I don't quite get the difference between and relationship of vernacular Chinese to literary Chinese.

I know that "literary Chinese" does not represents sounds, the way an alphabet does, so it is difficult to use it for anything that must be spoken, like a play or a movie script. Therefore, there are "vernacular Chinese" variants that are deliberately designed to be spoken. My understanding is that the current version of "Mandarin", the standard Beijing language, is such a vernacular variant that was adopted early in the 20th century.

Does this mean that the "Mandarin" currently used is completely different from the Mandarin used during the Qing dynasty prior to 1900?

If so, does this mean that students essentially have to learn two different languages: the current vernacular plus the older Qing Mandarin?

What about older texts, like say the language of the Palace Encyclopedias of the 16th and 17th centuries? Were these basically the same as Qing Mandarin or a different language altogether?

Finally, how does "Classical Chinese" tie into this? Are the Palace Encyclopedias consider classical Chinese?

  • Before the New Culture Movement of the early twentieth century, no form of Mandarin was used in official written bureaucracy. The Ming and Qing dynasties would have used literary Chinese for that purpose, although the stylistic influence of the local Mandarin may have been present. Bureaucratic style would have thus been very different from the vernacular written Chinese of the novels at the time.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 13:20

2 Answers 2


What you call "literary Chinese" is actually classical Chinese, a rather static language that evolved 2500 years ago and has since been used as a model language in education, rituals and other rather fixed events.

Classical Chinese is therefore akin to Latin in Europe, actually covering approximately the same time span and the same usage.

You can pronounce classical Chinese the same way you pronounce contemporary spoken/written Chinese in any time, but it will differ from time to time since the spoken language changes continuously.

You will likely have no problems talking to Abe Lincoln in English, and perhaps also not conversing with Adam Smith or Isaac Newton, but might get into some problems understanding Shakespeare, and even more so Chaucer. The time you get to Beowulf, you are completely lost, not to mention the time of Britannia under Roman rule.

It is the same with Chinese. Qing Mandarin has some peculiar differences compared to contemporary Mandarin, like an additional tone and some now lost vowel varieties, but essentially it would be easy to converse with Qing people, all the way back to Cao Xueqin in the 1700s. Then it would become progressively harder, and you would eventually wind up in Middle Chinese and older varieties, which are incomprehensible to most modern ears. Actually, Cantonese is more akin to older Chinese, just like Swedish/Danish is more akin to Old English.

Students in China learn some classical Chinese, mainly poetry and some chengyu, and there is also a lot of classical expressions used in costume drama TV series covering imperial times. It is a heritage that is nurtured, but most people in China cannot (since the imperial education was abolished) actually understand more advanced classical Chinese, like ancient texts. Only specialists know how to decipher it.

  • also worth observing that many grammatical constructions in Modern Chinese ex 所以,因此, etc are derivable directly from "classical" interpretations of the individual constituent characters. Maybe worth exploring whether this phenomenon extends beyond the class of grammatical compounds and if so , can you break any form of spoken Chinese into parts, represented by characters, that obey the rules of what we think of as Classical Chinese? Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 0:19

The difference between vernacular Chinese and literary Chinese is all about written form. It has nothing to do with spoken language (mandarin or other dialects). Therefore we should say vernacular written form and literary written form.

The fact is that the literary written form is not for a natural human language at all. It is just for the official documents.

The vernacular written form is what we call the written form of Chinese language, and it was there in civil society for a long time before the New_Culture_Movement in 1920. It was used by normal people for at least 600 years. But it was not used in official documents.

Since after 1920, literary written is used as official written.

  • What do you mean “ Since after 1920, literary written is used as official written.”? Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 1:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.