In the movie "The Mummy: Tomb of the dragon emperor", an ancient chinese emperor is resurrected in 1946, and he wants to take over the world. The emperor in the film is the Dragon Emperor, or Qin Shi Huang, who lived 259 to 210 BC and founded the Qin dynasty.

He has a chinese henchman in 1946, and I was wondering, if those two could actually understand each other? Is the chinese language constant enough, for a 250 BC person to understand a 1950s person?

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    It is impossible for a typical Chinese today to understand the colloquial Chinese language a thousand years ago. The written language is possible – Tang Ho Nov 30 '20 at 10:29

I would argue that mutual intelligibility between Chinese speakers 2200 years apart would be essentially nothing, for the spoken language. I say 2200 years as the emperor in the film is the Dragon Emperor, or Qin Shi Huang, who lived 259 to 210 BC and founded the Qin dynasty.

To give you an idea, Old Chinese (~1250 BC to 25 AD) did not have tones (Old Chinese), while tones are as important as vowels to communicate meaning in Modern Chinese (Importance of Tones). Also, many of the modern varieties of Chinese are mutually unintelligible (Varieties of Chinese), and speakers 2200 years apart have to deal with both the language changes over time and the likelihood that they would not be speaking the same variety of Chinese. See this link for more information on sound changes overtime for Chinese. We also have not been able to properly reconstruct the sounds of Old Chinese, so even someone very educated in Old Chinese may not be able to understand a native speaker of Old Chinese without significant barriers.

Another interesting question is, if the spoken language could not be understood, what about the written language?

The biggest barrier along this route would be whether the person from 2200 years ago was even literate. If it is a randomly chosen person, they were probably not literate and thus there could be no written communication whatsoever.

The second barrier would be whether the modern person was literate. The literacy rate in China in 1949 was less than 20% (The Chinese Struggle for Literacy), so this may be a problem in and of itself.

If both the ancient person and the modern person were literate, I would agree with Tang Ho that written communication may be possible. I would also argue, though, that it would still be difficult and there may not be many modern people who would have the knowledge to be able to pull this off in the 1940s, unless they were highly educated. The first barrier would be the script. Chinese characters had various scripts in use over time, and they are very different from the modern script (see this example from Wikipedia). The Qin dynasty did have a standardized seal script (Seal Script) that is known today, but I have heard that Modern Chinese native speakers today have a hard time reading seal script (though a larger fraction of literate people may have been able to read seal script in the 1940s). So, unless the modern person from the 40s was both literate and educated well-enough to be able to read the seal script, they would have a hard time reading whatever the ancient person wrote. Other barriers include the very different grammar of Old Chinese to Modern Chinese, various variants of characters, and the changes in the meanings of characters over time. These are not insurmountable barriers, given sufficient education (and given what I believe was the knowledge level in the 1940s), but still difficult as a whole, I would say.

Granted, if the person encountered the Dragon Emperor because they were a high-level member of an archaeological dig/society that was seeking to revive the Emperor (as I think occurred in the movie), I could easily see that they would have sufficient education to figure out the writing of the Emperor. This is assuming that the Dragon Emperor was literate, which I presume would be the case for the Emperor of the Qin dynasty. Given enough time, and assuming that the Emperor was patient enough and willing to teach, a person from the "Revive the Dragon Emperor" society could maybe eventually figure out how to speak Old Chinese with the Emperor. I am not sure that this would be possible in the time frame shown in the movie, however.

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    Thanks for your detailed answer and the info who the emperor was. I edited my question accordingly. – d4zed Nov 30 '20 at 18:32
  • I realized I put in extra () around the name Qin Shi Huang. I fixed it in my answer, but Stack Exchange would not let me change it in your question. – 2ndQuantized Nov 30 '20 at 19:09
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    To reduce the degree of suspension of disbelief, we have to presume this secret society was created shortly after the emperor's death, and pass along the Emperor's language among the members in the organization until the modern days; or this secret society has some magical tool for the emperor to speak the modern Chinese – Tang Ho Dec 1 '20 at 11:34

Those who had to "do" William Shakespeare's plays in school will know what I am getting at. Shakespeare died in 1616, a mere 400 odd years ago.

So, what are the chances of someone or an emperor from 1000 BC China conversing intelligible with a 1946 Chinese?

In any case, different royal courts in dynastic China actually spoke different languages or dialects depending on which part of the country the emperor hailed from. One of them was even a peasant, like, Emperor Gaozu of Han (202 BC to 195 BC), who started life as a peasant, but helped to lead a revolt that overthrew the Qin Dynasty.

Here's an interesting discussion on the topic:-


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