November 20, 2010


I enjoyed the courses on Classical Chinese I had taken in our Chinese department very much and thought that every now and then it might be a good idea to post some of the texts with grammar and vocabulary explanations here. I spent so much time with those texts and feel sorry that they fade away and so does my knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary so I thought I would post one short text once in a while, analyzing the structures just like we had done during our courses for other enthusiasts, or anyone interested.

Chinese is not the most popular language for western students and Classical Chinese even less so, so I imagine that there will not be a lot of people reading this, but I think it could still be a very interesting read for anyone. You don't need to speak any modern Chinese language to be able to read Classical Chinese. For me personally it is great pleasure, to be able to read something that has been written 2500 plus years ago in its original form, just like it was written yesterday and I'm sure many people find it fascinating as well.

Apart from the artistic/philosophical element, Classical Chinese also helped me read modern texts. It's not only because of the 成語 or vocabulary, but also because of the grammar patterns that pop up here and there in books or newspaper articles.

I decided to analyze a short text we did back in 2008 from the book of 韓非子, from which the 成語 – 守株待兔 originates. I think it's a very nice short introductory story when it comes to Classical Chinese, since it is simple and short yet introduces at least some of the more common grammar features of the language as well as offers readers a glance at what Classical Chinese is about.


守株得兔. 宋人有耕田者, 田中有株, 兔走觸株, 折頸而死, 因釋其耒而守株, 冀復得兔, 兔不可復得, 而身為宋國笑.

Seal Script version:

守株得兔. 宋人有耕田者, 田中有株, 兔走, 而死, 其耒而守株, 得兔, 兔不可, 而身.

Translation (the nice one, not the literal one):

守株得兔 - Trying to catch a rabbit by guarding a tree stump.

1 宋人有耕田者. A man from the state of Song was ploughing his field

2 田中有株, at the field there was a tree stump.
3 兔走觸株, A rabbit came running along and ran into the tree stump.
4 折頸而死. He broke his neck and died.
5 因釋其耒而守株.So the man from Song discarded his plough and kept guard at the stump
6 冀復得兔. hoping he would catch another rabbit this way.
7 兔不可復得 It was impossible to catch another rabbit
8 而身為宋國笑. and this man became a laughing stock for the state of Song.


耕 - geng1 - plough, cultivate (fields etc)

株 - zhu1 - tree stump
走 - zou3 - run (as fast as one can); run about
折 - zhe2 - break off
頸 - jing3 - front of neck, throat; whole of neck
耒 - lei3 - plough; hand-pulled plough
冀 - ji4 - hope to
守 - shou3 - keep guard at
復 - fu4 - again
笑 - xiao4 - be laughed at
身 - shen1 - himself; oneself; the person him/herself

Sentence structure analysis:

I remember it took us an hour and a half during our first class to work through a similar simple text in Classical Chinese which was shorter than this one, so I will probably not be able to explain everything in detail to those who have no knowledge of Chinese at all, but I will try my best to focus on the basics.


This title literally translates as: Guard – tree stump – get hold of, get into your possession – rabbit. Classical Chinese sentences are extremely "raw". Verbs and nouns are often made mostly of one character (as opposed to Mandarin for instance, and the term “character” is more suitable since it is unclear, whether in Classical Chinese one character represented one or more syllables) which some might argue is an advantage but this simplicity can get anyone into a lot of trouble, because often there are many varieties to the meaning the given simple sentence can have and it takes a lot of knowledge and experience (which I don't have) to know, which translation is the correct one.

1. 宋人有耕田者

This sentence contains the “XY 者” construction and for a better perspective I'll write it out as:

宋人 有 耕田 者

The 者 at the end could be translated as “ The one who..” Example: 讀者 – the one who reads, 寫著 – the one who writes, so 耕田者 – the one, who is ploughing the field (耕 – to plough, 田 (tian2) - field). The sentence also contains a “XY 有” clause, where 有 (you3) means, that the preceding noun (in this case) contains whatever is to follow: 宋人有 – Among the people of Song, there is/was… So:宋人有耕田者 – Among the people of Song, there was one, who was ploughing a field.

Note: Classical Chinese verbs should be translated in past tense by rule, if not indicated otherwise.

2. 田中有株

Here again 有 has a similar meaning: 田中有株 literally translates as Field – middle – there was – tree stump.

3. 兔走觸株

This is a simple sentence which literally translates as: 兔走觸株 – rabbit – ran – bumped (into) – tree stump.

4. 折頸而死

Another simple sentence, with the conjunction 而 (er2) – and. Literal translation: broke – neck – and – died.
Note: Classical Chinese often omits the subject of the sentence and a typical test question would be to identify it.

5. 因釋其耒而守株

因(yin1) in this case means: because of this/that, 釋 (shi4) means release and其 (qi2) means his/hers, so the sentence translates as: Because of that, (he) let go - his - plough - and – guarded – tree stump.

6. 冀復得兔

Another straight forward sentence which literally translates as: Hoped– again get (a raw translation would be re-get) – rabbit.

7. 兔不可復得

Now we will see the troubling simplicity I was talking about earlier, because this sentence can be translated in several ways. It literally translates as: rabbit – cannot – again – get.

Now if you know only the meaning of the characters, you might ask, What is it , that the rabbit cannot get? You have to identify the object and the subject and you still have possibilities:
When I read this sentence I feel it could be translated as:
It was impossible to catch the rabbit again.
He could not catch the rabbit again.
The rabbit could not be caught again.
The rabbit could not catch something again.

8. 而身為宋國笑

Here we have two more slightly difficult words. 身, which normally means body, but in this case it should be translated as “he himself” and 為 which has two readings (wei4 and wei2) and many different meanings. In this case however, it reads as wei2, and it means literally the same thing as 被 in Mandarin – passive marker. So the sentence literally translates as: and – he himself – by – the state of Song – laughed at.

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