Literary Chinese (文言文, Wényánwén, "Literary Writing", or more colloquially just 文言 Wényán) is the form of written Chinese used from the end of the Han Dynasty to the early 20th century when it was replaced by vernacular written Chinese (báihuà). Literary Chinese diverged more and more from Classical Chinese as the dialects of China became more and more disparate and as the Classical written language became less and less representative of the spoken language. At the same time, Literary Chinese was based largely upon the Classical language, and writers frequently borrowed Classical language into their Literary writings. Literary Chinese therefore shows a great deal of similarity to Classical Chinese, even though the similarity decreased over the centuries.
This situation, the usage of Literary Chinese throughout the Chinese cultural sphere despite the existence of disparate regional vernaculars, is called diglossia. It can be compared to the coexistence of the universal Latin language and the more local Latin-derived Romance languages in Europe, as well as to the position of Classical Arabic relative to the various regional vernaculars in Arab lands. The Romance languages continued to evolve, influencing Latin texts of the same period, so that by the Middle Ages, Medieval Latin included many usages that would have baffled the Romans. The coexistence of Classical Chinese and the native languages of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam can be compared to the use of Latin in countries that natively speak non-Latin-derived Germanic languages or Slavic languages, or to the position of Arabic in Persia and India.
Chinese characters are not alphabetic and only palely reflect sound changes. The tentative reconstruction of Old Chinese is an endeavor only a few centuries old. As a result, Classical Chinese is not read with a reconstruction of Old Chinese pronunciation; instead, it is either read with the pronunciations of different varieties of Chinese, such as Standard Mandarin or other regional varieties such as Standard Cantonese; or, in some varieties of Chinese (e.g. Southern Min), with a special set of pronunciations used for Classical Chinese or vocabulary and usage borrowed from Classical Chinese usage. (In practice, all varieties of Chinese combine these two extremes; Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, also have words that are pronounced one way in colloquial usage and another way when used in Classical Chinese or in specialized terms coming from Classical Chinese, though the system is not as extensive as that of Southern Min.)
Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese readers of Classical Chinese use systems of pronunciation specific to their own languages. For example, Japanese speakers use On'yomi and (more rarely) Kun'yomi, which are the ways kanji, or Chinese characters, are read when they are used to write in Japanese. Kunten, a system that aids Japanese speakers with Classical Chinese word order, was also used.
Since the pronunciation of all modern varieties of Chinese are different from Old Chinese or other forms of historical Chinese (such as Middle Chinese), characters which once rhymed in poetry may no longer do so (e.g. rhyming occurs sometimes in Min, Cantonese but not as frequently in Mandarin), or vice versa. Poetry and other rhyme-based writing thus becomes less coherent than the original reading must have been. However, some modern Chinese languages have certain phonological characteristics that are closer to the older pronunciations than others, as shown by the preservation of certain rhyme structures. Some believe wenyan literature, especially poetry, sounds better when read in certain languages believed to be closer to older pronunciations, such as Cantonese or Southern Min.
Another phenomenon that is common in reading Classical Chinese is homophony, or words that sound the same. More than 2500 years of sound change separates Classical Chinese from any modern language or dialect, so when reading Classical Chinese in any modern variety of Chinese (especially Mandarin) or in Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese, many characters which originally had different pronunciations have become homonyms. There is a famous Classical Chinese essay written in the early 20th-century by linguist Y. R. Chao called the Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den which contains only words that are now pronounced shī, shí, shǐ and shì in Standard Mandarin (the accents indicate the four tones). It was written to show how Classical Chinese has become an impractical language for speakers of modern Chinese because Classical Chinese when spoken aloud is largely incomprehensible. However the essay is perfectly comprehensible when read silently because literary Chinese, by its very nature as a written language employing a logographic writing system, can often get away with the use of homophones that even in oral Old Chinese would not have been distinguishable in any way.
The situation is analogous to that of some English words that sound the same, such as "meet" and "meat". These two words were and [mɛːt] respectively during the time of Chaucer, as evident by spelling. Today they sound the same, but are distinguished by spelling. However, such homophones are far more common in Literary Chinese than in English. For example, 不 (meaning "not") is now pronounced "bu" (Pinyin), "pu" (Wade-Giles), but one reconstructed form of its pronunciation in Confucius's time is [pwɒt].
Wenyan is distinguished from baihua in its style that appears extremely concise and compact to modern Chinese speakers and to some extent the use of different lexical items (i.e., vocabulary). An essay in wenyan, for example, might use half as many Chinese characters as in baihua, even though the general sense of the writing remains the same.
In terms of conciseness and compactness, for example, wenyan rarely uses words composed of two Chinese characters; nearly all words are of one syllable only. This stands directly in contrast with modern Chinese dialects where two-syllable words are extremely common. This phenomenon exists, in part, because polysyllabic words evolved in Chinese to disambiguate homophones that result from sound changes. This is similar to phenomena in English like the pen/pin merger of the American South. Because the two sound alike, a certain degree of confusion can occur unless one adds qualifiers like "writing pen" and "stick pin". Similarly, Chinese has acquired many polysyllabic words in order to disambiguate monosyllabic words that sounded different in Old Chinese but identical today. Since wenyan is an imitation of Old Chinese, it has almost none of the two-syllable words present in modern Chinese languages.
Wenyan has more pronouns compared to the modern vernacular. In particular, whereas Mandarin has one general character to refer to the first-person pronoun ("I"/"me"), Literary Chinese has several, many of which are used as part of honorific language, and several of which have different grammatical uses (first-person collective, first-person possessive, etc.).
For syntax, wenyan is always ready to drop subjects, verbs, objects, etc. when their meaning is understood or readily inferred. Also, parts of speech can change themselves easily: nouns used as verbs, adjective used as nouns, etc. There is no copula in wenyan; the copula 是 (shì) in modern Chinese was originally a near demonstrative ("this", now replaced by 這 (zhè) in modern Chinese) in Old Chinese.
In addition to grammar and vocabulary differences, wenyan can be distinguished by literary and cultural differences: an effort to maintain parallelism and rhythm, even in prose works, and its extensive use of literary and cultural allusions, thereby also contribute to brevity.
Today, pure wenyan is occasionally used in formal or ceremonial occasions. The National Anthem of the Republic of China, for example, is in wenyan. In practice there is a socially accepted continuum between baihua and wenyan. For example, most notices and formal letters are written with a number of stock wenyan expressions (e.g. salutation, closing). Personal letters, on the other hand, are mostly written in baihua, but with some wenyan phrases sometimes, depending on the subject matter, the writer's level of education, etc. Letters (and/or essays) written completely in wenyan today may be considered quaint, old-fashioned, or even pretentious by some, but may seem impressive to others.
Most Chinese people with at least a middle school education are able to read basic wenyan, because the ability to read (but not write) wenyan is part of the Chinese middle school and high school curricula and is part of the college entrance examination. Wenyan is taught primarily by presenting a classical Chinese work and including a baihua gloss that explains the meaning of phrases. Tests on classical Chinese are often essentially translation exercises that ask the student to express the meaning of a paragraph in baihua, using multiple choice.
In addition, many works of literature in wenyan (such as Tang poetry) have major cultural influences. However, even with knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, wenyan can be difficult to understand by native speakers of modern Chinese, because of its heavy use of literary references and allusions as well as its extremely abbreviated style.
Calm Your Soul with Illuminating Poetry; Circling the Square by Michael Hamburger. Anvil. Pounds 7.95. about the Size of It by Tom Disch. Anvil. Pounds 9.95. the Dark Age by James Harpur. Anvil. Pounds 7.95). Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China Translated by David Hinton. Anvil. Pounds 12.95. New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. Anvil. Pounds 12.95. Reviewed by RICHARD EDMONDS
Mar 22, 2008; Byline: by RICHARD EDMONDS Anvil Press, once again, leads the field with a selection of recent poetry that is stimulating,...