Literary Chinese Viewed in the Light of Literary Latin[1]


Richard A. Kunst




I. The Nature of a Literary Language

II. Literary Latin: A Historical Sketch

III. Literary Chinese: A Historical Sketch



List of Works Consulted



A note on pronunciation of Chinese in the official Pinyin romanization (for readers who do not know Chinese)


Chinese words will become at least pronounceable if vowels are given the values they have in the Romance languages, and consonants, their usual English values, except that



should be pronounced like English















I.  The Nature of a Literary Language


We usually refer to the languages of classical Rome and classical China in their continued use during two millennia in post-classical Europe and East Asia respectively as Literary (or Late) Latin and Literary Chinese, What is meant by a "literary" language? It is first and foremost a written language. Not all written languages can be called literary languages in the sense of literary Latin and literary Chinese, but many of the special qualities which we attribute to such literary languages--their tendency to transcend the limits of national boundaries and time, which confine and ultimately doom ordinary natural languages; their prestige, usually in contrast to a "vulgar" spoken medium; their irregular phonological evolution; their role as vehicle for and symbol of a transmitted cultural tradition--these can in part be explained as characteristic of written languages in general. But there are as well several important respects in which these so-called literary languages are different from other written languages, The most important of these is their reputed resistance to change, which is a central topic of Parts II and III below.

Now to compare or contrast literary Latin or Chinese with written languages in general can scarcely elucidate their special properties, since the nature of written language, or rather of the writer's competence which underlies its production, is itself largely unknown, being an area of neglect in linguistics. Let me first mention what does seem clear.

It is generally accepted nowadays that written language is not the same as spoken language. We don't simply write down what we would otherwise speak aloud. But this has not always been obvious. When some Chinese in the first part of this century erroneously assumed that Western languages were written the way they were spoken, they felt isolated and unique in that their standard written language of 2000 years, wenyan 文言, or literary Chinese, was so different from the spoken tongue that foreigners in China called it an entirely different language.[2] But in this respect the historical development of Chinese is now seen to be different from that of other languages in degree rather than in kind. Many of the features of that written language are characteristic of all written languages.

We lack any general theory which characterizes the difference between spoken and written language (or style), so what follows is necessarily tentative and fragmentary. We usually assume that if a person is literate, his competence as a "native writer" more or less follows from his competence as a native speaker. When we write our native language we base what we write on how we speak, but we depart from speech in two ways, We deem certain spoken expressions inappropriate and suppress them. At the same time, we often use certain other expressions in writing which are seldom if ever used in speech. In English, as examples of the former, verbs like get or stick, or a conjunction like 'course (= of course in the sense of "on the other hand") are systematically paraphrased in writing. Getting harder is written becoming more difficult. Indeed, there are some expressions in speech in all languages which we would be at a loss how to represent in writing. How does one write a-whole-nother ( < another whole), common in some dialects of American English, an expression which defies the conventional morphological analysis of the word another as an + other? As examples of the latter, the written words not usually used in speech, take the words deem and seldom which occurred a few lines above. Written deem alternates with spoken think or consider. The spoken counterpart of seldom, in American English at least, is hardly ever, with rarely falling somewhere in between in stylistic value, and used regularly in both speech and writing.

The area of contrast between spoken and written language is in the case of English primarily confined to lexical items, although in such cases as the alternation of spoken form anymore with written form no longer, other elements in the sentence may be influenced too: doesn't live here anymore becomes in writing no longer lives here. In the case of other languages like Japanese or French, however, it includes areas of morphology and syntax too, such as contrasting sets of verb endings or personal pronouns.  For modern Chinese, as for many other languages, the contrast involves a difference in sentence length and complexity. Written Chinese sentences are not only longer and more complex, but their logical structure is also more explicitly marked by conjunctions and other grammatical function words. Written Chinese vocabulary is also uniformly more polysyllabic than spoken Chinese (although this has much to do with the differing nature of the content).

It appears that the direction in which usage restrictions are primarily imposed varies from language to language. Thus in English there are relatively few expressions which may be used only in writing and which are unacceptable even in formal speech.

Those distinctions which there are derive more from the avoidance of spoken forms in writing, For example, while we usually avoid using the word sick in written English, its written counterpart ill is acceptable in formal speech. But in Chinese the opposite is true. While there are, to be sure, stylistic sanctions against spoken forms in writing, as in English, much the greater part of the difference between spoken and written language, even in the case of contemporary Chinese, comes from an overwhelming number of forms permissible in writing but absolutely impermissible in speech. For example, the expression fancheng X 翻成X 'translate into X,' common in speech, is acceptable in writing too, but not nearly so common as yicheng X 译成X 'translate into X,' which may not be used in speech.

How is the ability to discriminate acquired? In the United States most such knowledge is not explicitly taught, and it appears that the mature native speaker achieves his competence in writing substantially as he acquires spoken language itself as a child--namely, through the creative but unconscious act of inferring a set of rules governing, respectively, the speech he hears about him, or, in the case of written competence, the writing he has occasion to read. This two-level competence is clearly related to the ability of the native speaker to use different styles appropriate to different situations. For some languages there are several discernible styles within written language itself which all literate native speakers can control.

We can make certain other observations. It is also true that in the case of written language the ability of the writer to produce well-formed sentences at will--his competence--is less obscured by factors like lapse of memory, interruption, false starts, and the like, which occur in normal speech and make it desirable in linguistic analysis to consider an utterance as if such features of "performance" were not present. Thus a native speaker/writer's competence is closer to realization in writing than in actual speech. Notice also that in the same way that linguistic competence does not significantly vary according to intelligence or educational background, ability to write is more or less uniform (leaving aside the problems of style and discourse-level acceptability) throughout the literate population. That is, if what a person says is acceptable, then what he writes should be equally acceptable. A written language does not have a phonology which ends up in sounds as a spoken language does, but its rules of orthography serve a very similar function. (Chinese is the great exception, as will be discussed in Part III.) In syntax, in the lexicon, the differences are slight for some languages, like English, greater for other languages. Finally, there is an important distinction between spoken and written language in the degree to which an utterance is attached to a communicative context. Spoken language is always oriented to a particular context, whereas written language is not so context-oriented. So it is unlikely that such sentences as "I forgot to give him the bundle over there," or "You've got ice cream in your beard" would occur in written language, except in the dialogue of fiction or written drama, where great pains are taken by the author to construct artificially such a context.


When we view language in historical perspective and say that language is constantly changing, we include written language as well. Internal change can be said to occur in written as well as in spoken language phonologically/orthographically, and grammatically, through the addition and deletion or reordering of phonological and grammatical rules; and lexically, through the simultaneous action of the forces of lexical profusion, such as meaning shifts and extensions, and those of lexical economy, which prune from the lexicon those items which are redundant or no longer essential to communication. External change is primarily the result of borrowing.

Here in the process of change too there are some important ways in which written language is different from spoken language. It is more conservative and slow to change. Orthography, especially, does not change in the same manner as phonology, and is more the product of human intervention. There are few cases in history where a single culture has developed over a thousand years or more while relying on a single instrument of written expression, to serve as objects of study of the stresses on that instrument. But most written languages keep step with, a few paces behind, their spoken counterparts, and hence the language of one generation becomes gradually more obscure to later generations, even unintelligible in a matter of three to four hundred years.

Consider English, for example. Perhaps we are entering a period of literary crisis in English because the language of some of our greatest authors, principally Shakespeare, in the Elizabethan period is, after less than 400 years, becoming too difficult without special philological study. Despite the fact that Shakespeare's writings have been kept alive this long by updated spelling and the especially conservative orthography of English, which make him more comprehensible to our eyes than he would have been to our ears, it appears that even he will become inaccessible to average readers in the next hundred years or so on syntactic and lexical grounds.

The Japanese written language has changed even more rapidly. The great Heian period novel of a thousand years ago Genji Monogatari 源氏物语 (The Tale of Genji), having long ago become comprehensible only to scholars, was translated by the poetess Yosano Akiko in the 1920's into the appropriate Japanese literary medium of the day. Already in the 1970's that excellent translation was no longer enjoyable for young people to read because of its linguistic difficulty. As a result several new translations into modern Japanese have recently appeared.

Thus written and spoken language, distinct though closely related modes of expression, both undergo change. Literary languages, however, are often held to be exceptional, so the study of literary Latin and literary Chinese can be considered in part a case study of the abortion of this normal process of linguistic change, by which written languages are modified in keeping with their spoken counterparts. Such literary languages were originally typical written languages, participating in the normal process of change. But their special characteristic is that at a certain point in their development they seem to have stopped changing, while their spoken counterparts kept on changing. At the same time, they continued to be used as literary languages, not only in the area of their origin and previous use as ordinary written languages, but also in other areas, by peoples who spoke a totally unrelated language but who had no other written language available to them. In either case people spoke one language, which they could not write, and wrote another, the literary language. For both Latin and Chinese the gradual eclipse of their hegemony as literary languages began just when speakers made their first efforts to write down that language which they spoke but could not write. Parts II and III will take up the historical reasons for both their rise and their subsequent decline. I hope that by first reviewing the fairly well-understood history of Latin in Part II, I can lay a comparative foundation for examining the somewhat more obscure history of literary Chinese in Part III.

First let us look at some common features of their existence. In the case of Latin the point of stunted development is held to be the declining years of the Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D. From that time Latin held sway as the sole written language of any prestige over the entire Romance bloc of southwest Europe, Ireland, England, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries until the Renaissance, and even into the seventeenth century or later in some parts of Europe. (Note that Romania, although a Romance-speaking country, lies outside this sphere of literary Latin dominance because of the importance of Slavic through much of its history.) In the case of Chinese, the point when the written medium became a literary language in our sense here, and no longer kept step with the spoken tongue, is placed in approximately the same period--that is, during the Han dynasty, whose power extended over the same years as that of ancient Rome, from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. But its use as a literary language in most of East Asia, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, continued even longer than Latin--until the nineteenth century, and in China itself until the first decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, it exists even today in a truncated form, as the only written language of consequence in the minds of some Chinese speakers.

Literary Latin and literary Chinese are sometimes referred to as "dead" languages, Here we must clarify the notion of what is meant by "dead," and also restate the importance of distinguishing the history of the literary languages from that of the spoken languages upon which they were once based. In the strict sense, "dead" means "extinct," and neither the Latin spoken tongue nor Old Chinese, the spoken tongue of the Zhou dynasty which preceded the Han, are "dead" languages without any further evolution, in the way that thousands of languages have become extinct, with more being added to the list each year, because their last remaining native speakers died and failed to be replaced by new ones. Both languages continued to evolve, and modern Italian (or Spanish, etc.) is "living" Latin and modern Chinese is "living" old Chinese, in the sense that they are their evolutionary outgrowths.

Still, the anti-historical concern with the death of the old languages continues. For example, given the early specialization of literary Latin and its divorce from the spoken language, and the continuous nature of the evolution of that spoken language, debates over the "problem" of the termination of Latin as a living language, such as carried on by Giacomo Devoto in Current Trends in Linguistics, seem remarkably irrelevant to linguistic scholarship:

At present there is the problem of the termination of Latin as a living language. The two extreme solutions are represented by H. F. Muller, who assigns it to the Age of Charlemagne (in A Chronology of Vulgar Latin, Halle, 1929); while in my Storia della lingua di Roma, I retain the classic date of 476 A.D.[3]

Interestingly, China, which has enjoyed a more or less continuous cultural and political unity which Europe has not, has been spared the confusion popularly created in the West, at least in the English-speaking world, by the historical break between antiquity and the modern era (the so-called "Dark Ages"), and the resulting nomenclature of "Latin" on the one hand for the parent tongue, and "Italian," "Portuguese," "French," etc., on the other hand for the daughter tongues. China's linguistic evolution has been very similar to the Romance area's and over approximately the same era, but no such difference in terminology has arisen and no Chinese has to be taught to hold the historical view of his language as the modern avatar of the classical language. Yet many Americans believe that the languages of classical Rome and, say, modern Lisbon are two separate languages, rather than the same one in different historical stages of development.

On the other hand, it has taken Chinese linguistic science much longer to describe systematically the differences between the Chinese dialects, of a magnitude like those between the Romance languages, since aren't they all  "Chinese"? Moreover, to a certain extent under unfortunate Western influence and the notion of "dead" languages, but also for quite astute political reasons, Hu Shi 胡适 and other Chinese intellectuals who participated in the cultural revolution of the early twentieth century often referred to the Chinese literary language as a "dead" language, in contrast to the "living" language that contemporary Chinese spoke.[4] Hu has been severely taken to task by linguists in the People's Republic of China, grinding their own political axes, to be sure, but also quite properly for linguistic reasons, because of Hu's ahistorical view of Chinese linguistic change.[5]

Since the term "dead," strictly defined, does not apply to the spoken Latin and Chinese languages, and it is uncertain whether literary Latin or literary Chinese were ever "living" in this sense, let us then understand it more loosely in connection with the literary languages to mean either a language without native speakers in the conventional sense, or a language whose grammar and structure is fixed for all time, a language which does not live and grow. The former seems to describe these languages well enough. What of the latter? Did these languages not change at all during the millennia in which they held sway? This is far from being the case for either Latin or Chinese. As I will show below in examining their use and development, they were constantly changing and evolving under the influence of the spoken language of each era and in each speech community. The most we can say is this: although their development did not proceed as we might expect on linguistic grounds alone, from that crucial period of the Roman and Han empires they did change and develop, but more slowly and idiosyncratically. During this long period, as languages without native speakers or "native writers" in the sense discussed above, their behavior was not what we would predict on the model of other written languages. It was much more erratic and unpredictable, capable of very sudden and sweeping changes, and sometimes just as sudden reversals. It seems also to have been considerably more susceptible to the influence of individuals than other "non-literary" languages are. How can such aberrant linguistic behavior be explained? I think that two characteristics shared by the users of literary Latin and literary Chinese need further clarification. The first is that, unlike ordinary natural languages, the competence of the users was not uniform but varied. It depended first on whether or not the user's mother tongue was a later version of the spoken language upon which the literary language was itself founded. That is, if the user spoke a language cognate with the literary language, his competence was of a different order from that of a user whose language was not. A Spaniard who wrote Latin had an advantage over an Irishman or a Swede. A Chinese who wrote literary Chinese had an advantage over a Japanese or a Korean. It was easier for the Chinese and Spaniard to learn the literary language because of all the cognate vocabulary and grammar, and consequently they achieved fluency effortlessly.

Their advantage, however, does not necessarily mean that the language of the Spaniard or the Chinese at any given date was closer to the language of the classical texts which gave rise to the literary languages. The very lack of the mnemonic aids to learning spurred the exceptional Irishman or Korean who made the great effort at mastery to achieve a more classical correctness if he desired than the great majority of users in the cognate areas could achieve. This is true for phonology as well. The absence of phonological similarity stimulated a greater conservatism in the non-cognate areas. But the competence of the user, regardless of whether he was in a cognate or non-cognate area, depended heavily on the quality of education in the literary language as well. Note that the dual importance of both the user's native language and the quality of his education in determining acquisition of the literary languages is true for the acquisition of foreign languages today too. There is often a converse relation between fluency and correctness. It is a familiar phenomenon that a Chinese who has really mastered English speaks it more correctly, though probably not more fluently, than a German or Frenchman with a similar confidence in English, who relies unconsciously on cognates in his native language. The nature of literary language education will be discussed in the historical sketches below.

The second characteristic of the users which must be clarified was their intention to write in the literary language as it was received from previous generations, their desire to imitate rather than to invent, if you will. In understanding the language of any document written in such a literary language, both of these characteristics must be considered. We can assume for users in non-cognate areas an intention to write in the received literary language. Here there is no question of a conscious desire to invent or create a new medium. But for users within the cognate areas of modern Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal; or in the areas of China proper where "Han" Chinese languages were spoken--motivation to write in a classical literary language varied at least as much as the actual ability to do so, and quite independently of it. In understanding the historical development of the literary languages it is naturally important to evaluate both characteristics. But for the historical study of the spoken languages themselves within the cognate area, an understanding of the distance between a written document and the spoken language of its time also depends on a consideration of these two--ability and intention.

For there have been men who were able to write Latin which resembled classical Latin and consciously sought to do so, such as the twelfth-century French theologian Abelard, or the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, just as there were men in China like the historian Sima Qian 司马迁 of the Han dynasty (around 100 B.C.E.) whose prose was so much a stylistic exemplar for men of later times that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether it is he or his models in the earlier classical period of the late Zhou who should be considered the true fountainhead of literary Chinese style; or Han Yu 韩愈 of the Tang dynasty, who in the eighth-ninth centuries spearheaded a classicist movement to restore the prose style of the late Zhou philosophers.[6]  Though outside the cognate area, Ogyū Sorai 荻生徂徕, the famous scholar of classical China in eighteenth-century Japan, should also be counted as one whose intentions were matched by his skill, according to Professor Yoshikawa Kōjirō.[7]  Appendix C contains an example of a contemporary effort at a classical simplicity in literary Chinese prose, by the late Professor Shih-hsiang Ch'en (Chen Shixiang). It is a tribute to his colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, the late Professor Peter Boodberg. And of course classical Latin continues to be used today, long after its demise as a literary language, for the sake of tradition or prestige, in pockets of conservatism. For an example from one such pocket in "Novo Portu in Republica Connecticutensi," a Yale diploma, see Appendix A.

But at the same time there were men who, while they tried to write in a pure Latin or pure literary Chinese, simply hadn't the ability or training, and relied heavily on their own native language. Such is the case with the medieval author of the contract dated A.D. 1011 cited by M. Menéndez-Pidal in his Orígenes del espanol:

Ego Gomez Didaz et uxor mea Ostrozia placuit nobis expontanias nostras uolumtates ut conkambiauimus et uindimus nostra billa. Onia cum suas casas et suos omnes abitantes in ea et terras et unineas et ortus et arbusta et totus pomiferos qui in ea sunt et molinos et pescarias . . . .

Antoine Meillet, who quotes this in his Esquisse d'une histoire de la langue latine, notes that one dare not say whether the text is in Latin or Romance. But he feels that the author clearly tried to write in Latin and the Spanish was involuntary.[8]  Is such also the case with the Chinese document reproduced in Appendix B and discussed in Part III? Here one hesitates to assert that the author, presumably a Cantonese native speaker employed by the FBI, was even trying to write literary Chinese. But what else is it? It is certainly not Mandarin, either spoken or written, nor is it Cantonese. There is no other explanation for his diction.

Then there were the men who had the competence to write in the classical literary medium but chose not to do so. Thus St. Augustine, who wrote his City of God in a classical style in order to appeal to cultivated pagans in a language that they respected, consciously shaped a style much more influenced by the Vulgar Latin spoken language of his time (the fourth century A.D.) in his works composed to spread the Gospel among the common people. In the same way and about the same time, St. Jerome's translation of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, reflects changes that had taken place in his own colloquial language.[9]  So does the Latin of Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. In China we see writers making similar choices, Wang Chong 王充 of the Han dynasty, in the first century A.D. did; so did Tang poets like Du Fu 杜甫 and Li Bai 李白. They frequently incorporated elements of the spoken language of their time in their poetry, although they could be more classical if they chose. Particularly revealing in this connection are their "imitations" of previous styles. In the great variety of prose styles, some quite colloquial, attributed to Zhu Xi 朱熹 of the Song dynasty (twelfth century), we see a parallel to the flexibility of St. Augustine or St. Jerome.

Finally there were those, presumably the vast majority of the populations, who had neither the ability nor the inclination to write the literary languages. Whatever efforts they made have, blissfully for the classicist sensibility, not been passed on to posterity, except in a few exceptional cases. But we can assume that some of them were responsible for contributing to the emergence of a new literary language based more closely on the colloquial language. In Europe this was, of course, the Romance vernacular written languages, which in the earliest extant examples in the tenth and eleventh centuries already show a considerable sophistication reflecting a period of prior development. In China, it was the literary style called "plain speech" baihua 白话 which began to appear during the Tang and Song dynasties and already had had an illustrious and varied history as the vehicle for popular literature for over a thousand years before becoming the basis for a new all-purpose written language, which is taking shape only now in the mid-twentieth century.[10]


Since I have raised the question several times of the relation of these literary languages to natural languages in general, and since for both literary Latin and literary Chinese, but especially for Chinese, there has been a great deal of debate whether they were ever spoken languages, I would like to discuss the extent of their artificiality briefly by putting them not just in the context of natural languages, those we speak and write everyday, but widening the scope of the discussion to include all "languages," including machine languages, man-made languages for international communication, and the like. In the wider context it will be clear that literary Latin and literary Chinese are nine parts "natural" for every one part of artificiality.

Brian Higman has tried to frame a definition for "language" which would include all languages, natural languages as well as artificial languages like those used in computer programming and symbolic logic:

. . . a language consists of a set of objects called its vocabulary, which can be combined into linear strings in accordance with certain rules known as its grammar, for communication to a recipient with the intention of inducing activity in the recipient relative to certain specific features abstracted from a general situation.[11]

He goes on to define more narrowly how natural languages may be distinguished from the rest by two broad criteria:

The associations which tie the vocabulary of a language to the features of the situations with which it deals, and thus determine the meaning of a string, are known as its semantics and are usually completely conventional, even though the history of the language may show them to have a natural origin, and to this extent all language is highly artificial. However it is usual to refer to some languages as natural and others as artificial, meaning by the former those which possess the power of growth, and whose present form is the result of much evolution; and by the latter, ones which were created at a stroke and do not have this power of evolution. . . . Alternatively, we may define a natural language as one which is, or was, used somewhere sufficiently for children to acquire its use in the natural course of development, without a conscious learning process. . . .  Every language which is used as a means of communication between human beings will inevitably be required, sooner or later, to deal with situations of a hitherto unforeseen nature. . . . Each intercommunicating group will force the language to meet its own needs. . . . in particular each successive generation of children picking up and using a natural language in the second sense, will introduce evolutionary changes and make it a natural language in the first sense.[12]

Under the second criterion, that of unconscious acquisition, our literary languages are similar to natural languages only in the very restricted sense I have discussed, namely, that they have grown out of written languages based in some way on such naturally acquired languages. But they clearly have the power of growth, and it is easy to recall "situations of a hitherto unforeseen nature" which they dealt with by sweeping changes (the first criterion). Such was the change in literary Latin at the hands of the Scholastics; such also was the change in literary Chinese wrought by the influence of Western civilization and China's modernization. Here they are far more similar to natural languages than to languages created at a stroke, like Esperanto (though Esperanto too would change, were it used over a long period of time as a real instrument of communication). And their structure is infinitely more complex than that of even the most sophisticated computer programming languages like FORTRAN, PASCAL, or C, or of the predicate calculus, or even of a reduced form of natural language like I. A. Richards' Basic English.[13]

In one sense the lexicon of these literary languages has resembled the much reduced one of Basic English, since as the language of literate elites, they did not have to deal with all the aspects of daily life that the lower classes did, and thus found it unnecessary to evolve the vocabulary to meet all daily life situations. But when it has been essential to enrich their vocabulary in response to a need, they haven't hesitated to borrow massively from the resources of colloquial language or from other unrelated languages. The Christian vocabulary of ecclesiastical Latin and the Buddhist vocabulary of Chinese, the technical vocabulary in logic, mathematics, and general science of twelfth-thirteenth century Latin, and the vocabulary of modern literary Chinese are examples. Taken as a whole the vocabulary of both literary Latin and literary Chinese is vast indeed, and each is far greater than the richest spoken tongue could be, since each is the accumulation of two millennia of innovations.

Despite the great similarity of such literary languages to ordinary language, the special nature of their development has led some scholars to claim special status for them. Chinese has especially been subject to this approach because of the nature of its script, which has in fact been instrumental in giving literary Chinese its longevity, as will be discussed in Part III.  Some, like the Danish linguist Gustav Herdan (in Herdan (1964)), have treated literary Chinese less as a language than as a mathematical puzzle. He deal with the "combinational element in Chinese grammar," that is, the ability he claims for "ideograms" to be ordered in any arbitrary way and still make sense. He also treats the development of Chinese vocabulary as a "gradual approach to efficient coding," and places great importance in the numbers five and eight, as for example in the number of strokes in the phonetic element of a graph. A less extreme, but still anti-linguistic, conception of literary Chinese has been expressed by Herbert Franke. He feels that the Chinese written language is more correctly considered a system of visual symbols than a genuine language. As such, he asks, are the ordinary methods of linguistics appropriate for studying it?[14]

One feature of both literary Latin and literary Chinese is their concentrated sentence structure, their great economy of expression. The Chinese literary language is often so lapidary that it has been likened to a "telegraphese," which could not possibly have ever been spoken.[15]  Similar doubts have been raised about classical Latin's viability as a spoken language in its recorded form.[16]  In terms of redundancy, which is so necessary to successful oral communication, the literary mediums are indeed quite low--certainly considerably lower than the approximately 50% redundancy of English.[17]  One problem with Franke's observation is that the grammar of artificial languages and other such symbol systems, rather than being more difficult to discover than that of natural languages, is much easier. If Chinese grammar seems to defy analysis with ordinary linguistic tools, it is because of its complexity and subtlety, which as with a natural language, is the result of a long evolution over a vast area, which has introduced diachronic and dialectal variation.

The protean nature of literary Chinese has led other scholars in the opposite direction, to claim that literary Chinese is so chaotic and unsystematic that only in taking account of the context of every individual utterance, and matters like rhetoric and sentiment, can it be understood. They lay heavy stress on individual intuition and frown on attempts to capture regularities in the grammar and lexicon. Achilles Fang is representative of this school: "Another fetish of a group of Sinologists who still think Chinese (Classical Chinese) is a "language" in the conventional sense is their firm conviction that a perfect dictionary will smooth the way."[18]

I would like to conclude this section by noting an often repeated observation that just because a language no longer exists we need not abandon the hope of treating its grammar as capable of the same creativity as the grammar of an existing language.[19]  The grammar, or actually the grammars representing the competence of users of successive stages, of literary Latin and literary Chinese should be able to generate an infinite number of sentences which would agree with the grammar of the extant corpus. Robin Lakoff and Robert King have separately observed that while the philologist traditionally restricted himself to actual attested forms in scholarly study of the old languages, that actual users felt no such restrictions, and assumed the possibility of creating new acceptable sentences which had perhaps never before occurred. It was, in fact, only this assumption that made it possible for the teacher to correct his pupils' literary Chinese or Latin composition. Y. R. Chao has made a similar observation:

By studying Mencius closely enough, one could produce a generative grammar from which sentences or whole discourses could be generated that would agree entirely with the grammar of the corpus known as Mencius. As a matter of fact, this is very much what has been actually done, since current wenyan [literary Chinese], which is still a living language, is modeled more closely after Mencius than after any other of the classical works.[20]

The general truth of this may certainly be acknowledged, while demurring from the implied extreme conclusion that any of the sentences of modern literary Chinese could be generated by a grammar which was adequate for the language of Mencius, even if differences in vocabulary were ignored. If wenyan lives on today, it is not in a form that Mencius ever knew.

II.  Literary Latin: A Historical Sketch


Literary Latin was taking shape in Rome already by the third century B.C. When Livius Andronicus produced his first play on a Greek model in 240 B.C., he translated the archaisms in Greek by using words which were already obsolete in his own time.[21]  From this point on recorded Latin begins to differ from the spoken language. From L. R. Palmer we receive the impression of a literary public consciously shaping an instrument of literary expression, striving always for greater felicity, elegance, economy of means, and the like.[22] Palmer emphasizes the fundamental artificiality of the Latin written language from beginning to end. Even the plays of Plautus, about 200 B.C., reflect an intentionally stylized language. The colloquial elements themselves are a conscious part of the highly-worked whole.

During the next 200 years a literary language of great conciseness of structure was created, which culminated in the classical style of the Golden Age, and in the works of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Varro, and Sallust. Scholars have traditionally held that this language was once spoken as well, in cultivated circles, among the noble and well-educated. While classical Latin was clearly based on the popular spoken tongue it had already diverged from it to a considerable degree. We will probably never know for certain the extent of this difference, but we can get a glimmer from the nature of the colloquial forms which do occur in Plautus, and to a lesser extent in Terence. Robin Lakoff notes:

In the case of Latin, we must also constantly bear in mind that classical Latin was, in fact, probably never a spoken language. The plays of Plautus, written about 200 B.C., are written in a language that is demonstrably closer to the language of Petronius, who wrote about A.D. 50, and also to modern Romance languages than it is to the language of Cicero and Caesar.[23]

If the classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar was already so removed from the spoken language of Plautus' day, we can imagine then the situation in their own day when the elapsing of almost two centuries had produced even further changes in the spoken language. Notice here that the greater the distance argued to have existed between the written and spoken languages, the less radical the changes in the development of the spoken language from ancient to modern times become.

In the first centuries after Christ, the use of the Latin literary language had been extended over the entire area of the Empire, where it served as a lingua franca to overcome the difficulties in communication which the ever increasing regional dialectal differences in spoken (Vulgar) Latin gave rise to. Among others, Rebecca Posner has given a very lucid account of the evolution and gradual differentiation of the spoken Latin language both before and after the fall of the Empire, and its ultimate transformation into the modern Romance languages of today, while at the same time the Latin written language failed to keep step with this evolution, serving a certain useful role during the transitional period but ultimately proving inadequate as a literary language in the period of clear national differentiation.[24]


Why didn't literary Latin change along with spoken Latin, as it might be expected to? Certainly in part it was because it had been made into such an effective instrument of expression in the classical period. It had an immense prestige as the language of classical culture throughout the Middle Ages, when culture was everywhere in retreat. The spoken language was, conversely, held in a certain amount of contempt as "vulgar." As already mentioned Latin served in communication, especially written communication, as a lingua franca, a koine among individuals from different parts of Europe whose spoken languages were unrelated or, though related, were now different enough that communication was difficult. The phonology of literary Latin was not as static as its grammatical form. Thus in the Romance bloc the letters of a Latin word tended to be pronounced with the value that they had in the speaker's own mother tongue, giving rise to certain national features of Latin pronunciation, such as exist even today, although these differences did not prevent successful oral communication.[25] But by far the most powerful force maintaining the place of Latin as the literary language was the Christian Church. After the decline of the secular schools in the fifth century, the transmission of ancient culture in Europe was in the hands of the Church with its system of ecclesiastical education, exclusively so in the sixth to eighth centuries, and education was in Latin only. Even though the number of those literate at certain periods was extremely small, perhaps only a few thousand--thus much fewer than in China at even her darkest hours--as the sole transmitters of the tradition, the sole bearers of written culture, their influence was very great. There was, after all, no other written language, no other education.

The Church fathers themselves did much to perpetuate the use of Latin. Since Latin was the language of the liturgy and of Church dogma, its prestige matched that of the Church itself. Christian Latin became something of a special language in itself. J. Schrijnen and Christine Mohrmann, who have studied this language thoroughly, have emphasized the importance of the early Christians, beyond what their small numbers would suggest, as a tightly-knit social group which evolved and propagated its own special style.[26]

The role of Latin as an oral lingua franca within the Church itself has been perhaps exaggerated. Although there is a sizable body of extant correspondence in Latin between bishops in far-flung parts of Europe, whose spoken tongues can be imagined to be quite different, already in the early synods there is evidence that a considerable part of the business was conducted in the vernacular tongues.[27]

It would be wise to look more closely at the nature of education in Latin, because it is through this education that users could achieve their competence. Of the three subjects of the trivium and the four of the quadrivium the very first was grammar. The beginner would typically learn a work like Donatus' Ars Minor by heart, then his Ars Maior; this might be followed by Priscian's Institutio Grammatica.[28] By the time the pupil had mastered the basic structure of Latin, he would proceed to develop his own style through several standard techniques.

Roger Ascham, who wrote a popular guide for Latin teachers in the sixteenth century, describes one of these, translatio linguarum or "double translation," in detail.[29] By this technique the pupil would translate a passage from Tully (for this is how the English referred to Cicero) freely into his mother tongue, then after an interval of at least an hour, translate the translated passage itself back into Latin. The teacher would then go over the pupil's work together with the pupil, juxtaposing it with Cicero's himself and pointing out the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two pieces. Imitatio (shaping one's own style upon the best classical models), paraphrasis, epitome, etc., were other techniques, but Ascham, at least, puts his stock in double translation. And the model was almost exclusively Cicero, although to a lesser extent Caesar, Sallust, and Varro were so employed.[30] It was important to be exposed only to the best. Note also that such an education, which laid heavy stress on imitation and discouraged creativity of expression, except for only the most advanced students, tended to keep change to a minimum, at least when education was successful, and to reproduce the competence of classical Latin in each new generation. In its imitativeness and exposure to good models, such an education unconsciously resembled the experience of the small child acquiring his native tongue. Had it permitted more freedom of expression, the history of literary Latin would no doubt show more change over time than it did.

Erich Auerbach, particularly in his two essays entitled "Latin Prose in the Early Middle Ages" and "The Western Public and its Language," has given us a fine view of the history of literary Latin in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire.[31] By the sixth century Latin had become more and more exclusively a literary language--of people who spoke another language which they could not write.

The leading classes of society possessed neither education nor books nor even a language in which they could have expressed a culture rooted in their actual living conditions. There was a learned language, and there were spoken languages which could not be written, there was no language of general culture.[32]

Everywhere a fresh layer of Germanic conquerors had to be absorbed and everywhere elements of the spoken idiom forced their way into the literary language. There was an increasing provincialism everywhere. The secular schools, which had trained young men for the civil service up through the fifth century, were gradually disrupted by barbarian invasions.

Thus from the sixth to the eighth centuries the only educational institutions were Church schools. The clergy, in facing the difficulties of teaching written Latin while at least in the Romance countries the vernaculars were slipping further and further away, made numerous compromises with the spoken language of their time.[33] This is reflected in the many vernacular forms in the liturgy and in written documents.

We can detect two general directions in the style of authors of the early medieval period. Classicism in the Latin world of this time meant a retention of the rhetorical complexity of Cicero or Sallust in contrast with the perceived crudeness of the Christian texts. For example, in the sixth century Cassiodorus, Venantius, and Fortunatus retained a trace of the classical tradition but their writings are very mannered. In contrast there grew up a utilitarian, plain prose style, much closer to the spoken language in sentence structure, tone, and word choice, represented by the writings of Gregory of Tours or Pope Gregory the Great. Their choice of this style was deliberate, and not the result of incompetence. Gregory the Great showed that he still had the ability, required by classical rules, to vary his style according to the subject matter. He wrote his theological works and letters in a more literary style, but for his Dialogues he chose a very popular form.[34] It was his contemporary Gregory of Tours (538?-593), though, who strikingly forged a new style in his History of the Franks, which drew heavily upon the spoken idiom:

Many turns, many word meanings, much of the rhythm, especially in the frequent direct discourse, were unquestionably taken over directly from the language that he heard around him and himself spoke every day of his life. Still, needless to say his written Latin is not identical with the language spoken at the time. For all the wealth of material that historians of Vulgar Latin have found in his work, he could not, in particular, take account of the colloquial phonetics, for that would have required a system of transcription, and besides, it never entered his head to break with the tradition in this respect. Moreover, his material obliged him to employ words having little currency in the spoken language and he sometimes resorts to a concentrated sentence structure, seldom used in speech and in those days probably never. Yet a good deal of the popular language is there. As far as possible, with the means at his disposal, he committed the spoken language of his environment to writing; it is certain that almost everyone could understand what he had written and that his readers felt no appreciable change from their accustomed idiom. From this point of view one can hardly ask for more in a written language.[35]

Auerbach appears here to mean by "their accustomed idiom" the spoken language of Gregory's time. But if we bear in mind the type of colloquial language reflected by Plautus over 700 years before and its characteristics, already suggestive of modern Romance, then we might imagine that Auerbach has been conservative in estimating the changes which had taken place in the spoken language, and thus overstated the closeness of Gregory's unmistakably Latin language to the spoken language.

If Gregory of Tours had been imitated by others, Auerbach feels that perhaps there would have developed a literary language based on Vulgar Latin, a "Romance koine." But no one did, and instead there came the Carolingian educational reforms in the ninth century, with their emphasis on education in correct Latin, whose effect was to cut off literary Latin from the spoken Romance tongues for good. But before examining the far-reaching effects of the Carolingian reforms, let us look at a few of the ways in which Latin itself had evolved by this time.

The influence of the spoken language on literary Latin was two-fold. Authors used forms which were actually part of colloquial usage. They also used fictitious and inappropriate forms in an effort to avoid what they felt to be new spoken forms, and write more correct Latin. Thus, as an example of the former tendency (after the distinction of the classical Latin diphthong ae had been lost), forms like que and eternus occur for quae and aeternus; as part of the latter tendency, there occur many forms like diae, aei, aemitto, prosequaere, quaem, etc. in medieval texts.[36] When much of the Latin case system had lost its effect, the mechanical assimilation of many phrases without understanding of their grammatical construction led to their frequent misuse. For example, the use of aquarumve decursibus, where ibus had clearly lost its effect.[37] Even when an attempt was made to master the classical syntax and rhetoric, as by Lupus of Ferrières (d. 862), a piece can be distinguished from a real classical text on the basis of its language alone. In the work of Lupus there is a more liberal use of personal and demonstrative pronouns, and an unclassical use of several words (not to mention all the Church-related expressions).[38]

From the seventh century there is a definite regional character at times to Latin texts. Hence we often see the preposition da (< de ab) in Italian texts, while in Gaullic texts the preposition apud replaced cum in order to avoid confusion with the homophone quomodo > com.[39] Change was most evident in Gaul, which is just what we would expect from the great distance between Latin and modern French. In Italy, Latin was much closer to classical models for a longer time; but evolution was still visible. In the early centuries the tradition was perhaps most faithfully followed in Spain.[40] In the non-Romance area such as the British Isles, for example in Ireland, the needs of Latin learning were different, primarily ecclesiastical. Latin there had to be learned from scratch, and only with great effort. As we might expect, the earliest Latin texts were on the one hand replete with strange expressions, showing no sensitivity toward stylistic value or proper choice of words, and on the other hand a more scholarly character than in the texts of the continent.[41] Pronunciation, for example, was more conservative. Germany, which otherwise had close ties with the British Isles, borrowed its Latin civilization from Gaul. The Carolingian reforms had the effect of improving education in Latin for use in the liturgy, in administration, and in literary writing. There came a new understanding of the structure of classical Latin, a new desire to correct "corrupt" forms, but with it came a heightened awareness of the gap which now separated the spoken tongue from classical written Latin. No doubt some of the "clerks," newly awakened to classical civilization and disturbed by this gap, tried to write down the vernacular language.[42] Now Latin took on its exclusively learned and literary character, never again lost.

There were economic factors which contributed to the use of the emerging Romance vernacular literary languages: greater prosperity, more freedom of travel and commerce, increasing population, more social life in the cities, and so more participation in intellectual and artistic movements. Each of these trends enhanced the power and prestige of those who used the new vernaculars, and the Latin-using clergy and scholars were increasingly eclipsed. Later, as well, the spread of printing in Europe gave the vernaculars further impetus. No longer was the transmission and dissemination of texts dependent solely on the clergy, and the greater availability of written materials permitted an expansion of the potential audience, to include people of more modest economic means who were much less likely to have received a Latin education. There was a new awakening, a budding European, post-Roman consciousness that expressed itself in reform within the Church, a new art form, the broadening experience of the Crusades, and new developments in philosophy and jurisprudence.[43]

It was the Carolingian educational reforms which made people conscious of the need for a new written medium. Latin was an inadequate medium for the newly emerging popular literature. None of what was written in a vernacular language before the end of the twelfth century was meant to be read. Rather it was to be sung or read aloud before an audience,, What better medium for an oral literature than the "vulgar" spoken tongue? The audience was broad-based, since the enthusiasm for classical purity which dominated Latin education now made it more difficult than ever to master the language. It was composed of all those who did not read and understand Latin with ease, including, in addition to the common people, nearly the whole nobility and much of the clergy itself. The predilection of such people for tales of adventure and love was easily satisfied, and their everyday preoccupations readily found expression in this early Romance vernacular literature, since there was no class educated in the vernacular to impose its elevated tastes. Thus adventure stories, love poems, fantasies, and other matter at odds with the learned character of Latin came to be written in the "Roman" tongue.

In the years after the reforms, despite a decrease in the grossnesses which sometimes mark the Latin of the earlier centuries, many innovations are apparent.

Still it would not be correct to call [Latin after the tenth century] a dead language; even before 1100 this was not the case, and afterwards still less so. Medieval Latin was extremely varied from the first, and from the eleventh century on it produced an abundance of new and living forms. The language was not static except for the spelling and morphology and these only relatively so. The vocabulary, syntax, style level, and versification were so richly varied that one can speak of many different worlds of medieval Latin.[44]

We continue to see regional differences. The meaning of the same word sometimes varied widely from country to country. Miles meant here simply "soldier," there "lord," or again "knight." Words could be borrowed from the Latin of one country into the Latin of another. A form current in Paris was often taken by students to other countries. For example, we see the suffix -agium in the Latin of non-Romance countries: hommagium, linguagium, passagium, villagium, This suffix originated in France where Latin -aticum became -age (hominaticum > O.F. hommage > Med. Lat. hommagium).[45] In the Romance countries scribes, compelled to use current expressions by their subject matter, racked their brains to try to give them a more Latin garb: for old French mesnil (< mansionile) there occur forms like mesnillum, maisnile, mansile, etc., in addition to the correct etymology. In the Latin of the non-Romance countries there are many words of foreign origin. For example, in England: schopa (= shop), daywerca (= daywork), laga (= low), and the like.[46]

Influence was by no means restricted to that of the spoken language on the literary language. Influence in the opposite direction, from the literary language on the spoken language primarily took the form of learned borrowing, and has occurred in all countries at all times. An unusually productive example is the French borrowing from Latin oculus 'eye' and its derivatives. Aveugle 'blind' is a very early borrowing, held to have come in the Merovingian period from a postulated Latin form *aboculus, the origin of which is uncertain but is perhaps from *ab oculis 'without eyes' or again, through dissimilation, from *alboculus ( < album oculi 'cataract'). Another borrowing took place in the sixteenth century when oculaire 'eye piece, finder (on a camera)' was adopted from Latin ocularium, itself a new creation. Both of these borrowings contrast with the directly inherited word oeil 'eye' which goes back regularly to Latin acc. sq. oculum itself.[47]


As in the early medieval period Latin writers like Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours had represented the opposing poles of classical purism versus pragmatic adaptation to the needs of expression, now in the late medieval period, there were again two main trends. One was Scholastic and dialectical, specialized and "scientific." The other one was pre-humanist and rhetorical, classical in its orientation and broadly liberal. The Latin of the Scholastics was a rapidly growing medium of syntactic simplicity, stylistic monotony, and greatly increased technical vocabulary. The episcopal schools of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had stressed classical literature, but by the end of the twelfth century the schools of Italy, France, and their neighbors had adopted a course of instruction which emphasized logic, mathematics, and general science, as a preparation for professional training in theology, law, and medicine. Grammar was an elementary study, through which the pupil merely obtained the ability to write and speak correct Latin. He had to master a rapidly growing and technical language, thus the fine points of classical style tended to be neglected.[48]

The humanists and their predecessors from the twelfth century on, in contrast, rejected all the Latin tradition after the classical period as corruption. They stimulated a great new interest in antiquity, and with it came a new appreciation for the subtleties of classical Latin. The Latin literature of the twelfth century reached such a perfection that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish examples of skilled stylists like Abelard, Pierre Damien, and Salimbene de Adam from classical examples themselves.[49] But the very success of the Renaissance and its humanism was ultimately a disaster for Latin. The demand for classical perfection meant Latin could only be a language of imitation--and first writers, then scholars in turn rejected it as too limiting. But it took on a new function as the basis of the liberal education, which it was to keep right up to the present. "Thanks to early humanism and up to Petrarch [in the quattrocento] Latin ceased on the one hand to be a specialized language of the schools. Though still restricted to a minority of the elite it tended toward the far more universal scope which the classical literary languages had enjoyed in their prime. It became an organ of human self-cultivation."[50] Later children learned Latin not for erudite or creative ends but as a foundation for self-cultivation. They expressed their culture in their mother tongue.

The first wave of purism, during the time of the Carolingian educational reforms in the ninth century, had stimulated the rise of the Romance vernaculars, which continued to develop under advantageous economic and social conditions in the ensuing centuries. Now as a result of the second wave of purism, culminating in the sixteenth century, writers and scholars were led to embrace these already well-formed vehicles of expression and develop them further. The decline of classicism and the rise of romanticism in the eighteenth century only further stimulated this trend. Romanticism brought with it an enthusiasm for primitive languages, local dialects, and "vernaculars" of any kind.[51]

Yet Latin continued to hold an attraction among scholars as an instrument of international communication. When Renaissance Italians wrote in Latin it was not only, as Jacob Burckhardt said, "because their minds were imbued with humanism," but also because they sought a wider audience. If a man like Blondus of Forli had written in the dialect of his own Romagna he would have consigned his influence to oblivion; but, writing in Latin, he influenced the entire European world of learning.[52] Goethe, writing at a time when few any longer wrote in Latin, expressed nostalgia for the days when Latin enabled the European intellectual community to commune as they no longer could.[53] In his time there were still conservative areas where the authority of Latin was supreme as the language of culture. As late as 1848 Latin was used in the parliament of Hungary, which was remarkable since Hungary was not a Romance-speaking country, not even an Indo-European-speaking country.[54] In our own era literary Latin is long gone as a tool for communication. But its convenience in the medieval world has not been forgotten. The mathematician Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society in 1950 echoed Goethe's dissatisfaction with the linguistic fragmentation of the modern scholarly world. Ignoring for the sake of his argument all the other linguistic and extra-linguistic factors which contributed to the decline of literary Latin, Wiener places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the purist Latin teachers:

The effects of misplaced grammatical purism are to be seen well outside of the schools. First among these, perhaps, is the way in which the Latin language, like the earlier generation of classical gods, has been slain by its own children. During the Middle Ages Latin of varying quality, the best of it quite acceptable to anyone but a pedant, remained the universal language of the clergy and of all learned men throughout Western Europe. . . . [The] continued prestige of Latin was made possible by the willingness of writers and speakers of the language either to borrow from other languages, or to construct within the frame of Latin itself all that was necessary for the discussion of the live philosophical problems of the age. The Latin of Saint Thomas is not the Latin of Cicero, but Cicero would have been unable to discuss Thomistic ideas in the Ciceronian Latin. . . . with the coming of the Renaissance, the artistic standards of the Latinists became higher and there was more and more a tendency to throw out all post-classical neologisms. . . . the training necessary to wield such a delicate and refined tool was beyond that which would be incidental to a scientist. . . . The result was that the people who taught Latin and the people who used Latin became ever more widely separated classes. . . . In this vacuum [the teachers] ultimately eliminated any function for themselves other than that of specialists, and as the specialty of Latinism thus came to be less and less in general demand, they abolished their own function. For this sin of pride we now have to pay in the absence of an adequate international language far superior to the artificial ones such as Esperanto and well suited for the demands of the present day.[55]

III. Literary Chinese: A Historical Sketch


In China, a written language some distance removed from the spoken tongue developed very early. In the language of China's oldest written remains, the oracle records inscribed on turtle shell and animal bone of the Shang dynasty, at the end of the second millennium B.C., we see a written style undoubtedly close to speech, but already exhibiting the laconic, abbreviated character which was to become the hallmark of all later literary Chinese. Several scholars have pointed out that the great scarcity and expense of the tools of writing, as well as the difficulty inherent in the writing system itself were forces encouraging economy.[56]

When the tribe called Zhou conquered the Shang and established their own dynasty around the beginning of the first millennium B.C., they gradually adopted the Shang culture as their own, and with it the Shang language. It is possible that the Zhou people spoke a language which was no more than a dialectal variant of the Shang language, but we have no reliable textual evidence to determine what it was like. The texts of the Zhou dynasty (eleventh-third centuries B.C.), from the early bronze inscriptions in the Western Zhou (eleventh eighth centuries B.C.), through the Spring and Autumn Period (eighth-fifth centuries B.C.), and culminating in the written style of the classical language in the Warring States Period (fifth-third centuries B.C.) of the late Eastern Zhou, show a continuous development from the language of the Shang with limited dialect variation. Only a few isolated passages in early Chinese texts reflect what may have been the influence of the Zhou rulers' own tongue, or the influence of other early Chinese linguistic substrata.[57]

Just as was the case with Latin, there has been a considerable amount of debate on the relation of the written language of the preserved texts of the classical age to the spoken language of the time. Scholars like Wang Li, Zhou Fagao, Bernhard Karlgren, Henri Maspero, Hu Shi, Zhou Zumo, Ishikawa Tadahisa, and Tai Jingnong, in writing about this issue, have tended to emphasize the fundamental similarity of the spoken and written idiom.[58] Others, like Herrlee Creel, the early Guo Moro, and Homer Dubs, have in contrast emphasized the features which distinguished the late Zhou classical language from normal spoken language.[59] While our understanding of the evolution of the Chinese language remains primitive, there is little hope of being able to resolve the dispute to everyone's satisfaction. It is worth noting, however, that those who argue for a close relation of the written to the spoken language are in effect arguing that a considerable evolution has taken place in the spoken language up to the present, tantamount to the difference between the language of a classical text and a contemporary written text based closely on speech.

On the other hand, the other side, which views the classical written language variously as a "telegraphese," a shorthand in which superfluous redundancies are omitted, or at least a highly stylized, artificial medium as classical Latin appears to have been, has left up in the air the question of what the spoken language of classical China, that is, Old Chinese, looked like. But since the written language is likely to have been more conservative, we can assume that they view the spoken language as having already evolved further on the path toward modern Chinese. We might even have a situation in which the spoken tongue of that time resembled modern Chinese more than it did the artificial literary language, analogous to the situation in Latin that Robin Lakoff suggested.

The latter view receives modest support from studies of earlier stages of the Chinese language, when there was no question as yet of a stylized literary instrument. In the language of the oracle bone inscriptions one is startled to find cognates of a few words in modern Chinese which scarcely appear in literary Chinese. For example, the ancestor of the modern preposition zai 'in, at, on (etc,)' sometimes appears before place names and time expressions just as it does in modern Chinese, whereas yu ( ) appears in these places far more frequently in literary Chinese. In addition there is evidence in the language of the oracle bone and bronze inscriptions to suggest that an embryonic copulative verb (then written variously as   , , etc.) which precedes its predicate, as in English or modern spoken Chinese, was already more fully developed than is reflected in the written language of classical China, which more often used instead a sentence final particle ye to mark copulative sentences, a construction which left no trace in the later spoken language. But Karlgren has scored for the other side with an ingenious observation. He points out that in many of the classical texts the same particle ye also occurs as a proper name marker (like the der in colloquial German der Fritz, he notes), always in direct quotation. There are scores of occurrences and after names in various grammatical functions. Moreover, other than this difference, the quoted passages and the other, narrative and descriptive, passages are entirely consistent in grammar, vocabulary, and other respects. He argues that, if the written language is a highly stylized, reduced form of the spoken language, we would expect this absolutely unessential element to be eliminated too. Since it was not, we can conclude that the texts in the literary language were not reduced or altered in this way, and that "the literary language was a normalized and moderately stylized reproduction of the colloquial in educated circles," entirely analogous to the relation of the language of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to the spoken language of eighteenth-century England "brushed up into a literary or at least a semi-literary style,"[60] The important point here is that the grammatical system and fundamental vocabulary of the spoken and written languages were the same. Karlgren stresses that the far greater phonetic diversity of that period, the abundance of sound distinctions which are no longer made in modern, particularly northern, Chinese meant that the language was much clearer to the ear, less ambiguous, than it would seem from pronouncing it as if it were modern Chinese.

The majority of scholars today seem to favor the position that spoken and written language were close. A major reason they do this is that it is easy to detect a difference in grammatical usage of certain particles between works which derive from different periods or different regions. Their line of reasoning appears to be this: if there had been an artificial literary language already divorced from the spoken language at that time, then we would expect to see instead a uniformity in the use of these particles like that believed to exist throughout the later period, when the written language was indeed artificial. But since there is no uniformity we can conclude that in the classical period of late Zhou spoken and written language were in fact close.

For example, Huang Liuping (Xiang Xia) cited Xunzi's 荀子 frequent use of the conjunction an 'then, consequently' (like ze or nai ) which is totally absent in other works of approximately the same period (third century B.C.E. ). On the other hand, the writers Han Yu 韩愈 (768-824) and Yao Nai 姚鼐 (1731-1815) are separated by a thousand years, but their syntax and their use of such grammatical particles is almost identical (or so Huang claims).[61] Karlgren has concurred that not even in the third century B.C.E. when literary activity was at a peak was there a standard literary language uninfluenced by the author's own dialect. Thus even though an author was familiar with, say, the pronoun usage of si 'this' in the Confucian Lunyu 论语 (Analects), he didn't necessarily adopt it for his own writing.[62]

In this view the regional, as well as colloquial, flavor of the classical period was lost in the standardization and regularization of the Qin (221-206 B.C.E.) and early Han dynasties. Whereas dialects of late Zhou written Chinese can be discerned, the literary language from this time was polished and perfected into a more or less unified style. The traditional Chinese view seems to have perceived this process of stylistic refinement getting under way quite early. Tai Jingnong traced the steps in the process in texts from the sixth to the third centuries B.C.E. According to him the Lunyu is relatively colloquial, with only a little polishing, and so is Mengzi 孟子 (Mencius); the language of Guoyu 国语 and Zhanguoce 战国策 is somewhat more stylized and refined, and Xunzi is written in a polished literary style of considerable artifice.[63] Clearly he sees the literary language taking a definite polished form somewhat earlier than many others today. In 1926 Karlgren too had spoken of a "general third century B.C. literary language" in which Xunzi, as well as Zhuangzi 庄子 , Lüshi chunqiu 吕氏春秋 , and Hanfeizi 韩非子 were written.[64] With the increasing sophistication in our understanding of the grammar of classical Chinese, it appears he later postponed that development to the beginning of the Han. In any case it was the style of these works of the classical period, especially Mencius and Xunzi, as well as that of the Zuozhuan 左传 which were the most influential models for later literary prose style.

By the end of the Later (Eastern) Han dynasty, around 200 C.E., the spoken language had evolved to the point that there is no disagreement that the written language of the time, which was still based on the models of the fifth to third centuries B.C.E.,  500 or more years in the past, had now become a stereotyped and artificial style used by writers who spoke a quite different language.[65] The spoken language had been continuously evolving. The written language, however, had not.


What forces contributed to the arrest in the development of the written language during the Han dynasty? The main ones were as follows: the prestige attached to the classical language as the vehicle of expression for the Confucian canon, which was China's reigning orthodoxy from the Han to the twentieth century; the educational system; the civil service examination system for entrance into the bureaucracy, which was the political bastion maintaining the Confucian orthodoxy; a unique script which permitted a considerable gap to arise between the spoken and written languages without the phonological contradictions between the two becoming obvious; the value of the literary language as a written lingua franca to bind together the reaches of a large empire, far larger than any previous Chinese state, with formidable ethnic, linguistic, and geographic diversity; even the burning of the Confucian texts by Emperor Shihuang 始皇 of the Qin dynasty has been cited as a cause.

Foremost among these is doubtless the tremendous influence of Confucianism, fully as great as that of the Christian Church in the history of literary Latin. Chinese have often characterized themselves as a fundamentally conservative people, who "favored the past and slighted the present" (hougu bojin 厚古薄今 ). One of the chief manifestations of this backward-looking spirit was the reverence for the sages of the ancient past and a great reluctance to depart from the model of behavior, including linguistic behavior, that they had set. As Han Yu said:

In applying myself to guwen 古文 [ancient prose] I am not of course merely attracted by its diction being different from that of today. One cannot make the men of old appear by thinking of them. In attempting to follow the ancient way one needs to be conversant also with their language. In being conversant with their language, one's mind is basically on the ancient way.[66]

Works linked to Confucius himself, or to later Confucians like Mencius, formed a canon of sacred scriptures. The language of the canon itself became sacred. Bernhard Karlgren attributed this power of Confucianism to the famous burning of the books:

But then this natural and promising literary evolution [of the fifth to third centuries B.C.E.] was violently broken by the book burning. After this incident conditions were radically changed. The early literature that was saved and particularly the Confucian classics won the martyr's crown and became the object of the greatest veneration. And as a consequence of this the language of its various documents was imitated by later authors.[67]

It is significant here, though, that not all the texts linked to Confucius were equally influential in the formation of a stable literary language. The various pre-classical texts which Confucius was traditionally believed to have edited -- the Shijing  诗经 , Shujing 书经 , Yijing  易经 , and Chunqiu 春秋 -- had very little influence in the formation of literary Chinese.

The power of Confucianism alone was not sufficient to enthrone any work as a model of style, but those already stylistically sophisticated works of the classical period which bore the ideological imprimatur of Confucianism especially commanded the respect of later writers and compelled them to emulate their language. The force of numbers was also in favor of the later works. There were a great many works written in that proto-literary language of the third century B.C.E. which won the title of "classical." In comparison the handful of texts handed down from the early years of Zhou rule, essentially those enumerated above, could only appear as archaic relics, no matter how weighty their content.

The handmaidens of the Confucian ideology were the examination system and traditional education. Concerning the role of the examination system in preserving the prestige of a literary language based on classical Confucian models, Hu Shi wrote convincingly and from first-hand knowledge.[68] He claimed that already by the time of Emperor Wu of the Han (reigned 140-87 B.C.E.) the literary language was difficult for the minor officials to understand. It was necessary for young men to be selected from around the empire and sent to the capital for a year's special training in this language. Thus was formed a special cadre of privileged literati. Their number grew as time went on from 50, to 100, then 200, 1000, and over 3000 by the time of Emperor Cheng (reigned 32-6 B.C.E.). As long as one could read and write the language of the classics, he could qualify to be an official, to be exempt from forced military and corvée labor service and eligible for all the perquisites of the privileged elite. This practice was later formalized in the examination system, whose single most important demand on the candidate was familiarity with the Confucian texts. With only rare interruptions it was to continue until 1905. Hu feels that this more than anything else was responsible for the continuation of the literary language and the slowness of development of a "plain speech" baihua 白话  style more closely tied to the spoken tongue. As evidence he notes that in the eighty or so years when the Mongol conquerors suspended the examination system in the Yuan dynasty of the fourteenth century, baihua colloquial literature witnessed a vigorous development even among the educated elite, only to be subordinated again to the prestige of the literary medium when the examination system was restored in the Ming  dynasty (1368-1644). Thus the examination system was an essential prop for the influence of literary Chinese.

The educational system which fed candidates to the bureaucratic examinations bore many similarities to the instruction in Latin in Europe. Rote mastery of "classics" of style took precedence. Creativity or conscious innovation was undesirable. Young pupils would memorize texts like the Qianziwen 千字文 (The Thousand Character Classic), which presented traditional culture and morality in four-word phrases, while never repeating a word for its entire length (needless to say, its grammar is sometimes so forced as to invite a conclusion such as Professor Herdan's, that anything goes in literary Chinese); or the Sanzijing 三字经 (The Three Character Classic), which similarly represented traditional homilies in lines of three syllables each. The main purpose of such works was to impart a certain basic literacy, the ability to recognize and pronounce a few thousand characters (or logographs), upon which to found a study of the Confucian texts themselves. These texts, in their various combinations like "The Four Books and the Five Classics" sishu wujing 四书五经 , were the heart of the linguistic education. Memorized, recited over and over, chanted aloud and imitated, not only the structure but also the very spirit of the works was absorbed. And this was essential if one was to succeed in the bureaucratic examination and have the door to official life and elite status opened to him. We have no evidence that pupils, at least before the Tang (618-907), were exposed to any other written style than the classical language or its imitations. Even after the Tang such exposure was possible only furtively, and completely outside the educational process.

As a lingua franca literary Chinese played a role similar to that of Latin in Europe. There the spread of the Roman Empire over Europe had resulted in a great linguistic diversity within its boundaries. Latin could serve to overcome linguistic barriers. In China the rapid growth of the empire under the Han dynasty probably produced a similar need. Undoubtedly many areas came under Han control which spoke foreign tongues. Just as in Europe these foreign tongues, even as they became supplanted by the dominant one, Chinese here or Latin there, formed substrata which would influence the development of the dominant language differently where different foreign tongues had been spoken. Thus arose the different languages of the Romance family, each with signs of its own non-Latin substratum, and thus also arose the languages, or dialects, of modern China. In such a situation a common medium of communication was needed to overcome barriers, at least among those who traveled abroad. But in China we must distinguish the oral and written forms of that medium, because the nature of the Chinese writing system has imposed certain limitations on its users as well as granted them certain remarkable freedoms.

Although in Europe of the Middle Ages literary Latin was an oral lingua franca, literary Chinese never served a similar oral role. In the non-Chinese areas, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, literary Chinese was never a spoken medium.[69] There was little need for such a medium because personal contact with foreigners speaking unintelligible languages was minimal, even while the influence of Chinese culture was extreme. In China itself the need was confined to the "scholar-officials" of the bureaucracy, the counterparts of the ecclesiastics of Europe, who traveled throughout the country and were often appointed to posts in districts where their native dialect did not suffice for communication. What these men did was master a streamlined form of the language of the capital, if they were not already speakers of that language. Since the capital was located in different places at different times in history, the dialect/language which enjoyed this privileged position also shifted about. This language, which the scholar-officials apparently acquired informally rather than as a part of their earlier schooling, could then be used for oral communication with officials from other parts of the empire, as well as with local subordinates, who learned enough on the job to get by.

Beginning in the Jin and Yuan dynasties in the North (twelfth-fourteenth centuries) and continuing through the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, this oral lingua franca was in phonology and grammar based on the northern Mandarin dialect of Beijing (Peking), which was then the capital. From about the end of the Ming it was called guanhua 官话 ("officials' speech") since, although many of the growing number of itinerant merchants also acquired the language as they needed it on their travels, the major source of interest was still among those officials born and raised in the provinces. The English word Mandarin derives from the Portuguese word mandarin 'official' (< mandar 'to order') which missionaries used to translate this term guanhua. In the Qing, this language was sometimes called zhengyin 正音 ("correct pronunciation") and demand grew so great that schools, called zhengyin shuyuan 正音书院 , opened to give instruction in it. Handbooks of correct pronunciation were given names like Zhengyin sheyao  正音摄要 ("Getting the Essentials of Correct Pronunciation") or Zhengyin juhua 正因咀华 ("Savoring the Essence of Correct Pronunciation").[70]

Why couldn't literary Chinese have served this function? The answer lies in the genius of the Chinese script, which ultimately gave literary Chinese a staying power far surpassing that of Latin.[71] For literary Chinese had no unified pronunciation, Chinese of different areas pronounced literary Chinese fully as differently as they did their own spoken tongues. Since it was phonological differences which were primarily the cause of mutual unintelligibility among different areas, literary Chinese, which served nicely as a written lingua franca, couldn't surmount the communicative barriers any better than the vernacular dialects, even though it had a relatively unified grammar and lexicon.

The Chinese of 4000 or more years ago invented a "logographic" writing system in which it is morphemes that are represented, and the phonetic shape of the morphemes is indicated in only a subordinate way that makes each logograph phonetically flexible. The meaning of a logograph, or "character," may be understood by the eye, but it is read with varying pronunciations in different places and different times. Thus the orthographic shape of Chinese has not changed fundamentally in over 2000 years while its phonetic shape has been transformed over and over in successive epochs. Even today a modern Chinese can and does read an ancient work in his own pronunciation--in fact he can do nothing else without special linguistic training. A native of Beijing reads in Mandarin; of Shanghai, in Shanghai dialect; of Guangzhou (Canton), in Cantonese; of Changsha, in Hunan dialect, etc. Bernhard Karlgren cited the example of an edict posted about the country to illustrate the effect of the flexible phonetic nature of the script:

Thus an edict issued in Peking could be read and understood everywhere in this vast country, but the Cantonese read it aloud in a way that sounded utter nonsense to the Pekinese. And this is not all. Though a Pekinese read off the edict and pronounced every single word just as it is pronounced in his dialect, another Pekinese, who was listening but not looking at the characters, could not understand a single sentence if the reader followed the text word by word [because of the historical phonetic simplification of syllable types which had taken place].[72]

While this polyvalence is a major advantage of the Chinese writing system, a concomitant handicap is that, even if he wanted to, a speaker could not traditionally write down exactly what he spoke, in distinction with what everybody else spoke, since the writing system did not allow for it. In fact only lexical items which were shared with the literary language could be written at all, and even for shared items there was no way to indicate that the word was to be pronounced in a certain way, The devices used in the baihua vernacular tradition, which began to take shape in the Tang dynasty, for recording speech were usually ad hoc and subject to the discretion of the individual author. They were not standardized until recent years, and even today the conventions for transcribing the nonMandarin dialects, lying outside the baihua tradition, are only in a rudimentary state of sophistication. For speakers of these dialects the appeal of Hu Shi and others during the early twentieth-century cultural revolution to write as one spoke was meaningless, or at least unattractive, if that meant developing an entire system of representation hitherto nonexistent. I believe that the lack of convenient alternatives to literary Chinese is what is behind the greater popularity, even today, in comparable age groups, of the literary language among scholars who are not Mandarin native speakers than among those who are. (This is an impression yet to receive statistical confirmation.)

So as to better understand the importance of the Chinese writing system as a culturally conservative force, let me draw an analogy, albeit a hypothetical one, with Latin. If an American were to use a process similar to a Chinese to read a Latin text, he would look at the word strata but see his old friend "street" instead, and pronounce and understand it exactly like "street," Or he would look at the sentence Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres but see, and pronounce, "Gaul is omni-divided in parts three. This is admittedly slightly strange, but the approximate meaning does indeed come through. More important, it doesn't look foreign, only somewhat garbled in the transmission. If such a method of reading were available to us for the great majority of Latin words and sentences, it is easy to see that the Latin classics would even today have a modest currency that they have lost. Chinese have had just this ability, and it has played such a prominent role in giving continuity to China's cultural history that even experts in Chinese historical linguistics have emphasized the similarity of different stages of literary Chinese, rather than its evolutionary development. Karlgren provides a typical statement:

The literary language has been an artificial thing for a thousand years and more, and for all its stylistic variations it has been essentially the same throughout the ages. Once a Chinese had succeeded in mastering it, it was the same to him, from the point of view of the language, whether the poem he was reading was written at the time of Christ, a thousand years later, or yesterday; it was just as comprehensible and enjoyable in either case.[73]

Granting that literary Chinese has been "essentially the same" for the last 2000 years, I would like now to examine some of the ways in which it has varied, far more than just in style alone, during that time, and the causes for that variation. As was the case with Latin, we see a reciprocal influence at every stage between the literary and spoken languages. Just as literary Latin showed a considerable capacity to grow, despite the fact that it was a language without native speakers, literary Chinese also grew as it absorbed forms from the spoken language. The users of literary Chinese could no more escape the influence of their own native speaker's competence than could the users of Latin. But the actual nature of the changes which took place in literary Chinese are only now coming under the scrutiny of linguists interested in the history of the Chinese language. Naturally, in China, as was true in Europe, linguists have been more concerned with reconstructing a picture of the spoken language of each period on the basis of hints found in the literary language--innovations, intentional or unintentional, which betray the writer's own native speaker's competence--than with portraying the literary language itself as a system in evolution. But such hints are often only individual slips, and may have no bearing on the regular evolution of the literary language itself, the changes in which came about instead through the participation and conscious acceptance of the great majority of users at any given time.

To the extent that the literary language was ultimately influenced by the underlying changes in the spoken language, the two avenues of approach differ mainly in focus, but even the former has not been thoroughly pursued, so that there is as yet no systematic, detailed account even of the history of spoken Chinese which can serve as a guide. (Professor Wang Li's Hanyu shigao 汉语史稿 is an important milestone on the way.)

As a result, there is a popular belief that the literary language has remained identical through the ages, or at most differed only in style. One had only to choose his model and he could make an exact replica. One hears the dubious claims that the famous late Qing scholar and translator Yan Fu 严复 used the style of the late Zhou philosophers to translate Darwin's On the Origin of Species, or that the early twentieth-century literary conservative Lin Shu 林纾 used the style of Tang chuanqi 传奇 'tales of marvels' to translate the works of Western novelists like Dickens.[74] (Being a conservative he knew no foreign languages, but worked closely with collaborators who did; they would translate into an intermediate colloquial Chinese, from which he would translate into literary Chinese.) No doubt Yan Fu or Lin Shu did try to imitate their models very closely, but their works reflect the modern native speaker's competence in every line. The single most important feature of the history of literary Chinese is its eclecticism. In each period and in each locale some of the spoken forms of that period or locale have become accepted in the literary language. Each of these additions took its place then as part of the common fund of expressions which later writers could draw upon at will. The resources of late literary Chinese are as a result many times the size of the language in its formative period during the late Zhou and early Han, "Hence arose a fearful grammatical confusion," writes Karlgren, " . . . and so all the various grammatical auxiliaries used in the older literature came to be used promiscuously. The great syncretism (in grammar and vocabulary) which characterizes literary Chinese from the Han period onwards was the direct outcome of the book burning and the ensuing sanctity of the earlier texts."[75] It is this "promiscuity" of the language, as Karlgren calls it, which gives the impression of an essential sameness to the works of different periods.

A good example of the profusion of lexical items is the set of words available in modern literary Chinese meaning "all," for which there is really only one equivalent in modern Mandarin, dou , as there is just the word all in English. A non-exhaustive listing already comes to ten: jie , jun , ju , xi , jin , quan , xian , ju , qian , and xu . No speaker of any past period, especially the classical period, actively used more than a few of these forms. Some forms did not even appear until much later. Four of them (jie, jun, xi, and xu) are used in the short selections of modern literary Chinese reproduced in Appendix B-D. Zhu Xueqiong, the author of the passage in Appendix D, feels the urge toward elegant variation so strongly that he has used three in the space of just two lines (lines 7-8).

Now the striking similarity in phonetic shape of these items (in modern Mandarin all have a palatal initial, five have an -n final, etc.) should suggest to us that despite their different graphic form, at least some of them, perhaps most of them, are etymologically the same word, whose phonetic variation is traceable to alternative forms current in different dialects or at different times. Writers like Zhu Xueqiong would doubtless feel impoverished if this were to be conclusively demonstrated.

There was a countervailing force which fortunately placed limits on the "promiscuity" in diction and the tendency in the literary language to resort to elegant variation, which was not an important stylistic feature of texts of the classical period. The very principle which tended to keep old words alive in Chinese more than in Latin, the phonetic flexibility of the written word, also influenced the selection of words from the common fund made by a particular writer. The analogy of strata with street drawn above is instructive. Note that strata is a Late Latin word, and that the classical word for "road" was via. I observed there that the reader would look at the word strata (if Latin were Chinese) but see and say "street." This is because the graphic shape of the two would be absolutely identical, as the graphic shape of old Chinese (OC) *glâg 'road' and modern Mandarin lu 'road' is simply . This is an extremely helpful mnemonic aid in reading. One needn't learn a lot of new forms, but instead can let one's own usage be the guide. In writing literary Chinese one's choice of vocabulary would be suggested by the words in his spoken vocabulary. This is just what many writers in the literary language over the years have done. It has resulted in the pruning of some forms from use in ordinary literary Chinese which were long forgotten in the spoken tongue, while retaining those that were still current. Only consciously archaistic writers sought to keep the obsolete forms alive. The words for "all" above are a good illustration. They are by no means equally common. Probably during any past period jie was by far the most common, while qian or xu were curiosities, used rarely, and then for archaic effect.

Let us select another example from among the hundreds noted in the historical dictionary section of Gudai Hanyu 古代汉语 of this process in which the influence of the spoken language has unconsciously altered the usage of writers of the literary language.[76] This one involves the classical Chinese word for "eye" mu (OC *mjôk) and the post-classical word for "eye" yan (OC *ngɛn > MC *ʽngăn). As the classical word mu was replaced in the spoken language by yan, probably around the Han, we see this change reflected in literary Chinese usage, as yan appears in Han and post-Han literary Chinese texts with dramatically increasing frequency.

On the other hand, if we were to look at the words for "ear" we would see no such change. In literary Chinese the word meaning "ear" for over 2000 years has been written only as er , despite the fact that the Old Chinese spoken form was *ńjəg ( ) and the modern spoken form is erduo ( 耳朵 ), which are at least as divergent phonetically as the forms for "eye" OC *mjôk and modern yan. But since these are cognate, and no totally unrelated form, with a different writing, arose in the spoken language, the uniformity of literary Chinese was here maintained, even as writers relied on their native speakers' competence. The abbreviation of bisyllabic erduo (current in speech for at least several hundred years) to just er in writing literary Chinese was not only considered in conformity with prior usage, but also won support from human nature itself, our innate laziness. As Lü Shuxiang put it, "writing an extra graph was just an added nuisance."[77]

This retention of certain old forms because of a ready analogy with forms in the spoken language extends itself to certain idiomatic patterns too. Appendix D, line 2, contains the phrase jing ze jing yi 精则精矣 'as for being painstaking, it is to be sure painstaking', which is a classical construction which possibly owes its longevity to the fact that it has a logically close parallel in spoken Chinese: jingmi (dao)shi jingmi 精密()是精密 'well, it's painstaking as far as that goes'.

Nonetheless, the practice of letting one's spoken language be the judge of literary Chinese usage resulted in the great majority of cases in a less than classical idiom, as would certainly be the case if we were to write strata rather than via in our Latin composition, relying on our knowledge of street. Thus the sophistication of writers in achieving a classical correctness of expression through the ages is measured by the extent to which they have been conscious of the deviation between their own native competence and the classical models. But hyper-concern for avoiding what were felt to be colloquial forms has resulted with Chinese as with Latin in many fictitious forms which have no classical antecedents at all. Even more common is the use of classical grammar and vocabulary, but in a way which distorts its original usage. For example, the FBI bulletin (Appendix B) contains late inventions like the usage buwei 不惟 or mid-sentence eryi 而已 in the first line; the final ye concluding the extremely long and complex first and third sentences, for what appears to be rhetorical emphasis alone (notice that the one time the author needs a copulative construction, he uses an explicit A = B copula xi ( ), although a classical ye could have served nicely; the fusion word zhu for zhiyu 之于 ( ) in an embedded clause where it cannot go according to classical rules (line 2); yuhu 与乎 'and' in line 4; or ge gai 各该 'each afore-said (?) [city]' in line 10.


The preceding section has been concerned mainly with the evolution of vocabulary and diction. In the area of syntax, there has been a long-term trend toward increased sentence length and complexity, Zhou Zumo has noted that the long sentences in the prose of Tang writers like Han Yu were rare in classical models.[78] It has been further claimed by Wang Li that greater precision and structural density of Tang literary Chinese sentences, as well as a tendency to organize several small classical sentences into one big sentence, is a reflection of the more advanced state of logical thought processes then compared to the classical age.[79] He cites the following sentence from Han Yu's Wuzhe Wang Chengfu zhuan 圬者王承福传 ("A Biography of the Plasterer Wang Chengfu") which illustrates these advances:


Shi shi wu shi zhi gui jian, er shang xia qi wu zhi yong yi chang zhi.

[The plasterer Wang Chengfu] noted how expensive or cheap his room and board were at any time, and raised or lowered his plastering fees accordingly to pay for them.

A sentence of equal conciseness yet logical complexity could not be found in the works of the pre-Qin authors, Wang says--a view shared by Huang Liuping, who discussed the same example.[80] This is an interesting claim, but extremely difficult to prove. Nevertheless, I believe it is a welcome attempt to make explicit an impression which all readers must share, that literary Chinese evolved in the direction of greater complexity, even as early as the medieval period.

Beyond this, as literary Chinese grew, certain classical structures were lost, others modified, and new ones added. Consider the development of the passive. In the classical Chinese of the formative period explicitly marked passive constructions were seldom used. When used, they were in the form


(1)     Receiver - verb - yu ( ) - actor,




(2)     Receiver - wei - actor - verb.


Occasionally the pattern


(3)     Receiver - jian - verb - (yu - actor)


was also used. By the Han dynasty explicitly marked passive constructions were much more common than before. Pattern (l) had already declined in popularity; pattern (2) had been modified through the insertion of a suo  before the verb (probably by analogy with other suo - verb constructions):


(4)     Receiver - wei - actor - suo - verb.


Pattern (3) began to grow in popularity and was common from the Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420) onward. But in the standard literary Chinese from the Tang to the twentieth century by far the most common pattern was none of the classical ones but instead (4). Note that the typical spoken Chinese pattern, when expressed, is none of the above, but the following:


(5)     Receiver - bei - (actor) - verb.


This had already begun to occur occasionally in texts of the classical period and continued to develop until the present day, but was eschewed by most writers of literary Chinese as obviously colloquial. They settled for a colloquially-modified classical construction instead. Pattern (5) in its turn was influenced in reverse from the literary language, as it too was sometimes modified to include a pre-verbal suo , making it analogous with (4):


(6)     Receiver - bei - actor - suo - verb.[81]


Grammarians of the literary language have sometimes neglected its evolving character, and consequently misunderstood passages, or believed them to be irregular, when in fact they were products of a quite regular development. A phrase, once more from the works of Han Yu, zaichen bujian chi 宰臣不见斥 from context clearly meant "[he] was not reprimanded by the prime minister and magnates," but this was just the opposite of what one would expect if this were an example of (3) above, the structural description of which it superficially matches. The pioneer Chinese grammarian Ma Jianzhong 马建忠 at the end of the nineteenth century in his grammar Mashi wentong 马氏文通 first raised the issue, and suggested that the sentence was anomalous, since it didn't conform to the rules of classical Chinese grammar. With a more refined sense of the historical development of the language. Lü Shuxiang much later proposed that it was a perfectly regular elliptical form of a combined version of (3) and (4), namely


(7)     Receiver - wei - actor - suo - jian - verb


which was then shortened to


(8)     Actor - jian - verb.


Although such a synthesis and ellipsis was not possible in classical literary Chinese, it was not uncommon from the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. on.[82]


In another approach to literary Chinese grammar, Karlgren has applied a statistical test of the frequency of certain grammatical particles in the language of Wang Chong's 王充 Lunheng 论衡 and Yang Xiong's 杨雄 Fayan  法言 (they were nearly contemporaries in the first century A.D.), He shows how the language of Wang already showed interesting differences from classical style.

Altogether, at a first reading of the Lun Heng one gets the impression that it has preserved the whole arsenal of formantia of "classical Chinese" of the last pre-Han centuries and that it faithfully copies the literary language of the great models Confucius and Mencius, Mo-tsï, and Sun-tsï, etc. But a closer inspection reveals some radical deviations of great interest.[83]

He tests for the use of such particles as negatives fu and wu ; final particles huzai 乎哉 and fu ; interrogative adverb yan ; fusion of zhi hu 之乎 into zhu ; and he notes a significant innovation in usage. There occur hitherto unknown grammatical constructions like the conjunction jia ling 假令 'if'; choice-type questions with A hu (or ye ) B ye ; and nai in sense of cognate neng 'can.' He concludes that Wang Chong's language was a refined version of the colloquial of his time. In contrast, a similar test applied to Yang Xiong's Fayan showed that he was consciously, and successfully, imitative of the Lu dialect texts of late Zhou, especially Lunyu. Thus Karlgren demonstrated that already at this early date there were the same contrasting attitudes to literary Chinese style--one pragmatic, utilitarian, and tolerant of innovation, the other striving for classical purity of expression--that marked the entire history of Latin.


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries changes began to appear in literary Chinese which made previous ones appear minor by comparison. Already in mid-Qing, some writers  in the literary language such as those of the Tongcheng school (including Yao Nai), at the same time they proclaimed themselves successors to the "ancient prose" guwen 古文 tradition, had consciously written a language close in diction to the spoken tongue, while employing classical syntactic patterns. Now as a response to changes in the needs of communication, wrought in part by modernization, in part by social upheaval, the literary language made an effort to adapt. This period is perhaps analogous to that of Scholasticism in the history of Latin--a period of tremendous innovation and freedom of expression resulting in a rejuvenated medium, but which in retrospect was just the prelude to the final abandonment of the literary language, as it was overtaken by events beyond its capacity to accommodate.

In the analysis of Harold Shadick, the five main features of this modern literary Chinese are the admission of large numbers of modern polysyllabic words; the omission of many "classical function words"; long and complex sentences; "loose" sentence structure; and frequent ellipses.[84] He notes that Hu Shi's essay "Wenxue gailiang chuyi" 文学改良刍议 ("Tentative Proposals for the Improvement of Literature"), which was published in the magazine Xinqingnian 新青年 in 1917, exhibited these features in abundance.[85] It was the Chinese counterpart to Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia, calling for the replacement of the literary language with the vernacular as the common medium of expression. Other writers often mentioned as representing this new style are Liang Qichao 梁启超 , Kang Youwei 康有为 , and Sun Zhongshan 孙中山 (Sun Yatsen).

I have already referred to the contemporary samples in Appendix B-D, and discussed some of their characteristics in connection with other topics. I would like to add a few comments here. Appendix B, which is an FBI bulletin distributed in American Chinatowns during 1971-72, is remarkable for its strange hybrid language. It is the modern example of the public edict which Karlgren referred to above. Its author is likely to have been a Cantonese speaker, who possibly knew no Mandarin; some readers, on the other hand, like myself may not know Cantonese but still find no barrier to visual intelligibility. One hint of the author's spoken dialect is the use of the copula xi (used like shi in modern Mandarin) in line 12. This is a very late innovation in literary Chinese usage. Since it is unknown in northern spoken Chinese, but is the usual copulative verb in colloquial Cantonese, pronounced [hai], it may be considered a case of regional influence on the literary medium. Although it has come to be used in writing by speakers of all Chinese dialects, especially for this type of "public documentary style" gongwen 公文 (the Chinese version of our legal English appearing on automotive insurance policies and the like), its use here is possibly especially due to its coincidence with the author's spoken competence.

It is not only in the length and complexity of the sentences here but in the word order itself that the piece departs from the classical models of literary Chinese and takes on its hybrid quality. The second sentence (and also the third, to a lesser extent) starts with a long topic, about which there follows an even longer comment. The first sentence in Appendix D has the same construction. Common in modern spoken Chinese, this topic/comment construction is an unusual digression from the usual word order when it occurs in early literary Chinese. In many sentences there is an almost mechanical substitution of "literary" words for colloquial equivalents. It is the sort of literary Chinese a well-programmed computer could produce, if provided with a text in spoken Chinese and a look-up list of equivalents. This may be seen by examining the first sentence alone (my list of Mandarin equivalents may be different from the author's own): zhu jun 诸君 for nimen 你们 ; jin for xianzai 现在 ; ji for jiran 既然 (yinwei 因为 ); buwei 不惟 for budan 不但 ; de for neng ; qi for tade 他的 ; zhi for de ; and so on. No doubt the explicit indication of the plural (zhujun, jundeng 君等 ), never done in classical Chinese, and rarely even in later literary Chinese, here as elsewhere is a reflection of the writer's spoken competence. He feels an irresistible need to make such a distinction.

The other two samples of contemporary literary Chinese do not seem such a weird blend of languages. In part this is because their subject matter is more traditional and thus the literary language lends itself to more natural expression here than in reference to Communist spies and telephone directories. But the late Professor Ch'en Shih-hsiang's honest and beautiful portrayal of his colleague Professor Peter Boodberg in Appendix C is a fitting continuation of the tradition established by Mencius and the other classical greats, and carried forward by Sima Qian and Han Yu. Perhaps Professor Y.R. Chao had his friend in mind when he wrote the words quoted at the end of Part I. Just as is the case with the modern Latin in the Yale diploma of Appendix A, he has not hesitated to modify his diction to include a neologism when the situation demands it, while never deviating from the disciplined rhetoric of his classical models. The stamp of modern man's sensibility is still unmistakably there, but it is more subtle than in the other samples.

Appendix D is a typical piece of scholarly prose. In its departure from the classical model it lies somewhere between the other two samples. As with the FBI bulletin it tends to follow word-for-word a modern Chinese word order, but with literary substitutions for words considered too colloquial for print. It avoids, though, the grossnesses of the other. All its departures from the classical model have many antecedents and may be considered regular features of later literary Chinese. Note the author's half-hearted classicism in how he expresses the adversative conjunction "but." He has been careful to use the word dan (lines 3 and 5) solely in the classical sense of "only" and not in its later extended meaning of "but," which is the most common in modern colloquial Mandarin. However, in the first line, when he avoids using dan for a straightforward 'but," he uses instead the word di , which is not a classical word for "but" at all (a classicist would demand ran ). Di in the meaning "but" is a late modification of a connective used in Han Chinese, for example by Sima Qian, whose precise function has not been determined, but is definitely not a simple "but."


In the previous section I have summarized some of the ways in which the spoken language influenced the course of literary Chinese development. Now let's turn to influence in the other direction, of literary Chinese on the spoken language. Has the literary language served as a reservoir of words to be borrowed or roots for word-formation in the vernacular? The answer is yes, fully as much as Latin has in Europe. Do the products of direct borrowings from the literary language or word-formation from literary roots in various periods appear in different shapes in the modern vernacular language, even if derived from a single parent word (as is true in the Romance family)? The answer here is not as clear. Recall the case of Latin oculus and its triplex derivation in French: oeil, aveugle, and oculaire. The longer the history of the word in French separate from Latin, the more radically had the form departed from the shape of the Latin root. There has, to be sure, been a tremendous amount of learned borrowing in Chinese, but the phonological variation among offspring stemming from the same parent, one of the most important sources of fascination, not just in Romance philology, but in the entire world of Indo-European studies, simply does not occur in China except in certain special circumstances.

The reason is the phonetic flexibility of the Chinese written word, which has enabled a word to be pronounced differently in different periods with absolutely no formal modification. As a result of the fact that it is morphemes which are reduced to writing rather than phonemes, cognate words can often be seen to be related at a glance, since they share common morphemic elements. Etymology is often so transparent in Chinese that it spoils the fun. It loses the puzzle or mystery-story quality which has excited layman and scholar alike in the West for centuries. If aveugle were a Chinese word, the question of its etymological antecedents could not possibly include alternatives like either album oculi or ab oculis, since unless there had been a discontinuity in its written form over the ages, its component morphemic elements would immediately reveal the answer.

Take the example of the literary Chinese word for "eye" mu , which has already been referred to above, and its modern derivatives. Its phonetic shape has evolved from old Chinese *mjôk through Middle Chinese *mjuk, to modern Mandarin mu. It has served as a component element in word-formation in the colloquial language at every point along this path of phonetic evolution, but no matter when a new word was formed or how it was first pronounced the "eye" morpheme is invariably written and pronounced mu today. Thus we have the following six words derived in part from , out of scores of varying frequency in modern colloquial Chinese: mangmu 盲目 'blind, benighted' (aveugle); mujing 目镜 'eyepiece' (oculaire); mudi 目的 'goal'; muqian 目前 'at present'; er ru mu ran 耳濡目染 'ears saturated and eyes imbued' (thoroughly influenced by what one hears and sees); muguang 目光 'vision.' In cases such as "eye" where the literary form differs from the spoken, the literary form is in general favored in the formation of new words. That is, mu here is more common as a word-forming element than either yan or yanjing 眼睛 .

Several qualifications must be made in this picture. The first is that in all modern Chinese dialects there are occasional words or morphemes which have two alternative pronunciations, one learned and one colloquial, although still written with the same graph. The learned pronunciation is used in reading aloud, or in the pronunciation of a morpheme when it forms part of certain, often less common, words or idiomatic expressions. The colloquial pronunciation serves for all other purposes. This is called wenbai yidu 文白异读 ("different literary and colloquial readings"), or just the wenbai phenomenon. In fact, it is usually nothing more than the synchronic manifestation of the diachronic phenomenon of lexically gradual sound change, in which phonetic changes taking place in a language constantly affect an increasing number of words. Such is probably the case with the American English words whose [u] vowel is undergoing shortening, like boot, aloof, coot (not yet affected); roof, root, hoof (in alternation); foot, soot, woof (change completed). In Chinese the older, conservative pronunciation among two alternatives is the learned one, and the innovation is the colloquial. The Xiamen 厦门 (Amoy) dialect is famous for its great number of these alternative pronunciations. In that dialect our mu morpheme above has the colloquial pronunciation [bak] (yang-departing tone) and the learned pronunciation [bɔk] (yang-departing tone), which are used in differing environments.[86] In Beijing Mandarin an example of a learned pronunciation has already occurred above in another connection. In the phrase hougubojin 厚古薄今 'to favor the past and slight the present' the morpheme written is here given its learned, i.e., more conservative pronunciation bo. Its usual, colloquial pronunciation is bao, as in bao 'thin,' or baobing 薄饼 'thin (pan)cakes.' There is as much variation from speaker to speaker in the application of rules governing the use of alternative pronunciations in Chinese as there is in the English example above. Note that although pronunciation of etymologically related words does indeed vary here, their relation is still visually transparent because their common morpheme is still written with the same graph.

Another qualification is that there is an area, still little investigated, in the history of the Chinese language, where the etymological relation of cognate derivatives of the same parent word is obscure to the same degree that it often is in the Romance field. This is where there is a discontinuity in the writing of a word. For some reason, perhaps a slight irregular phonetic shift, the original written form of a word has been lost, changed, or replaced with another one. The result is that the word has participated in the normal phonetic evolution of Chinese, but since it has been written differently in different periods the cognate relation between older forms, such as those appearing in ancient texts and retained in the literary language, and the newer forms, such as those used in the colloquial language today, has been forgotten. Then when the literary form is borrowed from the literary language into the colloquial language at a time after the discontinuity in writing, its different phonetic, as well as graphic shape disguise its common genetic origin with the continuously evolving spoken form. This is just what happened with French oeil and aveugle, both from Latin oculus.

I  would propose as three possible examples of this phenomenon the modern colloquial Mandarin words ye  'also,' le (change-of-state marker), and ni 'you.' They have developed, with more or less regular phonological development, from their respective Old Chinese ancestors *zjăk 'also,' *zjəg (change-of-state marker), and *ńja ( ) 'you.' (Old Chinese reconstructions here as elsewhere are Karlgren's Archaic Chinese, and are given only as approximations, mindful that they are not entirely suitable, not least because Karlgren reconstructed the OC forms in part so that they would derive the modern literary Chinese pronunciations of these words, namely yi , yi , and er , instead of the modern spoken reflexes proposed here.) This is not the place to present a detailed defense of these proposals, nor is such a defense yet possible. They are offered in the spirit of putting some meat on the bones of  the familiar dictum in Chinese linguistics to distinguish the writing system from the language itself. The  important point is that we cannot categorically assume that the history of a word is the same as the history of the graph now used to write that word. Here, as elsewhere, we should not be mesmerized by the Chinese script but look beyond it to the language it represents. If these etymologies, or others like them, were to be proven, then the borrowing of the literary words into the spoken language and their use there either independently or as elements in word-formation, complete with a different pronunciation derived from the literary tradition, would be an illustration of an influence of literary Chinese on spoken Chinese pronunciation more analogous to the Latin model.

Another type of literary language influence on the spoken language seems related to but slightly different from the above. Sometimes the irregular phonological development of certain words in the modern dialects is attributed to interference from forms in the literary language. For example, in Guangzhou 广州 (Canton City) dialect [k'wan] , [k'a:i] , [k'au] , and [k'yt] , are all words which, according to the rules of this dialect's phonological history, would normally have an [f] initial (MC *kw > hu > f]. According to Yuan Jiahua, who refers to this example, this is not simply a case of a conservative pronunciation as in the wenbai learned/colloquial alternations already discussed: "We can provisionally hypothesize that these exceptional words have been influenced by the literary language or the northern dialects. Rather than having been continuously retained, it is more likely that the original [k'] has been restored."[87] He does not explain the mechanism for a restoration here, but it must be different from the usual learned borrowing since as noted above this rarely produces divergent phonetic forms, literary language forms being pronounced the same as colloquial ones in any given period or dialect.


A special case of literary Chinese influence upon the spoken tongue is the use of literary grammatical particles instead of the usual spoken ones. Kōsaka Junichi has discussed the retention of forms like the classical demonstrative ci 'this' and the interrogative he 'what' in semi-lexicalized expressions in colloquial Chinese, and also the question of how productive they are.[88]

Let us look for a moment at how another literary Chinese form, the possessive pronoun qi 'his, her, its, their' is still used in modern spoken Chinese, by noting its occurrences in an actual corpus. I have selected a 1942 speech of Mao Zedong, called "Fandui dang bagu" 反对党八股 ("Oppose the 'Party Eight-legs'").[89]

Mao used qi altogether twelve times in the course of this approximately one-hour speech. (The immediate contexts are reproduced in Appendix E.) These twelve instances can be analyzed as follows: three instances where qi forms the first syllable in a totally lexicalized bisyllabic expression (by "lexicalized" I mean qi is bound to the other syllable, the two together form a free and productive unit, and the original grammatical function of the literary language components is no longer relevant to the behavior of that unit), in qita  其他 'the rest' (174.l.2), qishi 其实

'actually' (175.l.2), and qizhong 其中 'therein' (182.9); two instances of qi in totally lexicalized idiomatic expressions of four syllables, in kuakuaqitan 夸夸其谈 'be boastful in his talk' (181.3) and momingqimiao 莫名其妙  'puzzling' (literally--that is, reading the component elements as if they were literary Chinese-- 'no naming its mystery') (175.1.1); one adverbial suffix qi, in jiqi 极其 'extremely' (172.2); one semi-lexicalized expression of limited productivity, ting qi (fazhan) 听其(发展)'allow it (to develop),' where qi alternates with to / (179.2); five other instances (170.2, 173.1, 174.l.1, 179.1, 179.2) where qi is interchangeable with ta(men)de /() 'its, their', but in some of which the use of qi is favored over ta(men)de by its co-occurrence with other elements of literary origin and stylistic value, like ji (A ji qi B, 172.2), or repeating the qi of ting qi fazhan (179.2).

We can see from the frequent use of qi throughout this limited corpus how much the vocabulary of even spoken modern Chinese has been enriched through the adoption of such items of literary origin. At the same time it is clear that qi, at least, has been transformed from an active, free word in the grammar of literary Chinese to an element whose usage can be for the most part listed in the lexicon, like trans- or there-(fore, etc.) in English. The native speaker's freedom to invent new expressions with it is severely circumscribed. Finally, since I have referred to this speech of Mao Zedong, it is interesting to observe another continuing use of literary Chinese within the spoken language which appears there. For special effect Mao has used a literary rather than a colloquial formula for defining a term, and in the process illustrated one of his prescriptions in "Oppose the 'Party Eight-legs'" for effective style--that in linguistic matters too the past should be made to serve the present, by selectively employing expressions which are "still useful," which "still have life in them."[90] The sentence is this:



Danshi hua zhe chetou chewei cheli chewai zhi wei ye,

But hua transform, -ize, -ify] means from head to tail and inside and out.[91]


This type of literary borrowing on the syntactic level is not uncommon. It is possible even today because the phonetic flexibility of the script allows us to pronounce the sentence as if it were modern Mandarin.


While the dominance of literary Chinese continued until the beginning of the present century, not only in China, but in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as well, forces were at work to undermine that dominance for a millennium and a half. In China itself an alternative literary style with color and verve was slowly taking shape. This was the baihua vernacular, which emerged in the Tang and Song and reached a high stage of development as a language for drama and fiction in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The zenith of the style in fiction was perhaps to be found in the great eighteenth century novel Hong lou meng 红楼梦 (The Dream of the Red Chamber). But as a language for general expository purposes baihua had to wait until the recent past to begin to achieve a stable form in the crucible of practical application. Such was the total monopoly of polite letters by literary Chinese. Only now is it taking on the role of a universal tool of expression rivaling literary Chinese, English, or French in power or depth of expression, Ironically it is doing so by borrowing more heavily than ever before from its now discredited competitor.

Historically, the vernacular had served a useful complementary function in relation to the learned language, similar to that of the Romance tongues in relation to Latin in pre-Renaissance Europe. In China, as in Europe, the vulgar language was considered a fitting medium for popular entertainments like romances, plays, and tales of all sorts. These were held in contempt by the Confucian scholiasts, who categorized them under the rubric "small talk" xiao shuo 小说 . Their sole raison d'être was their ability to amuse. It would have been inappropriate to use the dignified literary language for works which had no redeeming social value,

Can the vernacular be shown to arise from some of the same economic and social conditions in China as in Europe? We do indeed see a connection in China as well between the development of a more vigorous commercialism and the increased importance of cities on the one hand, and the emergence of the vernacular, more and more in competition with the literary language on the other. It was in the Tang dynasty that the seeds of both were sprouted, and in the succeeding Song that they grew rapidly together. Here in China too the invention and spread of printing provided important impetus to the vernacular.

Meanwhile, internal developments in literary Chinese itself also spurred the growth of the competition. Recall that in Europe it was during and immediately after tides of classicism in the history of literary Latin that the Romance vernacular traditions spurted ahead in a reaction to the enthusiasm for pure, classical forms of expression only. When not only the spirit of simplicity and symmetry, order and discipline, of the classical Latin writers was to be emulated, but even their grammar and vocabulary as well, the natural effect was to stimulate writers to look elsewhere for a vehicle of greater freedom and spontaneity. China had its classicist movements too. The most famous is the so-called "Ancient Prose" (guwen 古文 ) movement during the "flourishing Tang" period in the eighth century, whose leaders were the famous prose stylists Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773-819). As a reaction against the excessively mannered pian(ti)wen () balanced prose style which had become popular during the preceding Period of Division (fourth-sixth centuries) the Ancient Prose movement's proponents urged a return to classical models of simplicity. To the extent that they went further, to advocate using Mencius' or Xunzi's diction and discarding neologisms too, they inevitably stimulated a reaction. Many at the time must have been compelled by the increased self-consciousness about style generated by Ancient Prose classicism to observe the linguistic changes that had taken place over ten centuries and the resulting gap between the language which they spoke and that which they wrote. It cannot be coincidental that this is the very period when we see the first hints of an emerging vernacular style.

If the seeds of the downfall of literary Chinese were sown so early, and an alternative style closer to speech was available, yet literary Chinese continued to maintain its hegemony in spite of this, then why did it ultimately fail?

The answer is that something happened to the forces which had favored it and suppressed the competition--the prestige given it as the language of Confucius and Mencius, the support of the educational and bureaucratic systems, the unique phonological flexibility of the Chinese script.

We can perceive cracks in the bulwark of literary Chinese as early as the romanticist movement of the late Ming, when some of the most famous men of letters, like Li Zhi 李贽 (1527-1602), Yuan Hongdao 元宏道 (1568-1610), Jin Shengtan 今圣叹 (ca. 1610-1661), or Li Yu 李渔 (1611-1679/80), dared to value the masterpieces of the vernacular tradition on a par with those of the literary language tradition. This attitude was, nevertheless, considered by the majority of their fellows as iconoclasm verging on madness. It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when contact with the West, and the increasing influence of Western civilization on Chinese ideas and institutions had eroded the first force and radically altered the second, that the bulwark crumbled completely. When Confucius' or Mencius' currency declined in value so did that of their language. No longer did the Confucian texts monopolize the educational curriculum. There were new fields of learning, in science, technology, and world history, which demanded a new mode of expression. The abandonment of the examination system in 1905 even removed that pillar of support.

The ideological basis for literary Chinese was thus removed, but more important, it had lost its material basis as well. It could survive as long as it satisfied the needs of communication whenever called upon. For almost 2000 years Chinese culture had changed modestly enough that the literary language could successfully continue to serve for communicative purposes with little more than minor accommodations in vocabulary and structure (and  major ones in phonology). Now, however, that language had to undergo changes in vocabulary fully as radical as the technological and social changes taking place in society itself. Some innovations in vocabulary, especially the abstract concepts adapted from the West, were so foreign to the spirit of classical Chinese that they resulted in a modification in the principles that underlay the grammatical structure itself, the principles that gave the language its identity. A contradiction had arisen between communicative demands and the need to survive as the same language it had been. In short, there was no way that the literary language could remain at one and the same time tied to the contemporary context, and to the model set for it in a profoundly different context 2000 years earlier. Stated in Marx's terms, the changes in the economic base not only allowed but demanded concomitant changes in the cultural superstructure, including the linguistic superstructure. A revolutionary modification in the former produced a corresponding revolutionary modification in the latter. The old written language could no longer reflect the new reality and had to yield to one that could.

The FBI document in Appendix B illustrates the unidentifiable mongrel language which was the logical result of the effort at accommodation within literary Chinese. Even if we allow that a lexical item like dianhua haomabu 电话号码簿 'telephone directory' might be accepted into literary Chinese as any other concrete noun had been for millennia, a phrase like xiangshou Meiguo ziyou zheng zhi xia zhongzhong xingfu 享受美国自由政制下种种幸福 "enjoy the various blessings of America's free political system" was making too great a demand. Mencius, Sima Qian, or even Han Yu, stumbling across the former in a text, could conceivably consider it some weird foreignism in their language and pass over it, but they would surely balk at the sight of the latter and refuse to admit that this was anything less than another language.

As the twentieth century dawned Chinese writers, particularly those who went abroad to study, awakened to the potential in a living written medium more responsive to cultural change, like the European national vernacular literary languages. They discovered that in Europe written languages based more closely on speech were not scorned but used to write even poetry and philosophy. When they saw that there fiction and drama held a dignified place in the realm of literature, they naturally turned to their own great tradition of vernacular fiction and drama. As the prestige of that tradition rose, its language basked in new glory. A new current of romanticism, similar to that of eighteenth-century Europe, embraced the earthy language of the folk and kindled enthusiasm for local dialect color. Lu Xun 鲁迅 , Lao She 老舍 , Mao Dun 茅盾 and almost all the great writers of the 1920's and 1930's participated in this current. Here as in Europe, the raciness, the very disreputability of the vernacular seemed to appeal to the spirit of the age better than the stodgy stereotyped literary language.

In the movement to overthrow the literary language on all fronts, not just in the sphere of imaginative literature, Hu Shi was clearly the leader. More than anyone else he perceived that the written colloquial language needn't be confined to the "small talk" of fiction and drama, but rather should be actively developed, expanded, and refined into a sophisticated instrument of universal application through use. Literary Chinese was now on the defensive. Private sentiments against continuing to write in literary Chinese became a public outcry among progressive writers in the decade after the founding of the Republic in 1912. This veritable cultural revolution, which dealt the literary language the coup de grace, is referred to as the "New Literature Movement" Xin Wenxue Yundong 新文学运动 or the "Literary Revolution" Wenxue Geming 革命 , or the "May Fourth Movement" Wusi Yundong 五四运动 , because of its alliance after an incident on May 4, 1919 with a movement for political reform as well.

Since then the literary language has been used in certain predictable, and dwindling, bastions of conservatism, such as among classical scholars, like the Yijing scholar of Appendix D, for pronouncements of conservative governments in Taiwan and Washington D.C. (Appendix B), or for traditional flavor or prestige. The "Plus Vitae" on an American beer bottle (Rainier Ale) has its counterpart in similar impressively archaic claims on the bottles of wujiapijiu 五加皮酒 ("Spirits of the wujiapi plant") from Hong Kong, or Maotai jiu 茅台酒 ("Maotai Spirits") from Guizhou, China. Their meaning is comparably obscure to most of their respective imbibers, who are in turn equally unconcerned. Literary Chinese has finally shared Latin's fate.

Appendix A.




[Text version:



Richard Alan Kunst


Appendix B.[92]


Appendix B (continued)


English version of the preceding page:





Now that you have settled in America, you are not only entitled to enjoy the various blessings of America's free political system, but in addition will be able to shoulder the responsibilities of protecting these free traditions.

Since you have personally experienced the suffering and bondage which is perpetrated by tyrannical communist rule, you must by now certainly be able to realize in a profound way how valuable freedom is and how terrifying and detestable communism is.

Communists frequently engage in secret activities within America's borders and plot to destroy the free traditions of America, and while our bureau is on constant alert and pays close attention to these matters, from now on you too may join in our defense against communism. We hope you will note the following:

1.  If while in America you become aware of communists or Maoist spies who are engaged in intelligence work or destructive and subversive activities you are urgently requested to telephone the local branch of the FBI at once. (The telephone number will be clearly listed in the first two or three pages of the regular telephone directory of any city.)

2.  You are requested to make your report based on hard facts known to you; do not become confused by hearsay.

3.  It will suffice for you simply to report what you know; do not carry out your own investigations. You must realize that investigation is a specialized and sophisticated profession, and if ordinary people attempt it they not only risk their own safety but also risk startling the snake from his hiding place.

Should you have anything to communicate, please inform the local branch of this bureau immediately. Local branch telephone: 742-5533.

--(J. Edgar) Hoover

Director, United States Federal Bureau of Investigation


(leaflets posted on the walls of every large American Chinatown during winter 1971-72]


Appendix C.[93]





Appendix D.[94]


Appendix E.[95]


Occurrences of Morpheme qi in Mao Zedong's Fandui Dang Bagu 反对党八股




170.2 总之,那时统治阶级及帮闲者们的文章和教育,不论它的内容和形式,都是八股式的,教条式的。

171.1 但在共产党内也不是一致的,中也有一部分人发生偏向...

172.2 中国是一个小资产阶级成分极广大的国家...

173.1.1 他们辛辛苦苦地写了,送来了,目的是要我们看的。

173.1.2 战争时期固然需要短文章,但尤需要有内容的文章。

174.1.1 从前我们那些同志之所以向这些同志也大讲“残酷斗争”...

174.1.2 只有靠了这个才能争取革命胜利,他都是无益的。

175.1.1 ...可是他却要写在抗日时期延安这地方的墙壁上,就有些莫名妙了。

175.1.2 ...实完全不是那么一回事....

179.1 结果,往往是“下笔千言,离题万里”,仿佛像个才子,实则到处害人。

179.2 ...如果听发展下去,结果之严重,可以闹到很坏的地步。

180.1 中讲到列宁写传单的情形...

181.3 [ 列宁的精神 ] 也不是自以为是,夸夸谈;而是要照着列宁那样地去做。

182.9 句法有长到四五十个字一句的,中堆满了“谁也不懂的形容词之类”。

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[1] This essay is based on a "Comparative Essay" submitted to the Dept. of Oriental Languages, University of California, Berkeley in May 1975 in fulfillment of a requirement for a Ph.D. in Chinese Language and Literature. A shorter draft version was written the previous year for a seminar in Romance Philology at Berkeley given by Professor Yakov Malkiel. I am grateful to him for his encouragement.

[2] All Chinese graphs herein, representing both modern and historical words, are given their Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation in pinyin romanization according to Xinhuazidian 新华字典. Other dialect forms, in I.P.A.., are placed in square brackets. When the sound of a word at a certain past time is germane to the discussion, the reconstructed Old Chinese (typographically modified) of Bernhard Karlgren (in Grammata Serica Recensa) closest to that time is given. Old Chinese, abbr. OC (his "Archaic Chinese"), is the spoken language of the north-central China plain at a time between the tenth and second centuries B.C.E.  Middle Chinese, abbr. MC (his "Ancient Chinese"), is the spoken language of the capital Chang'an 长安 in the northwest, at about the seventh century C.E.

[3] Devoto 1972:834.

[4] Hu Shi 1928:l-7 is only one of many writings in which he stated this theme.

[5] Beijing Daxue 1957:43-66; Zhou Zumo 1956:131-132.

[6] See Auerbach 1965:318-319; Zhou Zumo 1956:133.

[7] Yoshikawa 1962:6ff.

[8] Meillet 1928:281.

[9] Elcock 1960:36.

[10] Karlgren 1951:130; Hu Shi 1928, Part II.

[11] Higman 1967:7-8.

[12] Higman 1967:8.

[13] Richards 1943.

[14] Herdan 1964, Preface and infra.; Franke 1955:137, "Es liegt auf der Hand dass dies eine wichtige Vorfrage ist, die geklärt werden muss, will man nicht gefahr laufen, Versuche am untauglichen Objekt zu treiben, nämlich Sprachwissenschaft mit einem nichtsprachlichen Zeichensystem. . . . Sind solche Texte [a Tang historical text or a Song essay] nicht vielmehr eher in einem optischen Zeichensystem als in einer echten Sprache, der mit linguistischen Kritieren beizukommen ist, abgefasst?".

[15] See Creel 1936, Dubs 1948.

[16] Palmer 1954:95-147; Woodcock 1958:5ff.

[17] Chao 1968b:206.

[18] Fang 1953:282.

[19] E.g., King 1969:141-142; Lakoff 1968:2-3; Chao 1968a:15; Cikoski 1972), p.4ff.

[20] Chao 1968a:15.

[21] Woodcock 1958:5.

[22] Palmer 1954, Ch. 5 "The Development of the Literary Language," pp. 95-147; Auerbach (1965:248) notes that until late in the Empire educated Romans were bilingual--they knew two literary languages, Latin and Greek.

[23] Lakoff 1968:2.

[24] Posner 1966:27-91.

[25] O'Brien 1965, Introduction; within the Church the Italian conventions of pronunciation were and are today the most influential.

[26] Discussed in Palmer 1954:91ff.

[27] Auerbach 1965:178, 281; Posner 1966:42-45.

[28] Curtius 1953:36-62.

[29] Ascham 1570:77-85.

[30] Burckhardt 1958:254.

[31] Auerbach 1965:83-180, 235-338.

[32] Auerbach 1965:255.

[33] Auerbach 1965:252.

[34] Auerbach 1965:102-103.

[35] Auerbach 1965:109.

[36] Norberg 1968:29.

[37] Norberg 1968:30-31.

[38] Auerbach 1965:129.

[39] Norberg 1968:36, 118; Posner (1966:43) claims that there is less regional variation than one might expect in the spoken Latin texts of the third to eighth centuries.

[40] Norberg 1968:39.

[41] Norberg 1968:43.

[42] Posner 1966:50-60; Auerbach 1965:111.

[43] Auerbach 1965:270-276.

[44] Auerbach 1965:269.

[45] Norberg 1968:69.

[46] Norberg 1968:68-69.

[47] Lockwood 1969:63-64.

[48] Auerbach 1965:273-275, 252-255; Norberg 1968:90-91.

[49] Norberg 1968:71.

[50] Auerbach 1965:318-319.

[51] Crystal 1971:56.

[52] Burckhardt 1958:249.

[53] Curtius 1953:27.

[54] I am indebted to Prof. Yakov Malkiel for this observation.

[55] Wiener 1950:99-100. This reference was brought to my attention by Prof. John Cikoski.

[56] Ishikawa 1969:177; Fu Sinian 傅斯年 (Fu Mengzhen 傅孟真 ), as quoted in Zhou Fagao (1964:156); Zhou Zumo 1956:129.

[57] Zhou Zumo 1956:129-131.

[58] Beijing Daxue 1957, Introduction (for view of Wang Li); Zhou Fagao 1964:155-161; Karlgren (1951), (1962), passim.; Maspero (1927:472), "I1 n'est pas probable qu'à cette époque [fifth-century B.C.E. langue parlée et langue écrite aient beaucoup différé." Hu Shi 1928:3; Zhou Zumo 1956:128-130; Ishikawa 1969:177; Tai Jingnong 1951:4 (but Tai strictly qualifies his judgment about their relation).

[59] Creel 1936:125; Gus Moro 郭沫若 (Guo Dingtang 郭鼎堂 ) quoted in Zhou Fagao 1964:157; Dubs 1948:5.

[60] Karlgren 1951:107-111.

[61] Huang Liuping 1973:5.

[62] Karlgren 1951:131.

[63] Tai Jingnong 1951:4-5; see also Zhou Fagao 1964:156,160.

[64] Karlgren 1926:63.

[65] Bodman 1967:43; Zhou Zumo 1956:132-133.

[66]  Lü Shuxiang 1944:177; Han Yu quoted in translation in Pollard 1973:147.

[67] Karlgren 1926:63-64.

[68] Hu Shi 1928:3-5. But Hu has been accused of exaggerating the  incomprehensibility of the literary language in the early Han. In particular, his interpretation of the memorial of Gongsun Hong 公孙弘 to Emperor Wu is open to question. See discussion in Zhou Zumo 1956:128, and Tai Jingnong 1951:4-5.

[69] Franke 1955:137.

[70] Nagao Mitsuno 1969:178.

[71] In Lü Shuxiang 1944:177-178, the endurance of the literary language is primarily attributed to this linguistic feature.

[72] Karlgren 1962:29. Karlgren has come under attack in China for "bourgeois" emphasis on the essentiality of an eye-oriented wenyan as an instrument of communication to bind the nation together, and for neglecting the rich colloquial literary tradition since Tang and Song. See Cen Qixiang 1957:26.

[73] Karlgren 1962:28, See below for qualifications of his enthusiasm.

[74] Zhou Zumo 1956:133; Tai Jingnong 1951:4.

[75] Karlgren 1926:64.

[76] Wang Li 1962:552.

[77] Lü Shuxiang 1944:177.

[78] Zhou Zumo 1956:133.

[79] Wang Li 1958:475-479.

[80] Huang Liuping 1973:4.

[81] Based on Wang Li 1958, Ch. 48 "Beidongshi de fazhan 被动式的发展 ", pp. 419-436, esp. 424-425.

[82] Controversy recapitulated in Ushijima 1967:203-204.

[83] Karlgren 1951:119, 133-134.

[84] Shadick 1968:645.

[85] Shadick 1968:176.

[86] Beijing Daxue 1962:76.

[87] Yuan Jiahua 1960:13.

[88] Kosaka 1967:336-348.

[89] Mao Zedong 1965:169-184.

[90] Mao Zedong 1965:176.

[91] Mao Zedong 1965:179.

[92] Reproduced from Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (1972), back cover (the translation is also reproduced from this source, p. 72).

[93] Reproduced from Boodberg:1969:39.

[94] Reproduced from Zhu Xueqiong 1973:29.

[95] Page and paragraph numbers refer to text in Mao Zedong:1965:169-184.