December 11, 2011

矛楯 - Lances and shields

Hello everyone,

it's been a while since I made some Classical Chinese text analyses and with nothing to do on this misty Sunday afternoon I thought I'd write a short one just to practice a little. Although it might not look like this, thanks to Google there are some people who find their way to my blog because they are looking for translations of sentences or expressions in Classical Chinese so this post is mostly for those who are already interested in Classical Chinese for this reason or another, or for anyone who might fall in love with it like the rest of us have.

I say this all the time, but I am not an expert on Classical Chinese, I merely have a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese studies. Most of these analyses are based on our classes at the Chinese department and whenever I run into something for what I don’t remember the explanation for, I try to translate and explain it based on what I remember about Classical Chinese grammar and sentence structure, which might not always be correct and I apologize for any mistakes in advance.

This following text called 矛楯 is from the book of 韓非子難一 You do not need to speak Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect to read and understand Classical Chinese, but the knowledge of one or more Chinese dialects will help a lot. If you never came across Classical Chinese before or don't speak Mandarin or any other dialect, it can be a nice academic adventure for you to try to decode something that's been written 2500 years ago without any previous knowledge. If you do speak Mandarin, but do not know Classical Chinese, understanding these sentence structures and learning the old vocabulary will help you understand what's going on in Modern Mandarin a little better.





Seal script version:




There was once a man in the state of Chu, who was selling shields and lances. He was praising them saying: “My shields are so firm, that there is nothing that can pierce them.” He praised his lances saying: “My lances are so sharp, that there is nothing that they cannot pierce.” Someone asked: “What if you used your lances to pierce your shields?” The man could not answer. A shield that cannot be pierced and a lance that can pierce everything cannot exist in the same world.


    yu4     to sell      
    dun4    shield
    mao2    lance
    yu4     to praise
    wu2     I, me
    jian1   firm
    wu4     thing
    mo4     negative, nothing 
    li4     sharpness
無不 wu2bu4 all, everything
     huo4        someone
    fu2     verbal negative, not
    ying4   to answer
    tong2   the same, together
    er2     and
    li4     to exist, to stand

Sentence structure analysis:

1.  楚人有鬻楯與矛者

For better understanding this sentence can be separated into the following blocks:


The state of Chu
There was
To sell
Shields and lances
The one who

The sentence uses two particles that are often seen in Modern Mandarin:  and . As I mentioned in my previous posts,  can be translated as there is, il y a, es gibt, hay and as Classical Chinese verbs are translated into our modern languages in the past tense as defaultshould correctly be translated as there was. The second particle means the person who. Since there is a noun and an adjective before  - 楚人 – the people of Chu, which in this case is translated as people rather than a person, the word among needs to be added to the beginning of the sentence and the whole beginning is thus translated as Among the people of Chu there was.

In the part that follows - 鬻楯與矛者 – the verb is a simple verb with the meaning to sell and is followed by two objects (and ) connected via a noun conjunction . The sentence is finished off by a which is related to the verb which in turn is then developed by 楯與矛 and means one who was selling shields and lances.

The whole sentence is then translated: Among the people of Chu, there was one who was selling shields and lances.

2.  譽之曰

This is a sentence (introduces direct speech) and is slightly developed by 譽之 ( - to praise, - it) and is translated as He was praising them saying:"...".

3.  吾楯之堅

This is a simple sentence and can be looked upon as a very long noun: 

Genitive marker (‘s)

is a first person pronoun. It is very flexible and can be personal or possessive and can be translated as I or my. in this case can be simply translated as the English ‘s as in the words Peter’s or Jane’s and therefore 楯之堅 is translated as the firmness of the shields (in plural by default). I see the whole sentence as a long noun as it is translated as The firmness of my shields or My shields’ firmness with the long noun being the firmness (What kind of a firmness is it? My shields’ firmness).

4.  物莫能陷也

This sentence can be divided for better orientation, but I don’t think it needs any special explanation as it is quite straightforward:

Nothing (thing + none)
To be able
Excl. Mark

5.  又譽其矛曰

This is anothersentence and can be written like this:

Again, then
To praise
Possessive marker (his)
Introduction of direct speech (he said)

6.  吾矛之利

This sentence is analogous to sentence no. 3 and can be translated as the sharpness of my lances:

Genitive marker (‘s)

7.  於物無不陷也

This sentence is more complicated, because of the and 無不, but is analogous in structure with sentence no. 4 and for better orientation can be written like this:

Excl. Part.
Object marker
To pierce
Exclamatory particle

and are both verbal negatives and it is quite confusing as to why when placed together they are translated as everything. This usage comes from the expression 無所不 – no + thing + not = all things yes.

When it comes to , it is quite a complicated particle. What it does is, that turns the noun that it is followed by into an object of the verb of the sentence. In this particular sentence, is followed by a noun further developed by the combination of two negatives無不 and what basically happens is that the object is put in front of the verb and not after it as is usually the case since Classical Chinese is essentially a subject – verb – object language.

Classical Chinese is also an isolating language and heavily relies on word order and this change thus has to be marked by . Since my native languages are Slovak and Hungarian and are inflectional and agglutinating languages and have completely different ways in dealing with direct and indirect objects this little grammatical particularity of Classical Chinese is a challenge to get used to. In Classical Chinese if you change the position of the verb, it changes its function, but not its pronunciation or form (subject to academic debate), whereas in Slovak and Hungarian the word form, sentence structure and pronunciation often completely change.

Suppose there was no in this sentence and it had been written as: 物無不陷也 it would’ve been very confusing because the verb would’ve been be missing an object and would’ve been translated as all things pierce the!

In order to understand the 物無不 combination a little better and why it means everything you have to realize that means thing and is developed by 無不 which acts as an adjective and you can thus ask: What kind of a is it? It is a物無不.

8.  或曰

This is yet another sentence where means someone.

9.  以子之矛陷子之楯

This is a longer sentence, but is quite straightforward actually. The only two parts that might pose a problem are the particle, which has the function of using A and can be generally translated as with and the子之 combination where means you and is a genitive marker with the combined meaning of your.


to pierce

10. 何如

These two words are actually a part of the previous sentence, but I think they can be written separately for better understanding. In Classical Chinese means why, who, whom, what, where or how and means if, to be equal, to resemble. According to the Thesaurus linguae sericae 何如 means What do you think? How about that? To be honest I do not know what the logic behind this is. It might be that the two meanings combined of all the possible meanings of and should be what and resemble or it might be that何如is actually 如何 which in Modern Mandarin means 怎麼樣 how about that? but is in Classical Chinese written in reverse order to add exclamation, or that the modern如何 used to originally be used properly as 何如 and changed into 如何 with time. This is the case with Taiwanese (台語 - 閩南話 - Hokkien) for instance which is much more conservative than Mandarin and resembles Classical Chinese more. The inversion of syllables happens quite often: 客人 (Mandarin) vs人客 (Taiwanese).  There is also the word 客人 in Taiwanese but it means the same thing as 客家人 in Mandarin The man of the Hakka people.

In Modern Mandarin, and are used in words like 如果 which means if or words like the mentioned 如何(how) or 為何 which means why and 任何 which means any, but these words are much older than other Modern Mandarin words. Their structure does not resemble typical Modern Mandarin words like 電話 or 吃飯 and so 何如 and 如何 are both probably very old and maybe back then it was very clear why they were written the way they were, it is just not clear to me now.

11. 其人弗能應也

the man concerned
not, refuse
to be able to
to answer
Excl. part.

In this sentence 其人 means the man concerned but again it is quite difficult to understand why it is translated like this. With so many meanings of one can only guess that it has the meaning this in this case. means either not or refuse but since it is followed by the verb it is translated as not. is again just an exclamatory particle.

12. 夫不可陷之楯與無不陷之矛不可同而立

The last and longest sentence is essentially quite simple except for the last five words.  It can be separated into the following parts:


modal particle
a shield that cannot be pierced
a lance that pierces everything
To be at the same time
Stand, exist

is introducing new subjects for the discourse or is introducing non-narrative theoretical discourses and can be translated as now or in fact. 不可陷之楯 and無不陷之矛 are both referrals to previous sections of the text and mean a shield that cannot be pierced and a lance that pierces everything respectively.

On the 無不陷之矛 sentence one can demonstrate again what the function of is in sentence no. 7於物無不陷也. As said before, suppose there is no and the sentence would be written as物無不陷也 the verb would be missing an object and the sentence would be translated as everything pierces the! In the following sentence, there is no but its structure is very different because even though there is a verb, it is actually a long noun:

genitive marker

The keyword here is (lance), which is further developed by 無不陷 (everything + pierce).  in this case has the same meaning as the Modern Mandarin . 無不陷之矛is a developed noun and you can thus ask: What kind of a lance is it? It is a無不陷 lance a lance that pierces everything.

The final five words might pose some problems, but the confusion probably arises because of the multiple possible meanings the words and might have. The meanings of mostly revolve around the word the same but I think the closest meaning which was used in this sentence is to exist at the same time. also has several meanings such as stand, establish, build and exist and I think the last one is used in this sentence, so if you look at the following table the translation should be pretty straightforward:

to be at the same time


  1. came here from YouTube, impressed by your work

    looking thru ur blog. as a native Chinese, I've actually learned some Chinese from you! (even though its mostly old Chinese) great blog!

  2. Hello,

    thank you for you comment. I'm happy that this article is interesting to someone like you too, although when it comes to 文言文, I only 述而不作 :) I only share what I've learned in our university classes and a big thank you goes to my teachers.


  3. Hello,

    thank you for you comment. I'm happy that this article is interesting to someone like you too, although when it comes to 文言文, I only 述而不作 :) I only share what I've learned in our university classes and a big thank you goes to my teachers.


  4. wow. very thorough analysis ! what can I say ?!! I*'m really impressed. I really like Classical Chinese stuff. Hope you could do more in the future, and also mention some 4-character idioms as well as they're also abundant in Chinese.

  5. Hello. Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you liked the article. I'll try to do more in the future.