What Is the Standard for Reading Classical/Literary Chinese?

If you want to read Confucius in the original language, you need to know Classical Chinese.  If you want to know much of the later two and a half millennia of Chinese philosophy, you need to know Literary Chinese.  (Classical Chinese is, roughly, like Classical Latin.  Literary Chinese is kind of like Medieval Latin.  Contemporary Mandarin Chinese is like Italian.)  Sometimes I am confronted with comments of the form, “Surely, So-and-so reads Classical Chinese.” If the comment needs to be made, the answer is generally “Not really…and don’t call me ‘Shirley.'”  (Sorry.  I guess that joke only works if you say it out loud.)

More seriously, there is a long-running debate in language pedagogy of what counts as “being able to speak language X.”  Everyone agrees that there are levels of competence, with one end being absolute lack of any knowledge and the other being fluency equal to an articulate native speaker.  Beyond that, the lines are hard to draw.  For modern Mandarin, the gold standard is now the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), administered by the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, an official People’s Republic government organ.  The HSK certifies one in speaking, aural comprehension, written comprehension and even writing at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels.  Performance on each level is certified as no rank (failing), “acceptable,” and “honors.”  I’ve never taken the exam, but I suspect that I would probably be intermediate acceptable.  Do I “speak Mandarin Chinese”?  I think so.  I can order in restaurants, give directions to a cab driver, introduce myself to people and exchange pleasantries, and even stumble my way through a public talk, although I dread it and often have to turn to a bilingual colleague for help when I get stuck.  (怎麼說 ‘Categorical Imperative’ 用中文?)

There is nothing comparable to the HSK for Classical or Literary Chinese.  However, here is a rough standard I would support.  Paul Rouzer’s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese (Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2007) is a textbook used by many good schools.  (I’m using it in my Literary Chinese course next year.)  One of the nice things about Rouzer’s book is that all the texts, beginning with Lesson 1, are authentic Classical or Literary Chinese texts.  I would say that if you can read the sample texts in Unit 1 (Lessons 1-10) — without using Rouzer’s lexical and grammatical notes — then you have functional ability in Classical or Literary Chinese.  (The constructions are all basic enough that anyone should be able to read them, whether they focus on Classical or Literary Chinese texts.)  Okay, tell you what.  You can use a dictionary a maximum of 10 times to look up any characters you happen not to know.  (I dumbed out on 縛 in Lesson 10, so I have to cut everyone else some slack.) But if you can’t read those introductory texts fairly easily, even with a limited-use crutch — well, then you don’t really “read Classical/Literary Chinese.”

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
This entry was posted in Sinology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Is the Standard for Reading Classical/Literary Chinese?

  1. Tim says:

    Wow – this is setting the bar a little low, no? Rouzer’s text is completed in the first year literary Chinese course at my university, then for the second year they move on to much more advanced readings, and even someone who has completed this two year sequence is still generally not quite at the level of a graduating Chinese high school student. Basically, you are saying someone 1/8th the way of high school education has reached the ‘standard’ for competence in reading literary Chinese?

    Looked at from another perspective, the first 10 lessons you mention are actually a piece of cake to anyone who has competence in MODERN Chinese, as formal modern chinese more or less incorperates everything present.

    Or from another perspective, 10 year olds in China who can read Jin Yong martial arts novels would find these sections simple.

    If we are declaring a standard for competence, at least use Wang Li’s set of texts for undergrads in China, and demand a level equivlant to a college freshmen. Or just declare something like ‘can you read such and such chapter in Shiji without looking anything up and having 90% comprehension’. There is a reason Western scholars of China (even esteemed ones) often display such incompetence when dealing with texts – the bar is set far too low and everyone is ready for some mutural back patting in celebration of attaining the level of a small child.

    • The Doc says:

      I think you make a very reasonable point. I was setting the bar so low for two reasons. (1) Although the standard I am setting is very low, it is (ironically) much higher than the standard many people seem to implicitly accept now. For example, I frequently hear people say “Professor X reads Classical Chinese” when Professor X has absolutely no training in Classical Chinese, and could not pass even the low standard I propose. Consequently, if people employed the standard I propose (or an equivalent one, Rouzer is not sacrosanct) it would actually substantially affect their claims and judgments. (2) However, the second reason is really the most important for me. I was NOT trying to come up with the standard I would expect graduate students specializing in Chinese thought to meet. Obviously, the standard is far too low for that. However, suppose you have a graduate student in Religious Studies who is interested in Comparative Religions, who wants to be able to teach introductory-level courses on Chinese thought, and also wants to intelligently read the literature on Chinese philosophy. The standard I set up would give me, at least, confidence in certifying that this hypothetical graduate student has “basic reading competence in Classical Chinese.”

      Again, if we were talking about someone who planned to specialize in Chinese thought, I would absolutely NOT think that the minimum standard I suggested was adequate. I think it all depends on what purpose the standard is meant to serve, and for me it was minimal reading knowledge for interested non-specialists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *