Classical Chinese: The Lingua Franca of Eastern Asia

People may think that Chinese is one and the same language. In fact there are hundreds of languages spoken across China, many are unintelligible to each other, and there are even subdivisions in dialects. Most people will think about Mandarin first, although Cantonese also has a large number of speakers, especially in Southern China, Hong Kong, and Chinatowns around the world. With such a diversity of languages, how did people manage to communicate ?

Despite the differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, one written language had been standardized throughout China and extended to other countries of Eastern Asia: Classical Chinese. Know as 文言文 (wényànwén) in Mandarin Chinese, 漢文 (kanbun) in Japanese, 한문 (hanmun) in Korean and văn ngôn in Vietnamese, this old form of Chinese language had been the lingua franca across Eastern Asia for more than 1500 years.


Classical Chinese refers to the written Chinese language from the Han Dynasty (220 AD) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1912 AD), when it was replaced by Modern Chinese (Mandarin). Throughout this period the languages of China became more and more disparate and thus the Classical written language became less and less representative of the varieties of Chinese. Although authors sought to write in the style of the Classics, the similarity decreased over the centuries due to their imperfect understanding of the older language, the influence of their own speech, and the addition of new words.

Classical Chinese bore the same function as Latin in Europe and the relation between Classical Chinese/Chinese languages is the same as Latin/Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian). It was the lingua franca across various countries that did not share the same language. Classical Chinese then became the language of administration, religion, poetry and diplomacy in Japan, Korea and Vietnam meanwhile the people always used their vernacular languages. For example in Korea until the 15th century the only way of writing was in Classical Chinese, in Vietnam Classical Chinese was the official language during more than 1000 years, and in Japan majority of the classic works were written in Classical Chinese. Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese being composed with more than 60% of Classical Chinese words those three languages have more in common with Classical Chinese than with Modern Chinese. The reason being that those countries imported Chinese words when China was using Classical Chinese as its official language during the spread of Buddhism.

The Chinese language which retains most of Classical Classical is Cantonese. The reason being that Cantonese did not receive foreign influences like Mandarin received with Mongolian languages, and still use the same characters as Classical Chinese used. Thus Cantonese being considered as the "purest" Chinese language. There is also a very interesting paradox which is that Japanese is closer to classical Chinese than Modern Chinese with classical Chinese. While Modern Chinese was based on one Chinese language (Beijing dialect) which became the official language at the end of the Qing dynasty (1912 AD), Japanese Korean Vietnamese still bear many similarities with Classical Chinese.

Let us show this paradox with written characters : 
In Classical Chinese, "to eat" and "to drink" are respectively represented with those characters "食"   "飲"
In Japanese and Cantonese, "to eat" and "to drink" are respectively represented with those characters "食"   "飲"
While in Modern Chinese (Mandarin), "to eat" and "to drink" are respectively represented with those characters "吃"  "喝"
This example shows that Japanese and Cantonese still retain Classical Chinese characters while Modern Chinese do not in majority of the cases. 

An exclusively written language

In modern Chinese, most words include at least two characters which together reveal a particular meaning. Take the character 文 (Wén), for example. When combined with the character 化 (Huà), it becomes 文化 meaning "culture"; when combined with 件 (Jiàn), it becomes 文件, meaning "document"; and with 字 (Zì), it becomes 文字, meaning "characters. "
But, in classical Chinese, most words have a single character and can be freely used as different particles of language. So 文 refers to all the examples above. It could also mean civil as opposed to martial or can even be someone's name. The clues are in the surrounding text and it is up to the reader to decipher the corresponding meaning.

Classical Chinese, the term itself reflects one of the most important concepts in this language: the variable interpretation. Indeed Classical Chinese reveals a myriad of possibilities. Since Chinese is a language where many words have the same pronunciation but different scriptures, it would lead to a lot of confusion in speaking in classical Chinese. Let's see 文 (Wen) again. It is pronounced in the same way as 聞, to hear 紋, the grain of the wood 蚊, the mosquito ... and the list goes on. In writing Classical Chinese, there is no ambiguity in the meaning of the character and the reader has time to consider it in context. Once spoken, misunderstandings are almost immediate.

Modern use 

Classical Chinese was the only form used for Chinese literary works until the May 4th Movement (1919 AD), and was also used extensively in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Ironically, Classical Chinese was used to write the 訓民正音 (Hunmin Jeongeum), a book promoting the modern Korean alphabet (hangeul), as well as an essay by Hu Shi in which he opposed Classical Chinese and Modern Chinese. Nowadays Classical Chinese is sometimes used during ceremonies or in formal circumstances. The national anthem of Taiwan for example is written in Classical Chinese. In practice, there is an accepted continuum between Classical Chinese and modern Chinese. Many expressions of politeness include typical Classical Chinese expressions, a little like the example of certain contemporary uses of Latin in the French language (ad interim, in fine, post scriptum...). 

In China most people with a high school education are in principle able to read some Classical Chinese, because this ability (to read, but not to write) is in lower and upper secondary education. In Japan also, Classical Chinese is part of the high school education and is very important to fully understand the history of Japan and its language. Known as 漢文 (kanbun), literally "Chinese text", it is taught to understand old Japanese texts written in Classical Chinese. Because Japanese and Chinese are two different languages, Japanese developed a way of reading Classical Chinese by changing the word order and by adding some diacritics in order to read it in Japanese.

Interest of learning Classical Chinese

If you are learning Modern Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese, studying Classical Chinese will open you the heart of those languages. Even though Japanese Korean and Vietnamese are not from the Chinese language family, the majority of the words comes from Classical Chinese. It will allow you to read the most beautiful poems in Asia's history, ancient historical texts, improve your mastery of Chinese characters and gain more knowledge about Eastern Asia in general. Of course it is quite impossible to master it as nobody speak it or write it anymore but even learning some basics will allow you to improve your level in modern Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. Do not consider Classical Chinese as a dead language, see it as the matrix of Eastern Asian languages.

You can find more informations about Kanji : New form VS Old form on this article.

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Fabien Mizart

Author & Translator

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