What is the difference between Classical Chinese and Modern Chinese?

Ted Marr (25th Gen), Jan. 2021

For centuries, going back several thousand years ago, written Chinese has been defined much by several writing types: the Classics (e.g., Confucius writing), the historical records (Chinese have tens of thousands of volumes of historical records), poems which probably number in the millions. Over the centuries, as newer generations write newer stuff, they are bound by these ancient writings regarding their style, the meaning of terms, usage of words, and “idioms.” Therefore, a writer in the 10th century would be using terms already “defined” by some sages who used them in the earlier centuries. He would have a lot of “terms, idioms, usages” to draw upon. A 13th-century writer would again be faced with the same situation. But he has, even more, to draw on, albeit three more hundred years of writing. Today, we have to deal with several thousand years of these writings!

The Oxford Dictionary is important because it always illustrates the meaning of a word based on its historical usages, and sometimes the dictionary lists the first time it was used. In the same way, understanding Classical Chinese involves the same process. Many terms and idioms are also defined by historical incidents, historical writings, usages, or events, which more often than not have a complicated story behind them.

Modern Chinese was introduced around the beginning of the twentieth century. It is plain and simple, the vernacular Mandarin Chinese. At the time of introducing the vernacular modern Chinese, there was a lot of resistance and rejection. In fact, Xu Zhimo, Matt Mow’s Great Grandfather, was one of the pioneers in promoting modern vernacular Chinese writing, especially on the poetic front. He is usually recognized as one of the top three scholars who opened up the flood gate of Modern Chinese. That’s why in China today, every schoolchild, by the age of 10, knows Xu Zhimo’s name and can recite his famous poem, Leaving Cambridge.

In general, every educated Chinese can read Modern Chinese, the Chinese of the daily newspaper, novels, research documents, and everyday documents. The difference between written Modern Chinese and spoken Vernacular Mandarin is minimal. On the other hand, Classical Chinese is not spoken Chinese. Most likely, no one ever spoke Classical Chinese, even in ancient times. It is the language of the scholars addressing serious subject matters. 

There are many difficulties facing someone who reads a passage in Classical Chinese. Let me list a few that I have discovered in my own attempt at understanding Classical Chinese. These are just some that come to mind. They are illustrated with the attached example of 006.jpg. I have also included about half of the document’s Modern Chinese translation and their English equivalent.

  • First, there is no punctuation. So, the reader has to determine where the punctuation is. In 006.jpg, it is illustrated in red dividing lines on the original text. A light line is a comma, and a heavy line is a period.
  • Second, Chinese names for persons or places often sound like part of a sentence structure. If one is unfamiliar with the subject matter, person names often could be construed as part of the sentence. In 006.jpg lines 7 to 13 are full of these examples. The hardest ones are the names of people. Ancient Chinese generally have several names: genealogy name, generation name, ordinal name of that generation, name when starting school, and name when successful. To know who, we need to refer back to the original genealogical entry and match it up to the particular person, which takes a lot of time.
  • Third, use of condensed terms, which often are references to an earlier usage. Unless one is familiar with that usage, one has no clue or a wrong clue about its meaning. The best example is in line 3. See the explanation noted on that line.
  • Fourth, Classical Chinese does not always have the usual subject-verb-object. Lines 5 and 6 are good examples.
  • Fifth, oftentimes, some words are no longer used in our current age, or words with meaning have changed over the past 4000 years. Line 2 收is a good example. Modern usage means to “receive.” Ancients also used it to mean “unite, gather.” The older the Classical Chinese, the more “distant” it is to our current Chinese usage, thus more difficult. More recent Classical Chinese writings tend to be easier to understand. 006.jpg is more recent, so it is not as difficult. But many words have a different meaning now. The best examples are the words 遂家 and 厥後 in lines 9 and 10. They are ancient terms not used today.
  • Sixth, the titles of officials are often very different from what we have today. There is a need to translate a title to a modern equivalent or a near equivalent. The title of the signer of this sample document still needs to be investigated.
  • Seventh, dates were generally stated in terms of the reign of a particular emperor of a dynasty. Many emperors have several different “reigns.” Worst, sometimes, the year is couched in terms of an emperor’s reign in the classical sixty-year cycle. Then, one has to convert the Lunar calendar to the Gregorian Calendar. That means looking up at least three different tables to figure out its equivalent to our CE. I had to use several tables to figure out the equivalent date of this document.

Now to illustrate these points, I will use 006.jpg from the first volume. It is the preface to the 1884 edition of the Genealogy. I have also produced a Modern Chinese translation of the first 13 sentences and included an interlinear English translation.

Before one starts to understand the passage, one has to place the punctuation marks.

Modern Chinese and English Translation:
Title: Bright Creek Ma Clan Revised Edition Preface

  1. 世间万物本源于天,人类本源于祖先, 不能不尊重祖先。
    The root of all things in heaven, the root of man, are his ancestors. Therefore, it is not possible not to respect our ancestors.
    (The first line is derived from Confucius’s writing.)
  2. 如果不尊重祖先,家族就不能团聚。
    If we do not respect our ancestors, the clan will not be united.
  3. 古代世家望族建立祠堂用来排列辈分。
    Ancient clans set up ancestral temples to clearly define each generation and generational order.
    (The last two words 昭穆in, the original Classical Chinese, is a complicated term. Literary, they mean “left” and “right.” Conceptually, it means the right order of things. Ancestors are arranged with the oldest person in the middle and the next oldest to his left (looking from his perspective), and the next to his right (or to our left). The fourth oldest will be placed next to the left of the second oldest, and so forth. This order of things also means doing things the proper way. In family plots, this is the placement order of the graves.)
  4. 定会为了辨别嫡庶而写家谱。
    The reason for creating the Genealogy is to define the delineation of the family relationship of those children from the first wife and those from the concubines.
  5. 这不就是所说的尊敬祖先团聚族人的做法吗。
    Is this not the reason and method to unite the clan?
  6. 我家乡光溪的马氏一族存在很久了,家族盛大,族人众多,居南越之首。。
    Our Bright Creek Ma Clan has a long history. We have a large and prosperous clan. We are the top clan of the Southern Yue Territories.
  7. 先前最早的祖先厚洪公宋季为了躲避金乱从汴京(开封)搬迁到浙江的明州(宁波)。
    A long time ago, our ancestor Elder Houhong of the Song Dynasty, to escape from the Jin tribe invasion, migrated from Bianjing to Zhejiang Mingzhou.
    (Houhong is the school name of our progenitor, XiaoGuan. Bianjing is the ancient city name of Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty. And Mingzhou is the ancient traditional name of Ningbo.)
  8. 传承五代到了顺公的三个儿子。
    When it reached the fifth generation, Elder Shun has three sons.
    (Now, the fifth-Generation ancestor is YuanCheng, whose school name is a single word Shun.)
  9. 长子大贞住在茅山,次子大有和弟弟大显选择居住在光溪的镇江桥成家。
    The oldest son, DaiZhen, stayed at Maoshan, second son, Daiyou, took his brother, Daixian, and migrated to Bright Creek Zhenjiang Bridge and established a home there.
    (Zhenjiang Bridge is another name for Eight Hundred Beam Bridge.)
  10. 那之后的子孙分散居住的很多。近的住在郡城、湓浦(江西九江)、穿山、定海
    Thereafter, the clan scattered to many parts, including nearby cities of Jun Cheng, Penpu of Jiujiang in Jiangsi, Chuanshan, Dinghai.
  11. 远的到了台州、杭州、金华、樊城(湖北襄阳)等地。Others went far away to Taizhou, Hangzhou, Jinhua, Fancheng in Hubei, etc.
  12. 天各一方,不能一一列举,重要的是都是光溪的子孙后代。
    Many went to different places. It isn’t easy to list everyone who has gone to their selected locations. These are all descendants of the Ma Clan of Bright Creek.
  1. 今年春,宝甫君、蘅泉君、兆磻君打算作传,后来文献散失,急着想要修治,以使同姓后代得以联结延续,。
    This Spring, because much of the earlier material has been lost, several people, including Baofu, Hengquan, Zhaofan, decided to compile an extension of the Clan Genealogy so all future generations could be connected.
    (I have not had a chance to look up who these individuals are. Presumably, they are in the genealogy)
  2. 便来和我商议,我说王谢家族已经结束,古代的仕宦之人、名门望族到现在都分散到四面八方,声名断绝,而居住在这里的马氏家族,经历了二十四代,六百多年,它的子孙孝敬父母、敬爱兄长,努力耕作,饱读诗书,执守礼制,前后相传延续没有停止过,不就是祖上积累的功德才得以这样么。现在委托我记录,我没有推辞,沿袭旧谱继续修正,它的起源、嫡亲、旁系,每一方面都分析的非常清楚,对于尊敬祖先团结族人这个道理希望有小小补益,而依样画葫芦免不了会被有识之人取笑了。
    So I came to discuss with me. I said that the Wang Xie family is over. The ancient officials and famous families are now scattered in all directions, and their reputations are cut off. The Ma family living here has gone through 24 generations, 600 For many years, its children and grandchildren respected their parents. They loved their elder brothers, worked hard, read poetry and books, and maintained the ritual system. Now entrust me to record, I have no excuses, continue to amend the old spectrum, its origin, sister-in-law, and sideline are analyzed very clearly in every aspect. I hope that there is a small supplement to the principle of respecting the ancestors and uniting the tribes. Copier of the gourde will inevitably be teased by people of insight.


(Original date noted as) “The tenth year reign of the Emperor Guanxu of the Jiashen year of the Zhongdong month of the Jiwang day.”
So what is the equivalent date in modern terms?
Emperor Guanxu started his reign in 1875. So the tenth year is 1884. Jiashen year in the 60-year cycle is also 1884. So, that fits. Zhongdong is another name for the Eleventh moon. Jiwang happens to be another name for the 16th day of each moon.
Therefore, this Preface was written on the Sixteenth Day of the Eleventh Moon (Lunar calendar) of 1884 CE. Converting to the Gregorian Calendar, it is, in fact, January 1, 1885 CE.
So, maybe we should call this the 1885 edition?