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Classical Chinese

Course Overview

This year-long elective course introduces the essentials of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Classical Chinese through close readings of authentic ancient texts, and aims to develop the students’ reading comprehension skills, translation techniques, cultural interpretation abilities, and rhetorical strategies for interpersonal and presentational communications.

Texts are selected from historically significant canons and are from a wide variety of genres. Even though the texts are thousands of years old, they are not “dead.” Unlike Medieval English, which is not used in daily life today, many words, set phrases, idioms, expressions, and structures from Classical Chinese texts are still used in Modern Mandarin Chinese. Knowledge of Classical Chinese is therefore a valuable tool for learning Modern Chinese, understanding the roots of Chinese cultural heritage, and efficiently communicating with native speakers of Chinese. Through the practice of reading the highly stylized form of literary language and translating it into modern Mandarin in both oral and written forms, the course acquaints students not only with classical Chinese cultural heritage, but also the underlying working mechanism that is in many ways still largely relevant to the form and usage of Mandarin Chinese today.


The ultimate goal is to enhance students’ rhetorical strategies and to build discourse authority, i.e. to develop the ability to interact with native Chinese interlocutors in a more intelligent and educated way, by incorporating well-known expressions from Classical Chinese texts in speaking and writing accurately and appropriately.

Course Content

Unit 1 – Ancient Idioms

This unit will first introduce basic grammatical differences between Classical Chinese and Modern Chinese by guiding students to study short Classical Chinese passages. The passages will include a number of commonly used idioms that originated from fables written between the Warring State Period (475 – 221 BCE) and the Western Han dynasty (202 BCE – 9 CE).

Unit 2 – Philosophical Writings

Unit 2 continues to introduce grammatical concepts and structures of Classical Chinese, including word order, causative and putative constructions, adverbs of degrees and scope, nouns used as verbs or adverbs, and modal particles. In terms of the content, Unit 2 guides students to explore two ancient Chinese worldviews: Confucianism and Daoism. In the live sessions, the students will learn to read, translate, and analyze philosophical texts from the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE) and Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE).

Unit 3 – Historical Records

In Unit 3, students will study historical records that were written between the Warring State Period and the Western Han dynasty. The texts include selections from The Zuo Tradition (aka, The Commentary of Zuo), Strategies of the Warring States, and Records of the Grand Historian.

Unit 4 – Literary Records

Unit 4 introduces students to a number of famous literary works and teaches students to appreciate the aesthetics of literary expressions. The literary texts in Unit 4 are from later dynasties than the previous three units. The objectives of the unit are to guide the students to develop an appropriate cultural interpretation of meanings of the literary works, and to use the famous quotes and poems accurately and properly in the interpersonal mode.

Unit 5 – Persuasive Essays

Unit 5 introduces students to persuasive essays, an advanced level of Classical Chinese writing. Although some of the texts in the previous units have certain persuasive aspects, the texts in Unit 5 give a complete presentation of arguments with evidential support and clearly organized structure.