For example (and I am not sure if this is a good example), if presented the following stone inscription (石鼓文, source, c. 374 B.C.), could most modern Chinese people understand it (even vaguely)?

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(This question inspired by this Skeptics.SE question.)

  • 3
    No. It's hard to understand even if written in modern Chinese characters. – user4072 Sep 14 '14 at 14:57


The biggest obstacle is the script; although simple characters are still understandable, the evolution of scripts from seal script (the closest script to modern ones during Confucius's time) involved drastic changes in the appearance of characters. Those unfamiliar with the changes would have a lot of trouble recognising the characters. The shift to simplified characters also adds to the difficulty.

seal script (wikipedia)

What if we shifted the goalposts and assume Confucius wrote in modern script (but using 文言文)?

Probably not.

This is because the education systems (PRC, Taiwan, HK, SG) do not seriously touch classical Chinese (文言文) until high school, and most Chinese have a middle school education or lower.

Having said that, it's not that 文言文 is completely incomprehensible to Chinese. Many people, even if they have not formally studied it, will have encountered limited examples of it through examples such as poetry, chengyu, and even in extra-curricular media (古装剧 - Chinese period dramas - are extremely popular). These often feature 文言文 or at least use some grammatical rules of 文言文. Therefore, most Chinese will be able to recognise the meanings of most phrases in 文言文, although whether that means they can fully understand an unfamiliar passage written in 文言文 is questionable.

  • 1
    What Confucius would write is even more difficult to understand than the seal scripts in Shuowen. Shuowen described it as 古文 (孔子壁中書), which did not follow Qin's style (Qin's style became the standard 小篆 at last), and was a little similar to 籀文, and would probably be like some 蝌蚪篆 we can see today. – Stan Sep 15 '14 at 7:04
  • If Confucius wrote a recipe for fried rice or the directions to the nearest supermarket, would it be understood by someone who has studied 文言文 in great depth? – user4133 Sep 15 '14 at 19:38
  • @KennyLJ yes, as those would be simple instructions. In fact I wager people who have not studied 文言文 in great depth would also understand such texts. – congusbongus Sep 15 '14 at 22:45

If Cicero came back to life today and scribbled a message, could most modern French people understand it?

Well... that depends on how much Latin they studied. The case with modern Mandarin (henceforth MSM) speakers reading Classical Chinese is similar:

  • Classical Chinese and MSM share a script (as do Latin and French).
  • Classical Chinese and MSM have shared etymologies for a lot of vocabulary (as do Latin and French).
  • Classical Chinese and MSM have major differences in syntax, pronunciation, etc. (as do Latin and French). If you had no special training, it would be basically unintelligible.
  • Classical Chinese carried (and to a lesser extent carries) prestige, and many MSM speakers study it to some degree (ditto with Latin in Western civilization).
  • I voted it up for lucidity. – George Chen Sep 16 '14 at 16:51

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