Meaning and Semantics in Literary Chinese

The language of Old Chinese, which roughly corresponds to the period of 600 BCE- 0 CE became the standard grammar and script for Literary Chinese. The great classical works of ancient China including the Analects of Confucius 論語 and Sun Tzu’s Art of War 兵法 were written using this language. As the spoken language changed, Old Chinese served as a kind of standard from which a strictly written form of Chinese organically evolved, thus preserving in much detail the grammar of Old Chinese. Literary Chinese went on to serve as the official written language outside of China in places such as Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

Before delving into grammar of the language itself, we first need to examine the written script which, in itself, conveys meaning in its own right.

The origins of Chinese characters can be found in pictographs written on various materials dating back into pre-history. These symbols usually depicted the message they conveyed, or tried to use combinations of symbols to convey more abstract ideas. These symbols were said to have been systematized by the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 in ancient times. The characters were later catalogued and their calligraphy forms fixed by the grand recorder Chou in the year 800 B.C.

Around this time characters were still being drawn with a pen-like instrument, but over time it was replaced with the brush, which came to make Chinese characters what we know them as today.

There a six categories of characters. The first character class is called imitative drafts, which are rough sketches representing the object.


The second category is indicative symbols. They are figures that suggest the meaning. These symbols often suggest an idea of motion.
action of the authority which exerts itself up and down

The third category is logical aggregates which are made up of two or more characters made simple, coming together as one. Their signification results from the meanings of the various parts.

占 fortune telling;>divination + >mouth; to consult fortune tellers.

The fourth category is phonetic complexes, which are made up of two or more simple characters. One character conveys meaning, while the other one holds no meaning but conveys the pronunciation. One should note that the pronunciation element is no longer absolute in the modern day as the phonology of Chinese morphemes has changed considerably.

楚 a woody land; >forest + phonetic ‘chu’1

The fifth category is the acceptation of the character in a meaning more extended, derived, generalized, metaphorical, analogous, adapted, figurative, etc.
a fishing net. By extension it can refer to a network, cobweb, reticulate design; to catch with a net, to catch in general, to gather, etc. All these meanings are an extension from a concrete object.

The sixth and final category refers to ‘mistake characters’ which are characters with false borrowings. Sometimes these came to exist because of scribal errors, or more commonly on account of assigning an existing character to an idea, place or person that at the time held no character.

The meanings of many characters over time have shifted and often differ greatly from their original meanings. Moreover, other languages which adopted Chinese characters came to assign different meanings to characters. An example would be the character 使 which in the Confucian Analects means, ‘to make someone do [something]’/ causative. In modern day Japanese, the character is a verb which means ‘to use’.

It should also be noted that readers of languages that use Chinese characters do not read nor come to directly understand the meaning of characters through their archaic semantic elements. While these semantics elements help as memory aid they are by no means absolute in conveying meaning. Each character represents a word. These characters are graphic representations of ideas which are further represented by a vocalized utterance associated with each particular symbol. In some ways, they are not that different from something like roman script, only that they are more immediately derived from their pictographic roots.

Literary Chinese is essentially a terse monosyllabic language following the general Subject-Verb-Object pattern. One character refers to one syllable, which refers to one word, though there are a few exceptions.

to depart/leave/go
芙蓉 lotus (the individual characters mean nothing on their own)

Literary Chinese uses two-word compounds. These compound words work as one single noun within the syntax of a sentence. It makes use of a process called reduplication. This is a process where repeating a word creates a meaning extended significantly beyond the meaning of the original word.

person 人人 all people
year 年年 year after year

Literary Chinese uses polar binomes where a pair of words (synonyms or opposites) came together to refer to a whole set of things as a single compound noun.

少長 young + old > people of all ages
動静 move + be still > all [one’s] activities
草木 grasses + trees > all vegetation

Pluralization of words is accomplished with affixation. These are suffixed or prefixed onto nouns, or any other word class that behaves as a noun within the syntax of a sentence.

Literary Chinese, like most languages, uses the topic-comment sentence. The topic is what you want to talk about, and the comment is what you want to say about it. Literary Chinese has two types of comments and two corresponding types of sentences: the nominal and the verbal. These are distinguished in that a nominal sentence has a noun phrase as its comment and a verbal sentence has a verb phrase as its comment.
The nominal sentence is essentially a statement of identity. For example:

A, B A is a type of B.

宋、小國也 Song is a small state. [Song, small state it is]
無父無君、是禽獸也 With no father and no ruler: this is a wild animal. [no father no ruler, this wild animal it is]

The verbal comment is a nominalized verb following the pattern verb + . Verbs serving as topics are nominalized, as all topics are nouns. When verbs serve as nominal comments, they refer to a general category of action that defines the identity of the topic. Modern English does not have this kind of structure. Observe the following sentence:

王之不王、不爲也 The King’s not ruling (correctly) is a matter of not trying. [King’s (王之) not ruling, not try it is.]

Note that the character (king) functions as a verb by virtue of the negation particle . All nouns following become verbs, though there are at times exceptions. In this sense the word 'king' becomes a verb meaning ‘kingly way/actions of a king’, and from the context of the sentence one can gather it means ‘not being kingly’. The later half is where we find the copula following the verb: to try , which is negated by .

One should also observe that quite frequently in Literary Chinese the tense is usually not explicitly mentioned. The reader is assumed to gather from the context of the sentences when in time the action took place.
However, in Literary Chinese, as in any language, one must create sequences of actions if one wants to tell a story or make an argument, and for this reason Literary Chinese uses coordinate verbs to mark the sequence of events. The first verb in a sentence is typically the antecedent condition. It influences how the second action occurs or if it occurs hypothetically or not at all. Observe:

宋 人 有 耕 者、 田 中 有 株、兔 走 觸 株 折 頸 而 死
Song Person Exits Plow AN2 Field Inside Exists Stump, Rabbit Run Strike Stump Broke Neck and/then Die

 Here is a transitive verb of 'existential predication': it says that its direct object exists. Whenhas a topic it generally indicates a general, though not precisely specific, time. “There exists in the people of Song one who plows” and “Within the field there is a stump.” Note that the direct object of all normal transitive verbs comes after the verb.

The later half of the sentence reads, “The rabbit ran, struck the stump, broke its neck [and as a result] died.” Theexplicitly indicates coordination between two verbs:

AB = A and [as a result] B.

A question arises as to how a native speaker of Old Chinese would have perceived the sentence. Is the narration in the present? The rabbit strikes the stump and dies. Or is it in the past? The rabbit struck the stump and died. It is not explicit which tense is being used. An English speaker might expect it to be in the past tense. Though there is the possibility that the notion of an exact tense did not exist in the narrative speech in Old Chinese.

Another interesting semantic feature of Literary Chinese is its use of the particle . It is a particle that points to the object, without explicitly naming it. It is the label that allows one to refer to a set of objects selected simply for their role as objects of verbs. Observe:

Li   Master Go Market
Master Li went to the market.

Li Master >object< Go Market It is
Where master Li went was the market.

In the first sentence we do not know where the emphasis is placed. In the second sentence the Verb-Object has been split, and the verb has been shifted into being the topic. Naturally, the comment about the topic follows: the market. Observe the following interrogative sentence:

何 也
Li Master >object< Go What/Where? It is
Where is it that Master Li went?

 This article has hardly touched the surface of Literary Chinese, but hopefully it has provided the reader with an idea of how fascinating both the grammar and script is. Indeed, the history of the language runs from ancient China until even the modern day. It holds many qualities which should be of interest to any person interested in linguistics.

Further Reading:

Fuller, Michael. An Introduction to Literary Chinese. Cambride: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Pulleyblank, Edwin G. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995.

Wieger, S.J. Chinese Characters: their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification. Trans. L. Davrout. New York: Paragon, 1965.


1 Note that the phonetic reading given is the modern Mandarin pinyin romanization. Reconstructed readings of Old Chinese are available but are still considered tentative in general. The pronunciation of characters is generally done using one’s mother language. For example, Cantonese speakers will read it using Cantonese, Japanese will use on-yomi (Sino-Japanese readings) and Mandarin speakers will use modern Mandarin.

2is an abstract noun with a bound form. It generally means the thing or action of the preceding statement.

Ryōkan - "Begging for Food" 乞食


Having begged for food at the crossroad,
I wander by the Hachiman Shrine.
The children come see me and we talk.
Now the stupid monk of last year has come again.

-Ryōkan 良寛 (1758–1831)