How intelligible is Old Mandarin to the speakers of Mandarin Chinese? If an Old Mandarin Chinese speaker heard a Mandarin Chinese speaker or vice versa, how fluent would the communication be?

  • I don't think Old Mandarin and modern Mandarin Chinese are intelligible as the differences in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are huge, in some aspects even greater than between modern Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. I believe, however, one can master the two at the same time, but that's just like speaking two languages, not because the two languages are mutually intelligible.
    – NS.X.
    Oct 25, 2014 at 20:01

3 Answers 3


I believe the situation is more or less the same in all languages, that the language drifts across generations. Whereas you could easily communicate with Isaac Newton, it would be a little more difficult to do with Shakespeare, and more so with Chaucer. When you get to Richard Lionheart and earlier (say, the times of Beowulf), you can just forget any meaningful exchange of ideas.

As for Mandarin, you could speak perfectly well with late Qing people, although they would still retain tones that are now forgotten. Going back to Cao Xueqin's time (1700s), you would still be able to discern most of the vernacular used, just like you can read 红楼梦 without too much trouble. But you would get progressively lost talking to Su Dongpo and Princess Wencheng of Tang, they would speak a completely different language.

The thing with Chinese, though, is that you could still exchange ideas in writing with these people.

  • 1
    If I spoke Latin, I could probably still communicate just fine with highly educated people in the Renaissance. I think the case with (written) Classical Chinese is basically the same. It's not the vernacular of either party, but it's a common 3rd language that has a high-level of standardization and prestige. Nov 24, 2014 at 20:28
  • @StumpyJoePete While that's certainly true, it's worth noting that Latin kept evolving even after the Romans were long "gone", not to mention the different pronunciations of Latin.
    – imrek
    Nov 24, 2014 at 21:30

I've searched Youtube for some reconstructed old Mandarin. My background is Jin Dialect and Mandarin, and it sounds no more difficult than Cantonese or Wu dialect to me.

The dialects vary greatly even among modern 官话 of different regions, some can be very different from the standard Mandarin. Usually it takes me one week to one month to understand a different 官话 dialect. The remote rural dialects usually takes longer to grasp. I've seen people struggling with non-native Mandarin dialects for months or years. I've seen people cruising through non-native dialects as if he's in his own backyard. I think it depends.

To put that aside, if you send me a man from Ming dynasty, I think the biggest blockage to communication is this totally unintelligible modern world. As of the language, it would be an issue in the first week, but if we keep working on it, things should get quite clear after a month.

Judging by the tone of the old Mandarin, I think it may sound more intelligible to the ears of the 吴 or 粤 people, but I could be wrong.


This topic is interesting.
Assuming you are referring to Classic Chinese (文言文) as Old Mandarin.
We must be astonished with the intelligence of a person 'speaking' Classic Chinese.

And to my humble (sincere) opinion (wish), Classic Chinese has always been written instead of spoken. (:

This is actually easy as when we look at the literal spelling of the two words in Chinese itself:

文言文 (Classical Chinese) = Written language;
白话文 (Modern Chinese) = Spoken language.

  • 1
    Thank you for the reply, Wala. Old Mandarin does actually exist. Please see the article in Wikipedia because I don't know if I can link here. Please note that I'm not asking if there's anyone alive who can speak Old Mandarin. The question is purely theoretical. There were people who spoke Old Mandarin. Could they and Mandarin Chinese speakers communicate effectively?
    – Tuomas
    Oct 25, 2014 at 16:11

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