earth, etc.  Such antithesis is a major feature of classical Chinese parallelism, and still exists in modern idioms.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 IV.  SUGGESTIONS FOR TRANSLATING

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 When translating classical Chinese, it is important that you go through the following steps in order to maximize the accuracy of your translation and minimize error.  Some or all of these steps may be done in writing, or steps 1 through four may be carried out in your head and step 5 alone set down in writing.  In any case, it is important to follow all of these steps in sequence.  It is insufficient, and often leads to error, to omit steps 1 to 4 by saying, “It means something like . . .” and then proceeding directly to step 5.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 1) Determine the exact meaning or meanings of each word.  Bear in mind the core meaning of each word. This is often a concrete sense that, by metaphorical extension and related processes, will develop figurative or abstract meanings.  Look for phrases in grammatical or stylistic parallelism.  In searching for such phrases, try to find synonyms or antonyms that commonly pair or play against one another.  Look for particles that will mark the beginning or end of sentences or show links between phrases (these will be introduced throughout the course).  Such relations will often suggest the particular meaning or nuance of a word in a specific context.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 2) Determine the exact grammatical relationships between each word and the words immediately around it.  This means to identify whether A is an adjective modifying B, or A is a verb with B as its object, etc.  This step is not entirely separable from step one, since the determination of grammatical function will affect the definition and vice versa.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 3) Determine the exact grammatical relationships between each word and its relatively distant neighbors to delimit the various phrases of the text.  In doing this you will mark off the large sentence components, e.g., subject, verb, object, etc.  Again, this step is closely linked to steps 1 and 2, and conclusions reached here may lead to modifications in the earlier steps.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 4) Make a literal, and often “wooden,” translation that accounts for every word and every feature of each phrase and sentence.  This will enable you to clearly and precisely understand the exact meaning of the text and its metaphorical or extended implications.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 5) Make a final translation into literate, standard English by revising the translation of step 4 to meet the requirements of English grammar and usage.  Pay attention to the “tone” of the text and try to account for this in your translation.   For example, a very pompous statement might appropriately be translated into pompous English; a prayer, oath or invocation might appropriately be translated into analogous English style; an easy-going dialogue might be translated into somewhat free-flowing conversational English.  At this point, however, it is more important to make a translation that helps you to grasp the Chinese than one that reflects the level of your English.

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