As a complete newbie to the Chinese language, I would like to ask the following questions.

  1. What is an approximate time for learning enough of the Chinese language to be able to read something like this in the original?


That is, I understand that it depends on a variety of factors. However, what is a typical timeframe, assuming one puts in the needed work of, say, 1-2 hours daily? For example, when learning Sanskrit at this pace and intensity one can read some originals after about 18 months.

  1. What language is the Sandokai written in? Is this ancient Chinese? Is there such a thing in the first place? What is the difference between that and modern Chinese?

Any pointers are appreciated.

  1. What are some points of difficulty for Westerners when learning the Chinese language?

Much appreciated!

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    In fact, to read a professional text like this, you need to know a lot about the field, not only the Chinese language. It is really hard for me to understand the text because I do not know a lot about Taoism. Sorry, but it is almost impossible for a foreigner to totally understand its meaning.
    – T-Pioneer
    Jul 9, 2021 at 5:09
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    Language learning is a long road. Think about how long it takes you to read books/articles written in your native language fluently; the effort to learn a foreign language takes at least the same amount of time if not more.
    – r13
    Jul 9, 2021 at 17:46
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    It is hard . I am chinese and I can say many of ancient text I can not understand.
    – daotian
    Jul 12, 2021 at 2:36
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    In British universities, Literary Chinese is often done alongside Modern Standard Mandarin. So start with the basics and keep working!
    – Michaelyus
    Jul 12, 2021 at 10:33

2 Answers 2


What language is the Sandokai written in?

broadly, it was written in literary chinese, with buddhism context; in 5 characters per verse.

Is this ancient Chinese? Is there such a thing in the first place?

the written chinese language, in recent academic view, would be divided into:

  • proto-chinese: -3000 ~ -500
  • classical chinese: -500 ~ -100
  • literary chinese: -100 ~ early 20th century
  • modern chinese: early 20th century ~ now

so, “ancient chinese” is too vague, though one would understand what do you say.

What is an approximate time for learning enough of the Chinese language to be able to read something like this in the original?

may i say, extremely difficult to achieve this goal 😿

first, one need to learn how to read literary chinese, at the same time, obtain enough knowledge about buddhism.

the trickiest task is, for zen buddhism related text, one must not fixate on the language used 🙀

further, the text of the link provided, there’re discrepancies with the one in the book “五燈會元”, so, one also need to clarify which version is more authentic 😸

enter image description here

  • Much appreciated! :-) Leaving the buddhist jargon and philosophy issues aside, is the literary chinese different enough to be essentially considered a different language? Jul 8, 2021 at 17:08
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    @MadPhysicist, yes, literary chinese, together with classical chinese are similar; but both are significantly different from the modern chinese. further, about the time frame for reading (excluding writing), in the past, jesuits spent days and nights, in a few years, they might read literary chinese text independently. so, 1-2 hours daily is, imo, inadequate. Jul 9, 2021 at 1:07

Perhaps one might get a better perspective to consider how long it would take a complete newbie to the English language to read Shakespeare's plays competently, or Chaucer?

Here are the opening lines of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" -- "When that April with his showers soote its showers sweet, The drought of March hath piercèd to the root, And bathèd every vein in such liquor rootlet / liquid Of which virtúe engendered is the flower"

And Shakespeare's well known verse from "Troilus and Cressida":-

"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin:

That all with one consent praise new-born gauds

Though they are made and moulded of things past,

And give to dust that is a little gilt

More laud than gilt o’er-dusted"

Of course we must also factor in such intangible qualities like determination, interest, innate abilities, the learning environment, and, dare I say it, intelligence?

Many of the contributors here have studied and grown up with the Chinese language all their lives, and how many could read and understand those Text you presented?

Having said all that, I am not suggesting you can't do it, but how long? As the saying goes, we'll know when you get there. There are, as Donald Rumsfeld said:-

"As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know"

Also search around the various questions asked on this Forum. These concern mostly modern Chinese language usage. Not exceptionally difficult or "classical" Even then we could see basic comprehension problems by people who already have some encounter with the language.

Perhaps an in-depth understanding of Chinese culture itself assists in grasping the finer points.

Good Luck

  • Thanks for your answer! You surprised me with Rumsfeld's quote, but I believe it was timely. That is why I am asking the question in the first place: I am trying to make unknowns a bit more known. :-) Jul 9, 2021 at 9:50
  • I also happen to have studied some old and middle English. Thanks for those examples! :-) Jul 9, 2021 at 9:51
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    After seeing your profile, ("A technologist, a musician, an artist and a scientist"), I figured you would appreciate such an answer. Happy hunting. Jul 9, 2021 at 10:13

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