Apologies if the title isn't clear, I'm not sure how to express this.

I'm trying to establish roughly how many words a Classical Chinese text results in, once translated into English. Classical Chinese being an extremely concise language, I imagine a translation into English should render at least twice as many words--but is there an approximation?

For example, if I take the first sentence of the classical Chinese-language Wikipedia entry for "Classical Chinese" ("文言"):


A fairly liberal English translation (my own) might render this:

Classical Chinese is how China and [its] frontier lands wrote their language, stated their ideals, and expressed their feelings.

This yields a Classical Chinese to English word count ratio of nearly 1:1 (here, it's 18:19), which is suspect, in that the brevity of the former is underrepresented; I'd expect something closer to 1:2.

At a stretch, everything after the last comma in the original sentence could be translated simply as "and expressed themselves", giving a ratio of 6:5, which is absurd, because any beginning student of Classical Chinese knows that it isn't wordier than English!

Also, it doesn't strike me as meaningful to attempt to generate a heuristic from a sole example.

Is there a rule of thumb?

  • 1
    Roughly speaking, a character in 文言 is equivalent to a word in English. Due to the culture difference, English translation may use more words to fully convey its original meanings, or use other shorter but valid expressions. The brevity of Classical Chinese refers mainly to its "size" and less syllables. Printed in the same font size, a less-than-a-line Classical Chinese sentence is much shorter than its two-and-half-line English counterpart. And it has exactly 18 syllables, much fewer doesn't it? Commented May 26, 2019 at 8:02
  • The actual things are much more complicated, however, since I am no linguist, I am not able to discuss further on it. Commented May 26, 2019 at 8:07
  • It's obvious that the ratio depends on translation and how you count the words. Word separation can't be precisely defined in human language. Commented May 26, 2019 at 16:19

1 Answer 1


have a look of this topic: Word count in Classical Chinese vs English

now, be calm; please. the quoted wikipedia entry is, imo, unacceptable, in classical / literary chinese. so, your translation and comparison is, invalid. remember:

"garbage in, garbage out"

i assumed your understand the difference between classical chinese and literary chinese. the internet archive have books printed in chinese and english; that you might do a empirical research.



james legge's english translation is quite good, you can depend on it. e.g.:

孟子 盡心上 chapter 6


mencius said, "a man may not be without shame. when one is ashamed of having been without shame, he will afterwards not have occasion for shame."

16 chinese words vs 26 english words.

孟子 盡心上 chapter 7


mencius said, "the sense of shame is to a man of great importance."

"those who form contrivances and versatile schemes distinguished for their artfulness, do not allow their sense of shame to come into action."

"when one differs from other men in not having this sense of shame, what will he have in common with them?"

30 chinese words vs 56 english words.

enter image description here


Is there a rule of thumb?

no. i don't think so.

ps, just curious, where and why students need to learn classical chinese in english?

  • Because students only know one language before they start, English. Somewhere in a college Commented May 26, 2019 at 16:17
  • This is helpful, many thanks. To your question: because classical and literary Chinese studies are part of any reputable university degree in Chinese Studies, in the West. It's like an abbreviated version of 国学.
    – Matt S.
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 9:07
  • Also, are you referring to James Legge? (Not "League").
    – Matt S.
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 9:09
  • omg, my apologies 😿 an severe error, sorry 🙏 Commented May 27, 2019 at 10:11
  • @matt s, part of a degree course? how many hours one spend for? may i say, “poor soul” Commented May 27, 2019 at 10:22

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