In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Ancient Chinese Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Dictionaries
  • Journals
  • Traditional Reference Books
  • Research on Traditional Philology
  • Old Chinese Phonology
  • Middle Chinese Phonology
  • Genealogy of Chinese and Sino-Tibetan Comparative Linguistics
  • Etymology and Derivational Morphology
  • Writing and Language in Early China

Chinese Studies The Ancient Chinese Language
Lukáš Zádrapa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0108


This article covers linguistics of Chinese language in the historical period from the earliest records around 1200 BCE to Late Han. It should be emphasized at the very beginning that the popular term “Classical Chinese” is reserved here for reference to the language of the Warring States (5th–3rd century BCE) edited literature, as is usual among linguists of premodern Chinese. Thus, Classical Chinese is understood here merely as one particular stage of Ancient Chinese, one variety (or a subset of varieties) of the language spoken in China in the Eastern Zhou period, and it is represented by one section as consequence. It is true that the expression “Classical Chinese” is quite often used as a vague label applied to premodern literary language of practically any historical period from the earliest records to the 20th century, resembling thus the similarly vague Chinese term guwen 古文. However, such usage is typically encountered outside the linguistic discourse and is avoided here. After Late Han (3rd c. CE), the written language became progressively dissociated from the spoken language and changed into an artificial literary standard called wenyanwen 文言文, and both varieties evolved further under strong influence of Buddhism. Therefore, the end of Late Han dynasty traditionally marks off the end of the linguistic (late) antiquity, and linguistics of the so called Middle Chinese, the language of the era following the fall of the Han empire, constitutes a discipline on its own. Even Classical Chinese proper cannot be nowadays seriously studied both without the broader historical framework of earlier stages of the language and the evidence of only relatively recently excavated texts mostly on bamboo and silk, but also on other materials. These discoveries along with the progress on the part of reconstructions of Ancient Chinese pronunciation and morphology and in the closely related field of comparative Sino-Tibetan linguistics shed a completely new light on the language traditionally known as Classical Chinese, and depicted as an isolated and isolating language. This is naturally also true of our understanding of the nature of the early writing system, which obviously appears to be very different from the standardized Han and post-Han script we are accustomed to and on the basis of which we classify it typologically. Importantly, Classical Chinese proper actually represents a transitional stage in which ancient structures inherited from the past and characteristic for the bone and bronze inscriptions coexisted and competed with newly arising and evolving structures, which later became characteristic for post-classical, medieval, and in some cases even modern Chinese. Although the extent of Western scholarship on the topic is not negligible, a good command of Modern Chinese is nevertheless indispensable for anyone possessing a serious interest in Classical Chinese.

General Overviews

General overviews introducing into Ancient Chinese in general are mostly contained in comprehensive grammars or scattered across textbooks, although these usually tend to be very brief. This is the case of the textbook and the accompanying grammar by Gassmann and Behr 2011 (see the Textbooks section) and Gassmann and Behr 2013, in which the latest views of the language are presented to students, or Jaxontov’s book on Classical Chinese (Jaxontov 1965). Apart from that, similar material can be found in all-encompassing monographs on Chinese language as a whole, such as Norman 1988. In Chinese, Wang 1980 has become the classical reference book for diachronic Chinese linguistics. Very nice introductions by the best scholars in the field are included in some encyclopedic publications, such as Peyraube 2004, a contribution to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, or Boltz 1999, an essay in the Cambridge History of China. One of the best starting points is Harbsmeier 1998, which however focuses on the relationship between the language and logic or thinking in general, and basically omits references to some purely linguistic domains of research, such as reconstructed phonology and morphology.

  • Boltz, William. “Language and Writing.” In The Cambridge History of China. Edited by M. Loewe and E. Shaughnessy, 74–123. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521470308

    An introduction into Old Chinese from the archaic up to the classical period, focusing on such domains as genealogy, typology, phonology, or morphology. “Grammar” (syntax, function words) is not addressed here. One of the most well-informed introductions into early Chinese writing system in the second part.

  • Gassmann, Robert H., and Wolfgang Behr. Grammatik des Antikchinesischen. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2013.

    The “supplementary” chapter 10 contains a very insightful and most up-to-date summary of new developments in such crucial though often neglected fields of research as genealogy or morphology of Old Chinese—synthetic presentations of latest views on this matter of this type are rare indeed.

  • Harbsmeier, Christoph. Logic and Language. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 7. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Relevant chapters represent a highly inspiring introduction to the nature of the Classical Chinese language with a special emphasis on its relationship to logical issues and thought in general. Lacks reference to some aspects of the language, such as phonology or morphology.

  • Jaxontov, S. E. Drevnekitajskij jazyk. Moscow: Nauka, 1965.

    A comprehensive description of Classical Chinese in all its complexity with emphasis on grammar with a neat and highly readable general introduction. It is the classic of Russian sinology.

  • Norman, Jerry. Chinese. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Today still the best and most widely used general overview, aptly introducing all important aspects of Chinese language. Recommendable for instance to linguists of other languages with interest in Chinese or to undergraduate students. Translated into Chinese as Hanyu gaishu (汉语概说) 1995 and used in People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well.

  • Peyraube, Alain. “Ancient Chinese.” In Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages. Edited by R. Woodhard, 988–1014. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    A well-balanced lemma in an encyclopedia intended for a wider linguistic audience, covering all the most important linguistic features of Classical Chinese (prehistory and history, writing system, phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon). Includes a basic up-to-date bibliography.

  • Wang Li 王力. Hanyu shigao (漢語史稿). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980.

    Still the best comprehensive diachronic overview of history of Chinese language, structured according to the subsystems of language (syntax, phonology, lexicon, etc.). In some sections, such as historical phonology, already somewhat outdated.

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