Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, Overview

I am currently using Rouzer’s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese to teach first-year Literary Chinese to students with at least two years of modern Chinese.  As I teach, suggestions for other instructors and notes for my own future use come up.  Consequently, I am going to write a few entries on my experiences with the book.

Each lesson has one or more Texts in Chinese.  From the beginning, the Texts are actual Chinese, not something made up, cleaned up or simplified; I think this is the best approach, both pedagogically and also in terms of keeping up student interest. The first 10 lessons are selections from the 說苑, a Han-dynasty anthology. Lessons 11-21 are selections from biographies in the 史記, Lessons 22-30 are from the 孟子, Lessons 31-21 are a pair of Six Dynasties accounts of women warriors, and Lessons 33-40 are from the 莊子.  This is a good range of selections, although it might be nice to have some Tang, Song, and/or Qing texts.

Next in each lesson comes a list of the new vocabulary items.  All characters are defined, even ones that you would expect a student with two years or more of modern Chinese to know.  Long form characters are used, and the short form alternatives are not given.  In each vocabulary entry, Rouzer gives the pronunciation of the character in modern Mandarin, the Japanese on and kun readings, and the Korean reading.  He also tells you the radical under which the character may be found.  The definition for each character gives ALL the meanings for the character, not just the one used in the current lesson. In addition, vocabulary items are not repeated in later lessons even when used in new senses, so students will have to flip back to the first occurrence of the character to figure out how it is being used.  But if students cannot remember where in the book they first encountered a character, there is a Comprehensive Glossary organized by radicals on pp. 441-496, and a Mandarin Pronunciation Index on pp. 497-518, which identifies the character by number of occurrence (each character has a unique number according to the order in which it is first introduced in the book), radical number, and number of strokes in addition to the radical.

The third part of each lesson is the Commentary, which largely focuses on grammatical points, but sometimes also discusses historical or cultural issues.  One of the best features of the Commentary is the inclusion of Practice exercises, in which students are asked both to translate sentences out of Literary Chinese into English and translate sentences from English into Literary Chinese.

At the very end of each lesson is a Character List of all the new characters in this lesson, organized b their frequency of occurrence, based on Bruce and Taeko Brooks’s Chinese Character Frequency Lists.

Overall, I think the book is well structured and includes a lot of useful information.  The Introduction is also very helpful, and I was pleased to see that Rouzer listed Pulleyblank’s excellent An Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar.  I do quibble, though, with his suggestion that the best Chinese-English dictionary for literary texts is Mathews‘.  I think that one should go the way of the other dinosaurs.  Liang Shiqiu’s Far East Chinese-English Dictionary seems much better to me.  I asked my students how much practice they get using dictionaries and was interested to learn that they almost never use them.  Apparently, students today use an app for their iPhones that allows you to write your character and then it will identify it for you and give you a dictionary entry.  This sounds delightfully convenient, but I’m worried about a generation of Sinologists who don’t know how to find characters by their radicals.

In the future I hope to give notes on my experience teaching each of the first ten chapters of Rouzer’s book.  That is how much I plan to cover in one semester.  We do one lesson in two class meetings of an hour and 15 minutes per class.  The first class we go around and I have them sight-read the text in Chinese then translate it, and we discuss the grammar and vocabulary.  The second class of the week, we finish the reading, review the grammar, and then go over the Practice exercises, which they are to have completed and bring to class.  I collect these and grade them.  We could certainly cover a few more than ten lessons in a 13-week semester, but I will spend some class time on supplemental assignments, including readings from Liu Shaoqi’s “How to Be a Good Communist.”

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.
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4 Responses to Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, Overview

  1. Mrs. McB says:

    Hi there
    Did you ever post any follow-ups to this text, regarding teaching with it? I don’t see any on your blog here…

    I am looking to self-study with it, and just wondering any further thoughts.

    This was a very helpful post; thanks for it!

  2. John says:

    Good review, I found the book to be tremendously helpful and very usable even for self-study. Your comment about dictionaries is interesting, I would add that the tendency to use mobile-based dictionaries, while understandable, has another disadvantage apart from the weakening of students’ abilities to use a radical index, which is that most (possibly all) available dictionary apps are very much skewed toward modern Mandarin usage, and may not be useful or may even be misleading if used for literary or classical Chinese texts.

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