I'm at a stage where I'm able to read novels, including the ones by Zhang Ailing, Bai Xianyong and the like. I have now reached the point where I need to start venturing into (somewhat) early 20th century magazines, for future research. Many of them seem to be in classical Chinese and lack punctuation. My goal is being able to read these magazines without too much effort, rather than ancient texts.

I have attached a screenshot from on of the magazines. I have no problems transcribing it, but I'm pretty clueless about what it actually tries to tell me. Do you have any recommendations on where to move on from here? Are Classical Chinese grammar books (with usage examples from ancient texts) the best way forward? Part of me thinks these articles are closer to modern Chinese than it might seem, and that it's more down to venturing into a new genre that is causing me trouble.

My transcription of the first four lines:

雲南鐵路概說 (續)


Page scan

  • This is not classical Chinese. It is an excerpt from a report on Yunnan's railroad. It's not really that technical but you do need some background knowledge to be able to fully understand it.
    – joehua
    Apr 19, 2022 at 17:47
  • I know it's from a railroad report, which I should have mentioned in my first post. It's an excerpt from a train magazine. As I wrote it didn't really look like classical Chinese to me, but it also doesn't like like the modern Chinese I've encountered so far—especially the lack of punctuation but also some other stuff. So I'm still interested in recommendations on how to learn to read such texts. Surely background knowledge is not the only factor. I would not have any problem understanding the grammar of an English report on the same subject.
    – timseb
    Apr 19, 2022 at 17:57

2 Answers 2


雲南鐵路概說 (續)

you missed the most important snippet: 楊得任

the quoted text is a translation of foreign language text into chinese, in traditional script, a hybrid of literary and vernacular.

first of all, you need to chop (句讀) it correctly, before comprehension.

雲南鐵路概說 (續)



reverse reasoning:

“要之“ - in summary

“無若何之貢獻” - without any contribution

“法人” - french people

“法領” - territory “controled” by french government, aka french colony 😼

the logic, style and the “flow” of the text, is according to western grammar, imo

have fun 😸

  • Thank you! I will use your punctuation as a guidance when adding my own in the future. I really thought 法人 should be "French people" in this context, rather than "legal person", but I have a large amount of dictionaries and none of them offered French people as a possible translation. Sometimes you should go with your gut feeling, I guess. Perhaps it's time to buy 汉语大词典. 發 was a typo, but 續 wasn't and that was certainly crucial information.
    – timseb
    Apr 20, 2022 at 7:38
  • I can't edit my former post, but just want to point out that I see that 續 was not a typo, but rather that I missed the 譯 character in between the headline and the text.
    – timseb
    Apr 20, 2022 at 7:49
  • @timseb, more dictionaries? no need lah 😸 汉语大词典? absolutely no. you’re dealing with a problem in traditional chinese. in case you’ve difficulty, ask again lah 😼 Apr 20, 2022 at 12:16
  • 1
    IMO it should be 依现在之状态观之 · 实无若何之贡献.
    – kyc
    Apr 20, 2022 at 14:12
  • @kyc, yes, it’s also possible to chop the verse in this way 😸 Apr 20, 2022 at 15:13

Chinese language was in transition from classical Chinese to modern Chinese in early 20th century. See New Culture Movement. This is why your example looks like both classical and modern Chinese.

To be honest, reading articles like this is not easy for me as well, but here are my suggestions:

  • Add punctuation. This is the first step to understand classical Chinese.
  • Understand the words.
    • Take a closer look and you'll see most words are in modern Chinese. Your Chinese level should be enough for these. Example: 云南、铁路、前述、大概、情形、报告、完毕……
    • Some words (e.g. conjunctions) are from classical Chinese. Use a dictionary. Grammar books may also help here. Example: 要之 = 总之 = in short
    • Some weird words were only used at that period of time. Use Google/Stack Exchange. Example: 亚美利加 = America
  • Guess for the unknown part and try to understand the whole sentences.

I see several mistakes in your transcription, so maybe the difficulty also come from those traditional Chinese characters? Or they are just some typos, I'm not sure.

  • Thank you for this answer. I do indeed know those words you mention (which increased the frustration of not understanding the message). I have edited my transcription now. I noticed quite a few typos—I'm not used to writing Chinese—but one of them was a misread from my side. It surely should be 築 rather than 策. If there are still errors they are likely due to my misreading of the characters. The mix between modern and Classic Chinese makes a lot of sense. Do you know of any grammar books aimed at more "modern" Classical Chinese? Practicing adding punctuation seems the most important.
    – timseb
    Apr 19, 2022 at 21:32
  • 1
    Unfortunately I don’t know of such books. However, I think after adding punctuation for several paragraphs, you should be pretty good at this even without reading a grammar book. The other answer has a good example that you can start with.
    – kyc
    Apr 20, 2022 at 14:55

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