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I understand that classical Chinese (see Wikipedia) was very different from spoken Chinese (at least in the last centuries of its usage). Nevertheless, despite or maybe even because of this, it was used to write more languages than just Chinese.

Three questions:

  1. What languages have been written with it? (I know about Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese.)

  2. Why was this possible, these languages are not only spoken differently, they have different grammar (or don't they)?

  3. Currently, if a foreigner wants to learn Classical Chinese, (in all cases known to me) he is asked to learn current spoken Chinese first. After pondering the first two questions - shouldn't it be possible to translate it directly? (aka "read" it in the language of the reader.)

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The Classical Chinese, or 古汉语, was the official (written) language in ancient China. The Chinese language and culture has influenced many east Asian countries, but you cannot say that Japanese and Vietnam had been written with in -- those are different languages but shares certain characters with Chinese. –  Frank Dec 13 '11 at 22:53
Korean is another language that uses the Chinese characters.(in writing) –  StarCub Dec 13 '11 at 22:56
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4 Answers

As far as I know, classic Chinese is not used to "write" these languages as you think. Classic Chinese was just used as an "international" language among surrounding countries, like English nowadays. Take the Japanese Language for example.

In ancient times, the Japanese had their own language, but they didn't have a writing system. Of course, China was powerful back then and exerted influence over the surrounding countries. Japan also imported Chinese characters and culture, especially during the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) in China.

After learning Chinese characters, some Japanese scholars started to use characters to note the pronuciations for Japanese words, something like the PinYin system, as now we use Latin letters express Chinese. However, every character had its own pronunciation and meaning, so the Japanese created their own "letters", now called "hiragana" and "katakana", based on Chinese characters. For example, the "hiragana" "あ" comes from the character "安", "か" from "加". They look similar, right?

This also happened to Vietnamese. The Vietnamese created their Vietnamese characters(喃字) based on Chinese characters.

Nowadays, the Koreans don't use Chinese characters(but some characters are still used, especially in solemn situation and law), the Japanese still use them, and the Vietnamese quit thoroughly because the French instituted the use of a Roman alphabet during the colonization period.

So I think the answers to your questions would be:

  1. None. They developed their own writing system based on Chinese characters and borrowed a lot of words from Chinese
  2. Since characters are used as writing system and letters to note the pronunciation. Grammar is not the point
  3. Meanings for some characters changes through time. Furthermore, grammar also changes, so if you want to learn classic Chinese, you'd better learn mordern Chinese first. After you learn mordern Chinese, it won't be so hard for you to learn classic Chinese

I suggest everyone who wants to learn Chinese: you might as well learn some classic Chinese. Although we don't speak in Classic Chinese, there are many words(especially idioms) from classic Chinese, such as "多行不义必自毙",“退避三舍”,“秋波”。Also, you can read some classic poems to get a feeling of classic Chinese.

Edit: More explanations on point 2.

To clarify how the claiss Chinese were imported and affected Japanese. Imagine the steps below.

STEP 1: Japanese had their language, so they could say: "この山は 高い" (This mountain is high), but they could not write this sentence.

STEP 2: They got to learn classic Chinese, and they(especially the nobels) decided to use classic Chinese for communication, because Chinese culture was so attractive to them. Now the classic Chinese worked as a popular foreign language, like English nowadays.

STEP 3: Some Japanese scholars thought:"well, Chinese seems good, why not create our writing system based on it?", and eventually they invented the "hiragara" and "katakara", by abstracting the Chinese Characters. For example, now they have "こ" from “己” and "の" from "乃“ and so on.

STEP 4: Now they could use these "letters" to write down the sentence. It could be like this(without any characters):  この やま は、たかい, but it's not so conevnient because they had to divide every word in writing.

STEP 5: "Hey, we have learnt Chinese. In Chinese, “やま” is "山", and character "高" means high, in our language, it's たかい. Why not use characters to simplify the writing system?", Japanese might think this way. Of course, in Japanese, an adjective has serveral kinds of conjugations, but that doesn't matter, because only the suffix(い) should change, the stem(たか) won't change, so they just used the character “高” for the stem and everything works well. I.e. the negative form of "高い" is "高くない".

So I think you understand why importing characters won't affect the grammar.

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Hello Huang. Thank you for your explanations. I still don't understand point 2. So maybe you can help further. Why do you say "Grammar is not the point." As far as I understand, the grammar of Chinese (be it Classical or Modern) and Japanese is very different. And my understanding is, that for a time, the Japanese used just Chinese Characters. (Before they developed Hiragana and Katakana) How was this possible (or am I just wrong?) –  Falko Dec 14 '11 at 21:45
sorry for the late response. I will explain it after I get back home. –  Huang Dec 15 '11 at 9:33
@Falko I edited my answer, please review. –  Huang Dec 15 '11 at 11:51
Thank you for the detailed explanation! –  Falko Dec 15 '11 at 18:27
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As read in reference from Wikipedia (文言文), classic Chinese (文言文) was the oral Chinese back to the 先秦 era (era before Qing Dynasty, i.e. before 221BC).

Even as early as in Han Dynasty (汉朝, 202BC-220) to Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618-907) period, the oral Chinese had already been shifting apart from classic Chinese (written) and the new Chinese (白话文) had already been merging even in writing. But during these times, the classic Chinese were still applied in most of the writing, especially, as I can imagine, for formal educations.

To answer the questions:

  1. as stated in the same Wikipedia page, before 20th Century, it was used in China, Korean peninsula, Japan and Vietnam, and in almost all formal writtings in these areas at that time. Later, gradually, these countries shifted to their own writing systems.

  2. actually, just to answer this question, grammar seems not that important in Chinese as it is in English. This may be a very rough explanation. You may need to consult some formal linguistics knowledge for a more accurate answer.

  3. why does a foreigner want to learn the classic Chinese in the first place? FYI, it is not used at all in almost all daily conversations, and it is really one of the biggest nightmares for Chinese students as it is compulsory in high school. In my personal experience, even educated Chinese people (say average college graduated) do not master the classic Chinese.

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"why does a foreigner want to learn the classic Chinese in the first place?" Well, that's a strange question for stackexchange. Why do we want to learn stuff? Out of utter curiosity of course. Classical Chinese is one of the great languages of culture, it has been in use for thousands of years. For me thats enough. –  Falko Dec 14 '11 at 8:02
@Falko I hope it does not cause any misunderstanding. Just from my impression, your question seems to come from the assumption learning classic Chinese may help you to learn modern Chinese and other languages such as Japanese. I thought that is one of the reasons why you want to learn classic Chinese. However, I just wanted to provide you with some 'facts' that this may not be the case because classic Chinese is really hard even for native Chinese speaker and seldom generates too much benefits in real life practice.I would recommend learning Chinese to a considerable high level first. –  Flake Dec 14 '11 at 8:53
Thank you for the explanation. I really misunderstood. Well, we both did :) I don't expect Classical Chinese to help for Modern Chinese. I just tried to cast doubt on the other direction too. So I'd like to have a course about Classical Chinese without the way over (and independent of) Modern Chinese. It seems to be a completely different language after all. –  Falko Dec 14 '11 at 13:03
@Falko That is interesting. Not sure if that is easy/easier to directly learn classical Chinese. But all in all, one still need to learn the characters, basic rules, etc. And I would not say it is another different language, but it does have its far distances from the modern one. Not sure at all, but perhaps the relation is similar to the one between Old English (or Latin?) and English. –  Flake Dec 14 '11 at 13:21
I don't expect it to be easier then learning it after Modern Chinese. If you know Modern Chinese, you know the characters after all. I just get the impression that there might be a short cut. –  Falko Dec 14 '11 at 15:32
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To take one example, the Japanese language has two "strains," an indigenous strain, and a "Chinese" strain. The latter is written using "Kanji" (classical Hanzi), and if not identical to Chinese, is recognizable to Chinese speakers. Likewise, the Japanese use of Kanji is similar (although not identical) to the corresponding Hanzi. Thus, a Chinese person writing Hanzi could be understood by a Japanese, but a Japanese person speaking the "indigenous" strain would be incomprehensible to a Chinese.

It's like saying that English has both Germanic and Latin strains, therefore two words, "chair" and "stool" that correspond to the French "chaise." The English speaker might be comprehensible to a Frenchman speaking or writing about "chairs," and other French-based words, but not when using Germanic words like "stool."

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  1. The wiki link you provided can explain this very well. For historic reasons, the Chinese writing system influenced almost all of East Asia. So many countries and nations used Chinese characters or borrowed a subset of Chinese characters. That's another story.

  2. If you want the answer to this question, you should check the History books. In short, countries like Korea and Vietnam used to be ancient China's tributaries. For communication with the Chinese government, they took Chinese characters as their own languages' written characters.

    But Japan is different, Japan was never a tributary of China. The Chinese traveled to Japan, then the Japanese took some parts from Chinese characters to construct their own writing system. On the other hand, Chinese language researchers believe one important reason why China did not fragment into smaller countries like Europe did is because of their written language. Chinese has so many dialects but only have one written language.

  3. Even in China, students won't study classical Chinese until they enter 9th grade. So it is true like you said, learn modern Chinese first then Classic. Many Chinese idioms (成语) are inherited from classical Chinese and used widely in modern life. So I believe that before you can learn classical Chinese, you'll need to be build a strong foundation with modern Chinese.

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