Again, I ask this question, and provide my opinion as an answer, to reply to the comment of another thread in Stack Exchange:

Pronunciation of Tang Dynasty Poetry

Now, I ask again: in studying Classic of Poetry (詩經), is Cantonese better than Mandarin?

Any idea? Proof?

  • 1
    Obviously you should just read them all in Middle Chinese :) Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 5:44
  • actually, i want to give samples of "rhyming with entering tone", in middle chinese, in order to prove my argument that cantonese is highly correlated to middle chinese. just in the search of evidences, this odes pops up; and i think it's quite important, it proves that entering tone exist in old chinese. so, i write this one first. "rhyming with entering tone" cannot be detected, explained by mandarin; which shows the inferiority of . . ., in the study of phonology. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 9:06
  • thanks @dda, you spend time & effort to review the question & answer. composing answer in english, with chinese characters, emoticon, pictures, sound files, html syntax, site syntax; well, the workload is heavy :( anyway, thanks for your help ^ o ^ Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 9:39

2 Answers 2


Cantonese might preserve more sound distinctions than Mandarin, but they're both derived (as are most, though not all, modern dialects) from Middle Chinese.

The current consensus, arrived at slowly over decades, appears to be that Old Chinese was toneless; this doesn't mean that predecessors of the entering "tone" didn't exist, but there were more endings than the -p, -t, -k that are currently retained by various dialects. It had many more consonant distinctions, which over time were replaced by tone contour in Middle Chinese and all subsequent dialects (including the Min dialects, which are not derived directly from Middle Chinese).

It is certainly the case that if you read 詩經 in Mandarin, you will lose many of the rhymes and other phonetic consonances. Probably, if you read it in Cantonese, you will lose fewer, though not all. But in neither case will you hear it the way it was originally pronounced. None of Old Chinese is directly attested, not even in the fanqie way that Middle Chinese was, so we don't even know for sure what the phonetic realizations were (although we have a generally good idea of what the phonemic distinctions were). But it almost surely had initial and final consonant clusters that no modern dialect retains.

Some good references in this area are Axel Schuessler's ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, and William Baxter and Laurent Sagart's Old Chinese. The latter even has a discussion of the effects of phonetic evolution on the pronunciation and rhymes of old poetry, and the authors are of course responsible for one of the prominent reconstructions of Old Chinese in recent memory.

  • well, my thesis is: characters with entering tone are much fewer than others three, rhyming with entering tone (押入聲韻) is a difficult task; it cannot be happened by chance. so, if we can detect this phenomenon in classical text, we might say that tones (or, at least entering tone) exist in that period. briefly, i can say that there're several texts rhyming with entering tone since 漢 dynasty. need more proofs? Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 16:40
  • thanks for recommendation, i'll find these books, and have a read :) Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 16:41
  • 2
    @水巷孑蠻: In regards to your first comment: Again, it isn't that the precursors of tone weren't there in Old Chinese, but the consensus is that the tones themselves did not exist yet. This conclusion was not reached on a whim; researchers have been moving slowly in this direction for decades. (For instance, if you read Jerry Norman's Chinese, written in the 1980s, I think, you'll see that at that point, a toneless Old Chinese was viewed then as a possibility, but only a possibility. The sources I cited will give you more background.
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 17:26

In the Odes of the Classic of Poetry (詩經) dated from 11th to 6th BC, occasionally, entering tone (入聲) characters were used, for the purpose of rhyming (押韻).

Considering that there were much fewer entering tone (入聲) characters, this phenomenon (rhyming with entering tone 押入聲韻) should be highly appreciated while reading.

For example, the last groups of verse in 小雅﹒正月:




Mean-like, those have their houses;

Abjects, they will have their emoluments.

But the people now have no maintenance.

For Heaven is pounding them with its calamities,

The rich may get through,

But alas for the helpless and solitary!

In my opinion, James League translated the meaning only, the beauty of rhyming with entering tone (押入聲韻) is totally lost.

Now, if we use Cantonese to mark the end of the verses:

佌佌彼有屋 (uk1, sound file)

  蔌蔌方有穀 (guk1, sound file)

民今之無祿 (luk6, sound file)

  天夭是椓 (deuk3, sound file)


  哀此惸獨 (duk6, sound file)

See that? These six verses, five of them end with the entering tone (入聲). Four of them rhyme with 屋韻 (-uk). Isn't it marvellous that after thousands of years, we can still discover this rhyming with entering tone, in Cantonese?

On contrary, if we use Mandarin, it would be:

屋 wū (陰平聲)

穀 gǔ (上聲)

祿 lù (去聲)

椓 zhuó (陽平聲)

獨 dú (陽平聲)

I would describe it as "confusing" that using Mandarin, no one can discover the rhyming with entering tone.

Again, I use one odes only, cause this answer is already long, there are other odes in Classic of Poetry with a similar phenomenon. If anyone is interested, I can list these out.

In conclusion, since Mandarin lost the entering tone (入聲), the rhyming with entering tone (押入聲韻) cannot be detected in Mandarin. Therefore, Cantonese is a better choice (or, other southern languages that still have the entering tone), in studying the Classic of Poetry (詩經).

PS: the character 蔌 (u+850c) is also in entering tone, pronounced as chuk1, sound file.

Have fun. 😼


imo, this example can prove that entering tone exists in old chinese.

  • Have fun reading the majority of 诗经 verses that rhyme in rhymes that make total nonsense even by Middle Chinese, like 之部. In addition, I am afraid you are a little bit too addicted to the checked tone itself; it is itself nothing more than a collection of syllables that end in the three single consonants -p -t -k. By Middle Chinese these were the only toneless syllables, meaning for the given syllable shape there could be no tonal difference that makes a difference in meaning, so people grouped them together and called them "the checked sounds". That's all. Commented May 2, 2017 at 22:45
  • For example, by the time of Middle Chinese, Old Chinese syllable final consonant clusters -ts -ps -ks were dropped entirely (turned into an -i) and acquired the 去 (departing) tone, so it was "tonized" by the loss of syllable final consonants. That is actually how Middle Chinese got its three tones 平 上 去 -- the 上 tone emerged from an original syllable final glottal stop, and the 去 tone happened from the loss of an original syllable final -s. The rest of the syllables now had the tone 平. So the possible existence of simple final stops proves nothing other than they probably were there. Commented May 2, 2017 at 22:52
  • There is actually evidence, both internal and from transliterations of other contemporary languages, that the 上 and 去 "tones" started out as vowel phonations; i.e. literally "kinds of 声 sounds" instead of "kinds of 调 tones". 上 likely had mid-syllable glottal stop, and 去 had a -h, whose existence was faithfully transcribed, respectively, in Tang dynasty's Sino-Tibetan transliterations (上 toned syllables are broken into two with an intervening glottal stop) and Khotan transliterations (e.g. 肃 sauha). It was later that the phonations were dropped and the distinction became one of tones. Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:03
  • By the way, this was probably why there was very few rhyming instances across different tones, especially in earlier Chinese (including a good part of Tang) which would be something you totally would not expect had there been only a tonal difference. It was the difference in the quality of the actual syllables that prevented cross-tonal rhyming. (Edit: also I should have said "tonalized" earlier instead of "tonized".) Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:05

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