I'm not sure if this is even an appropriate question for this venue, but here's hoping. I want to read the translated works of Zhuangzi on this site, but I'd like to know how archaic the original Chinese is. The characters are traditional, which is fine, and makes sense given that James Legge (the translator) was writing in the 19th century.

However, my Mandarin is nowhere near good enough to tell me if the grammar and word choice is simply quaint (e.g. circa 1850s modern Chinese), a faithful rendition of the Old Chinese that Zhuangzi was writing in, or something in between. In other words, is this an English translation of an translation (ancient to modern Chinese) or is it a translation directly from Old Chinese?

  • 2
    It seems you misunderstand it. James Legge translated the original ancient Chinese text into English, but not in reverse. The Chinese text in that page is original, the earliest parts date from 369 B.C -- 286 B.C. (note that Zhuangzi, i.e. Chuang Tsu, was written by Zhuangzi and his students). James's English translation must be directly from ancient Chinese, because even today Chinese students are learning the original text of such classical works.
    – Stan
    Sep 29, 2013 at 2:46
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    This is the crux of my question. I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear. At no point did I think that Legge was translating from English to Chinese... that would make no sense. I want to know 1) WHEN the copy that Legge was working from was written (was it in the original, or had it been translated into a more modern form sometime in the intervening centuries) 2) Is the text shown on the website representative of what Legge was translating from, or is it itself a more modern interpretation of the original Old Chinese. Sep 29, 2013 at 9:05
  • 1) WHEN the copy that Legge was working from was written, was it in the original? Yes, it's the original, written in the mid warring era of China (403 B.C. -- 221 B.C.). Because the authors included Zhuangzi's students, the final version was done in Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -- 9 A.D.). 2) Sorry for my poor English, I don't quite understand your question. The Chinese text in there is no doubt original old Chinese. But English looks quite modern so you doubt Legge was traslating from a more modern Chinese interpretation version? It's clear there's no such version in Legge's era.
    – Stan
    Sep 29, 2013 at 9:40
  • I compare the English translations between the site you mentioned and the site sacred-text, both of which state the translator James Legge. The texts are almost the same except the names. But "sacred-texts" offers Legge's original translation, because at that time, the tranlation of names should follow the Wade-Giles method.
    – Stan
    Sep 29, 2013 at 9:58
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    I think I understand your question and your comments, but I don't see the connection - @Stan has made clear the Chinese version on that website is the original version, so it won't be helpful for you in improving modern written Chinese. In this case, does it matter if Legge's translation is based on the original text or a modernized version? Given the result is modern English, there has to be a modernization process take place somewhere, maybe in his head during the translation.
    – NS.X.
    Oct 1, 2013 at 19:10

2 Answers 2


This is a hard question which even puzzles many advanced Chinese researchers, such as this piece of The Question of Authorship in Chuang Tzu

found here.

Put simply, it may be a little too hard for Chinese writing beginner to pick it up something like Chuang Tzu, being hard not only for the text classical grammar text, but its introduction to a world of idea.

Just because it's hard to learn doesn't mean it's not helpful. Chuang Tzu is a legendary that has been continuously influencing many people.

On the website you mentioned, that piece is quite classical formatted, though not necessarily the authentic one. It's really hard to tell how authentic a piece of writing like that can be, and that's the job of some specialists, such as historians.

Hope you learn Chinese well :D

  • congliu, this is exactly what I was looking for. I'd upvote your answer as well as accept it if I had the reputation. Thank you! Oct 2, 2013 at 0:55
  • Pleasure to help! There're plenty of works by sceptics on how to tell a classic from fake, such as 「古書真偽及其年代」 by 梁啟超. (In bookstore: goo.gl/0lmzek ; on Google Books: goo.gl/9NXztK)
    – George
    Oct 3, 2013 at 11:13

It is archaic, not like English from the 1600s. From personal experience I recommend Gateway to the Chinese Classics by Faurot. China Books and Periodicals, Inc. San Francisco, CA USA ISBN 0-8251-2537-8

Spend a month or two with that book and you'll be good to go in terms of wrestling with Classical and Literary Chinese.

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