I am trying to explain to English-speaking people how different classical Chinese (文言文) and modern Chinese (白话文) are. I would like to put this into scale.

Basically, if an average modern Chinese person sees a text in classical Chinese, how much of it would he be able to understand? Would he be able to understand as much as an average English person understands early modern English (like in Shakespeare's works)? Or maybe Middle English? Latin even?

2 Answers 2


in short, it's middle english.

a long explanation, in general, roughly:

i would define classical chinese as "text from bc770 to bc221 (春秋 - 先秦), afterward, it's literary chinese. there're big differences between this two, mainly, the grammar, style, vocabulary & underlying assumption.

for classical chinese text, thought modern average people know most of the characters and words, they would have great difficulty to understand an article without help. if you ask them to write in the same style. it's no.

it's like asking a land buddy to read the bowditch

for literary chinese text, modern average people would have difficulty to understand the articles, they may guess the meaning of words, clauses. if they've help (dictionaries, mentors), they could grasp the meaning roughly. i guess there're very few people can write literary chinese now.

it's like asking a high school children to read university level textbook.

next, types of articles has huge differences in the comprehension.

poems, correspondences and novels are easier to understand; while religious, medical, astronomical related materials are, very very tough.

have fun :)


Basically classic Chinese is a so broad topic. Like culture, religion, you can't simply compare two things and get a scale. If you can narrow down your question to a very specific topic, you may lucky guess an answer.

Like Oracle bone script, Bronze inscriptions, Large Seal Script, Small Seal Scrip, normal people may able to guess a few characters from an article.

For philosophy book, like Laozi DaoDeJin, even all words are printed in simplified Chinese, and you may know each word, but you just don't know the meaning. Not only normal people don't understand, university graduate is the same.

But for some novel, like Journey to the West, I think most content can be understood by normal people.

Classic Chinese history can be traced from Shang Dynasty to early 20th century. Compare to classic Chinese, even Latin is a young language.

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